Tia Etu is an artist from Oak Park, who works in many different media, including murals. She received her first Forest Park commission, when the owner of 810 Beloit asked her to paint a mural on the side of his building. She has created a striking 11- x 22-foot work titled, “Imagine.”

The owner requested something colorful and fun, with movement. “Imagine” certainly captures that vision. It depicts goldfish swimming through clouds. The joy in Tia’s work is in direct contrast to her troubled childhood.

She grew up in the South Side neighborhood of Chatham. It was a comfortable close-knit neighborhood but her mother’s mental illness made Tia’s home life unstable. She attended the local Chicago Public School. She was an indifferent student but teachers could see her potential.

They encouraged her to take art classes, join the yearbook staff and play in the band.  Tia, however, continued to get into trouble. In seventh grade, she found herself in the principal’s office. She was asked to draw a picture of Mickey Mouse. When she displayed it on the bulletin board, her drawing drew great praise. “I’ve been creating art and staying out of trouble ever since.”

Tia’s teachers not only mentored her, one of them secured a scholarship for her to attend the School of the Art Institute. She was there for three years before taking time off to see the masterpieces she had been studying. She spent six months in Europe visiting Paris and London.

After returning from Europe, she gave birth to her son, Skylar. She then landed a job as a loader at UPS. It was not only hard work but dangerous. Tia lost a finger on her right hand but, thankfully, it didn’t hamper her artwork.

She completed her degree at the Art Institute and switched from loading trucks to teaching art classes, selling artwork and teaching water colors. When Oak Park started its Art District on Harrison Street, Tia was among the first artists to occupy a live-work place. She has operated galleries in the district for 32 years. Her business is called Whatever Comes to Mind Studio, 27 Harrison Street.

Her studio displays paintings, drawings and portraits. She also teaches jewelry and sculpture classes and paints indoor and outdoor murals. She has painted seven murals in Oak Park. They are not as fanciful as “Imagine.” Many of her murals “strive to capture social inequities in powerful and unique ways,” she says.

Tia has retained her adventurous spirit, traveling around the country and tooling through the city on her motorcycle. Her adventures include teaching art in some of Chicago’s most impoverished neighborhoods. Many of the students are lost, like she was. She has a heart for her students and knows how to motivate them.

Tia teaches classes for students from Kindergarten to adult. She is getting weary of teaching, though, and is focusing more on creating and selling artwork. It’s been a difficult struggle to become a self-supporting artist, but she has made it. The last two years have been particularly good.

She recruited Skylar’s best friend, Ed Palasz, to help on “Imagine.” Ed is a house painter by trade, so he’s very handy with a brush. Tia hopes the work might lead to more commissions. She also hopes to own a warehouse, where she can install work stations for every kind of art she practices. 

You might say her whole life has been a masterpiece in overcoming obstacles. The former “bad” student is an inspirational figure to her art students. “Art gives their lives purpose,” Tia said. “Even if art isn’t their career, it can always give them peace.”

John Rice

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.