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Common Threads: Community mural celebrates diversity, promotes unity in Monmouth

Remy Schwass, a 2019 Monmouth College graduate, views the Common Threads Community Mural in downtown Monmouth.
Jane Carlson
Tri States Public Radio
Remy Schwass, a 2019 Monmouth College graduate, views the Common Threads Community Mural in downtown Monmouth.

For some rural Midwestern towns with dwindling populations, an influx of immigrants is slowing the decline.

In Monmouth, Illinois – population 8,902 – a new piece of community art is celebrating the diversity of one such town.

Common Threads Community Mural, extends an entire city block and was recently completed on the east wall of the United Way of Greater Warren County at 87 Public Square.

Jeannie Weber, executive director of the local United Way, works closely with Monmouth’s immigrant population, which includes concentrations of Burmese and West African refugees and an ever-growing number of Hispanic residents.

“Talking to them, talking to different community leaders about what could potentially make them more comfortable and give them a better quality of life in this region,” Weber said. “One of the things we talked about is that the fact that they really wanted to be represented.”

There are up to 16 languages spoken in local schools and even more at the Smithfield Foods pork-processing plant in town, that employs immigrants from all over the world.

Also, about one in five students in Monmouth-Roseville schools is an English language learner.

“We have so many different people in our community that come from different backgrounds. There’s different cultures represented in our community, and those differences, that diversity come together to make a really beautiful community,” said Janis Wunderlich, who teaches art at Monmouth College, a private liberal arts college founded by Scotch-Irish Presbyterians in 1853.

The concept for the mural came from Grace Cornelius, an art student at Monmouth College.

The concept of “Common Threads” came from Weber, with the belief that textiles representing different cultural origins could be “sewn” together with paint to display the beauty in everyone’s differences.

Then all community members were invited to bring swatches of fabric that represent a childhood memory or family origin.

“I was the first person to provide a piece of cloth which was part of an Irish napkin that my grandma had a really long time ago. And as we started to get this going, it just really boomed,” Weber said.

In addition to receiving numerous designs with everything from tribal cloth to a child’s blanket, the mural was completed by many hands, including college students, Girl Scouts, artists, veterans, historians, farmers, refugees, and other members of the community.

In addition to receiving textile designs and element ideas, leaders representing each section were brought in as consultants for every large section, so that cultures were represented accurately.

The Common Threads Community Mural is on the east side of the United Way of Greater Warren County in downtown Monmouth.
Jane Carlson
Tri States Public Radio
The Common Threads Community Mural is on the east side of the United Way of Greater Warren County in downtown Monmouth.

There are also are renderings of fabric and representations of culture from Mexico, Kenya, Ghana, Jamaica, Australia, Burma, Poland, India, Sweden, Mali, and Too.

Those are alongside swatches of baby blankets, a grandmother’s shirt, camouflage, the Monmouth College tartan, and depictions of maple leaves, birds, barns, and silos.

The United Way contracted three artists affiliated with Monmouth College – Wunderlich, Jennie Nichols, and Rebecca Quick – to make the project happen.

Wunderlich says every inch of the mural has a story behind it, a person behind it, and a group of people to celebrate -- from American black history in the community, to the variety of African cultures in Monmouth… to the bundle of sunflowers painted by someone who recently immigrated to Monmouth from Ukraine.

“We really want everybody in our community to feel welcome and to feel like they’re a part of Monmouth. That’s what makes Monmouth so fantastic, is that we have all these different pockets and interesting cultures,” Wunderlich said.

Quick is a 2021 graduate of Monmouth College who teaches at Immaculate Conception school in town — and makes murals in her free time.

Quick said they received lots of positive feedback and appreciation as they were working on the mural in downtown Monmouth.

People would walk by and be appreciative of seeing their culture – or decide to contribute.

The only language on the mural is American Sign Language – and 25-foot tall hands spelling out “unity” are painted among the representations of Monmouth’s diversity.

“As we were putting up these hands, a deaf guy actually walked up to us and got so excited explaining how he thought we did a good job putting these up and representing it,” Quick said. “He gave us a hug.”

Weber said the mural project gave the community something a block long that shows people, no matter where they are from – whether that’s the United States, or somewhere thousands of miles away – all residents of Monmouth can be proud of where they came from, and be all weaved together, beautifully.

College students also interviewed and learned from various leaders representing the Chin community, farmers, several African communities, the Hispanic community, U.S. Veterans, Teachers, descendants of black leaders in the Monmouth community, and others.

The project was funded by the Len Everett Center for Community Enrichment, Galesburg Community Foundation, G&M Distributors, and Bob Ontiveros, founder of Group O in the Quad Cities, who believed in the multicultural work UWGWC does in the region.

Details on every section of the Common Threads mural will soon be posted on the United Way of Greater Warren County’s website.

Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Jane Carlson is TSPR's regional reporter.