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Young Artists 

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All day long, a puffy white sky threatened to wash out Alex Sanchez's handiwork, but the Sullivan High School junior kept at it. Standing on a milk crate, he stretched above the other kids working on the Keith Haring mural in Grant Park, a thin paintbrush in his hand making little green crosses.

"Oh, please don't rain," Haring himself was saying as he surveyed the project, a joint effort with local businesses that brought 375 Chicago Public School students to Grant Park for three days to paint their own visions into the wall. Haring's signature cartoonlike figures had been outlined in advance on the 520 feet of Masonite panels. "It's no fun if it rains. We just need two hours, two hours and that's all," Haring pleaded with the menacing clouds.

Eighteen-year-old Alex glanced at the wiry New York artist holding his palm out for raindrops and smiled. Dressed in an oversized T-shirt with a biblical verse superimposed over a peace symbol, Alex wiped his hands on his fashionably ripped and paint-splattered jeans. His part was done--green acrylic paint depicted an arrangement of symbols in one of the spaces between Haring's bold black lines.

"OK, that stands for anarchy," he said, pointing to a circle with an A in it. "You know, the peace symbol. Then the four-leaf clover, well, that stands for good luck. The cross means freedom, freedom for whatever you want. And that Egyptian symbol, that means number one, although, well, I guess it could also be a women's symbol. And that one there, the one that looks like a three--it's not really a three--it means darkness, something to do with darkness."

He stepped back, proudly admiring his work. A group of peers gathered around him, considering the meaning of his effort.

"If you have anarchy," Alex explained, "then that's an absence of government and you have total chaos, which means total death, which leads to total peace. You can't have peace in this world. Peace is just an ideal. Death is the only real peace. Back in the 60s, they believed peace was possible in their lifetime, but they probably didn't have gangs and stuff back then the way we do now."

David Servoss, a senior at Senn and a friend of Alex's, shook his head and stepped away from the circle. "No way, man," he said. "I don't agree with that."

"Hey, look, it's not like I'm praying for death or like I'm going to throw myself in front of a train or anything," Alex said, his hands carefully combing his hair under the Haring painter's cap that had been given to each participant. He grinned, his olive skin glowing with sweat and the now sprinkling rain.

David wore his cap over a long printed scarf that held his own long locks. "My view of peace is, well, we can't even decide on which side of the road to drive, so how can we decide on anything else?" he said. He was tall, sinewy, a ringleader by design. It was drizzling now and he led a crew of young men across the street to the warm and dry Cultural Center, where they sat cross-legged on the floor or on benches in the lobby. "Anarchy is a first step, I suppose," he continued. "But there has to be at least one mind, one soul, to control it."

"But who wants to be controlled?" asked Alex. He propped his skateboard on its side and sat right on the edge. "And if somebody controls it, doesn't that defeat the whole idea of anarchy?"

David, whose face is vaguely Asian, scratched his hairless chin. "Well, is there a God?"

"That's the control?" Alex asked.

David sighed, tugging at the bandage on his knee. "Look, I don't know," he finally said. "The thing is, we don't have a politician who's honest, or a great mind. The only one I can think of is, well, maybe Kennedy."

"Took the words right out of my mouth," Alex said approvingly.

"He was young, he was new," David said, warming up to his subject. "That's what we need--one person with a good heart, good ideas, imagination."

Alex wrinkled up his face. "Yeah, but how long will this take?"

"Hey, I don't care if it takes a million years," David gleefully answered. "So long as there's peace, that's what matters."

"Look, David, I believe in peace, I admire the concept of peace," Alex said patiently to his friend. "I'd do my best to help arrange peace, but I don't think that, in my lifetime, we're going to see peace."

"No, no, no," said Sidney Armstrong. He'd come from Oak Park to meet other young artists. With a square box of hair, broad chest, and regal posture, Sidney looked a little older than the others. "I can come up to you and try to be your friend and have peace with you, but if you respond badly, then there's no peace. Peace is like a bird in the sky, it's all around you. But people don't see it."

Alex laughed. "Hey, that's right. If you're grouchy one day, then you can ruin it for everybody."

"You know, the eagle shouldn't be a symbol of peace, or freedom, because he's a predator," David offered. "He's a slave to his own body. What kind of freedom is that? Maybe the worm, you know? I mean, he has everything right there. The Bible says 'The meek shall inherit the earth'--well, hey, the worm's pretty damn meek."

"No, no," Sidney said again. He shook his head, a little amazed by his friends. "It all starts with a person."

"That's right," David said, his finger in the air like a conductor's baton. "Michael Jackson said it in that song--you start with the man in the mirror, you start with yourself. For me, it's painting. I love painting. It's the one thing I will never, ever, stop doing."

Alex nodded. "Yeah, you paint, pick up that brush, like when you're angry, and when you look up, the anger's gone," he said.

"My goal in life isn't money, it's not even peace," David said. "It's a painting that will do one of three things--drive a man crazy, drive a man to his death, or make him turn to his neighbor and say, 'Hey, how you doing?'"

Sidney smiled, but Alex's eyebrow arched with skepticism at David's idea. "I don't know, man, I don't know," he said, bouncing off the floor and taking the group back to the streets where the rain had ceased. Alex spun his skateboard on the sidewalk, beating the others to the traffic light at Michigan Avenue.

"Personally, I don't like the mural," David said of Haring's work. "It's like he's trying too hard to say peace, love, and understanding."

At the wall, where Alex had already grabbed a brush and container of paint, David pointed out his own contribution, a Volkswagen-shaped space covered with rows of pink dots. "I wanted to do something different, like have the dots behind the lines, so it looked like he was painting on my work instead of me on his," he explained. "Basically, I wanted to kick Mr. Haring's butt, but he has rules, you know." He shrugged, then grabbed Sidney's arm and nodded toward the dots. "I really like the dots, man, don't you, Sid?"

"Yeah, they're all right," Sidney said, but his attention was already focused on Alex, surrounded by another group, mostly girls, who were applying paint to their shoes. Alex was laughing, scribbling something on a pair of high-tops.

In the meantime, David shopped a Walkman to anyone who would listen. "It's got my demo tape in it," he said. "I DJ at Medusa's sometimes, although they want me permanently, but I said no way." He took Alex's skateboard and pushed off for a few feet, but the wet concrete wouldn't allow any tricks.

"Damn, I wish people wouldn't write their names," he said, surveying the work of his peers. Admittedly, many of the mural panels were no more than elaborate signatures. "I mean, I wish people weren't so desperate for publicity about their existence. You exist the minute you pick up a brush." He paused, the skateboard between his legs as he yanked on the wheels to check them. "Well, this is good. Not the painting, of course, but the process. If it weren't for this, I wouldn't have met Sid, or any of these guys."

Sidney smiled wisely, his hands clasped behind his back. "This is all a symbol of a peaceful moment, of joy," he said. "No matter what color we are, peace is something we can all join in on."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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