“My instincts tell me to stay indoors, is all,” said Gwen, swerving away from another stranger on the street, who wore no mask.
“It’s better to be outside anyway,” Eleanor said, pulling Gwen closer to her. “It spreads more easily in an enclosed space.”
Eleanor still looked with hesitancy at the other pedestrians on West Randolph, doing their best to go about their day as though the plague was not roaming the streets alongside them.
“Yeah, besides,” Dania chimed in, “Millennium Park has enough space that you can actually distance while you’re there. It’s not a grocery store or a concert hall.”
Gwen smirked. “Well, it includes a concert hall.”
“An open-air one,” Eleanor countered. “And nothing is playing there.”
“It’s a shame,” Gwen recalled. “All the free art that isn’t going to happen this summer. The concert series in the park, sure, but also the MCA’s Tuesdays on the Terrace concerts. Honestly, I’ll never take museums for granted again––”
“What’s that?” asked Dania. Stopping on the sidewalk, she looked down the alleyway of North Garland Court.
“The fountain?” Gwen suggested. “I don’t know. Probably a public works project. Is there a plaque nearby?”
“No, not the fountain,” said Dania. She pointed up towards the top of the Chicago Cultural Center building, on the side least visible to the public.
“There’s something green up there,” she said.
Gwen and Eleanor both saw it at the same time. Amid the tan brickwork that lined both sides of the alleyway, a swirl of brown and green paint peeked over the trees.
Dania turned, and walked quickly down the alleyway. The park could wait –– there was another green space that needed attention.
As Eleanor and Gwen followed, the scale of the image kept growing and growing. The mural extended from the roof, 100 feet down to the sidewalk, and across 132 feet of wall space. It surrounded a loading dock, and a vent high up on the wall –– higher than anyone would have looked up, were it not for the towering trees now painted beside it, and the single word that had been “carved” into a tree limb that extended in the narrow space between window and vent: “Rushmore.”
“What is this?!” asked a very surprised Gwen, as she found a place against the wall where the whole of the mural could be seen. It wasn’t easy––she pressed her back up against the wall, craning her neck upwards to catch all the detail in the mural.
“It looks sort of new,” Eleanor observed. “I mean, the paint colors are all clear, and stuff.”
“Well, it’s in an alley where it almost never gets direct sunlight,” Dania said.
It was true. Even now, the sun was only shining in a thin beam against the far right side of the mural––a single allowance from the apartment complex that looked down from the other side of the street.
“‘Rushmore,'” read Gwen. “I suppose it’s based on the idea of Mount Rushmore, but from the look of it, it’s all women.”
“Can you read the names?” Eleanor squinted, attempting to make out the names on the white banner that unfurled in the upper part of the image. Held aloft by eight blood-red robins, it was their only hint about the identity of the twenty faces that were seemingly carved into the trunks of the five trees that populated the mural.
“I see Gwendolyn Brooks,” said Dania. “And Barbara…Gaines?”
“Barbara Gaines?” Eleanor repeated. “Doesn’t she do something in Chicago?”
“She’s the Artistic Director of Chicago Shakespeare Theatre,” said Gwen, automatically. “What is this?”
“Jane M. Saks,” Dania continued to read. “Ruth Page. Sandra Cisneros.”
“It’s all Chicago women,” said Gwen. “Dancers and actors and writers.”
“Oprah Winfrey!” said Dania, recognizing the name even as it was flipped upside down on its banner.
“Her show filmed in Chicago,” Eleanor recalled. “So, yeah, it’s all Chicago women artists.”
“Wow,” said Dania. She looked up at the top of the mural again. The faces, carved into the trees, only dominated the lower half of the image. High above them, the trees expanded their branches to cover the teal-blue sky, nearly blocking out the orange and pink rays of the sun, sitting dead center atop the wall.
“It really forces you to look up, doesn’t it?” said Eleanor. “Like, if it was somewhere more public you’d be able to see it from a distance, get a better view of the whole thing. But here…I mean, it just dominates the alleyway.”
“That’s my first question,” said Gwen, shielding her eyes. “Why here? Of all places to put this mural, why choose the back of the Cultural Center? I didn’t even know it was here. How long has it been here?”
“Is there a plaque?” asked Eleanor. Squinting to see the other side, Eleanor could just make out a rectangle affixed to the wall. “That’s gotta have more info.”
Eleanor carefully walked across the street. Dania and Gwen watched her go, becoming one of the few bodies who passed by the monument. From her vantage point, Dania realized that the slow passage of people walking by the mural, or the quick movement of cars and trucks coming into the adjacent parking garages, seemed to compliment the stoicism of the mural. The women looked down on the people below (“Only five are actually looking at the viewer,” Gwen pointed out), but whether the people looked back at them reverently, or passed by oblivious, was a matter of choice.
“Maybe there’s some symbolism to the placement,” Gwen suggested. “It’s a mural on the side of a cultural museum––these are cultural figures who have been pushed aside by history. Pushed to the fringes, where they might not be noticed.”
