Wednesday, September 23, 2009

47th Street Mural

posted by Elizabeth Fama

The new mural under the 47th Street Metra pass is finished, and was dedicated this past Saturday, Sept. 19. If you haven't glanced at it from your car, or walked past it on your way to the lake yet, it's worth a look.

It's in a style called "bricolage" mosaic, using broken tile, mirrored tile, colored grout, and tiles with photo transfers. The lead designers were Carolyn Elaine (a Bronzeville resident) and John Pitman Weber. The themes were chosen at community meetings, and photographs were donated by community members. The photos pay tribute to both better-known and unknown 47th Street inhabitants (and esteemed guests, in the case of Ella Fitzgerald) and they are, hands down, my favorite part of the mural.

Alderman Preckwinkle provided menu money to support it. The cost was $86,000, including wall prep and the youth team that worked on it over the summer.

Jon Pounds, Executive Director of the Chicago Public Art Group (CPAG), told me that the challenge was to create something sweeping and almost cinematic as you drive by, but more intimate and thoughtful if you're walking.

I am a sucker for photos from the 20s and 30s.

The symbols that each take up about 1/5 of the mural are (from west to east):
1) the Adinkra (West African) symbol for "know your heritage," called the Sankofa bird, holding the egg of the future in its beak
2) a hand with a spiral in the palm, the Native American sign of human presence
3) a woman's face, reading ("know, learn, read")
4) the Adinkra symbol for "adaptability," called the Denkyem, a crocodile-turtle that lives in water, breathes air, and lays eggs on land
5) Another hand, the Mudra, for tranquility and balance.

The face of the woman reading is in one of three "skylight" segments of the wall.

My biggest worry about murals, and public art in general, is the question of maintenance and removal. In the process of funding this mural, no money was set aside for future maintenance. When it deteriorates -- as it inevitably will (for instance, how color-fast are the photo transfers, when exposed to the elements? Will tiles pop off with seeping, freezing water? The grout in my shower needed work after 10 years!) -- a group like CPAG will have to scramble to find public and private funds for restoration. And years from now, the community that lives with it will likely have little say in whether it's historic enough to be restored, or dated enough to be retired.


HP said...

If you had $86,000 to improve Hyde Park, where would you spend it?

Elizabeth Fama said...

Excellent point, HP.

$86K would be a nice little chunk of capital for the next Z&H-style entrepreneur on 47th Street.

It would also cover 4 years of tuition at the Lab Schools for a low-income kid from 47th Street.

chicago pop said...

I think that would be enough for a buy-in at Orly's, with a little left over. :)

chicago pop said...

Hey, did everybody catch Qaddafi's slam on Hyde Park?

Turning to the heads of state gathered in the assembly chamber, Qaddafi said, “You are just like speakers on Hyde Park ... You make a speech and then disappear.”

**fine print: he meant the London HP, but whatever

Richard Gill said...

If there is no money for maintenance, plus a contract with the artists for maintenance, the murals should be prohibited. Even with a contract, what happens if the artist leaves town? Nobody's going to chase them down. Better to paint the walls a single color that can be patched and maintained easily and inexpensively. It may not look good, but at least it won't look bad.

In a way, this is a micro-precursor of what's almost surely going to happen if Chicago gets the Olympics——a lot of glitz and hoopla and no way to pay for it later. At least with the mural, it is known that there's no maintenance fund. With the Olympics, there's a pretend-guarantee that won't begin to cover costs. Guess who winds up paying.

skimble said...

@Richard Gill:

There's a good reason this post isn't called "47th Street Wall Painted a Solid Color."

That's because nobody from outside would notice it, or think about it, or talk about it, or care about it, or visit it.

Sort of like Chicago in 2016 without the Olympics.

Richard Gill said...

There is plenty to think about and care about in the neighborhood without the wall. And, in 2016 and thereafter, there will be plenty to think about and care about in Chicago without the Olympics.

Anonymous said...

"Sort of like Chicago in 2016 without the Olympics."

Seems like we've experienced our first troll.

I rather like the mural. I'm also concerned with the lack of a maintenance fund (especially since we see what happens to tiled public art when it isn't maintained ***Orisha Wall***). Public art shouldn't be created if there's no maintenance fund/contract, but I don't think anyone cares. But I guess in the grand scheme it's not the end of the world if it deteriorates after a few years. Chances are it will end up covered in graffiti and then in brown and white paint anyway.

chicago pop said...

I also find the new 47th street mural agreeable. I also think the 56th Street underpass looks much nicer now that those murals have been restored. The condition of a mural evidently makes a big difference when it comes to these things. As for provision of a maintenance fund, that strikes me as politically unrealistic. Better to make sure what goes up initially is durable (i.e., not like Orisha Wall -- a major bad design judgement). If nothing went up but those things which were funded in perpetuity, well then my friends, most of modern civilisation would not exist.

edj said...

I like the new tile mural. It should do all right for a while. It's got some protection from the overpass. Remember that the "Four Seasons" on First National Plaza had to be restored about a decade ago and they put a cover over it to protect it from the four seasons that we have here.

Tiles are different from a painted mural wall. That's more likely to require constant maintenance as tile is much different from paint maintenance wise.

Re: the Olympics. I've heard people say that Chicago doesn't need the Olympics to be a world class city. I disagree. Olympics are exactly what world class cities do.

I think it's great the the city has already pledged to put a fifth star on the city flag if we win the bid. Will go nice next to the stars for the Columbian exposition, the fire, the Century of Progress, and Ft. Dearborn. 75 years between new stars is too long.

Of course, that will just lead people to complain that the city will have to buy new flags.

skimble said...

If there is no money for maintenance, plus a contract with the artists for maintenance, the murals should be prohibited.

Imagine if the WPA or the Sistine Chapel had taken this attitude.

A mural is more interesting than a wall painted a single color to an outsider. A city with an Olympics is more interesting than a city without an Olympics to an outsider. That was my (evidently trollish) point.

If the mural is interesting enough, and enough people care about it, funds will be found in the future for its preservation. If not, it will become a ruin.

I don't see why an artist or even a patron must be expected to provide for an artwork's maintenance in perpetuity or be prohibited.

Richard Gill said...

I like how the wall looks, And, ok, a weathered mural may even have a certain charm to it. But that's not how it works; the graffiti will start, and once it starts, it spreads like a plague.

I've never known graffiti to be removed from a mural in any maintenance effort. Graffiti doesn't simply get removed from a mural, mostly because the artists don't even try, and partly because it probably can't be removed without damaging the mural underneath. Covering it up obliterates part of the mural. The only satisfactory way to get rid of the graffiti is to have the artist promptly restore the mural over it. That's not likely to happen, so we wind up with a wall full of spray paint and marker and even shoe polish.

Once the graffiti starts, it proliferates and gives the message of a blighted area. On a plain painted wall, new paint can be slapped on over the graffiti quickly. This discourages the taggers. Yes, it does.

Anonymous said...

"Once the graffiti starts, it proliferates and gives the message of a blighted area. On a plain painted wall, new paint can be slapped on over the graffiti quickly. This discourages the taggers. Yes, it does."

You could even paint the wall in large blocks of different colors if someone wants it to look nicer. That would be easy to paint over too.

Richard Gill said...


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