My tenth-grade art teacher, a nice lady named Ms. Hennessy, did not like white space. “Fill the whole page,” she would say when she looked at our drawings and paintings. “All the way to the edges. Don’t leave anything blank.” Ms. Hennessy would like the Roseland-Pullman Mural Project, which was painted this summer on the railroad viaduct at South 113th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue. It carries an explosion of bright colors across every available inch of concrete, covering four large walls at each corner of the viaduct and both sides of the 113-foot passageway that stretches underneath the train tracks. In all the mural covers 7,200 square feet, making it the largest community mural in Chicago–no small trick in a city that has more than 100 such murals.
Jon Pounds, one of the artists who conceived the project, shares a restored Pullman row house with one of his primary coconspirators, Olivia Gude. The two also share the equivalent of one full-time teaching job at a south suburban high school, which leaves the rest of their time free for murals and other projects. In December of 1987 Pounds and Gude teamed up with the third major collaborator on the mural project, Marcus Jefferson, who was then a student at the Art Institute of Chicago. After a year of collaboration the three of them have a habit of finishing one another’s thoughts.
“We originally talked about doing the 115th Street viaduct,” says Pounds. “It has more heavy traffic, and it’s a smaller space.”
But that site, says Gude, “is not as artistically pleasing.”
“It lacks intimacy,” says Pounds. “And 113th Street gets most of the foot traffic.”
So 113th Street it was. “We made that decision without dealing with the fact that the space is three times as big,” says Gude. “From the point of view of being professional muralists, it was incredibly dumb.”
“It was worth it,” says Jefferson.
Pounds and Gude have lived in Pullman since 1979, and began creating public art soon after they moved there. “I just didn’t want to make radical art and stick it in the Randolph Street Gallery,” says Gude. Their first project was a series of drawings about local labor history done outdoors in chalk. Artists, says Pounds, call this “temporary, site-specific work”–which means it washes away when it rains. In 1985 they worked on a sculpture for children in a neighborhood playground. Then two years ago they had the idea for a mural that would join Pullman, which is 90 percent white, with Roseland, the neighborhood just to the west across the railroad tracks that is 90 percent black.
Pullman, of course, was constructed as an independent incorporated town in 1880 by railroad-car magnate George Pullman. Frightened by the nationwide railroad strike of 1877, Pullman decided to build an industrial community on the far south edge of Chicago–to keep his workers from being corrupted by the radicalism of the city’s seething immigrant neighborhoods. The resulting self-contained town, which is regarded as a model of late-19th-century architecture and which became a National Landmark District in 1970, included a railroad-car factory, housing for thousands of workers, a school, a library, parks, a bank, a church, a hotel, shops, and a market building–but no saloons.
Pullman’s carefully designed community was more than a social experiment–it was also a profit center, intended to provide an ongoing 6 percent return on investment. So Pullman wouldn’t sell the houses he built to his employees. They were forced to rent, and though rents were high, wages at the Pullman factories were low. The problem got worse when wages were slashed after the financial panic of 1893. In May of 1894, the workers of Pullman went on strike. Six weeks later the fledgling American Railway Union took up their cause, calling for a nationwide boycott of any railroad line that carried Pullman cars. That led to one of the most bitter strikes in American labor history, which was finally broken when the government issued a restraint-of-trade injunction against the American Railway Union and its president, Eugene Debs. At the time of the strike, the Pullman community was still inhabited by its first settlers, the Swedes and northern Europeans who had the woodworking skills necessary to build the elaborate wood-frame cars that were the Pullman company’s trademark in the 19th century. In 1907 Pullman began manufacturing steel cars, which required welders and metalworkers. “The people attracted to Pullman for those jobs were not the same as came the first time. There were a lot more Italians and Greeks,” says Paul Petraitis, a Pullman resident who was among the more than 100 people who helped design, paint, and raise money for the Roseland-Pullman mural project. He was also an archivist at the Chicago Historical Society for 16 years. Some Hispanics have recently moved into Pullman, he adds, but there have never been more than a handful of black residents.
