History reflected in murals for barbershop

CHAMPAIGN — A team of University of Illinois students has designed a set of murals reflecting the history of North First Street in Champaign.

If fundraising efforts prove successful, their concepts will grace the interior walls of the Rose & Taylor Barber Shop at 124 N. First St., C.

The design — which has an "interactive" element — sprang from a "new media" class taught by Kevin Hamilton, a UI associate professor of art and design.

The class dealt with how to design large-scale digital imagery, with the barbershop the intended site for the artwork.

William Jones, who owns Rose & Taylor with his wife Carla, said he's eager to provide a showcase for the work.

"I'm a big advocate and activist for the preservation of history, especially African-American history as it pertains to North First Street," he said.

Danielle Sheppard, one of four students on the winning team, said the students had several walls "to use as a canvas," and her team came up with designs for three.

"Two walls were in the hallway (between the barbershop and the beauty salon), and the third wall was in the actual barbershop," said Sheppard, whose teammates included Acton Gorton, Hugh Sato and Patrick McPherson.

The students visited the barbershop to get a feel for the environment and found it "an open place for discussion," Sheppard said.

Gorton said Jones and the barbers "wanted to inspire conversation" and acquaint young people with local history.

So the team did research at local libraries and looked for historical images that could be incorporated into the murals.

For the hallway mural design, "the main focus is scroll-type imagery, with a scroll weaving its way along the walls," Sheppard said. "From the scroll, there are images of that area of downtown Champaign."

The students selected more than two dozen images of local African-American history, including:

— African-American band members marching in a parade.

— A person protesting discrimination outside the J.C. Penney store in downtown Champaign.

— A home on North First Street with an early-model car parked out front.

— An African-American meter maid.

— Shots of businesses such as Brown's Cafe, D'Ghanza Beauty Salon, the Knits and Pants Style Shop and the Round The Corner Cafe.

The design for the barbershop wall has "a timeline feel to it," Sheppard said. It includes aerial views of central Champaign through the years and a train running across the bottom.

The design work consumed about half the fall semester, Sheppard said, noting that four teams came up with proposals.

"We presented the work to the owner of the barber shop, and he looked them over and chose our piece for the shop," she said.

One of the people the design team consulted was Noah Lenstra, who has been active in eBlackCU, a project that developed a website featuring African-American history and culture in Champaign-Urbana.

Lenstra said he's particularly excited about the interactive aspect of the mural that will allow smartphone users to learn more about the historical images.

"We're hoping to have the faces in the mural linked to QR codes, so if you put a smartphone in front of a face on the mural, it will bring up information collected on the (eBlackCU) website," he said. "But that piece of infrastructure has not yet been implemented."

Lenstra said North First Street has a rich history, with notable businesses such as Tinsley's Cleaners and a variety of jazz and blues clubs through the years.

Hamilton, the art and design professor, said he is seeking money to help complete the mural project. He estimated the cost at $3,000 and said that the Public Art League has committed $300 to the project. Hamilton said he's checking with potential donors and exploring grant possibilities at the UI.

Valerie McWilliams, managing attorney at the Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation office at 302 N. First St., C, was an early supporter of the mural project.

McWilliams said she thought it would be nice to have such a display in the Land of Lincoln building, but thought the barber shop might be more appropriate, given that some elements of the mural emphasize entrepreneurship.

McWilliams said the project fits with eBlackCU's goal of "promoting the importance of recording historical information."

"This is a practical way to bring that history from the recesses of people's minds and locate it in a very public place," she said.

Jones said he hopes the storytelling eventually spreads to other locations.

"Our goal is, we don't want it to stop at Rose & Taylor. We want to continue this on, and have students work on historical murals for other businesses," he said.

"We hope this turns out as a great success so we see not only the work of UI students, but also the history of the city."

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