‘It’s a gift of art for Forest Park,” artist Erika Vazzana said of the mural she completed at Caffe De Luca, 7427 Madison St. The mural is mounted on the second floor of the restaurant and is easily visible from the street. Vazzana was still painting when she heard bystanders exclaiming about this new explosion of color on Madison.

The mural had been commissioned by the restaurant owners, Art and Michelle Sundry. It was inspired by a painting the restaurant hangs on the second floor. It depicts L’Aquila Church, in Abruzzo, Italy, where Art’s grandparents were baptized.

Besides displaying the church, the mural is a landscape of a village in Italy. It includes fields, pine trees and red-roofed buildings. 

“Art can transport you to another country,” said Vazzana. She started the project on Sept. 26, 2023.

To prepare for painting, her husband Mark, a remodeler, assembled her century-old scaffolding. Michelle Sundry, who is also an artist, had primed the textured surface of what Vazzana calls her “cottage cheese wall.” The mural would be 25-feet wide and 12-feet tall. 

She first used a projector to cast the images on the wall and later used 22 quarts of Sherwin-Williams exterior paint. She applied the paint with stencil brushes, which have stiff bristles for working paint into crevices. Her workdays began at 11 a.m. and she painted until it got dark at 7 p.m.

Painting a mural is strenuous, which is why Vazzana works out regularly. She had to climb up and down the scaffold carrying her equipment and also had to stop and take down the scaffold when it rained. However, the weather was so pleasant, sunblock was required. She finally finished on Oct. 18. She didn’t seal it, but Vazzana predicts it will withstand many Chicago winters.

She has been an artist since third grade, but she didn’t start out to be a muralist. She planned to become an architect and majored in architecture at UIC. The turning point came in 1997 when she was asked to paint a “Little Mermaid” mural for a young family member.

Her uncle was so impressed by the mural, he said Vazzana could make a living as an artist. She immediately switched her major to Studio Arts. After completing her degree, she was hired as a muralist by Lurie Children’s Hospital to decorate their newly constructed facility in Chicago. Vazzana has worked there for 11 years. She has also painted murals at Stroger Hospital.

Besides these large-scale projects, she has done more modest ones. She participates in community painting events and even does face-painting at festivals. For the Riverside Art Weekend (RAW), she completed a tryptic of paintings depicting scenes in the village. 

This work caught the eye of one of the owners of Riverside Foods, Peter Boutsikakis, who commissioned Vazzana to paint the panels on the wall of his grocery store. The first panel captures an old-fashioned streetlight and the town’s suspension bridge. The second shows the landmark water tower, and the third is an overview of Riverside’s park on the banks of the Des Plaines River. It’s her gift of art to Riverside.

Vazzana moved from Chicago to Riverside four years ago. She loves the community but becoming a successful artist is hard work. She is constantly networking online and in person to obtain commissions. Ninety percent of her projects come through word-of-mouth referrals. She had a studio built above her garage and has a website, The End Design.

Vazzana admires the public art she sees on display in Forest Park and Riverside. Art, she says, is a gift to all of us. 

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.