Sunday, May 3, 2009

Caryl Yasko's Labor of Love

posted by Elizabeth Fama

If you passed by the 55th Street mural, Under City Stone (c. 1972), last summer, you might have seen the artist, Caryl Yasko working to restore it. She spent several weeks there, if I'm not mistaken. All I know is that in less time, my daughter painted a mural of a pod of hippos and an entire African landscape on all four of her bathroom walls. I'm not sure who is funding the restoration, but as of March, 2008, the Chicago Public Art Group was still trying to find a donor for its repair. Perhaps Ms. Yasko was donating her time.

You can see from the water on the ground that this mural gets a fair amount of weathering. The new steel frame "bent" system that supports the viaduct does not prevent seepage. In the middle of winter, there was a gigantic icicle spitefully crawling down the middle of the restored section of the mural.

In short: this particular wall is not suited for lasting mural art. Either that, or someone needs to maintain it almost annually. But how about this instead: maybe the mural artists should rotate, and we should accept that it's an impermanent art form? Or, if it's cheaper, maybe we can put up panel art, as is slated for the 53rd Street viaduct, and we can actually rotate the pieces periodically, rather than be tied to the art trends of the past?

Personally, I'm in the mood for hippos.


24 comments:

Richard Gill said...

Some time last year, Caryl Yasko and someone from a public art group spoke at a meeting of the East Hyde Park Committee. They described the restoration project and Ms. Yasko told about the section she would be restoring.

Having seen how past public artists in Hyde Park have painted their murals and then abandoned them to rot and get covered with graffiti, I was (and still am) not enthusiastic about the muraling of underpasses. At the meeting, I mentioned my concerns and was assured that any new murals would be scrupulously maintained. I don't believe it. There are good intentions, but there are the small matters of money and time commitment.

In my opinion, vandalized and deteriorated public art is a blight, and is worse than no public art.

At the meeting, Ms. Yasko told how she would try to prevent water damage by sealing the joint where the wall meets the underside of the bridge deck, directly above the small mural section she was going to restore. She asked if someone could "stand guard" at the base of the ladder, while she worked above. I volunteered, assuming it would be a 30 minute job at most.

So I showed up at the agreed time, and she was standing, talking with some people, then with some other people, and then got up on the ladder, then more talk with passers by, then back on the ladder, etc. I asked Ms. Yasko if the interruptions were bothersome, especially since she was working with a deadline to meet. She said the public interface was a key part of the process. Then a contingent of Vietnamese mural artists showed up, escorted by someone from the Catholic Theological Union, and everyone chit-chatted and took pictures. After another 45 minutes or so, with the sealing still unfinished, I had somewhere to be, excused myself and departed the scene.

So far, only that small patch has been restored under the 55th St. viaduct. I am not being critical of Ms. Yasko, as she was doing what the project apparently wants her to do: balance the painting with the public engagement. However, in the time I was there, it was about 75% talking and 25% painting. The small patch Ms. Yasko restored is beautiful, but most of the mural still looks like hell, like it has for the past 25 years. If this is how it has to get done, then it probably will never get done.

Greg said...

You HPPers sure like Hippos. :-)

Greg said...

Richard, look at it this way: At least it will be done before The Point is!

Elizabeth Fama said...

Ms. Yasko's efforts to seal the joint above didn't work, judging by the person-sized icicle that was on the restored section this winter (and the puddle at the base of the mural in my photo). I think Dick is right about good intentions not being enough. Yasko's sign to the beloved people of Hyde Park promised winter "special events," but I don't think any happened.

And I agree that viaduct murals are not really desirable as public art (although many people will disagree with us). I love art, but in these spots I might prefer easy-to-clean tile or brick.

Greg said...

Considering the amount of pressure the viaduct is under (harsh temperatures, water, regular trains, etc.) it is not possible for Caryl to seal the cracks.

When they were rebuilding those two stations/platforms, they should have installed a proper drainage system. But they didn't. They didn't even use the correct material when they installed the gutter drains on the platforms, which resulted in them splitting and shattering the first winter.

