Making murals, enticing communities

By Emily Ornberg

In a city famous for skyscrapers and el trains, colorful murals in Chicago’s neighborhoods create a sense of cultural community.

Over the years, the Chicago Public Art Group has curated numerous thought-provoking murals, mosaics and sculptures that stand as milestones in Chicago’s public art journey. Now the group is preparing for its 40th anniversary this November.

Maria Gaspar, an artist from CPAG and instructor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, said the organization has continued to expand and inspire local artists. She said the group’s murals focus on the importance of education, racial acceptance and equality, and make it easy to recognize the contribution CPAG has made to Chicago’s streets.

“[The CPAG has] achieved a lot of really great, important work that on a local scale is really critical and pivotal for a community,” Gaspar said.

Before the early 1970s, public art in Chicago was nonexistent except for statues in public parks, according to Jon Pounds, CPAG’s executive director. The Chicago mural movement began at the height of the Civil Rights era. Artists from diverse backgrounds joined together to bring social change through

public art.

Inspired by this movement, a group of artists banded together in 1971 and used freeway underpasses and building walls as blank canvases. Originally known as the Chicago Mural Group, Pounds said these artists believed public art was too narrowly defined.

“[The artists] believed what was then, and still is to some extent now, an equally segregated city needed to have the evidence of people working together cooperatively across race,” Pounds said. “We’ve had, since the beginning, a real sense of the importance of social awareness and social consciousness.”

Mario Castillo, an associate professor in the Art & Design Department, has been creating murals since he was a 5-year-old in Mexico. When he came to Chicago in the ’60s, Castillo found himself caught up in the city’s then-controversial mural renaissance.

“When I came in, I was told by some that murals were only done in the ghetto,” Castillo said. “Its ignorant and silly to think that murals are only done by these certain people because it’s the most ancient art form that we have—cave art—if we can say that paintings and drawings on the cave walls

were murals.”

Castillo believes it is extremely important to have government-funded public art in Chicago because murals can help express the human condition.

“After the [mural renaissance], people started to take murals seriously,” Castillo said. “At the beginning, they were seen as graffiti and some of them were defaced. Some of the artists went to court to defend their art, and they won.”

Pounds makes sure m-embers are paid fairly by seeking out subcontracted artists and planning the project from inception to completion. He said he also looks for opportunities to include young volunteer artists.

Gaspar was able to work with emerging artists after CPAG commissioned her in fall 2011 to help with a mural project she considered “very, very ambitious.”

One of CPAG’s most recent mosaics, “Aqua Interlude & Reflection,” completed in November 2011, was directed by Gaspar and arranged by volunteer assistants and approximately 50 youth artists from the nonprofit youth group After School Matters. More than 500,000 sea- and sky-colored glass tiles were cut and aligned along the walls of the underpass at Columbus Drive just north of Roosevelt Road.

“It was a really challenging, really ambitious project, but we were so lucky to have such an ambitious crew of high school students [to help],” Gaspar said. “It felt like it was a real artists’ project and in a way, they were participating in a real artists’ commission.”

CPAG will host its 40th anniversary party Nov. 9 from 6 – 10 p.m. in its new office and studio at 600 W. Cermak Road. The party will offer artists the opportunity to join projects for the upcoming year.