Odyssey Project Mural Ignites Communal Spark

Earlier this month, Odyssey Project students collaborated with Chicago artist Rafael Blanco to create an interior mural in Levis Faculty Center over the course of three days.

The painting, which spans nearly 20 feet wide by 6-and-a-half feet tall, features a background of bright, multicolored stripes with a portrait of an African American woman and a quotation from writer Maya Angelou: “Making a living is not the same thing as making a life.”

According to Blanco, his process for each mural differs, depending on the site, the scale, and the building. He uses a grid to divide up his design into different squares, and he works with the proportions to give himself an outline of where an eye, for example, is going to go in the overall mural design. Once the site’s wall has been primed, he draws with chalk to put the background details into place. With 15+ years of classical studio training, Blanco uses the chalk outline as a starting point and fills in the detailed elements by hand with a paintbrush.

With all of his technical expertise, Blanco also works with the knowledge that each collaborative experience is not meant to be controlled. He encouraged the Odyssey students to adapt their painting techniques, supporting them in choosing the mural’s background colors. Together, Blanco and the students created something that is shared by all involved— public art in the most literal sense. Hear from the Odyssey students’ perspective on this project.

Funded by the Mellon Foundation, the Odyssey Project offers University of Illinois humanities courses to adult learners in the Champaign-Urbana community. Additional donor support has helped to make artist- and writer-in-residence programming—like the mural project—possible.

The mural can be viewed during business hours, Monday through Friday, in the lobby of Levis Faculty Center at 919 W. Illinois Street, Urbana.