If you have seen one mural in Pilsen, it is probably the one above the laundromat at 19th and Ashland. Increíbles Las Cosas Q’ Se Ven was created by Jeff Zimmerman in 2001. My favorite translation of the title (thanks to my linguist-y friend E): Oh, The Things You’ll See.
Zimmerman trained as a graphic artist and was volunteering with Pilsen kids in the late 1990s when a priest at St. Pius V parish asked him to paint a mural of the Virgen of Guadalupe. Now he has 4 large scale murals (including this one) in the blocks surrounding St. Pius and many more scattered across Chicagoland.
Zimmerman’s work is instantly recognizable for his use of photo-realistic images of people — actual people who live and work in the surrounding area. When I’m viewing his murals, I always keep my eyes open to see if I can spot the subjects (no luck so far).
He is also known for incorporating political themes that reflect the issues of the surrounding neighborhood.
Zimmerman describes his work this way: “I always hope the murals give you something more to think about than just a bowl of fruit would. There’s always politics in what I do, and hopefully people get some kind of meaning out of it.” (Chicago Sun-Times, 8.4.07)
Cooper Elementary Dual Language Academy is a preK-5 public school in Pilsen, located at 18th and Paulina. And, you guessed it: the school is covered in murals!
98% of Cooper students are Latino, predominantly Mexican. The school is bilingual and emphasizes adult education for parents including ESL, GED and family literacy programs. Between 1991-1999 Francisco Mendoza, an art educator and muralist, led the students in creating dozens of mosaics depicting key individuals in Mexican and Mexican American history.
The stretch of wall pictured above features indepence fighters, revolutionaries, and presidents. Nearby we find labor leaders…
and Tejano stars…
and Aztec rulers.
Some of the kids who worked on the project are now in their 20s, and I think about them someday bringing their own children to Cooper to celebrate history and be inspired by a full block of role models.
I love me a high profile, technically perfect, painted by somebody famous mural. But some of my favorite work is by artists who slip under the radar (my radar, at least). My current favorite is at Cullerton and Ashland in Chicago:
I also love this one which is a few blocks west at Cullerton and Wolcott:
I like the act of taking something ordinary, maybe even neglected and rundown, and creating something beautiful and sacred. I like that the work is public, shared, communal. And I like the religious subject matter that inspires faith, devotion and hope.
After that trip to Mexico City, I started spending time in Pilsen hunting for murals. I had lived in Chicago for about a year at that point and had stumbled across a few. But in 2006 I began to actively explore the tradition of murals in Pilsen (and neighboring Little Village) which had arisen directly from Mexican muralism.
One of the big names that bridges mural work in Mexico and Chicago is Hector Duarte. You can’t miss his studio at Cullerton and Wolcott:
The 2005 mural is entitled “Gulliver en el pais de las Maravillas” / “Gulliver in Wonderland” and shows a giant human figure stretched out (across the border?) and tied down with barbed wire a la Jonathan Swift.
Duarte was born in Michoacán in 1952 and studied mural painting at David Alfaro Siqueiros’ workshop in 1977. He moved to Chicago in 1985. He has painted more than 50 murals around Chicagoland, including commissions for the Chicago Transit Authority and work at the Ashland Swap-O-Rama that stretches more than 400 feet in length. From Duarte’s artist statement on the Chicago Public Art Group website: “I prefer murals because more people are able to enjoy my work; I am not painting for the privileged or for museums.”
I also really like what’s left of “Alto al desplazamiento urbano en Pilsen” / “Stop the gentrification of Pilsen” at 18th and Bishop:
Duarte teamed up with other members of Taller Mestizarte to created this mural in 1997. Photos of the intact mural show people organizing and marching to protect their neighborhood, with a huge United Farm Workers eagle behind them. The face that still peers out of the crumbling piece is Emiliano Zapata, the Mexican revolutionary.