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Peace in the Hood

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Santaru Stephens is brushing sunshine yellow paint on a rough brick wall at Clybourn and Division. Shadows are forming across his mural on this crisp fall day, and he's pulled the hood of his paint-speckled sweatshirt over his head to keep warm. He looks vulnerable standing alone on the narrow sidewalk with cars and trucks streaming behind him as they take shortcuts through the Cabrini-Green neighborhood.

"Good job!" hollers a 30-ish woman turning left onto Division in a red Mustang. Stephens smiles. He says he's been getting the same positive reaction since he started painting three weeks ago. A few motorists have handed him cash ("Definitely good for lunch money," he says), and a couple of cops honked at him and playfully told him to stop putting up graffiti.

The 25-by-16-foot mural, headlined PEACE IN THE HOOD, is made up of 20 comic-strip panels. Thought bubbles containing written messages above the heads of the characters tell a story of families and young people struggling against violence in their communities. Stephens, who's surrounded by an aluminum ladder, a bucket of paint, a bottle of paint thinner, and a six-foot-tall metal scaffold, is filling in part of the brightly colored background, which makes the wall visible from blocks away.

He's self-conscious about painting a cartoon. But it seemed appropriate given the short amount of time he had to complete it, and it would be easy for kids to help him fill in the black outline. "I'm a much better artist than this. It's just that this wall is hard to work with."

In the first panel a family watches television in a cozy living room, the daughter nestled in her father's lap and the son lying on the floor. In the next the boy turns to his father and asks, "Why is there such violence in the world?" Mounted knights engage in a fierce medieval battle. Police frisk a man who is leaned up against the hood of a car. A girl says, "Father, I'm scared to go to school." Then, "Father, they're rioting in the streets." A man in a multiracial crowd holds a newspaper urging "Justice for all."

Stephens, 35, was raised in Brownsville, a poor neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. Metaphorically speaking, he says, he grew up in Cabrini-Green. "When I was eight years old I was praying that I would live to be ten. I remember seeing on TV a kid bleeding in some riot in Watts or someplace like that. I'm saying to myself, God, I'm so afraid. The kid's like ten years old. I said, Am I going to live to be that old?"

He was 13 when he was chosen to do a mural, his first, for Harlem Hospital's pediatric ward. He went on to study art at New York's High School for Art and Design, the Rhode Island School of Design, and the California Institute of the Arts. He now works as a graphic designer for a small company in New York and lives in Queens, where he'll return when the Cabrini-Green project is finished.

Stephens got his first look at Cabrini in late August, when he was visiting Chicago for the Parliament of the World's Religions. Since college, he has studied meditation under Indian yogi Sri Chinmoy, who led the parliament's opening prayer and performed a "peace concert" a few weeks later at the Rosemont Horizon. While he was in town Stephens met organizers from Tranquility Marksman Memorial Organization, a community-based group that works in the Cabrini area, and helped them set up a five-mile "Harmony in the Hood" run. After the run Tranquility Marksman's chairman, Marion Stamps, asked him to do the mural that had been planned to commemorate peace efforts in the area.

Stephens checked out the wall on the four-story building the organization works out of, then returned home. He didn't start sketching ideas until he was on the train back to Chicago. "You got to remember, us artists--and very few guys will tell you this, but it's the truth--we're just mediums. Even our ideas aren't ours. They come from a higher source." Stephens admits he didn't know much about Cabrini-Green before the peace run. "I knew it as a low-income housing project. But having grown up in black America, I knew the people, I knew the state of mind, I knew the economics. Every city is the same."

A gun is stuffed into someone's rear pocket. Four people of different races have the same expression of fear. A woman whose hands are folded in prayer pleads, "Lord, will there ever be peace for our children?" A boy says, "They're arresting that man."

Tranquility Marksman didn't have enough money to sandblast the wall, so Stephens had to scrape away its peeling paint with a chisel. He's been painting long hours every day, sometimes joined by neighborhood kids or other Chinmoy students from Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, France, and the United States. Some days he's worked until midnight, alone except for the glow of a streetlight on Clybourn.

While he's working he prefers not to listen to the radio or a tape player. "I have a whole ritual of things to keep the boredom away. Sometimes I sing devotional songs or recite poetry. Over the years I've learned hundreds of Indian devotional songs. Sometimes I even chant. That's part of meditation."

The mural is the third in his "Peace Visionary" series. Earlier this summer he did a 19-by-100-foot mural of 48 panels representing most of the world's major ethnic groups, at a recreation center in Providence, Rhode Island. Last year he did a 22-by-16-foot Georgia O'Keeffe-inspired mural at a Latino vocational training center in Houston. He's making arrangements to paint a mural in Zimbabwe in a year or two.

Not everyone appreciates his art. He says a muralist's biggest fear is having his brick canvas hit by taggers. So far the worst that's happened at Cabrini has been a few gang kids joking and making obscene gestures. "In Providence there was a Vietnamese gang of children ages 9 to 15, and they were the most hardened group of kids I ever met. We had this game going. I would come out and paint, and the next day they would graffiti my wall. And I would paint over it. After a while they asked me, could they paint with me? So they started painting with me. Eventually I got to the point where they weren't graffitiing my wall at all."

Other kids, at Cabrini and elsewhere, have been intrigued by his work. "It's good for young black kids to see somebody of their own race do something positive like this. They always ask me, 'Did you really do this?' They find it hard to believe. I say, 'Yeah. What's so big about it?'"

A son kneels and asks, "Father, how can we have peace?" Under the heading "Many great ones have tried" are framed portraits of Martin Luther King Jr., Winnie Mandela, and Malcolm X.

Stephens originally proposed Nelson Mandela as one of the three leaders. But he says Marion Stamps, who helped negotiate last fall's citywide gang truce, nixed that choice because she disapproved of Mandela leaving his wife and believed that women's contributions to peace efforts should be recognized. "She felt that Winnie was really the heart of the struggle."

A series of people with glowing red hearts atop their clothing: A girl and boy raise clasped hands and say, "But I am convinced peace comes when . . ." Three boys, arm in arm, answer, "You love and respect yourself." A wide-eyed boy with a turned-back cap says, "Peace begins with me!" A pony-tailed girl adds, "And me!" In the final panel a mother wearing a multicolored necklace concurs with a serene smile.

"You can't control the outer world," Stephens says. "You can only control yourself--whether you shoot somebody or sell drugs to kids in your neighborhood. Whether you have love in your heart, whether you're friendly--those things you can control."

A middle-aged man in a baseball cap and coat carrying a rumpled plastic Jewel bag checks the progress on the wall. "I like what you're doing, brother," he says.

"Yeah, thank you," says Stephens.

"It's nice. It's all right." The man rounds the corner.

Because the mural faces east, away from the Cabrini-Green high rises, it's really more visible to commuters than residents. It's almost like a billboard advertisement for the neighborhood saying that people here are trying. "Even if they don't read all the panels, when they see those hearts most people understand the message," Stephens says.

Two boys who look about 12 or 13 draw close to Stephens as he dips his brush into a paint-filled paper cup and makes a few careful strokes on the wall. They watch silently for a minute, then offer to help.

"Not right now, guys," he says politely. "Not right now." It's getting late.

"Did you do this by yourself?"

"Yeah."

"You're a very good artist."

"Oh, I'm all right."

"I think they should have done this a couple years ago. 'Cause these little kids now, younger than us, carryin' 'round guns."

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