Photo: Eujolio “Joe” Ortega recently completed the large, striking Knight mural painted on the KHS gymnasium wall. Ortega says the mural conveys power, strength and intimidation. Courtesy Photo
by Keith Beebe
KANELAND—Kaneland High School students might not know who muralist Eujolio “Joe” Ortega is, but they are almost certainly familiar with his work.
Ortega recently completed the large, striking Knight mural painted on the KHS gymnasium wall—an art piece that he claims is among the best he’s ever done.
“The (Kaneland High School) gym is a good size, but the wall they wanted the mural on was kind of small, and I felt like it had to have greater presence to fit the size of the gym,” Ortega said. “The mural needed to have a good deal of depth, and it had to be very strong and very powerful. So for this particular space, I extended the mural and faded it farther back—as far as I could—so there’s no real cutout line where the mural ends. I like to let my murals just fade out into the rest of the wall—it gives the illusion of the mural being much larger.”
Ortega said he painted only the top half of the knight and the horse on the mural, because it “makes it seem like there’s so much more … like there’s much bigger things going on, but out of view.”
“And I painted more knights behind the main knight to create the illusion of there being possibly hundreds more knights. So when you’re talking about the Kaneland Knights, you’re seeing hundreds of knights on the wall,” he said.
Ortega, 34, was born in Mexico, but came to the United States when he was two-and-a-half years old, living in Chicago before he moved to Sandwich, Ill., when he was eight years old. He graduated from Sandwich High School and then attended Northern Illinois University to become an illustrator.
“I just loved drawing pictures that tell a story or can be a message,” he said.
Following his graduation from NIU in 2001, Ortega was unable to find a job at first, and then went to work for Caterpillar Inc., for about a year before he ran into someone who owned a mural company. Ortega was asked to work for the company on a trial basis, and impressed them enough to be offered a full-time position. Ortega stayed with the company for two years before the need to go off and do his own thing convinced him to part ways with his employer.
“I really was dying to paint my own concept and call the shots and decide exactly how the mural is going to be. I’ve (now) been doing that for seven years. I get to travel instead of just sitting at a table or an easel, though every once in a while I’ll work like that. I enjoy that, too, but I just don’t want to sit for that long, and it’s pretty exciting to be up high off scaffolding. I’ve even been on 60-foot poles doing murals. It’s fun.”
Ortega now owns Chicago Mural Studio, and is the lead artist there. According to Joe’s website, www.chicagomuralstudio.com, one of his murals was featured on an episode of ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” in 2009.
Ortega’s first high school mural was done for Matea Valley a few years ago, and was a hard gig to land, according to him.
“The mural was really well received, and I got a ton of positive feedback. People really liked it,” Ortega said. “Brian Johnson, Kaneland’s basketball coach, saw my mural at Matea Valley and gave me a call, saying he really wanted me to do Kaneland’s mural. So that’s how I got that job.”
So what will rival schools think when they step into Kaneland’s gym and see the new mural? Joe believes it will convey power, strength and intimidation.
“To walk into that gym and be confronted by something so powerful that is representing the school … that is fantastic.”