Caryl Yasko, the original artist, still appears in the mural in an undamaged section. [DNAinfo/Sam Cholke]
HYDE PARK — One of the city’s oldest surviving public murals — and possibly the earliest by a woman artist — is slated for a renewal over the summer.
Caryl Yasko’s “Under City Stone,” painted in June of 1972 on the north wall of the Metra viaduct on 55th Street at South Lake Park Avenue, will be partially restored over the summer. The artist also will return to instill new life in sections now totally destroyed.
“This work is the last of the early Chicago murals,” Yasko said Monday in a phone interview with DNAinfo Chicago from her home in Whitewater, Wis. “If it goes, there will be nothing left that shows how the early painters worked.”
Yasko was one of the first women painters to strike out on her own after working with William Walker, the South Side painter that is one of the founders of the public mural movement in Chicago in the late 1960s.
She admitted that until she got the call to restore it, “I thought maybe they were waiting until I was dead to whitewash the whole thing."
Blocks of white paint cover sections that have been defaced and the eastern edge of the work has been entirely destroyed, obscuring the final words of the James Agee poem “Rapid Transit” that once threaded through the entire mural.
“We’re going to put the poem back in,” Yasko said. “It was a right of passage if you were a kid in Hyde Park to be able to recite the poem.”
The stanzas divide a parade of 133 people of different races and stations in life all trudging forward together. Above the poem is the swirling smoke of factories and the heavy tread of a tank in faded and sickly yellows and black.
“I wanted to do a river of humanity, a stream of some kind, all flowing into the city of Chicago,” Yasko said.
A young Yasko herself appears in the mural with a young child on her back, but a leaky gutter has washed away the figure in front of her.
Yasko said she hopes to repopulate the stream with pictures of current residents of the neighborhood, which she said remains as diverse as when she left in 1976.
“It’s important to know there are creative moments when people stepped up and took on something when they didn’t know what the outcome would be — this is one of those moments,” said John Pounds, the executive director of the Chicago Public Art Group, which sponsored the original creation of the mural and will oversee its renewal.
Pounds said the mural is among the earliest by a female artist in the city still surviving. He said less than 10 murals from the beginning of the public mural movement of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s still survive in the city.
The University of Chicago has committed to funding the renewal, which will last through the summer.
"Restoring the mural on 55th Street helps beautify the surrounding area and provides an opportunity for the university community to engage with local artists in preserving the cultural heritage of the neighborhood," said Calmetta Coleman, a spokeswoman for the university. "Along with financial support, the University of Chicago is providing six university students and four high school students to support the restoration, through partnerships with the department of visual arts and the arts and public life initiative.
“Under City Stone” was also one of the first pieces of public art created by volunteers in the community, and that legacy will continue.
Yasko is looking for volunteers to help with the painting over the summer either through the extensive cleaning and restoration planned for portions, the painting of new sections or the simple logistics of finding somewhere to store paint and brushes in the evenings.
Yasko will be at the Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 S. Cornell Ave., at 6 p.m. Tuesday to talk about reviving the mural and searching for volunteers.
By the end of the summer, Hyde Park children will lose their excuse for not learning Agee’s “Rapid Transit,” which reads:
Squealing under city stone
The millions on the millions run,
Every one a life alone,
Every one a soul undone:
There all the poisons of the heart
Branch and abound like whirling brooks
And there through every useless art
Like spoiled meats on a butcher's hooks
Pour forth upon their frightful kind
The faces of each ruined child:
The wrecked demeanors of the mind
That now is tamed, and once was wild.
Caryl Yasko working on the mural in 1972, when it was one of the first murals done in Hyde Park. [Photo Courtesy of the Chicago Public Art Group]
The original mural as it appeared in 1972 was a lone bright spot among the dark Hyde Park train viaducts. [Photo Courtesy of the Chicago Public Art Group]
The mural has been damaged severely over its 43-year life by water. [DNAinfo/Sam Cholke]
The mural will be renewed over the summer, starting in late May. [Photo DNAinfo/Sam Cholke]
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