The Big Picture

Since the late 1960s the South Side’s painted walls have been quietly teaching us lessons in our local history. Yet time and neglect have allowed these murals and their lessons to fade from of the public eye. To recognize and raise awareness of wall art as a striking form of collective expression, the South Side Community Art Center hosted a wall art tour last Saturday. The group was led by Jon Pounds, the executive director of the Chicago Public Art Group (CPAG), a 40-year-old organization dedicated to fostering public artwork in and around the city.

The giant murals don’t lecture on history; they invite engagement. The paintings–some of which take up the entire side of a building or underpass–are the products of a creative, impassioned discourse between muralists. “Like jazz [musicians], these guys had to figure out how to work together as they went,” said Pounds, a close friend and contemporary of many of the city’s best muralists. “Turbulent and creative, that’s the way to describe that time and these artists.”

A half-dozen mural admirers–ranging from groggy students from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to curious senior citizens–gathered at the South Side Community Art Center at 9am. Traveling by bus to the various art sites in Hyde Park, Bronzeville, and Kenwood, the tour was the culmination of “Off the Wall,” the Center’s month-long exhibition on Chicago murals.

“In the beginning, at least,” Pounds told his eager listeners, “these creations sought to prove that public art is more than just bronze statues of generals on horseback.” Certainly, the murals–the earliest of which took weeks of labor by up to a dozen unpaid and sometimes unaccredited artists–more than corroborate this assertion. Not only did the muralists craft bold and beautiful images for their neighbors, but they also produced powerful retellings of South Side history. A vibrant collage of African-American history on Drexel and 41st, “Time to Unite,” a 1976 collaboration by Justine Devan, Mitchell Caton, and Calvin Jones, is a perfect example of this blend of art and history. Mixing elements from the Great Migration, the bleak early days of industrial Chicago, and the violence of the Civil Rights Movement, the mural lights up the sidewalk in a luminescent clutter backed by bold technique. Orange action-movie lettering cries “A Time to Unite” right in the mural’s center while four laborers turn the windup key of a giant clock in a metaphorical attempt to revive the community.

Huge scale shifts, colorful patterns, and animated figures all work “to raise the consciousness of a city to social issues, to race, to gender, and to its history,” said Pounds. As established features of the city street, the mural is the medium the most direct and public of exclamations. Bernard Williams’ 100-foot-long “Feed Your Children the Truth,” for example, features dejected protestors carrying “protect our children” signs above a figure gripping jail bars. It’s a particularly poignant coupling of symbols, especially given its location by the playground of Reavis Elementary School at 50th and Cottage Grove.

Across the street and pasted onto Reavis itself is the 2010 mural “If Walls Could Talk: The Discovery of Life Principles.” Pounds, who was personally involved in the creation of a number of murals with CPAG, was clearly proud of the rich purple mosaic, the work of Max Sansing and Keila Smith-Upton. He has every right to be proud: the wall pops out of the dull brick it overlays, brightening up the entire street corner. As Pounds said, “there’s nothing quite like this anywhere but in South Side Chicago. It’s inspired pieces in L.A. and New York. But there’s still nothing quite like here for the complexity and skill.”

The tenth and final mural on the tour, a collaborative piece located on 47th and Calumet, was created in 1974 under the direction of probably the most recognized Chicago muralist, William Walker (or “Bill” as Pounds knows him). Titled “The Wall of Daydreaming and Man’s Inhumanity to Man,” the dark and disconcerting work wildly portrays conflicts of race and culture with half-images of drug dealers, KKK members, pimps, and priests.

Like many of the other pieces, the wall is peeling and cracked in more than a few places. So as Pounds chatted personably to some of the tour participants near the trolley tour’s close he brought up his own project: “We need to start restoring these murals soon, give them back their full color.” With a restoration, these communal walls could continue to speak to South Siders well into the future. teaching and changing the lives of people like Pounds. After all, he once was “just a punk, looking out the window on the Green Line when a wall changed [his] life.”