The murals of William Walker

April 22, 2010


"Childhood is Without Prejudice" mural
at 57th near Stony (photo by Lee Bey)

I was cruising‚  through the Hyde Park neighborhood recently when the Childhood is Without Prejudice mural at the 56th St Metra Electric station reminded me of the power of artist William Walker's work. A founding father of the U.S. muralist movement, Walker created some of the most arresting outdoor art in the city.

Prejudice depicts a group of embracing children of different races, but with interlocking features. Painted in 1977 and restored last year for a second time, the work underscores the simple truth of its title.‚  The color, line, scale and form are as impressive as its message as the rough concrete 'canvas"‚  of the Metra viaduct walls give the skin an almost realistic look. The mural is Walker's favorite, according to the website of the Chicago Public Art Group, which helped restore the work. The artist had a daughter at nearby Harte‚  School at the time of the mural's completion.


(photo by Lee Bey)


(photo by Lee Bey)

Walker, who is black, was a founder of the American public muralist movement of the 1960s and worked on the streets of Chicago. Walker was part of a group that took inspiration from the early 20th century public murals of Mexico. Another one of Walker's work is All of Mankind, painted--incredibly--onto the entire facade of Stranger's Home Missionary Baptist Church, 617 W. Evergreen near the old Cabrini Green housing project.


"All of Mankind" 2006 (photo by Lee Bey)


(photo by Lee Bey)

 Dedicated to racial harmony, the mural features four conjoined multi-ethnic characters at center, surrounded by a host of faces and scenes. The names of slain figures such as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Anne Frank, Gandhi, Malcolm X, Jesus Christ and others are listed. Stranger's Home has been closed for years and Walker's images are fading. With the specter of the church's demolition in the air, the CPAG has been working with the city and the church's ownership to find a solution that saves the work and will allow it to be preserved.

But for sheer power, Walker's Man's Inhumanity to Man is a must see. Created in 1975 by Walker and artists Mitchell Caton and Santi Isrowuthakul, the mural plays out across the broadside of a single-story commercial building at 47 and Calumet. Heroic African figures, liquor bottles, dope a skull-eyed drug dealer with a star-spangled brim and other set pieces and scenes float in psychedelia--as if the Beatles' Yellow Submarine surfaced in hardscrabble mid-1970s Chicago.

The mural boasts some truly remarkable details. There is a man hopelessly trapped inside a hypodermic needle. A Klansman and black nationalist point guns at each other in an angry stalemate. A female figure on a chessboard is posed above fallen bodies as a garish, open-topped pimpmobile (with the pimp included!) sits lashed to her back:


detail (photo by Lee Bey)



detail (photo by Lee Bey)

The mural was nearly worn away, but a 2003 restoration by Chicago artists Damon Lamar Reed and Moses X. Ball saved this thunderous work--and its a good thing. Walker was a prolific muralist, but time and demolition have claimed much of his Chicago work.‚  Even 1967's Wall of Respect, the mural that started the muralist movement in the U.S. is gone; lost to fire in 1971. Walker, 82, is alive and living on the city's South Side. The three murals in this post are all of what's left of his work here.

It's a legacy worth preserving.