Roseland was settled by Dutch farmers in the 1840s, and the land where Pullman now sits was once part of their farms. “Roseland suddenly had a lot of very rich former farmers,” says Petraitis, after George Pullman bought thousands of acres for his town. Various ethnic groups later settled in the Roseland neighborhood, but it remained a white enclave until the late 1960s.
“In Chicago a neighborhood changes. And by ‘changes,’ it is understood to mean that it goes black,” says Petraitis. “It doesn’t go black, of course. The whites go, and blacks and others come in to fill the void.” Roseland, he says, was surrounded by three black neighborhoods: Maple Park to the west; Lilydale to the north; and the huge public-housing projects at Altgeld Gardens, home for blacks who came to work at the Pullman shipyards, to the southeast. “People from all three areas moved and met in Roseland between 1968 and 1972,” he says. “Between 1968 and 1972, 40,000 people changed homes–with no small amount of real estate pressure. There were the usual scum real estate practices–calling up old ladies in the middle of the night, that sort of thing. All of a sudden improvements weren’t happening on a key commercial strip, and key businessmen moved out.” Although the racial makeup of the area changed dramatically, Roseland has remained for the most part a stable working-class neighborhood.
Many of the whites who left Roseland moved to Pullman. They rarely return, except for those who attend Holy Rosary Church, which its pastor, Bill Stenzel, describes as one of the few integrated Catholic parishes in the city. Black children from Roseland cross into Pullman to go to school–usually through the 113th Street underpass–but there is little other contact between the two communities.
“There used to be all sorts of common cultural organizations between the two neighborhoods,” says Gude. Roseland and Pullman were “a single community, with a shared social life. When Roseland became a black neighborhood, those relations ceased.
“For us, it’s a question of feeling isolated. I felt really oppressed by the segregation of Chicago, the way neighborhoods don’t relate.”
Out of that sense of isolation came the idea for a mural on one of the underpasses along Cottage Grove Avenue, which is the border between Pullman and Roseland. But Gude and Pounds, who are both white, didn’t want to go much further with their idea without a black artist–the idea of building an art bridge to Roseland would not have made much sense to them otherwise. So their mural idea sat on the shelf for a while, waiting for the right person to come along.
Mutual friends eventually introduced them to Jefferson, who had worked on several mural projects in Washington, D.C., before moving to Chicago to attend the Art Institute. Jefferson was interested in doing mural work in Chicago, but hadn’t found much support for community-oriented projects here. The atmosphere at the Art Institute, he says, encouraged isolated, individualistic expressions of an artist’s inner life, rather than outward-looking interaction with other people. It was also, he adds, less than hospitable toward minorities, who made up only about 5 percent of the 1,500 undergraduate students. “I’m interested in art as a way to liberate people,” he says. “I was out of sync with the student body and the administration.”
Jefferson hit it off well with Gude and Pounds, however, and the three began soliciting support for the mural project. “We went to work as organizers,” says Gude. “We knocked on doors, asking people to be volunteers. We worked our asses off.”
At this stage the mural was still an idea with no image, and the artists ran into a bit of skepticism. Some people thought outdoor murals belonged in declining neighborhoods, not in self-respecting, mostly middle-class areas like Pullman and Roseland. Others doubted that such an ambitious venture would really get off the ground.
But many were enthusiastic, and the project was endorsed by the Pullman Civic Organization and the Martin Luther King Community Organization, a Roseland neighborhood group. Financial support was arranged with the help of the Chicago Public Art Group, an umbrella organization that has played a key role in promoting murals and other outdoor artwork throughout the city during the past two decades.
Last March the three artists formed a design committee, a group of between 12 and 18 residents of Pullman and Roseland, and gave the committee the task of creating a rough sketch for the mural. Committee members researched and discussed their ideas, then drew sketches and came up with pictures and photographs that were pasted together into the collage that became the mural design.
Gude and Pounds had done collective creative work on other projects, but Jefferson never had. “It wasn’t hard at all,” he says. “It was easier to work with common, down-to-earth people than to work with artistic people who are into self-indulgent art.
