There is an eye-catching creature floating on the west wall of Healy’s Westside, 7321 Madison St. This extraordinary animal is called the peacock mantis shrimp, and it is swimming in a mural that is 15-feet tall by 36-feet wide.
The artist, Anthony Lewellen, spent countless hours studying and sketching the predator, before painting. He was commissioned by the Shedd Aquarium to portray one of the residents of its new exhibit, “Underwater Beauty.”
“The exhibit celebrates the biological diversity of the underwater world,” said Jo-Elle Mogerman, the aquarium’s vice-president of learning and community, “From angel fish to clams, hundreds of species, with different colors, patterns and rhythms.”
“It’s a well-curated exhibit,” Lewellen said, “Like an art gallery.”
How did a creature from this gallery end up in Forest Park? It began when a young woman walked into Healy’s and approached Mark Hosty about the project.
“I didn’t know if she was serious,” Hosty said. “She said she was a scout for the Shedd. She was local, knew the building and thought the wall would be perfect.”
Hosty contacted the Shedd to make sure the project was legitimate and agreed to have the wall painted.
“I’ve always liked the Shedd Aquarium,” Hosty said. “It’s one of my favorite places to visit. I agreed to leave it up for six months. I’ll see if I still want it after that.”
The mural campaign is the brainchild of Mogerman and her staff. They were looking for an innovative way to promote “Underwater Beauty.”
“Art came to mind, so we reached out to Chicago artists to interpret the exhibit,” Mogerman said. “Local muralists came down to view the fish.”
The Shedd commissioned murals to be painted in the neighborhoods of Edgewater, Bronzeville and Logan Square. Forest Park is the only site outside the city limits and the first to be completed.
“It’s the first time the Shedd is doing this,” Mogerman said. “We wanted to reach out to various diverse communities.”
Mogerman said the designs will be replicated on items like T-shirts for online sales. The images will also be displayed at neighborhood festivals.
“We want to create conversation about these beautiful creatures,” she said.
The peacock mantis shrimp is certainly a great topic for conversation. Unlike bottom-feeding shrimp, it is a ferocious predator. Most only grow to four inches in length but they pack a powerful punch.
The shrimp has a hammer-like appendage that delivers heavy blows to crabs and shrimp to crack their shells. It has one of the quickest strikes in nature and can generate the force of a 22-caliber bullet. They have even been known to smash aquarium glass.
As its name implies, the shrimp has the physical characteristics of the praying mantis. Lewellen studied the shrimp’s anatomy at the Shedd for weeks. He made 50 to 60 drawings of the creature, before his final sketch was approved. He created a stylized image of the shrimp, using a palette of 20 to 25 colors.
“The shrimp is very ornate and flamboyant,” Lewellen said. “It has very big eyes. It has the most complex vision of any animal.”
It uses this extraordinary vision to locate prey. The peacock mantis shrimp may be heartless when attacking clams, but it has a softer side. Unlike their insect counterpart, they don’t eat their partner. They have long life spans and can remain monogamous to their partner for 20 years.
Lewellen and his wife, Anna, started work on the mural on May 29. After he primed the surface, Anna projected the image on the wall. Lewellen outlined the creature and coral with thick black lines. Bold lines have been part of his style since the day he discovered mural making.
It was 1989 and Lewellen was studying art at Lake View High School.
“I had an amazing art teacher, who organized a mural project,” he said.
The teacher invited the internationally famous muralist, Keith Haring, to head the project. Haring had started his public art career in New York using the subway as his “laboratory.” His works featured bold lines, vivid colors and active figures.
Haring led Lewellen and the other high school students in making a mural that incorporated his artistic vision.
“It was like a giant coloring book,” Lewellen said. “That’s how I met Anna, at the mural project.”
They became life partners and are raising two sons. They also partner on projects like the one in Forest Park.
Working on the Forest Park mural presented unique challenges, like incorporating the pub’s windows.
“The bigger the mural, the simpler it has to be,” Lewellen said. “It has to be a quick read.”
While he painted, motorists and pedestrians offered calls of encouragement. Lewellen believes these shout-outs demonstrate the power of public art.
Lewellen first discovered this power while growing up in Wrigleyville, where he became part of the “graffiti/skateboard culture.” He was still a teen when he scored his first commission: painting the Sistine Chapel on the ceiling of a coffee shop.
“I was still spray painting but getting paid for it,” he said.
After high school, he studied at the American Academy of Art. He later worked in advertising as an illustrator, designer and art director. Today, he primarily focuses on studio work and murals. He is booked up for the summer with large-scale projects like a five-story wall in West Town and a 1,200-square-foot mural in Evanston.
After 24 hours of spray-painting, Lewellen finished the Forest Park mural on June 3. For those who would like to view the real peacock mantis shrimp, the “Underwater Beauty” exhibit will run at the Shedd Aquarium until late 2019.