Some people may ask the question, “Are race relations changing in America?” Others aren’t just thinking about it. They’re taking action. An Aurora artist is helping to lead this change in her city.
Jen Evans is Aurora’s director of public art. She’s held this title since October 2017. Before that she worked as the interim executive director at Water Street Studios in Batavia. She also taught college art classes for about nine years and worked as a refugee health coordinator for DuPage County.
She said she came into her current position with diversity in mind.
“Well, something that I've been doing with public art from the day I got there,” she said, "was to ensure that half of the artists, and anybody who got stipends, or had a leadership position as a curator -- paid or not -- was a person of … I had half females and half people of color.”
Evans said she wants to provide leadership opportunities for those who are underrepresented in the city.
“I'm not necessarily curating for something really professional. I'm offering this space for free for them to get started,” she said.
Evans said that although Aurora is full of different cultures, she noticed something during the cleanup after recent protests.
“There were such a variety of artists there, you know,” she shared. "And then somebody said to me, on like day two or three, ‘You know, I noticed that most artists on one side of the block are white. And most of the artists on the other side of the block are people of color.’”
Evans said she quickly moved to change that.
“So, I dragged the white folks on the one side over to the other side where it was mostly Mexican guys working on stuff,” she said.
Evans said the cleanup experience created many new relationships.
“I thought ‘It's so important that we mix this up,’” she shared. “Because it's easy for people to just sort of stay with the people that are easier to, you know, that are like right around them.”
So, Evans said, the protests and looting ended up starting something positive. She said there was a meeting the Sunday after the cleanup. Artist Tyler Waldrop was there.
“He started this Juneteenth project that he had mentioned,” she shared. “But because of the plywood thing, and because he had been able to connect to people at this kind of casual meeting that Sunday night, he made it happen.”
She said it’s enriching when artists come together like this.
“Sort of building this alliance of artists in Aurora is really important. And that's how we're going to get stuff done,” she explained.
Evans first moved to Aurora in 1996. She didn’t grow up in a diverse environment.
“I grew up in Westchester which is in the Proviso Township, but Westchester at the time was like this one little white village,” she said.
Evans said she always wanted to learn about other cultures when she was younger.
“I was really hungry for that, like, since I was real little, I thought there's got to be another way of doing this, doing all of this stuff, like it seems pretty arbitrary,” she said. “What we're eating is pretty arbitrary. Our religion is pretty arbitrary.”
Evans said she started drawing maps at the age of five or six.
“Here's how I would lay it out. I'll make up my own religion,” she shared.
She said things changed as she got older. She finished her bachelor’s degree in Fine and Studio Arts at Northern Illinois University. Then she had children.
“But when they were 10 months and 24 months, we moved to rural Japan.”
Evans taught English during that time while raising her children.
Later, in 2006, right after getting her master’s degree in Fine and Studio Arts from NIU, Evans moved to the east side of Aurora.
“And I was so fascinated with all of the people in like ethnic costume[s] taking their kids to school,” she said. “And it was so cool. Like, I want to meet these people.”
She said her younger sister, Margaret Byrne, was instrumental in her getting involved with different cultures.
"Margaret was basically more comfortable in the Black community than she was in the community that we grew up in. So that was like an access point for me to get to know a lot of cool people,” she explained.
Evans’ curiosity about different cultures at one point landed her in eastern Africa. She said it started with a desire to help.
“I reached out to, like, World Relief, because I wanted to get involved," she said.
Then she went to a religious-based event run by older women from St. Charles. There she met a woman from Ethiopia. It turned out they had a connection through their children.
“We figured out that our daughters were best friends at McCleery. And we've been good friends ever since,” she said.
Eventually, she traveled with her friend to Ethiopia.
“And we were there to teach a workshop for the students and then we did a mural on the wall,” she explained. “And then I ended up kind of deciding what the mural was going to be and then kind of leading the project.”
Evans said she wanted the mural to be something that represented Ethiopia.
"And I thought that this tree was so special," she said. "And I was asking questions about this tree."
But whether it’s Africa or Aurora, Evans has a goal in mind.
“I'm looking to make personal relationships that last a long time. And it's not just a work relationship. That's weird for a city director,” she shared.
Evans said she will continue to learn about other people and places as she travels through the art world.
“I love swimming around in other cultures, more than I love art. That's my favorite, favorite thing,” she said. “Just making relationships and seeing.”
With her day job, Evans has a chance to foster that feeling in the community. But, despite her title, she’s not directing the outcome. Evans said her role is to bring artists from different backgrounds together. After that, she said, she’ll back away and let the magic happen.
Yvonne Boose is a 2020 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It's a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at wnij.org.