Nicolas Romero Escalada, the Argentinian street artist also known as Ever, came to Gary this past weekend after a solo exhibit in Los Angeles that was featured in Juxtapoz Magazine.
He read up on the Steel City history at the library and found inspiration in the flowers on the tables at the Great Lakes Cafe diner before spending the weekend on a lift painting a massive two-story mural on the end of a row of abandoned Edison houses at 404 Monroe in Gary. Neighborhood residents watched from down the street, with some coming by to complement the work or shout "good job young man" from a passing car.
His bright mural on the side of vacant row housing off of 4th Avenue features a bouquet of flowers and cans of the El Frio pop that used to be made in Gary, adding a splash of bright color to a residential neighborhood filled with empty lots, broken windows and other signs of blight.
It's just the beginning of a sweeping vision Chicago arts administrator and public programs curator Lauren Pacheco has for Gary. Ever's new piece kicks off Pacheco's sweeping #PaintGary project, in which she'll bring in artists she's worked with to paint 60 buildings across the city, many on Broadway.
And #PaintGary is just one component of Pacheco's broader Destination Gary initiative, an umbrella project that aims to bring life to vacant spaces, cultivate a thriving arts community, change the perception of Gary into a place that's known more for creativity and "nurture a deeper sense of ownership by residents, institutions and the business community." She plans to commission murals across the city, create an art park on vacant lots downtown she compares to the acclaimed Heidelberg Project in Detroit, curate an exhibit at the Marshall J. Gardner Art Center in Miller and try to preserve historic Edison housing in the city, which was originally built for steelworkers when Gary was a young company town being developed by U.S. Steel.
The famed inventor Thomas Edison designed the houses, which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as a way to provide affordable quick housing. Pacheco would like to clean them up, paint them and put in observation decks and historic markers explaining their significance. In the long-term, she'd like to see the now-vacant homes transformed into museum spaces or artist hostels where visiting artists could live and work during residencies.
The Chicago native, who's spearheaded public arts projects in Pilsen and run creative spaces, decided to bring her arts practice to Gary after moving to Gary's Miller neighborhood.
"I talked to the city about getting access to vacant walls, specifically along Broadway," she said. "But I'm really interested in going off that strip into the communities. It's important to do murals near where people live. I've just been pulling all of my resources from Chicago in terms of artists I've worked with, local artists, artists from the states, artists internationally. The artists have been generous in donating their talent, resources, supplies, and ladders. I'm hustling for donations as well."
Pacheco hopes to commission 20 murals on city-owned property yet this summer, and 40 more next year once the project is in full swing. A professional photographer will document all the pieces for posterity, since some of the abandoned buildings that will serve as canvasses may need to be torn down.
Escalada said he tried to create an artwork at 404 Monroe St. that reflected Gary's sense of place.
"The mural is a representation of the past of Gary, and a contemporary view," he said. "Gary's the type of city that has a macroeconomical situation. Gary has many, many pressures, but much history. The first African-American mayor was here, you know. For me, the most important part happens after the mural – the feedback, the interpretation of the mural."
For more information, visit destinationgary.com.