Editor’s note: This story previously misspelled the last name of Katrina Herrmann. It has been corrected.
‘They want to destroy you before you become what you’re intended to be.’
This was the name of a mural by Chicago artist Ant Ben, who painted the piece on the plywood boards covering the front of Kizuki Ramen & Izakaya, a restaurant on Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park.
“I think it’s relevant to the times,” he said. “It’s a little black girl just wanting to grow up, and the things that could impact her path in life aren’t always in her control.”
The piece was one of many murals that have been painted on boarded up storefronts across the city during the wave of protests that began at the end of May following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Some businesses were damaged, some were looted, and others sought to pre-emptively safeguard their property from civil unrest by boarding them up—and the blank plywood covering their windows became canvases.
Ant Ben hoped his painting would have a life in a Chicago public school once the restaurant decided to take the boards down, but the piece disappeared before that was possible.
“I felt like it didn’t even belong to me. It belongs to the kids who could use that kind of message to maybe help them find their way through life,” he said. “I feel like it can really change a kid’s life.”
This is what Wicker Park resident Katrina Herrmann had been worried about—that the murals that began adorning businesses across the city might get thrown into a dumpster or lost and never seen again once the plywood boards were taken down. She’s seen them all along Milwaukee Avenue, where she goes on weekly runs.
“You cannot miss it as you walk or drive down that street,” she said.
So she asked Curious City: What’s being done to make sure this art gets preserved?
It turns out Katrina isn’t the only one concerned about making sure this art doesn’t disappear.
Lindsey Evans works with the mayor’s office, where she helps lead the 2020 census campaign, and said the City hopes to publicly display some of the artwork sometime in the future. They’ve reached out to businesses to collect unwanted plywood paintings.
“We want to see the artwork preserved in every scenario,” Evans said.
Evans said along with an exhibit, the City also plans to use the art as part of a public service campaign to encourage people to participate in the 2020 census.
“We are still keeping details under wraps … Part of the goal is that more of the city gets to see the art, so I’ll just leave you with that,” she said.
But much of the current effort to preserve the art is being led by grassroots organizers—many of whom are artists. Some of these efforts are further along than others, and these different groups don’t all see preservation quite the same way, so we looked at three different approaches. While their methods differ, they all share a similar goal of wanting to make sure this art, and the messages conveyed through it, has a lasting impact—even after the boards are removed.
Camille Hunter and Christina Brown are colleagues at Eastlake Studio, a Chicago design firm. So in the wake of the initial protests, as people sought out ways to become involved, Hunter and Brown looked to their work and decided they wanted to create art. The pair tapped into their network of artists, secured financial backing for supplies from sponsors and within 48 hours began connecting artists with businesses—mostly on the stretch of Milwaukee Avenue running through Wicker Park and Logan Square.
Their goal was to have the murals be a collaborative effort between the artist and the business. The storefront would act as a kind of temporary home for the artwork, with the intention of ultimately finding a permanent place for the piece.
Hunter and Brown hoped the plywood canvases would help beautify the largely boarded up street, bring people out to support small businesses, and amplify the voices of the artists.
“A lot of what’s being expressed on murals all around the city is just voices telling stories or sharing their perspectives—kind of asking people to just lend an ear,” said Hunter. “And so I think regardless of what the specific message is, I think the mission is that this can help people to stop, take a moment and appreciate what someone is trying to communicate. And I think that’s kind of where change starts.”
And now Hunter and Brown want to make sure the art—and the messages—don’t just disappear. As they’ve started to assist businesses with taking them down, Sounding Boards is storing the pieces in a storage facility for now. But they have plans to create an exhibit where all of the estimated 25 murals they supported are brought together in one place. Then, the pieces will find a more permanent home from there.
Hunter and Brown are hoping to connect with the Chicago Parks District, schools or nonprofits to source sponsors that would support the piece’s final location.
“So similar to how you might sponsor like a bench in a park, like you could sponsor this piece of art in its final place. Whether it’s a school, you don’t own it.” said Brown. “You might have some kind of plaque that says who you are and what you’ve donated and why this piece is where it is.”
Ultimately, both Hunter and Brown believe these pieces should stay in the eyes of the public for as long as possible. They want to make sure the installation is interactive and as accessible as the art was when it lined the storefronts of businesses.
“We don’t want this to be a pay to play kind of thing in the future,” said Brown. “No one should have to buy a ticket to see this piece of art.”
The Mural Movement
Curator Delilah Martinez owns Vault Gallerie in Pilsen, and she started the Mural Movement once she heard about “a rumor of Black and brown communities not getting along” around the time the protests began at the end of May, she said.
“I decided it was my job to change that narrative,” Martinez said.
Martinez helped coordinate the creation of a “unity wall”—a 60 foot viaduct wall near the United Center displaying a message of “Black and brown unity,” she said. It took 48 hours to complete but was painted over in the middle of the night. She doesn’t know who erased the display, but she does think it was a “direct response” to their message of unity.
“They also kind of fueled my fire, though, because one day I woke up and I was like ‘no, we got to continue to do this.’” said Martinez. “We got to continue to push it.”
After a business owner in Pilsen asked if she knew any artists that could paint on his boarded up windows, the requests from other businesses started piling up. Mural Movement has now done nearly 60 murals, mostly in Pilsen and on the city’s South Side.
