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An NIU art education student paints the the Chicago parade logo onto State Street
An NIU art education student paints the Chicago parade logo onto State Street.

The finished product
The finished product

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News Release

Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-9472

December 12, 2006

NIU art education students paint
on Chicago’s Thanksgiving parade

DeKalb — Since 2001, unpredictable weather conditions have prevented the Chicago Festival Association from painting the official logo of the McDonald’s Thanksgiving Parade onto State Street between Madison and Washington.

But when the signals suddenly turned green this fall, Carole Jo Utech needed to scramble.

“It was a last-minute decision to do it, and I was left trying to figure out a group who could do it,” said Utech, event manager for the association and a 2001 Northern Illinois University alumna. “Then I thought, ‘What better than calling my alma mater to see if those students are interested?’ It all came together within 10 days.”

Utech and Deb Smith-Shank, head of the art education division in NIU’s School of Art, quickly recruited about a dozen students interested in the unique project.

“Carole Jo was an art education major, and when she wanted to know if the art ed students might want to partner with the Chicago Festival Association, I said it sounded wonderful. Community activism is part of what we encourage in art education,” Smith-Shank said. “I’m proud that Carole Jo is working with this parade and I am delighted that she asked us to help out.”

After a conference call to air questions, answers and ideas – chief among them how to transform the logo from an e-mail attachment to a sprawling street mural – planning and purchasing began.

Seventeen gallons of paint, along with plenty of chalk and tape, were bought. The logo, meanwhile, was divided into grids to make its enormous recreation easier – and in proportion.

Utech booked some rooms for the students in the Hyatt for the night of Wednesday, Nov. 24, and met them all for the first time at 6 p.m. that day. She then took the team out for dinner and final discussions about the project.

“Ten p.m. is when we can officially close State Street,” Utech said. “My biggest concern was time. The logo was 30 feet by 50 feet. It was huge.”

But the students, like Saint Nick, went straight to their work.

“Even though we all have class together, we hadn’t actually created art together before. Everybody was meshing and figuring out how to tackle this huge project in a limited amount of time, and it was awesome how we worked together,” said Julie Rydberg, a graduate student in art education from Burbank who mostly painted on the street. “I was very grateful that people there were willing to do the chalk lines and grid out the design.”

“It just sounded like one of those opportunities you don’t pass up, and it’s good to be involved in the community. It was fun,” agreed Kelly Lehman, a junior art ed major from Elgin whose brother and boyfriend laid out the grid system. “Once we got started, everyone was real cooperative. We worked with everyone really well, and everyone pretty much found something to do.”

Within an hour, the team completed the grid and the chalking and eased Utech’s other concern.

Utech truly needed only the lettering – “McDonald’s Thanksgiving Parade” – and the turkey to make her happy. The students had that with all the trimmings, including autumn leaves, a holly leaf, stars and a long bell of a brass instrument.

“It looked awesome,” Rydberg said. “We managed to get everything into the mural.”

By 2:30 a.m. Thanksgiving Day, the project was done. A half-hour later, with still hours before daylight and the 8:30 a.m. step-off of the parade, the tools and supplies were cleaned up and packed away and the paint was dry.

“People were just stopping and watching. The ABC-7 crew was just watching. Everybody was so impressed with their efficiency, maturity, teamwork and everything else that made it come together so quickly,” Utech said. “And coming out on their holiday – they all had portfolio reviews going, and the last thing they needed was another art project – was so wonderful. It looked phenomenal.”

The painting project is now NIU’s for next year if the students are interested, Utech said, and possibly beyond.

“I don’t foresee any changes to the logo for next year,” she said, “but we would love to continue this relationship with NIU and these students, and if down the line there was an opportunity for the students to design a new logo for our parade, that would just make this whole experience that much more worthwhile.”

Yet NIU’s students already have been given teaching tools for their future careers.

“Every art teacher in the world has had to do a mural at one time or another, and this was really the ultimate in making a mural,” Smith-Shank said. “They learned how to work as a team. They learned how to take direction. They used the skills they’ve learned at NIU to figure out how to change this very small logo into the big logo needed for the parade. Afterward, one student even asked, ‘Can we do the Christmas parade too?’ They’re so fired up. I am very proud of the whole team.”

An added bonus? The students all had VIP tickets for themselves and their parents to watch the parade from the grandstand.

Chicago's ABC-7 will rebroadcast its parade coverage Christmas Eve from noon to 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 24.

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