Mosaic helps girl in wheelchair make artistic statement

10-year-old pitches in on Peterson Avenue project in Sauganash

Mary Schmich

July 21, 2013


Tracy Van Duinen was working on the mosaic under the old railroad trestle on Peterson Avenue a few days ago when a van pulled off the busy road and a woman got out.

The woman introduced herself. She said she'd been driving by and had seen some children working on the mosaic. She said she had a daughter.

"Is it possible," she said, "that a special child could do something at the wall?"

Van Duinen didn't know what she meant by special, but he said sure. The mosaic was a community affair.

He watched as the woman returned to her 1998 Mitsubishi Montero. She lifted a wheelchair out of the back. A girl, the size of a 5-year-old, followed.

Her name was Hanna. She was 10.

"Hanna," said Van Duinen, who felt something spiritual had just happened, "we have the perfect place for you."

In the past year, people in the Northwest Side neighborhood of Sauganash have raised $75,000 to beautify two ugly old walls flanking Peterson. Paula Fitzgerald, a longtime resident, dreamed up the notion. The neighbors enlisted help from the Chicago Public Art Group, a nonprofit responsible for wall art all over the city.

This summer, supervised by Duinen and another artist, Sauganash residents have turned the walls into a chronicle of the neighborhood, using glass and tile to depict its forest, its basilica, its schools and homes and people past and present.

They were close to done on the July day that Hanna and her mother pulled up. But there remained, on the south wall, a bare spot with the stenciled lines of a figure waiting to be brought to life with cement, glass and grout.

It was a figure in a wheelchair.

Hanna parked her own wheelchair in front of the outline. She picked up a shard of mirrored glass and, with some instruction, began to create. She did the wheel first, then the handlebars, cement splatting on her shoes.

Watching Hanna work, Lia Codreanu couldn't escape the symbolism: her child of glass creating a person out of glass, both of them in a wheelchair.

Codreanu was 26 weeks pregnant when doctors told her and her husband, immigrants from Romania, that their child would be a dwarf.

When their daughter was born, the diagnosis changed. Hanna had osteogenesis imperfecta, loosely known as brittle bones, more loosely known as glass bones.

Doctors said Hanna would probably die within a year. She lived. Doctors said she would never walk, and once again she beat the odds.

"I could walk," Hanna said Friday, sitting in her wheelchair, next to the mosaic, "only I broke my leg falling out of my mom's van, so I had to have surgery. But when my legs don't hurt, I can walk. Sometimes I forget to not run. My mom has to remind me to not run. I also take this medicine that helps my bones not to hurt."

Since her first day at the mosaic, Hanna has come back several times. People like having her. She wears her troubles so lightly she makes them almost invisible.

"You get drawn to Hanna because of her energy," Van Duinen said.

But in her short life, Hanna has fractured bones more than 40 times. She has endured many surgeries and braces. There was a brace for her broken back, a brace to flatten her chest. Soon she'll have a new brace for her spine.

"When I was born," she said, "the doctor broke my legs by accident when he was pulling me out. Once I fell at a park near my grandma's, and the bone split all the way through."

She mimed a line across her thigh. She smiled.

"And I didn't scream."

At Nelson Elementary School in Niles, where she just finished fourth grade, she and her teachers hand out fliers made by her mom.

"Telling kids not to push me," she said, "not to squeeze me, not to high-five me."

And she feels lucky.

"Some kids," she said, "break their ribs just breathing."

Art, at least, is easy on the bones, and Hanna loves making it, so when her mom mentioned having seen the mosaic along the road, Hanna immediately said, "Do they take volunteers?"

That's how they wound up on Peterson Avenue on a hot summer day and how the figure on the wall that was designed to be a man turned out to look a little bit like Hanna.

When Van Duinen thinks about Hanna's part in the mosaic, he thinks of it as proof of the kind of community art can build.

Hanna's mother thinks of it as hope. How astonishing that her daughter, with all her struggles, could stop by the road one day and make a piece of art that will be seen for a long, long time.

As for Hanna? She boils it down to one word.