Sealing the cracks would require some serious work by an experienced crew with the proper materials and equipment. It would take a couple weeks at minimum and cost more money than anyone would be willing to spend on it.

edj said...

I have to admit that on a certain level, I admire all of the murals and the push to restore/maintain them. However, our weather does not cooperate with what might be ideal. A fading and deteriorating mural looks awful and does nothing to promote safety like the underpasses that are simply painted white and which can easily be maintained and repainted when needed. All of the angst over murals painted back when I was a in high school or earlier just gives me a headache. I like the tile idea, but it seems like the water seepage would create some long-term problems for tile.

Anyone here see the "Life After People" episode about Chicago on the History Channel a week or two ago. It showed what happens when you don't maintain buildings. Looking at what happened in Gary to a church and other buildings that have been abandoned made me think about Doctors Hospital, St. Stephens, the Point, etc. and what the opponents of development have in store for us.

chicago pop said...

edj: you should know that the HP Historical Society is "deeply involved in the preservation of St. Stephens." According to their promotional literature.

bornatreese said...

I am sad about this mural, which I imprinted on when I came to Hyde Park for college in the fall of 1979. I loved it. You could read the entire Agee poem at the time. So I'm really reluctantly admitting that Elizabeth is right and paintings on underpasses shouldn't be intended to last forever.

mchinand said...

Speaking of St. Stephen's, wasn't there a new ordinance that went into effect earlier this year regarding vacant buildings? The windows and doors of vacant buildings have to be secured with metal plates rather than just plywood (are all of St. Stephen's windows even covered with plywood?). I'm pretty sure St. Stephen's is not in compliance. Here's the best link I could find about the ordinance: http://www.chicagolawyermagazine.com/2009/02/04/vacant-buildings-open-door-to-legal-work/

ScottM said...

The St. Stephens foreclosure notice is relisted in the Real Estate Foreclosure notices in the Herald this week. (What bank in their right minds gives someone 1.6M for development of this site though?)

My first instinct is the owner just mortgaged it to the hilt to draw down "developer" fees without much expectation of ever building on it.

Greg said...

St. Stephens is out of compliance as of the last time I walked past.

Gary Indiana is a prime example of what happens to buildings and other human-made structures when they're abandoned and/or not maintained. Chucks Photo Spot has wonderful shots of St. Stephens, Doctor's Hospital, and many many other buildings inside and out in Chicago, Gary, and the surrounding areas that document this.

Dixie Square Mall is the ultimate example of a once-viable structure that has since become a run-down crime magnet and death trap.

Variations On A Theme said...

I lived in Chicago for a year-and-a-half, and it's hard to imagine an underpass without a good deal of graffiti. I lived near the John Hancock, though, so maybe it's different in Hyde Park, and maybe it's different 15 years later.

I agree with Richard Gill. "Vandalized and deteriorated public art" is worse than no public art at all. I've spray-painted over graffiti on a gray cement wall at the end of our street, and I had a great idea to get the high school art class to do a mural, but it'd surely be destroyed, and how demoralizing would that be?

You've got me curious about Hyde Park. It sounds like a happenin' place. I'm wondering if we have our own version of Hyde Park down here in East Nashville - a changing demographic; house values quadrupling in the past 10 years, which upsets some residents who feel driven from their neighborhood because they can't afford the property taxes now; formerly fringe or alternative crowd, now families with young children moving in; schools improving, but we're not quite there yet, and once the kids reach middle school, a lot of families head out of Dodge.

And your daughter's mural...WOW!

Bob said...

I admire Ms. Yasko's dedication to the task but the art itself doesn't warrant it. It is quite dated and juvenile looking and doesn't beautify the viaduct at all. Most political art dates badly and looks garish. Here is a good example.

I, for one, would be happy to see plain, clean walls.

catuca48 said...

Perhaps I can shed some light on the situation.

1. The viaduct renovations were designed to 'redirect" the water away from the walls into essentially gutters and downspouts. For the most part this has been successful along 53rd and the south side of 55th Streets. CDOT has agreed to look into the problems on the north side of 55th Street.

