Teachers and students recently experienced an eye-popping, informative and engaging Morning Ex with Chicago artist Cheri Lee Charlton, who shared her personal journey as an illustrator and muralist and recently returned from completing her first international piece in Casablanca, Morocco.
Charlton re-introduced herself to the audience as a practicing artist, as many have come to know her as an assistant teacher in Elizabeth Joebgen’s 1st grade class for the past three years. Charlton’s work has been a presence in the 1st grade hallway, annual Inktober display and Parker PM room, so everyone knew she was a creative type. What many did not know is that she holds an MFA in painting from Ohio University and has been teaching at the collegiate level for the past 15 years, most recently with the Illustration Department at Columbia College Chicago.
In her presentation, Charlton credited her parents with fostering her creative exploration as an artist as early as 1983. When she told them she wanted to be an artist when she grew up, they didn’t question how she would make money, they encouraged her. Art gave Charlton confidence as a student and helped her find friends and purpose in life.
A year studying painting in Florence, Italy while working on her BFA helped Charlton solidify art-making as her chosen profession. While working on her MFA at Ohio University, Charlton had a large studio at her disposal and was drawn to working on large-format pieces. When she moved to a tiny apartment in Chicago following graduation, she found it necessary to look outside her home to work at a size she was comfortable with.
She saw murals all around Chicago while looking for bigger places to work. She spoke to artists creating these pieces, which encouraged her to create her first piece on her father’s barn back home in Ohio. This first mural gave Charlton the confidence and proof that she could make a mural and likely find employment doing so. Some friends who owned a salon in Logan Square hired her for her first gig, and things snowballed from there. “The more work I made, the more opportunities to paint murals came my way!” she shared.
With her commercial appetite sated, Charlton wanted to use her talents to give back to the community and worked with the Girl Scouts of America in Evanston to create a mural. She discovered how much she likes working with kids on murals and their enhancement of the overall experience of painting.
Charlton also makes murals to express deep feelings and is a member of a female art collective that painted free murals throughout the city to support Black Lives Matters protests. She reminded her audience that murals are powerful forms of expression, which help make a statement and potentially influence those who examine them.
In Casablanca, Charlton designed and painted a large-scale mural to celebrate the 200-year anniversary of relations between Morocco and the United States. The American Consulate and Chicago Sister Cities selected her for this commission, making her only the fifth female artist to paint a public mural in Morocco.
She recounted the very political experience of developing the artwork to feature in the mural, indicating the importance to all involved parties that there be equal representation of both countries and the images should not be too literal. After some research, Charlton learned of the omnipresence of the now-extinct Barbary lion on the Moroccan flag and currency and offered up a layout featuring a Barbary lion juxtaposed with an American bison—an animal that almost became extinct in our own country—under a sky of stars from both countries’ flags, fading into a sunset.
Charlton’s layout was approved, but two days prior to leaving for the trip to actualize the mural, the Consulate General of Morocco contacted her via email, requesting that she change the bison to an eagle. She revised her layout based on this direction and reordered her materials to ensure she could create this updated project upon her arrival.
On her first full day in Casablanca, Charlton visited the location of the mural she would be painting only to learn that the neighbors proximal to the building objected to a mural being painted there. The next day, they arrived at their new, nicer location at a local public school, which was perfect. Unfortunately, the materials were delayed in transit, again delaying the start of the project. Four full days later than anticipated, the materials were in hand, the scaffolding was erected, and the actual making of a mural commenced.
Charlton explained her process for enlarging her approved iPad-sized artwork onto a four-story building. She first used spray paint to create a grid on the building. She then photographed the grid on the building using her iPad and overlaid a transparent image of her approved artwork atop the grid on her device. Then, she marked up her grid on the building with more spray paint, indicating where important parts of the composition would come together on the building’s façade.
With the grid complete, Charlton described the remaining processes of blocking in the background colors using rollers; adding details, values and textures atop the grid; and outlining the image to bring out all its details. Charlton and her assistants used spray paint to make the sunset transition fade into various colors and stencils for the stars from both flags as finishing touches.
Once complete, Charlton added her name and asked her assistant to add “Under One Sky,” the title of the piece, to the layout in the native Darija language to ensure the work would resonate with the locals who would see it every day.
Before taking questions from the audience, Charlton closed with this advice to future artists: “If you want to be an artist, you can do this. You can go to school, you can work hard and do art as a professional. I’m doing it. I got to go to Morocco and do it. And if you get to do a mural, it’s truly a fantastic way to share your art and your voice with the world and community you care about.”
for photos from this experience.
for more about Cheri Lee Charlton.
for more about Chicago Sister Cities Casablanca.