Murals Tell Chicago’s Story

The word mural first meant “of or relating to a wall,” but today, the word most often conjures images of mural paintings and mosaics. Murals are works of art applied to the surface of a wall and integrated with the surrounding space, a tradition that holds a prominent place in the world of today’s urban community art. Brightly colored images, often with deep connections to a local culture, leap off the walls of public and private spaces alike, enriching the environment with stories, messages, and an unexpected infusion of beauty in an otherwise ordinary space.

Murals became an important means of expression during the United States Progressive Era (1900–1920), when social reformers pushed for a more just and equal American society. Politicians and educators commissioned murals in public schools to inspire student interest and help shape their values. The Federal Art Project in Illinois put hundreds of murals in Chicago’s hospitals, post offices, and schools. Among these were three commissioned murals for Lane Tech College Prep High School, painted by students at the School of the Art Institute, depicting modern industry. Margaret Hittle’s Steel Mill shows workers manipulating the enormous machines of a factory, and Gordon Stevenson’s Construction Site shows men at work on the construction of a skyscraper, dwarfed by massive steel beams. Third in the cycle is William E. Scott’s Dock Scene, in which men of various nationalities and races labor side by side, loading freight onto a ship bound for a distant country. The cycle emphasizes the role of the worker in Chicago’s robust commerce and industry at that time, evoking the populist spirit of the Progressive Era.

During the New Deal Era (c.1934–1943), Franklin Roosevelt’s administration took steps to end the Great Depression through the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Murals were one of many WPA projects to put unemployed Americans back to work and boost public morale. Scores of new murals went up in public locations, again including the Chicago Public Schools. Among these are Outstanding American Women (1938–1940) by Edward Millman, located at Lucy Flower Career Academy, which was at the time a women’s vocational school. Painted using the fresco technique Millman had learned from Diego Rivera in Mexico, the mural depicts remarkable American women and their contributions to society, including Jane Addams, Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, Harriet Tubman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Lucy Flower herself. Contemporary Chicago by Rudolph Weisenborn, located at Nettlehorst Elementary School, stands out as the only existing abstract mural from the WPA period. Weisenborn’s mural depicts Chicago through a cubist lens, conveying the city’s color and movement.

Chicago’s own mural movement began in the late 1960s, at the height of the Civil Rights Era. Artists from diverse backgrounds came together, often with the help of untrained adults and teenagers from the community, to bring beauty and social change through public art. These community art-making efforts continue today, sometimes with the help of students, through organizations like the Chicago Mural Group, which later became the Chicago Public Art Group. In 1976, John Pitman Weber, a founding member of the CPAG, painted TILT (Together Protect the Community) at Fullerton and Washtenaw in Logan Square. The south half of the mural shows images of a harmonious, racially diverse group of people embracing their homes, while the north half shows smaller figures fighting social problems like drugs, gangs, and real estate speculation. Feed Your Children The Truth in Ma Houston Park at 50th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue, is Bernard Williams’s 1994 celebration of the accomplishments of Jessie “Ma” Houston, a civil and prisoner’s rights activist.

Many Chicago murals also follow the tradition of the Mexican mural movement, of which renowned artists Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros were part. In the 1970s and 1980s, Chicago artists like Alejandro Romero and Hector Duarte began painting murals influenced by this tradition. Romero’s mural I’ve Known Rivers is on view at O’Hare Airport, and Duarte’s Loteria can be seen at 42nd Street and Ashland Avenue.

The color and beauty of Chicago’s murals assert the color and beauty of its communities. They tell a story of more than one hundred years of urban growth and change, with its struggles—past and ongoing—featured as prominently as its triumphs. Continued efforts to restore existing murals and create new ones ensure that the story will go on.