“Olivia and Jon have an exercise. You had 25 people begin a drawing, and at a certain point they pass it to their right. By the time it was done, you don’t have any one person who has created the design.”
Some of the community residents on the design committee had very little artistic training, and some were highly skilled artists. “Very often someone who does not necessarily have great drawing skills might have a deep vision,” says Gude. That vision can become real, she explains, “if they can sketch it enough that someone else who has better drawing skills can fix it up as it gets brought into consciousness. One of the things we’re interested in doing is teaching people models for how to value different people’s contributions.”
Julie Hayes, an artist from Pullman who served on the design committee, wasn’t sure at first that the ideal of group creativity could be translated into an effective, aesthetically pleasing design. “To be honest,” she says, “I didn’t think it was going to work. Maybe it’s because I’m an artist. In the very beginning, I didn’t know how we were going to pack in all of what we wanted–even though it was a huge space. We just had so many things that everybody wanted to put in.”
Learning to make difficult choices as a group, says Gude, is one of the most important things about community mural making. “A big part of our work, I really believe, is to teach democratic process. Doing this work has changed me politically. It’s made me so convinced that people can make high-quality democratic decisions, that people can control their own lives in wonderful ways.”
In discussing what the mural should be about, the design committee eventually found it impossible not to confront the racial divide between Pullman and Roseland. At first they stayed within the well-recognized borders of polite conversation. But at one meeting the walls crumbled.
“We were talking about racial attitudes and animosities,” says Lydia Nantwi, a black social-studies teacher who lives in Roseland. “And Olivia talked about her upbringing. She and I both came from poor families, and we started talking about that. Poverty doesn’t care about race–we had a lot of similarities in our backgrounds. We ended up crying over that. Several of the people ended up crying.”
“The phrase ‘It’s so hard to be black’ came up from someone,” says Julie Hayes, who is white. “And that stirred up a lot of emotions. We went around the table and had each person speak. Those of us who are white–a lot of us came from areas where we didn’t know racism like it is here in Chicago, and we talked about the shock of coming to a place which is segregated. Most of the blacks did grow up in Chicago. They talked about their perception of the people of Pullman–sort of uptight, nasty white people, that sort of impression. Black people talked about how, in day-to-day life, they were up against a hard thing. We talked about education, the school system. We talked about children. Do children have bias? That was a big concern.
“That statement, ‘It’s hard to be black,’ started off an emotional response. In terms of affirmative action, white people feel they’re being discriminated against for jobs or scholarships. People were saying, ‘I grew up poor, I had just as hard a time as you did.’ People were crying. Nobody was hurting each other–it was gentle–but a lot came out, somehow without anger, considering the stuff we were talking about.” It was, she says, “a very important discussion that probably made the project. We became closer that day.”
That crucial meeting took place in either May or June–no one is quite sure of the date. Not long after, the sketches were finished. With the help of reductions and enlargements from a photocopier, the various drawings were pasted together into a collage that satisfied everyone. Jefferson, Pounds, and Gude then transferred the rough collage into a full-scale color drawing of the finished design.
Before the painting could get started, however, the project was nearly stopped by a dispute with Metra, the commuter-rail agency that owns half the underpass. The other half is owned by the Illinois Central railroad, which had already granted permission for the painting. But Metra said the mural-project sponsors had to buy a gold-plated insurance policy, the same kind that is required of contractors doing repair work on railroad tracks–even though painting a wall underneath the tracks is obviously less risky. The policy would have cost about $5,000, which was out of the question for a bare-bones project with a total budget of $15,000. “We finally had a conference with Metra where we said, ‘We can’t do it,'” Pounds says. “We could do the IC side–and leave the overpass half-painted and not do the other side.”
The artists never had to decide whether to go ahead with just half their project. Metra management finally relented and let them proceed with the standard policy that the Chicago Public Art Group provides for the projects it sponsors.
