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Northwestern University
Image of 3 women in a muralleft

City As Canvas

A painting on canvas enjoys the comfort of a museum’s shelter, but a mural must brave the elements and stake its claim in the most public way. A mural takes the pulse of a whole neighborhood, then reflects its rhythms, colors and complexity back to everyone: Look at me!

“Murals are very much about community and architecture, and bringing art out of museums and onto the streets. They’re meant for poor and working-class people,” says Rebecca Zorach, the Mary Jane Crowe Professor in Art and Art History.

Last spring Zorach led a first-year seminar exploring Chicago murals created from 1964 through 1978, a period of profound cultural change and new awareness of civil rights. In the late 1960s, the Chicago Mural Group helped launch a nationwide movement with bright, dynamic imagery splayed across the city’s buildings, walls and billboards.

Zorach’s students researched and documented dozens of murals. Their work culminated in the exhibition “We Are Revolutionaries: The Wall of Respect and Chicago’s Mural Movement,” on view at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art through June 18, as well as an online collection of images and their stories.

Some of the murals are overtly political — revolving around themes of racism, violence and gentrification — while others are abstract and playful. “Black Women Emerging” (pictured) by Justine DeVan, considered one of the mothers of the mural movement, and Mitchell Caton, a prolific Chicago painter, depicted women striving for professional success and drawing on their ancestral strength.

Unfortunately, murals’ exposure leads to their demise. Few in the exhibition exist today due to weather, vandalism or demolition. “This is a recovery project,” Zorach says. “We can show people what was once there.”

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