CHICAGO — This city is now home to a new mural by Kerry James Marshall, and it’s a wondrous and powerful one. Painted on the west side of the Chicago Cultural Center, it honors 20 women who have played instrumental roles in developing the city’s cultural scene, from founders of museums and arts publications to literary icons. Among those celebrated are poet Gwendolyn Brooks; AfriCobra co-founder Barbara Jones-Hogu; and Lois Weisberg, the first and longest-serving Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs.
Titled “Rushmore,” the mural was commissioned as part of Chicago’s Year of Public Art, a citywide program that represents a $1.5 million investment in artist-led community projects. (According to the Chicago Tribune, Marshall received $1 for the work, describing it as a civic duty of sorts.) City officials unveiled it earlier this month, although the work has gradually been overtaking the Center’s large wall since late September, with Chicago mural artist Jeff Zimmermann and his team executing the design. Funding was provided by local nonprofit Murals of Acceptance.
Drawing inspiration from the grand granite faces of Mount Rushmore, Marshall’s mural depicts a colorful scene of towering trees, with trunks that appear carved with the faces of women. Above them, birds fly around ribbons that are decorated with the women’s names. Measuring 132 by 100 feet, the mural represents Marshall’s largest artwork to date.
“Rushmore” is an extraordinary artwork that should be seen by anyone in the vicinity, so the choice of location is a little strange, if not downright awkward. The wall in question is on the Cultural Center’s only side that doesn’t face a main street; instead it overlooks a dim alley lined with parking garages. The work itself is interrupted as the wall has a cutout for the building’s loading dock. And although the alley is relatively wide, standing back to take in the entire mural requires you to back up right against the building across the street (I had to push myself against a garage door to get a decent photograph). Marshall, though, worked with the spatial challenge and made it a priority in his design to overcome the confined setting.
“When I was asked to design a mural for narrow Garland Court, it was immediately clear to me that the site had to be ‘opened up’ in some way,” Marshall said in a statement. “My solution was a park-like view with a bright sun and stand of trees to bring light and green space to the location while at the same time honoring the mission of the building as the hub of artistic activity in Chicago. My idea was to make of the trees a kind of Forest Rushmore acknowledging the contribution of 20 women who’ve worked to shape the cultural landscape of the city, past and present.”
The resulting forest is noble and diverse, including portraits of Suzanne Ghez, director and chief curator of The Renaissance Society; Margaret Burroughs, who founded the DuSable Museum of African American History; Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Achy Obejas; and Oprah Winfrey. Although “Rushmore” focuses on arts and culture, in a city that honors many men through public statuary but severely lacks monuments to women, Marshall’s gesture is an important, necessary step toward rectifying an age-old imbalance.