New Moline mural made by World Relief artists shows that art is a universal language

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Davenport artist Sarah Robb (third from left) with most of the World Relief artists she worked with to paint this new mural, seen Nov. 2, 2021 at the Moline Public Library (photo by Jonathan Turner).

A mini-United Nations art project took place in October at the Moline Public Library, resulting in a gorgeous mural showing that art is truly a universal language.

Lisa Powell Williams, the library’s adult and young adult services coordinator, applied for an received a Quad City Arts grant for “Universal Language,” a three-panel mural created by artists helped by World Relief Quad Cities, from all over the world. It was made on four Tuesdays at the library (two hours each day) in October.

Davenport artist Sarah Robb (who has worked for years leading Metro Arts murals for Quad City Arts) led the group of nine area immigrants and refugees. The first day they met, they discussed what universal language meant to them.

“We’re all from different places, so that was a really interesting conversation,” she said Tuesday at a reception for the mural, where the artists also got to see some of the 52 artworks in the library’s Reher Art Gallery collection. At their initial meeting, they talked about what images to include in the new mural.

Robb later presented them with a design based on their words and drawings, then they created a grid and they drew and painted everything. Robb mixed the colors and cleaned up the painting, noting the group did at least 75 percent of all the artwork.

The completed World Relief mural at the Moline Public Library (photo by Jonathan Turner).

Leah Hodge, manager of youth and family outreach at World Relief, assembled the nine people to work on the project – Mary Rose Abuke, Martha Abuke, Kamlete Alimasi, No Ngiah Miang, Lumumba Mkmbilwa, Shwe De Paw, Eh KmWee Paw, Pascal Ramadhani, and Eh Ler Shee.

“It’s beautiful, stunning,” Hodge said of the mural. “When Sarah put together the design proposal, we were just blown away at how perfect it was. They did an amazing job; I know some of them do have artistic talent and interests, because those are the people I looked for, for this project. Also, some are just brand new to art and painting, and were willing to try.”

“Sarah was so great about bringing so many people through this process – she’s very warm and present and creative,” she said. “I was so impressed with that.”

World Relief is a nonprofit agency providing services to refugees and immigrants in Western Illinois and Eastern Iowa. It works to provide financial, emotional, cultural, and spiritual support to refugees – victims of war and persecution around the world – who are being placed in the Quad Cities.

“The idea was about universal language and a big idea was the night sky,” Robb said. “No matter where you’re at, you see the stars, the moon, the night sky.”

The features a blue lotus flower, mountains, a night sky, piano keys, ocean water, butterfly and heart design elements (photo by Jonathan Turner).,

Nature and life are represented in part by the large blue lotus at left, complemented by a blue butterfly, over flowing water. “They were talking about peace,” Robb said. The butterfly was chosen to represent living things, freedom and beauty.

Eh Ler Shee, a 19-year-old immigrant from Thailand, plays the piano and suggested using piano keys, which Robb turned into a curving path through the mural.

Shee’s family moved to the QC eight years ago from the Chicago area, first coming to the U.S. in 2009. She graduated from Rock Island High School (where she was in chamber choir) and attends Black Hawk College.

“I come from Thailand and I wanted to show people, we’re all equal,” Shee said of the mural. Her original idea was to have piano keys as a staircase. “It symbolizes home; my whole family either sings or knows how to play an instrument. So being part of that is bringing part of my family, me too. And piano is something I can communicate to anyone.

“Music is very universal,” she added, noting it was really fun working with people from other countries. “We’ve never met before, until five weeks ago, so it was all new to us. Doing this project together brought us really close. We became friends.”

The “Universal Language” mural was supported by a Quad City Arts ArtsDollars grant.

World Relief was very helpful when Shee’s family first settled in suburban Chicago. “They found an apartment for us; they set up the beds, gave us clothes, gave us food. They were always there for us, which was something that we needed, coming to a new place, not knowing anybody. We’re very thankful for them.”

Shee also has volunteered for the World Relief QC office, helping foreign students in the area.

“A lot of you had talked about the mountains in the different places you’re from throughout the world,” Robb said to the group Tuesday. “That’s an important aspect of what you wanted in there – trees, mountains, a different landscape than I might wake up to every day.”

Another big theme was love, and they created an image at right of a red heart, containing two clasping hands. “That pops out over all the blue tones,” she said. “Colors are also relevant. The water is more about the ocean than the river. Usually we always talk about the river around here, but the ocean is separating our continents, and joining them.”

One of the artists wanted to incorporate colors from his home country of Congo, with a large yellow star, from their flag.

Artist Sarah Robb, third from left, with some of the artists who worked on the mural Tuesday — including Shwe De Paw (left), Eh Ler Shee, Mary Rose Abuke, Martha Abuke, Lumumba Mkmbilwa, and Pascal Ramadhani (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“Everything in here, they really put in a lot of thought,” Robb said. “That’s an important thing about projects like this. None of us knew each other before, prior to this, or what kind of artistic abilities we have. So I like to keep these projects graphic, so everybody can work on them and feel comfortable.”

The library has worked with World Relief before on different projects, and they share a mission to make sure everyone feels welcomed, Williams said.

“We have a lot of collections, in a variety of languages and resources,” she said. “We’ve done a lot of work with citizenship classes, including having naturalization ceremonies, pre-COVID, here at the library. So it’s really important for us to be in and part of our community. This is our community.”

The mural will be permanently placed at the World Relief offices at 1852 16th St., Moline. For more information, visit worldrelief.org/quad-cities/.

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