2. CPAG is holding off on any further work on the mural until the above issue is addressed.

3. Installation of the art panels has been delayed for a few reasons, but should occur this summer along the south side of 53rd and 55th Street. As part of the art panel agreement, both the 4th and 5th ward alderman have agreed to contribute to a maintenance escrow account. CPAG will monitor and administer this account.

3.. CPAG has just been awarded an NEA grant which will allow them to restore the murals on 56th Street, and portions of the south side of 55th street.

4. The renovation of the 51st and 57th street viaducts is included in the stimulus package. And work is expected to begin next year. City needs to solicit bids, etc,a contractor needs to manufacture all of the steel work off site, etc...

edj said...

The only kind of maintenance I'd like to see is periodic power blasting of the graffiti and re-painting. Why waste money on maintaining art that's not worth maintaining. Use the stimlus money to get some nice white paint to finish the viaduct renovations.

LPB said...

I applaud Richard for his efforts to help Ms. Yasko with the restoration project. However, if she truly believes that "public interface" is such an important part of the process, then I'd suggest she consider making the installation into a performance art piece where she will camp out in the underpass and engage interested passersby in art talk.

Having someone there might raise the safety factor, especially at night.

scott said...

I filed an online service request with 311 Services on 5/9/09 about the improper securing of the St. Stephens building and graffiti on and in it. We'll see what, if anything, gets done about it and when.

Elizabeth Fama said...

Catuca48: in Hyde Park, an escrow account for public-art maintenance is only as good as the "intentions" we've been talking about. Remember that the incredibly dilapidated Orisha Wall had an escrow account administered by the Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce for its maintenance and removal if necessary. Well, it wasn't maintained, the "invested" money somehow grew into less rather than more (during the booming 80s and 90s, no less), and there wasn't enough to pay for its removal last year.

I'm sure CPAG doesn't intend to let that happen. But...?

edj said...

311 calls getresponded to more quickly if there are many of them. One usually dosn't do the job. Maybe if we started makingcalls about the Point, too. Hmm...............

Jennifer Bremer MD said...

Bless you for getting this conversation some publicity! That mural scared me as a child and looks interminably dingy. I sure would love a nice clean blank page instead. Or that new bricked in underpass looks so wonderful.

Richard Gill said...

Yes, the "blank page" approach would make the walls easily and inexpensively maintainable, whereas the murals are difficult and costly to maintain. Plain, light-colored walls are safer too, keeping the underpasses brighter. I propose that the underpasses be designated as "Historic Structures" that must be maintained with plain concrete, or whitewashed walls, just like when they were first built in 1892.

LPB said...

Did anyone else hear about this mural in Bridgeport that was accidentally (on purpose) painted over by Chicago's graffiti busters after a call from the alderman?



FROM WBEZ: A local artist is considering his legal options after the city of Chicago painted over his mural last week.

The city's graffiti blasters put brown paint over Gabriel Villa's mural at the request of the local alderman in Bridgeport, James Balcer.

Balcer says he got 3 or 4 complaints from residents about the painting and he says he agreed with residents who found it distasteful. The city removed the mural even though it was on private property and was clearly not graffiti. The department of streets and sanitation says they painted over the mural at Balcer's insistence and they say they're looking into whether the removal was improper.

Villa says Balcer called him this morning to set up a meeting to discuss the issue but he says the alderman didn't seem very apologetic on the phone. Villa has been in contact with an organization called "lawyers for the creative arts" which is looking for an attorney who might be interested in taking the case.

ピアノフォルティ said...

I grew up in Hyde Park, and remember the mural well, when it was new.

I am not a great fan of poetry, or visual art for that matter, but I always adored this mural. It "works"... whenever walking past it, one must inevitably read it and focus on it.

Perhaps there is some method of coating it, so that it can remain intact, once restored?

John said...

I lived in Hyde Park from 1978 to 1984, and walked past this mural many, many times. I didn't notice it much at first, but after a while it got under my skin, and I set myself to memorizing the poem. I can still recite the poem to this day.

I always felt better after walking past the mural, despite its acknowledgement of the dehumanizing, corrupting qualities of city life. It seemed to help me put them aside and focus on the good things in life.