Credit: Danielle A. Scruggs

The Chicago Reader won three awards from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia 2018 Awards two weeks ago. Among them was the honorable mention painters Shelby Rodeffer and Julian Baker at Finer Signs—together with former director of photography Danielle A. Scruggs and me, the paper’s graphic designer—received for the cover design for our 2017 Best of Chicago issue. The cover depicted a mural on the wall of the Polish-Korean restaurant Kimski in Bridgeport, painted by the Finer Signs team and photographed by Danielle. The process began with a chance meeting. But it was brought to completion by our team.

At the beginning of May 2017, I saw on Instagram that one of Finer Signs’s works would be at the Renegade Craft Fair in Pilsen. Its mural, on Chicago Art Department’s facade, celebrated Mother’s Day and Mother Earth and promoted C.A.D.’s annual fund-raiser, the Crystal Ball.

Twelve days later, at a screen print exhibit opening night, I happened to meet Shelby Rodeffer when I overheard a group of people talking and asked if one of them was her.

At the time, Danielle and I were covering the art department without a creative director. It was less than three weeks before deadline day for the Best of Chicago issue, our biggest of the year. We needed this issue to stand out. So we had to work with what was immediately available. I remembered meeting Shelby and how much I’d liked her work, so I turned to Danielle and asked, “Hey, do you want to do a mural for the cover?” It started from a direct question. Neither of us had previously assigned such a large-scale piece, let alone a mural. Our first priority was to find painters and a wall.

Within 12 days of e-mailing Finer Signs about our vision, we were able to determine deadlines; secure a canvas donated by Won Kim, the chef at Kimski; settle on a sketch and color palettes; paint the mural; document the process in photos; photograph the completed mural; edit the selects; and finalize the photograph that we used on the cover.

I didn’t expect to get any recognition for the work. I was just happy we pulled off this ambitious vision. More than a year later, I asked Shelby and Julian and Danielle, who is now a senior photo editor at the website the Undefeated, about the experience.

Sue Kwong: What does it mean to be featured on the Reader cover?

Finer Signs: This opportunity has meant so much to us! We are relatively new to Chicago (five years) and to sign painting (six years learning, two years working full-time). We feel like what we lacked in experience at that time, we made up for in sheer enthusiasm and determination to do our best. In the case of the Reader Best of 2017 issue, we were so excited to have the opportunity to gain some visibility and make a cool mural and cover.

Danielle A. Scruggs: My time at the Reader occupies a special place in my life, despite the attendant challenges that come with working in a newsroom at a time when most media outlets are experiencing shrinking budgets, shrinking staffs, and lingering issues with diversity. I grew up reading the Reader, back when it was black-and-white and four sections. When I went to college in D.C., one of the first things I would do when I would come back home to Chicago during the holidays was to pick up a Reader, because so much of the coverage felt like it was created for me and other fellow weirdos and underdogs. So to be able to photograph this mural for the cover, and to have several other of my photos featured on the cover, as well as the work of photographers and illustrators who I have long admired, will always mean a great deal to me.

Shelby Rodeffer and her sun hatCredit: Courtesy Finer Signs

What was a pain in the ass about this assignment?

FS: The elements! We work outside year-round and have conquered snow, sleet, and rain. Since it’s mostly winter weather in Chicago, we have focused a lot more energy on preparing ourselves for extreme cold weather versus hot weather. This wall was southwest-facing, and we were in full sun exposure from 10 AM on. To beat the heat, we would get to the mural at about 7 every morning for three days and chase the shade until our bodies were flat against the wall. The second day of working on the mural, we pushed really hard to get as much finished as we could before lunch. When we finally took a break, neither of us could eat due to mild heat stroke and dehydration. The next day, we took plenty of water breaks and made sure to come inside every few hours.

DS: At one point during the production process, I had to go out of town. So I felt a little flustered that I wasn’t able to be on site and document the process of the murals actually being painted/make sure Shelby didn’t pass out from heat stroke! Also, not only were we overseeing a public art project, Sue and I were also splitting art direction and production duties. We didn’t have just the cover to think about, but also the entire book. So that presented a unique challenge, but I think we did a good job. I learned how important it is to dream big. No one had ever done anything like this at the Reader before, and certainly not on such a short deadline and with a tight budget. But we did it.

What did you learn, or appreciate, about the assignment?

FS: We have so much to be appreciative of with this assignment. The front cover artwork gave our fledgling company some great exposure, and we got paid which is always a good thing. But really, what we appreciated on this job and on any good job was the amazing people we got to work with. Sue and Danielle were so easy and fun to work alongside. As a woman-owned business, it meant a lot to work on a team with so many women at the table. We also really appreciated the chance to collaborate a bit with Won Kim, a legendary Chicago artist and the chef at Kimski. Having him throw down on the rest of the wall and incorporate his patented graffiti goodness into the design was such an honor.

DS: I learned how important it is to dream big. No one had ever done anything like this at the I learned how important it is to dream big. No one had ever done anything like this at the Reader before, and certainly not on such a short deadline and with a tight budget. But we did it.Reader before, and certainly not on such a short deadline and with a tight budget. But we did it.

The final cover

Anything else you’d like to add?

FS: Thanks again for having us!!! Free press for the people!

DS: It’s an honor to be recognized by the AAN for this cover. This cover and this entire issue remain one of the projects I am most proud to have worked on. 

Shelby and her tarpCredit: Courtesy Finer Signs