Mural installation brings abstract perspective to Chicago Fire matchday

Like a great soccer match, the art installations new at Toyota Park’s Valspar Fire Pit this season may require a second or third viewing to be fully appreciated.

A pair of ornate and brightly colored wall murals, inspired by the proud history of the Chicago Fire Soccer Club as well as the beautiful game itself, now adorn the east- and west-facing walls at the south end of the pitch. Each mural stands 14 feet tall and 27 feet in length.

They’re the intricate creations of muralist and original club season ticket holder Tony Passero, depicting “Offense” and “Defense,” respectively. Unveiled earlier this summer, the artwork features a wide range of subtle stylistic elements and cryptic representations that sometimes only appear to the observer upon a return examination.

The public art display is the latest collaboration between the Chicago Fire and first-year jersey partner, Valspar Paint. After previously coming together for a preseason supporters’ tifo build and a club-wide Habitat for Humanity project, the partners invited Passero to creatively celebrate the game and the club’s history using paint and primer donated by Valspar.

With that in mind, Passero met with representatives from Valspar and the Fire front office to begin discussing artistic concepts to best make use of the expansive wallspace.

“I know the [Fire] well, I know MLS, so I sort of had a feeling about this project,” said Passero, who led a team of artists that included his wife, Shannon, and fellow Fire fans Jerry Rogowski and Cyd Smillie. “With art that’s related or adjacent to sports, there’s often a conventional way to go and I sort of went against that, just to give the Fire a unique piece. I think we could have gone out and done a graffiti-style player with a blob behind him, and that was discussed, but we all wanted to go more for true art and expression which I think is cool and appropriate for our sport.”

The project took most of nine days to complete and presented some unique challenges, even for an accomplished muralist like Passero. Coarse concrete surfaces are always tricky, particularly when hot outdoor temperatures can quickly dry the paint, but Passero and his team ultimately were able to craft a pair of murals that utilize 36 paint colors applied in 97 different variations.

“Originally we were relying primarily on Fire colors, but then all agreed that we would go deeper and bring the piece to life by injecting more color into it,” Passero said. “Everything is based off red and blue with a touch of silver but expands off into hues from there.”

As for the artwork itself, the mural was inspired by the fluid, dynamic and unscripted movement of the sport and its most basic elements. Those include everything from the ball's path through the back, midfield and forward lines, a sprawling goalkeeper, and the trophies and stars that serve as reminders of championships won and still pursued.

Passero's original planning notes for the mural shed light on his vision for the design:

Direct attacks need to be shut down, over the top efforts smashed away, through balls cut off.
Gaps must be filled and overlap has to occur, the line has to be held.
The ball can pass the defense, an opponent can pass the defense, but a ball and an opponent should never pass the defense together.
If breached the goalkeeper must be an elastic octopus covering an area four times his body mass as the final blockade.

Following the mural's completion, imagery of current and former Fire standouts -- including Ante Razov, Frank Klopas, David Accam and Johan Kappelhof, among others -- was incorporated to add another dimension to the piece. 

“It’s been incredible to see our club’s partnership with Valspar come to life this year, and this latest project is no exception,” said Atul Khosla, COO of the Chicago Fire. “After some early brainstorming discussions, we’re thrilled to see how Tony and his team were able to connect the spirit of the game and Chicago Fire history in a way that has added to the matchday atmosphere at our stadium.”

Regardless of what onlookers ultimately determine to be the essence of his work -- be it on second, third or fourth inspection -- Passero is pleased with the collaboration that led to the final mural, and the shared passion it reflects.

“I saw this opportunity as another really unique touchpoint for the club, its supporters and Valspar,” Passero said, “which as a fan I obviously think is great to see.”

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