Once inside Congress Park School in Brookfield, the rather forbidding exterior melts away and it is revealed for what it is – a place of learning, inhabited by the most diverse student body in LaGrange-Brookfield District 102, and the home of the Dolphins.

That’s why more than a year ago, a volunteer group of parents, faculty and community members pitched an art project that would move that interior reality outside. On Oct. 18, students from the school’s Ecology Club unveiled the product of that idea – two bold, colorful mosaics located above entrances on Shields and Raymond avenues.

“They really do embody the spirit of Congress Park School,” said Principal Michele Ramsey.

The murals are the result of a collaborative effort between the school’s former Beautification Committee (now the Conservation Committee), students and LaGrange Park artist Becky Cortez, who has completed other art projects in District 102, including an elaborate, 48-foot-long mural at Park Junior High.

 The Beautification Committee approached Cortez about a year ago and pitched her the plan.

“I live in District 102 and have been doing legacy projects at schools in the district for 10 years now,’ said Cortez, who runs Cortez Design Inc. with her husband, Rick.

Through a faculty contact within the Beautification Commission, teacher Colleen Hier, Cortez did brainstorming sessions with students in the Ecology Club.

“The Eco Club has students of all ages, so it was a whole cross-section of the school,” Cortez said.

Those sessions yielded the main themes for the mosaics – academics, art and music, patriotism, diversity, the school’s mascot and community.

With those themes in mind, Cortez then went to students in Michelle Holdman’s art classes. Ideas for images were put in a hat and students picked the ones they were to illustrate. That process yielded some 200 drawings to choose from.

“From there, we looked at images of what would look good [in mosaic form],” said Cortez.

While getting the drawings from students took just a day, the entire project from start to finish took months and cost $2,500. Of that amount $1,200 came from a grant from the Salt Creek American Art Foundation via the Illinois Arts Council. The Salt Creek Foundation manages the McKinnon Art Gallery, a collection of American Art at Park Junior High collected by former Principal Nettie McKinnon from 1929 to 1960 using profits from magazine subscriptions sold by students.

The rest of the money was raised by the Congress Park PTO through a variety of fundraisers.

Once the images were chosen, Cortez crafted the eight 20-by-30-inch mosaic panels and she and Rick installed them above the two entrances, which are used by students each day.

At the unveiling ceremony on Oct. 18, students, faculty, parents and district staff, including Superintendent Warren Shillingburg got their first glimpse of the mosaics. One, titled “Who We Are,” depicts student faces (diversity), the dolphin mascot (school pride), an American flag (patriotism) and neighborhood homes (communities). The other, titled “What We Do Here,” depicts an owl (learning), music notes and paint brushes (the arts), Flowers growing (academic growth) and shooting stars (academic excellence).

“They’re beautiful,” said Nancy Bramson, a member of the Beautification Committee. “They’re even more beautiful than we thought they were going to be. And it’s just what we wanted.”

At the dedication, Cortez spoke about the purpose of art projects such as the mosaics.

“For thousands of years, people have been making art because they have something they wish to say,” said Cortez to those attending the ceremony. “Because of that, art is all around us. All we have to do is take the time to look. … Being involved in the arts makes us better students and better people and brings us closer to our community.”