Restoration keeps mural's message visible in inner-city neighborhood

by Michael Leathers, posted Thursday, August 16, 2001 (17 years ago)

CHICAGO (BP)--The corner of Sheridan Road and Sunnyside Avenue used to be one of the most dangerous intersections in Uptown Baptist Church's neighborhood. Drug houses flourished. Eighteen rival street gangs roamed within a few blocks of each other. Shootings claimed the lives of innocent children.

That was six years ago. Although life is still far from idyllic here, the drug houses have been rehabbed. Children are on the streets, seemingly playing as if they didn't have a care in the world. Gangs aren't as prevalent. One of the few remaining signs of the gangs can be found on the sidewalks, scribbled there years ago when the concrete was first poured -- an occasional epitaph or the names of gangs followed by the word "killer." Gangs would add that word after the name of a rival gang to show disrespect. Offended rivals would often respond with deadly force.

It all changed because of a mural depicting various facets of faith. The colorful collage stretching along the brick wall of the Unique Thrift Store was at one time a memorial to slain gang members.

Now, for six days a week since early July, people from Uptown Baptist and from the neighborhood on Chicago's north side, along with groups from across the nation, have been laboring feverishly to rescue the mural, after a miscommunication from a local alderman's office gave another group the go-ahead to paint over it.

The "racial reconciliation" mural first came together in 1995, said Brian Bakke, Uptown's director of community ministries. That's when he and artist Gregory King met with a half-dozen high school students twice a week for three months to brainstorm the design. Beginning from the left, the mural depicts God's creation of the earth, with plants and animals flowing from a starburst in the upper left corner. As your eyes travel along the mural, they look up and rest on God's multicolored hand sprinkling silhouettes of different hues gliding through a blue expanse. A Bible verse tells people passing by that God said all of this was good.

The next section reveals man's sin -- symbolized by a medieval mace thundering down and shattering the earth. The words on the weapon's handle include hatred, lust, racism, envy. The earth's shards fly together to the right, recombining into a stained-glass Jesus surrounded by people of all ages and races. Galatians 3:28, painted in bold letters from the top to the bottom of the wall, reminds onlookers that they are one in Christ.

As he steadily retouched a section of the earth destroyed by sin, King said the mural delivers an important message to the community, where women are still abused by their husbands and boyfriends, and racial uneasiness abounds. King, a Kentucky native who moved to Chicago in 1994 and began working on murals with Uptown Baptist from his first day here, moved to New York last year to further his career as an artist. He's been back in Chicago since July 10, after Bakke called to invite him to be part of the restoration process. The mural appeals to him because "I've always been interested in doing something beyond a studio experience with my art."

Other volunteer groups have joined King. About three dozen or so teens and young adults were on the job in late July, some perched on rented scaffolds and others seated with legs crossed on the sidewalk as they touched up the scratchy images of the original mural.

Cans of open paint rested on tarps underneath the shade of five slender-trunked trees. Plastic ice cube trays and muffin pans held different paint colors at bay in their compartments. Many painters were decked out in bizarre hats and sombreros that protected their faces from the sun and kept them in a jovial mood.

So far, Uptown Baptist has had two groups, with a combined average of 40 people, on site every workday since July 9. "We've been blessed with all these visiting groups from all over the country," King said.

Their work is a two-phase project, said Vadim Katznelson, a Chicago art conservator born and raised in Russia who has been supervising the restoration. The first step is removing the paint hiding the original mural, brick by brick, using acetone. Several multi-gallon buckets of the solvent lurk along the sidewalk. Dipping cotton swabs on sticks -- they look like giant Q-Tips -- into the acetone, volunteers rub the soaked cotton gently across each brick.

It's meticulous and patient work. They must remove the top layer of paint while doing as little damage as possible to the original mural underneath. On an average, eight-hour day, one person can clean up to 25 or even 30 bricks. More than 11,000 bricks form the mural, Katznelson estimated.

Most of the first phase had been completed by late July, although several patches of paint, including a section that obscures the starburst, were still awaiting an acetone scrub. Jeff Palmberg, youth minister at Kalamazoo Covenant Church in Michigan, wearing his protective mask and rubber gloves, was gently uncovering that section. He brought seven high school students to work on the mural.

Farther down the wall, students like James Crouse and Mike McCoy seem to hug the wall as they focus on recreating the detail of the original mural's artists. Both high school students are from Orrville Christian Church in Ohio.

Below the original mural is another layer of artwork, Bakke said. When Uptown Baptist first prepared to paint the mural in 1995, Bakke sought out the neighborhood's gangs because the wall had been covered with tombstones -- a memorial to slain gang members. Receiving their permission was vital, he said, because the painters' lives would have been in danger if the gangs didn't approve.

Bakke explained the mural's concept to the gangs and that it was going to focus on Jesus Christ, and they gave the church the green light to proceed. When they painted over the tombstones, the shootings stopped immediately. Gang members put out the word that no one was to touch the wall, Bakke said.

Fifty people were involved in the original painting of the mural, ranging from teenagers to children, from homeless women to members of Uptown Baptist and other churches.

The restoration has cost about $12,000, Bakke said, and many churches from across the country have sent in money to help with the project. When it's all done, it will be sad news to merchants of nearby stores, where Bakke has been cleaning out entire shelves of supplies for the restoration. Bakke said the timetable is to be done by Sept. 2, when Uptown Baptist will hold an outdoor worship service and celebration.

However, there's one more step that Katznelson, the restoration supervisor, wants to see completed before any talk of a celebration gets too serious. Once both restoration phases are complete, the whole mural will receive a polyurethane coat to protect it from graffiti and similar damage. If some wayward graffiti mars the mural down the road, it will be an easy task to wipe it off.


(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: MURAL WITH A MESSAGE, AN ARTIST'S TOUCH, STUDENT ON A SCAFFOLD, and RESTORATION VOLUNTEERS.

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