A Muralist Brightens a Block and Unites a Neighborhood


On the corner of Addison and Avondale in Chicago, beneath a steel bridge and above a main highway, surrounded by concrete and traffic, sits a little slice of heaven.

A brightly-colored mural, filled with simple images of butterflies, birds, flowers, and human hands, beckons at passersby. The mural not only beautifies the blighted street, but also ties together a community in need of safety and unity after a painful incident.

In 2011, the year before the mural was painted, two young girls were struck by stray bullets on a basketball court in a nearby park. After the shooting, residents wanted to find a way to make their neighborhood safe, bring the community together, and brighten the stark street.

Enter Rafael Lopez, a 51-year-old illustrator and artist from San Diego, who created the textbook covers for Loyola Press’s latest edition of the Finding God faith formation program.

He learned about the project from a Loyola Press designer, whose husband is alderman of a nearby ward. He readily agreed to donate his time to the project—a decision that’s nothing new for the illustrator.

For the past 12 years, Lopez has traveled around the country painting murals in neighborhoods in need. He calls them “calming murals.”

“It’s not about doing something that just decorates, the actual purpose is giving people the chance to get to know each other,” Lopez said.

Lopez compares the process of painting murals in communities to going to church; people attend church to get to know God, but also to get to know their neighbors and socialize. The same goes for painting together as a community.

Lopez, a Catholic who was born in Mexico City, has seen the unifying effects of painting murals in his own neighborhood. Seventeen years ago, he and his wife bought a loft in downtown San Diego, a neighborhood rife with drug activity, gang violence and homelessness. Many people who lived in the area were renters or transitional. Neighbors didn’t know each other or were afraid to go outside.

Lopez and his wife wanted to change that.

“What if we go out and start painting murals, writing poetry on sidewalks to let people know that people live here, that they gotta watch out, we’re going to keep an eye on them,” Lopez said.

The couple began approaching warehouse owners, asking if they could beautify their walls. They asked local kids to help, painting utility boxes, park benches, and walls on a popular drug-dealing corner.

And gradually, things got better. Word got out about the San Diego murals, and Lopez began traveling to Colorado and Chicago to paint. Madison, WI, and Sacramento are next.

Lopez paints iconographic images that can be interpreted many ways: birds can represent freedom and movement; two hands shaking can represent togetherness, community connections, neighbors getting along; eyes can show introspection and looking toward the future.

Many viewers have noted the religious symbols in Lopez’s work, which he said has become intentional. Loyola Press editors noticed too, and invited Lopez to illustrate Finding God, asking him to capture religious symbols and scenes from Bible passages.

Using acrylics and wood boards, Lopez created vibrant covers.

“I think it was the color that gave the feeling of what you [Loyola Press] were trying to get across. The palettes really represent feeling, and I put a lot of emotion into the painting, which I think helps people connect better,” he said.

In addition to painting for Loyola Press, Lopez has created stamps for the U.S. Postal Service and illustrated works for Apple, IBM, the Grammy Awards, and even Oprah. He painted three murals for the school she runs in South Africa, and presented her with the 2008 Voz Unida poster he had made for the Obama/Biden campaign.

Lopez says he feels grateful that he’s been able to make a full-time career out of being an artist, which is why he gives back by painting in distressed communities once a year.

“It’s once a year, almost a whole month out of my life where I don’t get paid, but the reward is 10 times better spiritually.”

Even with 200 volunteers, the Chicago mural took about six days to paint. On the last day, the kids in the community filled in the middle of the mural, swishing vibrant purple, red, orange, and aqua house paint on the walls. Lopez said when the kids paint on the last day, “everything comes together.”

“It’s about the bigger picture,” Lopez said. “How can my work affect my life and the community around me? I want to leave a good mark.”

You don’t have to be a Monet to express yourself through paint. Painting is a visual way to communicate feelings that are hard to put into words. Finding God incorporates visual learning through the Fine Art Prints that accompany every chapter. Catechists, teachers, and students are encouraged to use painting and other visual arts as a way to connect and strengthen their relationship to God.