Decorated heads are popping up across DuPage County

Experience the rich cultural history of the ancient Olmec civilization through the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County’s Olmec Trails: Culture and Legacy public art exhibit.

Don’t be startled by the huge, colorfully painted heads posted along the Illinois Prairie Path, at libraries, at the College of DuPage, in forest preserves and at other locations in DuPage County.

They are a celebration of an ancient civilization, a tribute to a mentor and a reason to get outdoors.

“Olmec Trails: Culture and Legacy,” running through October, is a public art exhibition offering 33 fiberglass reproductions of Olmec heads, colossal stone artifacts from the Mesoamerican culture that existed south of the Gulf of Mexico, from Veracruz to Tabasco, between about 1400-400 BCE.

“These guys inspired the Mayans and the Aztecs,” said Fernando Ramirez, president of the Mexican Cultural Center DuPage in West Chicago, where four painted reproductions can be found – at Kline Creek Farm, Reed-Keppler Park, the Kruse House Museum and the West Chicago Public Library.

“Olmec Trails” was Ramirez’s vision as an homage to his mentor, Carlos Tortolero, president of Chicago’s National Museum of Mexican Art, who in 2022 announced his retirement this year.

“He loves the Olmecs,” Ramirez said. “That started me on my path to learn about the Olmecs.”

Researchers aren’t quite sure who or what the original 17 discovered Olmec heads represent, whether they’re gods, rulers or even athletes, since the Olmecs – “people of the rubber country” – may have played a Mesoamerican ceremonial sport.

“Once you read about this stuff, we’re thinking, how do we put this out there to learn?” Ramirez said.

One need only recall the painted “CowParade” for an example of how public art can capture the imagination.

Ramirez started working in late 2022 with Carlos Hernandez Luna, a project coordinator with Meztli Mexico, to create the heads and enlist 15 Mexican artists to paint them.

Ramirez reached out to the College of DuPage Public Art Project, the Forest Preserve of DuPage County and the DuPage County Convention & Visitors Bureau to assist as local partners for “Olmec Trails.”

Sixteen artists from the U.S. and two from Canada came to the College of DuPage and the Mexican Cultural Center to paint the fiberglass heads. Installation ran from June 1 to July 1.

“Some of these artists never knew about [the Olmec heads], so it was a learning process for some of these artists, too,” Ramirez said.

Most of the heads are located in DuPage County. One sits at the National Museum of Mexican Art, another at the Gail Borden Public Library in Elgin.

Fifteen of them are installed in forest preserve sites at Kline Creek, St. James Farm in Warrenville, Fullersburg Woods in Oak Brook and the Mayslake Peabody Estate in Oak Brook.

From her perspective, Anamari Dorgan, director of community engagement with the Forest Preserve of DuPage County, said the exhibition encourages wellness, provides a link to nature and offers people a chance to “digitally detox” while picking up some culture.

“What definitely resonates is each one is unique. It may be a template with a fiberglass form, but every artist committed to a different theme and a different expression of self and culture,” Dorgan said. “They’re all so vibrant but they’re all so different.”

More information on “Olmec Trails: Culture and Legacy” can be found by visiting