“Ah, yes, fringe figures like Oprah,” said Dania. “And Margaret Burroughs.”
“You understand,” Gwen sneered. “Women who have build a cultural foundation for the city, but don’t have statues of themselves. Its a way of redressing the balance, to paint the mural––but placing it on this back wall seems to signify the erasure they’ve experienced before this. You may have never considered them, just as you’ve never considered this alley before. But once you get here…”
“It’s really hard to ignore,” Dania finished, nodding. “Yeah, that might be it.”
“Otherwise they just wanted to fill this wall, and whoever the artist was decided on this idea,” Gwen added.
“It’s impressive,” said Dania. “All the colors. The faces are so realistic, but everything else is almost abstract. Look at those trees, the way the leaves are drawn. And those little sprigs of grass at the bottom.”
“It’s not a particularly light palette,” said Gwen. “Most of the colors are already dark, or are shifted to a dimmer tone by the shadow. Only that grass, and I suppose the sky, stand out.”
Across the alley, Eleanor had walked away from the plaque, and now stood directly below the mural, looking up the wall. Dania and Gwen watched her shrug, then turn to walk back across the street.
“You can’t tell what it is from that side,” Eleanor said. “This is the right vantage point.”
“What did the plaque say?”
“I took a picture,” she said, holding her phone out to Dania. “It is called Rushmore, that’s accurate. Commissioned in 2017, by the city and some group called Murals of Acceptance.”
“And the artist?” asked Gwen, still looking up.
“Kerry James Marshall,” Dania read. “Do you know her?”
“What?!” Gwen said, shocked. Dania handed the phone to Gwen, and sure enough, Marshall’s name was listed under the title.
“What else has she done?” asked Dania.
“He done,” said Gwen. “Kerry James Marshall is one of the best living Black painters. He had a retrospective at the MCA a few years ago, Mastry. He painted this?”
Gwen looked up at the mural again, in a new light. The faces bore none of the signature historical bite of Marshall’s well-known work. The lines were cleaner, more polished, than his most famous mural, Knowledge and Wonder. And the scale––had Marshall ever painted something as large as this before?
“I have to re-contextualize everything, knowing it’s by Marshall,” said Gwen. “It’s another piece, now.”
“Eh, it’s still the same mural, author or not,” said Dania.
“Yes, but Marshall wouldn’t ignore the placement,” said Gwen. “There’s a reason, why this mural in this spot. The angle of ‘unknown women in an unknown place’ comes to mind again.”
“Unknown women?” asked Eleanor. “Like Oprah?”
“That’s what I said,” Dania repeated. “Maybe it’s just creating a green space in the one section of the alley without any trees.”
“It could also be a subtle dig at monuments in general,” said Eleanor. “I mean, it’s called Rushmore. That it’s all women, that its in an urban space, that it’s hidden from regular view, that the women’s faces are carved into something living instead of rock –– all of that is refuting what the original Mount Rushmore is.”
“Plus, with people now calling to get rid of Mouth Rushmore,” said Dania. “I don’t think people would lobby to take this one down.”
“Right,” Eleanor agreed. “It’s another method of honoring great Americans––a better way of doing so, and honestly, a better group to honor.”
“Plus, you don’t have to go to the middle of South Dakota for it,” added Dania.
“That, too. With everything closed down, it’s certainly a nice piece of public art that’s still visitable.”
“And there’s barely anyone else in this alley,” said Dania, looking around. For the moment, the three of them stood unobserved, alongside Marshall’s mural.
“Here’s the question,” Gwen said, jumping back in. “Marshall’s work is always challenging the viewer. Always forcing them to consider the work more deeply than surface-level. So here’s a gigantic mural, hidden in the middle of a major world city, featuring twenty voices who may have not gotten the monument-based recognition they deserve yet.”
Eleanor and Dania waited for the conclusion of Gwen’s point, but the three just stared at each other.
Gwen shook her hands in front of her. “Where’s the subversion?” she asked, finally. “Where’s the challenge?”
“Well, maybe that’s the difference,” said Eleanor. She looked up again, back at the women who had no statues in Albany Park, no streets named after them, facing away from the largedst public park in the city, which was named for the era it opened, rather than for any of them.
“It’s simply making space for people who haven’t been represented in public art yet,” Eleanor suggested. “That, itself, is the subversion. A subversion of history.”
“And then…people walk past it without noticing?” asked Gwen. As she spoke, another figure walked along the opposite wall, not taking note of the paint.
“We walk past statues all the time,” said Dania. “Getting accustomed to statues being there, and slowly forgetting what they meant…isn’t that sort of part of it?”
“Maybe,” said Eleanor. “Let’s just hope we don’t forget what these ones mean.”
All three looked up again. At the roof’s edge, the teal of Marshall’s sky seemed to align with the real deal behind it, extending his vision of honoring Chicago’s artistic pioneers out, beyond the alley, into the air above.
Image Credits: Globetrotter Magazine (cover photo); all other photographs by the author.