When Jerry Cervak, owner of the Riverside auto body shop Metal Mites, became involved in the Arcade Building mural project in 2009, he got to thinking.
Metal Mites is housed in a boxy industrial-looking building at 36 E. Quincy St. Cervak and his partner, the late Jim Vacala, bought the building in 1985, moving there from Brookfield in 1986. In the years since, the area around him has become known as Riverside’s unofficial art district. Next door is the Riverside Arts Center. Across the Street is Higgins Glass.
Some time this spring, Metal Mites will serve as a kind of art gallery itself when five painted panels get mounted to the north wall of the building, facing the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad tracks.
The goal, Cervak said is to not only bring attention to his 32-year-old business, but to put a little shine on the apple that is downtown Riverside.
“We do have a LaGrange Road in our town,” said Cervak, referring to the scores of people who pass through the village each day on the commuter trains. “It runs on steel. I always thought of trying to dress up the back of the building to draw the attention of customers.”
When he was in Brookfield on Fairview Avenue from 1982 to 1986, he had a sign that drew the attention of commuters on the train.
“People would say, ‘We saw you from the tracks,'” said Cervak. “We don’t have that anymore.”
In 2009, the village of Riverside was key in bringing together local business owners like Cervak, the art department at Riverside-Brookfield High School, the arts center and others to create murals for the then-bank-owned Arcade Building to highlight its importance to the community.
Cervak was the person who hauled all of the panels from the school to Riverside and sealed them against the winter weather.
That experience convinced Cervak that a mural for his building could be done. He contacted Jennifer Taylor-Henderson at the Riverside Arts Center and asked if she could paint something for him. It was a bit much for Taylor-Henderson, but she knew where to go.
“I was thinking about the kids who did the Arcade Building murals, because I was involved in supervising them,” she said. “The kids are so creative, so smart and I was so impressed with the design work they came up with.”
Taylor-Henderson contacted Suzanne Zimmerman, an art teacher at Riverside-Brookfield High School. Zimmerman scouted the students in the AP studio art class at RBHS from which a group of five, led by senior Sarah Jane Gembara, a Brookfield resident, emerged.
Gembara “took a leadership role in coordinating this group of AP Studio Art students to get the job done,” said Zimmerman.
“She has a grace about her that the others seem to respect,” said Taylor-Henderson of Gembara. “She’s also a very good artist; all of them are, actually.”
On Jan. 18, the five students – including Gembara and fellow senior AP students Mike Abbatacola, of LaGrange Park; Mara Henk, of North Riverside; Sandra Lopez, of Brookfield; and Fabian Mendez, of Brookfield – began the job of painting the 6-by-6-foot plywood boards. The group had started preparing the panels and sketching the designs in November.
The theme for the murals? Well, simply, it was cars and people.
“It was kind of like a team effort,” said Gembara. “We were throwing ideas out and we wanted to give the cars character of some sort, so we were thinking what scenarios can we put the cars in.”
The student artists agreed on a “through the ages” theme, that as it turned out traced the history of the building and the businesses in it back to its earliest days. According to Cervak, the building housing Metal Mites started out as Falconer’s Blacksmith shop.
That era will be represented by a horse and buggy scene. Others will include a Model-T, the 1950s, the 1960s and the future. Incorporated into the scenes will be Metal Mites’ signature cartoon “mites,” which have been part of the business’ identity since the beginning.
Once the panels are completed, they’ll be mounted on the north wall and framed by a cedar border, and lighted at night.
Cervak is looking for a spring unveiling, perhaps by April, although last week Taylor-Henderson suggested unveiling the panels at the Riverside Arts Weekend in late May.