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The wall behind the Sorenson Unity Center bursts with pastel colors, bright reds and vibrant oranges. The teal squares highlight parks and playgrounds, sections of Salt Lake City's west side that tend to be forgotten.

The centerpiece is the river, meandering up and down like a pulse line of the city's heart monitor.

This is the work of Chris Peterson, a local artist whose mural projects have reached as far away as Uganda and Cambodia. With the help of fellow artist Sarah Kappos and local children, Peterson spent three sweltering weeks on the 105-by-30 foot mural, a stylish map of the Jordan River area.

The center only recently received funding to turn the space into a park, a drastic improvement over the previous landscape.

"Our goal was to attract people, especially children, to the space," Peterson said. "For years it's been just a dirt lot — a mud puddle, really. Now that it's a park space, we want people to start thinking about it."

In the early stages of the project, Peterson worked at night outlining the mural. When the sun went down, he projected an image of the map across the wall and went to work. Once the outline was complete, it came down to labor, tenacity and 30 gallons of paint.

Peterson has been working with the Sorenson Unity Center for more than three years, providing arts programs and developing an arts park. His ambition is to get urban kids outside using art as a vehicle.

"We'd like to evolve the space over the next five years, work with the kids and use their ideas," Peterson said. "We want to teach them lessons about being creative, using their imagination and discovering new possibilities."

The highlight of the mural, the Jordan River, is what Peterson calls the "hidden gem" of the community. It's a continuation of the vision of Westside Studio, a partnership at the University of Utah that is focused on neighborhood development around the area.

One of the recent graduate students, Elizabeth Joan Gray, worked with the river district project for two years, producing banners and helping create the river district "cookbook," an outline to enhance community identity.

"There's a lot of creativity and a lot of new energy coming out of the neighborhood," Gray said. "For years, the river was completely abused. We'd like to build a better connection there and create local pride in the area."

Recently, Westside Studio has moved its focus toward active participation with the younger generation. Gray said she feels that community improvement begins with individual contributions. If they can get one child motivated, the domino falls to two motivated parents.

It's this younger generation that is the target of Peterson's nonprofit organization, Great West Institute.

"Art cuts across all political lines, especially with kids," Peterson said. "If we can work with kids to empower them and facilitate them thinking outside of the box, they're going to be better prepared to deal with the issues being left to them." —

At a glance

Chris Peterson, the co-director of the Great West Institute, received a master's of public administration from the University of Utah and a bachelor's in painting from Kansas City Art Institute.

Through nonprofit work, Peterson has also done projects along State Street, in Moab and at the Tracy Aviary.

The Sorenson Unity Center, at 1383 S. 900 West, hosts visual and performing arts projects as well as community events aimed at enhancing diversity in the city.