Though many of the murals are still up, some businesses have started to take them down—and Martinez has been collecting them to host an exhibition of the Mural Movement’s work. She hopes the exhibit will include not only the plywood boards, but a documentary-style compilation of the photographs and videos taken of the process to create them, as well as materials that were used by the artists. Right now, she’s looking to hold the exhibit somewhere on the South Side, like at the South Shore Cultural Center—though she’s been contacted by downtown venues and institutions like EXPO Chicago and the Chicago Cultural Center.
“But I feel like it’s by the people, for the people. And I want it to be in the people’s area,” said Martinez. “Because I started thinking, ‘We all go to downtown all the time to look at these cool exhibits, but why can they not be in our neighborhoods?’”
After the exhibit she plans to auction off the murals and give the proceeds to the artists who have all volunteered their time to paint the boards, the businesses that hosted them, or a foundation of the artist’s choice. The main challenge, she said, will be making sure the auctioned off pieces end up in the right hands.
“So my hope is that [the murals] still kind of remain in the eyes of the public. Like, if another collector wanted to put it on display somewhere else in another part of the world for people to see it, that would be great, too,” she said. “And so I just want these boards to have the longest life span possible for as many people to see it and understand the message behind it.”
But Martinez said what she wants to do is find a way to make the Mural Movement a more permanent form of social action. The funds she’s collected from donations have gone not only to paying for artists’ supplies but also toward community work—and she’s exploring how she can paint more permanent murals.
“It is not just a one-time project — this is not just because of the times and then next week we go back to normal,” said Martinez. “Our lives have changed, especially with what happened with George Floyd and just with COVID and all these other things being dismantled.”
Artist Dorian Sylvain is a muralist who grew up in the South Shore neighborhood, and she’s also the founder of Mural Moves, a campaign that focuses on community art, arts education and advocating for more public murals in Chicago neighborhoods.
“It’s about trying to build some bridges for young people who are interested in mural painting and in building some more artistic equity, particularly in South Shore — because that’s home — but on the South Side in general,” Sylvain said.
Since protests began at the end of May, Sylvain has been particularly busy. She said she’s been getting calls mainly from two types of clients: corporate companies looking to add to the conversation about racial equity, and small businesses who are figuring out how to repair damaged storefronts.
“I’ve kind of gotten used to a certain steady pace of juggling: painting, to teaching, to community stuff,” said Sylvain. “But this has been off the chain.”
Sylvain said that these plywood murals that have popped up throughout the city will likely not all come down at the same time. She said you can almost tell how long a board is going to be up based on zip code.
Places like South Shore, Chatham and Bronzeville, where Sylvain does much of her community art work, have already faced decades of disinvestment. Then, the economic impact of COVID-19, coupled with the buildings damaged during the protests and looting, created a perfect storm. So while some businesses may desire a temporary expression of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, Sylvain said many of the murals she helps paint and organize are likely to be up for years.
“We paint over boards that have been up for 10 years on some places,” said Sylvain. “So we like to think of them as temporary, but some neighborhoods, they may be out for a long time.”
And knowing that, Sylvain said, means they think about painting images and messages that don’t just apply to the current moment, but that would be relevant five or ten years from now.
But even though some plywood boards may stay up for an extended time as businesses and communities work to recover, Sylvain knows that other boards are coming down quickly—and she wants to make sure they aren’t just tossed out.
“I’m already feeling a little heartbroken because already the landscape started to change,” said Sylvain. “People are taking [the boards] off — they’re throwing them away — and it’s kind of a lost record of a very important moment.”
So Sylvain said it’s key they get preserved. She compares the power that these murals depicting messages about racial justice have with other historic pieces of social art, like the art Keith Haring did during the AIDS epidemic.
“I look at people like Keith Haring and what an invaluable voice he added to that debate,” she said.
And she’d like to see some of these recent paintings become a part of school curriculums, as “monuments of sorts,” commemorating this historic moment.
“Many artists work on that level of activism that helps to synthesize a moment…” said Sylvain. “And so the conversation is broadening, and artists are definitely at the table.”
More about our questioner
Katrina Herrmann is a Wicker Park resident and avid runner, and while recreational trails like the 606 were closed in response to COVID-19, she would use Milwaukee Avenue as her main route.
On the strip passing through her neighborhood, she noticed something new happening in early June. Groups of people were moving from one building to the next, placing plywood boards over glass windows after the weekend.
“And then on Tuesday, I saw art started to be painted on these storefronts,” she said.
Portraits of George Floyd, the Minneapolis man who died in police custody the week prior, and messages of solidarity with Black Lives Matter began lining the street. But Katrina said she recognized these boards were probably put up temporarily, in response to looting.
“And it’s so sad to me to know that this work, this artistic effort, could then disappear and just be thrown in a dumpster and never be seen again,” she said.
Looking to find out what efforts were out there to save the murals, Katrina contacted her alderman and chamber of commerce—but they didn’t know of any action taking place.
“Yes, art is ephemeral, but it also feels like, as Chicagoans, then we’re slacking on the job if we don’t make the effort to preserve this visual artistic solidarity,” she said.
Even though it’s still uncertain where exactly all these murals will end up, Katrina said the efforts by businesses and artists to display these messages of unity in her neighborhood was important.
“The support is unavoidable, and that made me hopeful and proud to live in my community, in my city,” she said.
Mackenzie Crosson is the interim multimedia producer for Curious City. Get in touch with her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Steven Jackson is a senior producer for Curious City. Get in touch with him at email@example.com. Isabel Carter is an intern for WBEZ. Get in touch with them at firstname.lastname@example.org.