The painting of the mural began in mid-July, right in the middle of one of last year’s most severe heat waves. The walls were sandblasted and whitewashed, and a transparency was made of the scale drawing. On six successive hot summer nights Pounds, Gude, and Jefferson, with the help of a few skilled volunteers, set up a scaffold and an overhead projector to display the design on the bare white walls of the underpass. They then painstakingly traced the flickering image onto the wall, using black paint and thin brushes.
The work began at about nine each evening and usually went until one in the morning. “It looked sort of spectacular when you came up in the distance,” says Hayes, who helped with the tracing. “Although close up, when we were actually cartooning, the line was very hard to read. The texture of the wall was very rough–we were right there and we couldn’t quite tell where the line was. We’d have to look at the master pretty closely.”
When the actual painting started anyone who wanted to lend a hand could. For the rest of the summer the underpass was a cross between a summer camp and a construction project. On any given day, there might be 5 volunteers or there might be 50, ranging in age from 13 to over 60. There was always something for people to do, even if they showed up not knowing how to hold a paintbrush. Jefferson, Gude, and Pounds took turns as project coordinators; each day, one of them was assigned to deal with all of the volunteers while the other two painted. Working with volunteers is not as hard as it might seem, says Gude. “You say to people ‘Can you paint?’ and they tend to give a very accurate assessment. You can start them on something very simple, and gradually they get more and more involved in doing complex things. Several figures that are major sections of the mural are painted by community volunteers.”
“It was a real experience,” says Lenore Fleming, a 62-year-old arts-and- crafts teacher who was out painting almost every day. “People would drive by and slow down and say ‘Gee, that looks good.'”
Anyone who was over 13 was allowed to join the regular painting crew, and a special day of activities was set aside for children between 9 and 12. These children traced their silhouettes on one of the walls and painted swirling designs on the pillars that support the train tracks. The constant swarms of even younger children were given other tasks. “We had to create the role of artists’ assistants,” says Gude. “They would wash our brushes for us, sweep, and clean up.
“Sometimes we had to make up things for them to do,” says Jefferson. “We would give them brushes to clean that were already clean. They were so happy just to be there and to be talking with us. We blocked off half the street and created a play space. The kids were near the mural the whole summer.”
With more than 100 people from the two neighborhoods working on it, the mural developed a charmed life. During ten weeks of painting there were no thefts or acts of vandalism. “The city warned us that people would steal our barricades,” says Gude. “The city gave us three barricades–and we gave them back four.” Three barricades weren’t enough to adequately block off both ends of the street, says Pounds, and one day some kids ran off and came back with a fourth.
The mural was completed on September 27, about a month behind schedule, and dedicated at a block party on October 14. The finished product is an impressive piece of work, something you would think had been designed and executed by professionals. “It’s very painterly,” says Gude.
On the Roseland side the south panel depicts Dutch farmers tilling their fields and a contemporary black family working a neighborhood garden. The north panel shows a black woman polishing an African mask and a black man painting the ribbon that runs across the top of the underpass. “I welcome myself to a new place where all the people can join in,” it says. The line comes from a poem written by one of Gude’s high school students.
The same sentence is painted across the Pullman side of the underpass. On that side the south wall also mixes the present and the past, depicting a Mexican family and portraits of three key historical figures: George Pullman; Eugene Debs, the union leader who opposed Pullman in the 1894 strike; and A. Philip Randolph, the leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, which represented black laborers of a later generation. The north wall is covered with designs representing the craft patterns used by the wide variety of ethnic groups that have inhabited the two neighborhoods: African, Polish, Lithuanian, Irish, Greek, German, Native American, Scandinavian, and British. The walls that stretch between the two sides are covered with abstract designs and children’s silhouettes.
Four months after the last drop of paint was put on the wall, there is not a mark of graffiti anywhere. That’s unusual in this neighborhood, says Bill Stenzel. “There isn’t a viaduct around that the alderman doesn’t whitewash every couple of months.
“No matter what the reality of life here is, something about this viaduct says what things could be,” he says. “It has a secular sacredness.”
“At night, it’s like fairyland,” says Lenore Fleming. “It really lights up, and those figures kind of move in the underpass–because of all the light colors.” Like many who worked on the project, she is sorry that it is over. “It made my whole year.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.