Sunday, July 12, 2009

Mural Update

posted by Elizabeth Fama

Today I happened upon this scene at 56th and Lake Park. Olivia Gude is restoring her original 1992 mural, "Where We Come From...Where We're Going." I had previously seen a young man (her assistant for the summer) power-washing William Walker's "Childhood is Without Prejudice" (1977), just east of the Gude mural.

Ms. Gude is responsible for restoring both murals, using money she says the Chicago Public Art Group got from the NEA. (For a list of all the CPAG mural restoration projects in Chicago, see this link.) I'm pretty sure that the University of Chicago has contributed money for the 56th Street murals, as well.

She told me that she had restored Mr. Walker's mural once before, in 1993, and when she had contacted him to discuss it Mr. Walker said, "Why don't you just paint something else over it?" which was unthinkable to her. Mr. Walker's art is considered to be historically significant.

Olivia Gude
Ms. Gude is hoping that while she works on her mural (for the next month, she estimates), people will stop and tell her what has become of the subjects in the mural. She might even add an update about some of them to the text in the mural.

I know one of the models, the small-ish redhead in the tan coat. Her name is Rachel, and she was one of my husband's PhD students. She was not terribly fond of Hyde Park. She now works for the International Monetary Fund.

William Walker (b. 1927), "Childhood is Without Prejudice." The loose paint has been power-washed away.


catuca48 said...

I am thrilled to see this restoration work underway. As a result of support by the SECC, U of C, National Endowment for the Arts, Alderman Leslie Hairston and Alderman Preckinkle other work is slated for completion this summer. Special thanks go to both Aldermen Toni Preckwinkle and Leslie Hairston for investing in the these public improvements. Later this summer look for the long awaited installation of the art panels - 12 foot by 8 foot digital images of works by; Terry Evans, Calvin Jones, John Himmelfarb and Dr. Margaret Burroughs. These panels will adorn the south sides of the 53rd and 55th Street underpasses. Funds will also allow for the completion of the 57th Street mosaic mural on the 57th St. underpass. If it has not yet begin, there will also be a new mural going up along the north side of the 47th street viaduct that will involves students from Kenwood Academy and residents to participate.

edj said...

You know, it only takes a couple of days to repaint a white wall. And a white wall is safer for pedestrians.

I like the idea of the original artist suggesting that his original art be painted over, not restored. He has the right idea about murals painted in underpasses.

Elizabeth Fama said...

I agree with both of your points, edj. I also worry that these murals are gradually being considered to be historic because we're repainting them. Who will be the "heartless" one to paint or tile or brick over them in the future?

They're too exposed to the elements to allow them to reach this status. I say make it transient art, if you must have art there at all.

jimmyjack said...

Indeed the NEA did consider each of these two murals to be of such significance as to deserve restoration/conservation funding. The remainder of the funding was generously provided by a SECC grant.

It was not that long ago that agencies and municipalities painted out and destroyed WPA murals without regard. About 35 years after WPA murals were painted, beginning in mid-late 60s, we began to reconsider those actions. Today, those works in schools and post offices are considered national heritage to be protected.

The murals of Hyde Park are 35 years old. They have held up astonishingly well, given that they are outside 365 days a year. I believe in spirit and content, they are still relevant to the world today.

And there should be a larger discussion about whether or not the cultural production of one time should be restored or removed at a later date. I would hope that will be a conscious discussion in which individuals and agencies articulate their knowledge and values. Personally, I do not think every mural in Chicago should be restored, but...some of them should!

And that larger discussion will begin here in Chicago in October when Restore Public Murals, a national effort to raise the question, will hold a symposium to discuss extant works and how to determine the importance and viability of saving them.

Elizabeth Fama said...

Jimmyjack (Jon Pounds): Thanks for writing in, and I appreciate your passion for these murals. But...

Many of the WPA murals were painted on interior walls, I think, where preservation is at least possible once you determine that it's desirable. I can give you my vote now, without even attending the October meeting: outdoor murals should be considered to be transient. Perhaps an end-date should be set when they're painted. The existing ones that are in disrepair should be painted over.

But if I'm honest, I'll take it a step further: I believe this art form is fraught with aesthetic problems. I almost never like the actual artwork. Many people who write into this blog quietly agree that they'd prefer white paint, tiles, or clean bricks.

I disagree that Hyde Park's 35-year-old outdoor murals have held up well. Under City Stone is a disaster, for example. And I've argued before in the comment section of a previous post that James Agee's poem, "Rapid Transit (c. 1937)," about the alienation of public transportation, is actually not relevant "in spirit and content to the world today." Since 1937 we've figured out that commuting by car from a suburb is the alienating activity, not riding with your neighbors on a train!

jimmyjack said...

I'm happy to be "outed" to my real name-Jon Pounds. The oddity was my attempt to set up my account with a password...not the first mistake I've made.

I think there may be more common ground than readers might think. Public art projects generally fall into four categories describing longevity.

Permanent-those projects intended to last for ever, or at least as long as we can imagine. I.e. bronze men on horseback

Semipermanent - projects that are not permanent, but that will last some decades.

Temporary - projects that are intended to last just a year or two.

Installations - short term projects intended to last just days or weeks or a few months.

That said, I think of murals as semi-permanent. They may be "lost" at some point; some do lose their relevance. I do think we should make conscious choices when we remove them. We should decide not if we're tired of them, but if what they tell us is no longer relevant.

The murals in Hyde Park really are quite special and meaningful. While I don't think they must be preserved forever, I do believe they deserve a longer life during which their message(s) will continue to reveal themselves to residents, newcomers, and visitors.


Elizabeth Fama said...

Hi Jon,

You had signed your full name at the end of a jimmyjack comment on my "retire and rotate" post of 3/8/08, so I thought it was OK to use your real name. I value your comments, and I'm pleased that you take the time to leave them.

It sort of seems like outdoor murals fall between your definition of semipermanent and temporary: the lucky ones may hold up for something less than 20 years without upkeep ("Where We Come From..." was installed in 1992, and it's being refurbished this summer). They often look tired before then. So...if public murals are desired (and we haven't established that to be true with any sort of statistical survey) the question comes down to whether you restore them or paint something new. My point is that if you commit yourself to painting something new every 10 or 15 years, you won't get into this trap of thinking that just because something is old and has been refurbished once, it has historic or cultural significance and has to be restored forever. I say we think of them as transitory art -- 15-year art, but transitory nonetheless. Why not catalog them with photos and essays as each one goes up, and keep a record of the changing cultural mood? That seems just as valuable as (and maybe more interesting than) creating a monument to a single cultural mood.

But I still want that statistical, randomized survey to see if people want Hyde Park to have that outdoor-mural-ish, 1970s personality.

Uh oh, I'm going to get hate mail for that last line.

Thank you again for your thoughts,

catuca48 said...

Three brief comments:

1. Check out the absolutely spectacular mural in progress on the 47th Street viaduct. It is gorgeous.

2. Murals like everything(and everyone)else need to be maintained.

3. Do you like every book in the library?