William Walker, pioneering Chicago muralist, dies at 84

September 14, 2011

A moment of silence today for Chicago muralist William Walker whose stunning, socially-conscious works made him a pioneer of the modern American muralist movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Walker was found dead of natural causes in his apartment Monday. He was 84.

"I was the one who discovered his death when I went to check in on him after not being able to reach him [Monday]," said Jon Pounds, executive director of the Chicago Public Art Group, an organization Walker founded in 1970. "This festival of mortality goes on and on. Sad loss for the world."

Walker, who was black, became a prominent muralist with Wall of Respect, a vivid 1967 mural honoring 50 black pioneers that he and a team of artists painted on the exterior of a two-story commercial building on the southeast corner of 43rd and Langley. Before then, American murals were non-political and often made little statement beyond their own beauty. Respect was a game changer. The mural depicted Muhammad Ali, John Coltrane and Sidney Poitier, but also H. Rap Brown and Elijah Muhammad. In a 2004 interview cited by the Chicago Tribune earlier this year, the late artist Jeff Donaldson, a fellow Black Arts Movement pioneer who worked on Wall of Respect, called the mural "a clarion call, a statement of existence of a people.  It became a rallying point for a lot of radical things." And it touched off a nationawide movement toward socially-relevant outdoor murals.

Respect was lost when the building at 43rd and Langley burned down in 1971. But then, a different a spark had been ignited. With the street as his gallery and brick and stone walls as his canvas, Walker himself created about two dozen more murals across the city and some in Detroit as well. And he inspired scores of muralists across the country. The photo above shows Childhood is Without Prejudice, a 1977 Walker mural that adorns a Metra underpass at 57th and Stony Island. One of Walker's three surviving Chicago works, Childhood was restored in 2009 by the Chicago Public Art Group.

One of Walker's three remaining works is quite threatened: All of Mankind, a faded but still lyrical call for peace and brotherhood, painted in 1972 on the entire facade of a church at 617 E. Evergreen in the former Cabrini-Green neighborhood. The Chicago Public Art Group is working with city officials and owners of the church in a bid to save the piece:

 

And here's a detail:

 

 

Walker's third surviving piece, 1975's Wall of Daydreaming and Man's Inhumanity to Man is my favorite. Painted by Walker and collaborators Mitchell Caton and Santi Isrowuthakul, the mural is a staggering piece of social commentary that plays big across the broadside of a store at 47th and Calumet. The mural features heroic African figures, discarded liquor bottles, dope a skull-eyed drug dealer with a star-spangled brim and other set pieces and scenes floating in 1970s in psychedelia. In one vignette, a man hopelessly trapped inside a hypodermic needle. In another, a Klansman and black nationalist point guns at each in a futile standoff. 

And look at this detail: a woman on a chessboard, bodies fallen around her, with a open-topped pimpmobile (and pimp) lashed to her back.

 

 

This work was nearly lost until artists Damon Lamar Reed and Moses X. Ball restored it in 2003. One day soon, I'll go back and photograph the mural with a tripod and a wide-angle lens so you can see the whole thing.

Back to All of Mankind.  The oldest of Walker's suriving murals it also embodies what he stood for personally. "Whoever befriends you, that's your family," he told writer Jeff Huebner in a 1997 Chicago Reader article. "I am for the unification of all mankind. I'm not into whitism, not into blackism, not into damnanythingism. I'm into humanism."

What better tribute to Walker than to save this mural and preserve its important messages of love, unity and brotherhood?