Melissa Merli: Mural of C-U's Chef Ra planned

Melissa Merli: Mural of C-U's Chef Ra planned

One of the most colorful characters to live in Champaign-Urbana was James Wilson Jr., better known as Chef Ra.

Ra, who had been a standout athlete and class president at Urbana High School, discovered reggae, Rastafarianism and marijuana while he was a student at the University of Illinois.

He became Rasta James and later Chef Ra and often just Ra.

He was hard to miss. He sported 5-foot dreadlocks, was often around town and — wearing an Uncle Sam costume and roller skates — he was the frontman for WEFT community radio station in the annual Fourth of July Freedom Celebration parade.

Since he died in 2006, C-U just hasn't been the same.

Now comes young artist Langston Allston, a senior painting major at the UI and a townie who has the perfect style for memorializing Ra.

And that's just what Allston plans to do. He hopes to paint a mural of Ra on an exterior wall of Mike 'N' Molly's pub by the time the 2014 Boneyard Arts Festival rolls around April 10-13.

The bar owner is willing to pay, but he and Allston are looking for others to contribute. The artist estimates the cost at $2,500, mainly for materials.

"I'm trying to do this project as inexpensively as possible, but high-quality materials cost a lot," he said. "I'm also paying myself to account for fewer hours spent working in the (The Great Impasta) kitchen during the time I'm painting.

"I love painting, but I also have to keep in mind the fact that I have rent to pay when I'm taking the time to do it — and sometimes that can be a lot of hours."

He said the mural will be roughly 25 by 20 feet and occupy about one-third of the wall that faces the beer garden at 105 N. Market St., C, next to WEFT.

Allston likes painting large since he completed his sizable mural in the alley behind Main Street in downtown Urbana.

"Using spray paint is what makes that type of scale shift possible," he said. "It's a really fast way to paint — and it allows you to make smooth marks that are the size of your body versus a drawing where marks are more confined."

Also, spray paint is part of the growing artistic history and culture of graffiti and street art, said the University Laboratory High alum.

"It has changed a lot over time, and now there's an audience for it that's willing to spend some money on it," he said, "but there's still this strong element of community."

Allston, who has a strong reputation here and at the university, is now building an audience in Chicago as well.

In October, he and artist Jeremy Lombardo painted a mural on a huge wall in the back of the new gallery Chicago Truborn, a community-based gallery, art coalition and clothing line.

"It was a wild project because I could only be there for one night so we worked 13 straight hours to knock it out, with pretty much no planning in advance — and through that we got to know each other pretty well — and that kind of put me on with a cool community of street artists that come in and out of that space," Allston said.

Chicago Truborn invited Allston back to paint a mural for its current show, on view through this month; he hopes that leads to him doing even more work in Chicago.

As for Ra, Allston didn't personally know him. But his parents, Harold Allston and Nancy Yeagle, owners of The Great Impasta, did.

"I remember around the time when he passed hearing all these really remarkable stories from them and from their friends," Allston said. "Those stories about this really energetic and unique figure that I remember seeing at barbecues and parties or at my dad's restaurant when it was in downtown Champaign when I was a little kid really stuck with me."

So did Ra's visually striking appearance, he said.

Because Allston used Kickstarter, an online crowd-funding site, to help pay for his Urbana mural last year, he wants to avoid seeking money online for the Ra memorial.

People who wish to contribute may contact Allston at

A labryinth

Last week's world premiere at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts of "Labryinth Installation Concertos: House of Solitude and Room No. 35" went over really well. After it ended, I heard nothing but praise from the audience.

The concert marked the first work that featured a K-Bow, a wireless sensor bow used to play violin and then cello, to interact with sound, video and lighting. It also was the first piece to integrate a cello with a front covered by three LED panels.

Paola Prestini composed the two Labryinth concertos; violinist Cornelius Dufallo performed the first part, appearing to be part of lush visuals projected on three scrims that created a 3-D effect.

The Israeli-born cellist Maya Beiser played the second part, "Room No. 35" — first on her acoustic cello and then her LED cello.

That was the most dramatic part of the evening.

Beiser's LED cello was on top of a platform, maybe 8 or 9 feet high, in the center of the Tryon Festival Theatre stage.

The striking Cello Goddess, as The New Yorker tagged her, slowly climbed the steps to reach the instrument, at one point pausing to adjust her skirt panels.

The LED panels on her cello lit up with abstract, colorful images and responded to her movements and music — at one point the rays on the LED panels seemingly extended out on to the projection screen behind Beiser.

The images on the projection screen of human eyes, cells, two embracing women nude from the waist up, a tree in Zimbabwe and other visuals were dreamy and beautiful.

While listening and watching, my mind wandered to ideas of the universe and life.

Beiser collaborated with many others, among them the UI's eDream Institute, to make "Room No. 35" happen. She described the project as "dreaming in my mind and making it real."

She also told me "Labryinth" was about two different points of view — one male and one female — while each was passing separately through the labryinth of life.

News-Gazette staff writer Melissa Merli can be reached at 351-5367 or Her blog is at

Topics (3):Art, Music, People