In Chicago’s South Loop, the Walls Can Talk

Art is transforming the neighborhood
In Chicago’s South Loop, the Walls Can Talk

Scott Thompson

It’s not uncommon for traffic to slow down along Wabash Avenue. That’s because drivers are looking up at the art that covers the facades of the imposing buildings in Chicago’s South Loop.

With images that range from provocative to magical, silent walls are transformed into gigantic canvases that scream with color, making a once-stagnant area vital and alive. The Wabash Arts Corridor (WAC), just South of Chicago’s downtown and bordered by the lake, parks and museums, has energized the urban landscape with monumental murals and street art in this city renowned for its venerable art institutions.

Columbia College spearheaded WAC in 2013 as a creative initiative for its students, who began the transformation of the district’s urban spaces. The project has been so successful that by 2016, students from the college, and also internationally known muralists, had adorned 14 buildings, alleys, garages and parks.

“This area was designed so that we’re surrounded by the back walls of the grandest buildings on Michigan and State Avenues,” Norman Alexandroff, the college Director of Internal and External Partnerships explains. “These spaces begged to be used, and they have become a vehicle for expression, community coalescence and economic renewal.”

The murals extend beyond the campus, and if at first neighbors were reticent to “loan” their walls to the project, many building owners now request that works of street art be created for their buildings.

“Historically, this neighborhood was not very welcoming because of all its white walls,” Alexandroff says. “Public art has transformed the campus and the neighborhood, and it’s become more attractive for the people who work and live here.”

Although Chicago embraced street art later than other urban centers, the city has made up for lost time with the quality and magnitude of its murals.

Today the entire city is experiencing an urban art awakening, so much so that 2017 has been designated the Year of Public Art, in celebration of its site-specific sculptures and street art.

The 50x50 Neighborhood Arts Project will provide $1 million in funding for new public art. That initiative is inspired by Chicago’s 50 wards and the 50 year anniversaries of two well-known public art pieces: the Picasso in Daley Plaza and the The Wall of Respect, a mural that presided over the corner of 43rd Street and Langley until 1971, when the building it was painted on was demolished by a fire. Exhibitions, festivals, free tours, and lectures are being offered throughout the year.
 


 

A SEEDBED FOR ART

Public art was not always welcomed in Chicago. For a long time, local officials classified graffiti as vandalism, and waged a war against it, investing considerable financial resources in eliminating all visible traces of marks left on city buildings.

“A lot of artists evolve from being taggers to expressing their point of view in an artistic way through education,” Alexandroff explains, citing Rubén Aguirre as an example. The son of Mexican immigrants raised in Chicago, he started doing graffiti at a young age. But later there came a point when the former Columbia student felt he had moved beyond “marking places with my initials and started “collaborating with them in harmony.” Aguirre developed an abstract mural style that expresses his influences and plays with typography and forms.

As a former student with works in various places around the world, Aguirre was invited to participate in the WAC program. A lot of muralists had enormous walls at their disposal, but Aguirre was challenged with a parking lot with sloping ramps.

“It’s the biggest work I’ve done,” he explains, “It’s right next to the train, which means thousands of people see it every day. My inspiration comes from graffiti, the way that I stretch and give movement to things. I look for ways to find movement in stationary spaces and reinvent large old walls that are full of cracks and bumps.” Mark Kelly, Chicago’s current Comissioner of Cultural Affairs and the brain behind WAC, explains that the city moved beyond seeing graffiti and street art as a sign of danger and decay.

“There was an evolution and a change in the way of thinking,” he says. “Now people ask why are there empty walls or a park that doesn’t have a mural. This kind of art is organic, it’s not conventional, and it’s accessible to everyone. Art goes beyond museums nad galleries and through it we have transformed the city.”
 

ART IN MOTION

Chicago’s murals are works of art that can be viewed night and day by anyone, but their ephemeral character can sometimes be disconcerting.

Those walking past residential buildings today can enjoy a mystic mural called “Impossible Meeting” by the Argentine artist Marina Zumi, or a portrait of musician Muddy Waters by Kobra, who is from Brazil. But a year later those paintings can disappear to make room for a new large-scale work.

The muralists are aware that their art has an expiration date, but that does not deter them.
“In some cases the duration of a mural depends on the owner of the building,”Aguirre says. “But that’s part of the nature of this work. You have to allow other artists to express themselves.”

Wabash Arts Corridor extends along Wabash Avenue from Van Buren to Roosevelt, to the east toward Michigan Avenue and to the west to State Street. It is continuing to expand.

For tours of the neighborhood, write to Norman Alexandroff: nalexandroff@colum.edu

 


While You’re There:

Visit: Enjoy Millenium Park and try to take a selfie in front of the famous Cloud Gate without being photo bombed.
Have coffee: and a European-style pastry at Toni Patisserie & Café.
Savor: The Gage, a sophisticated gastropub that attracts locals and tourists alike.


More Public Art in Chicago

Pilsen
Among Mexican restaurants and bodegas you’ll see colorful murals that pay tribute to the motherland left behind and to community heroes, as well as less socially and culturally-conscious contemporary artistic expressions. In the late 1960s, this largely Mexican neighborhood began to adorn its walls with murals, adopting a practice that is very popular in Mexico. Start at 16th Street, where you’ll find the house of Héctor Duarte, a muralist who transformed his residence into a portrait of the struggles of immigrants. A must see. (1900 W. Cullerton)


While You’re There:

Visit: The National Museum of Mexican Art, which houses the largest collection of Mexican art in the United States. Admission is free. nationalmuseumofmexicanart.org
Have coffee: at Jumping Bean Café, with its colorful decor and delicious coffee at a modest price.
Savor: Dusek’s Board & Beer (dusekschicago.com), a tavern with an expansive selection of beer on tap and an excellent menu. Great for brunch.


Bucktown/ Logan Square

One of the area’s most creative areas with diverse nightlife and live music options is also home to street art. Most pays tribute to the Windy City with allegorical murals on view among the art galleries and vintage stores. Find some interesting examples on Milwaukee Avenue, especially where it intersects with Medill and Francis. Damen Avenue is another street on which to stroll and admire the art.


While You’re There:

Visit: The Bloomingdale Trail is Chicago’s answer to New York’s High Line, a 2.7 mile linear park built on unused elevated train tracks. Public art can be found among the green spaces. Bloomingdaletrail.org
Have coffee: Ipsento 606 (ipsento.com), has a relaxed vibe, exquisite coffee and delicious donuts.
Savor: Lula Café (lulacafe.com) is a must for brunch; Fat Rice (eatfatrice.com) offers an interesting Portuguese-Asian fusion menu.