SOUTH SHORE — The mural featuring a powerful image of Michelle Obama on a building across the street from the school where she grew up should have been a shining example of how public art can brighten and inspire a community.
Instead, the revelation that the man who put up the mural had used an image created by another artist without first getting her permission or crediting her — drawing widespread criticism and national scorn — is disheartening and could turn off other funders to similar projects in the future.
That's the feeling of some Chicago artists in the wake of the project spearheaded by Chris Devins, a Hyde Park artist and urban planner who raised nearly $12,000 through a GoFundMe to create the project at the corner of 74th Street and Chappel Avenue.
“He was trying to do something positive, put a positive image in a part of town where people need that positive enforcement and I think that's commendable, that's the goal of art,” said Elijah Alvarado, who has done street art in Wicker Park and elsewhere. “But to me it’s just a bummer that now this is actually doing the exact opposite thing, instead of this being a symbol of strength and power, unity, it’s a symbol of — it’s a cop out.”
Woodlawn artist Rahmaan Statik Barnes, who goes by StatikOne, said Devins, who has done other murals around the South Side, "didn't do this the right away.”
“It was a cool project, had good intentions. I like Michelle Obama and I respect her, felt a connection. For such a righteous call, it’s a shame it’s going up in flames like this.”
Cyd Smilie, president of the non-profit Arts Alive Chicago, said that as an advocate for artists, her first reaction was compassion when she learned how Gelila Mesfin, an Ethiopian artist studying in New York, wasn’t initially credited for her work that was copied for the Obama mural.
“How unfortunate it is for the young woman who really had a brilliant idea for this beautiful and inspirational art,” Smilie said.
Barnes said the cost of the project sounded high from his experience doing murals. Devins said the actual project cost about $10,500, with the rest of the fees going to GoFundMe.
Devins said the fees included expenses for paint and installing the 10-foot by 12-foot mural, which took about five days. He wouldn't give further details.
"I can’t comment on that because my process is proprietary because I’m pretty much the only one who does it, but if you look at it closely you’ll see it’s paint," he said. "The way I do it, I just can’t tell people because it’s special."
Later, in an email, he said that the mural wasn't just a printed sign. “We call it a ‘throw up’ in street art.”
Barnes said he usually spends less than a few thousand dollars to do murals much larger in size.
“From my experience, if you’re doing digital print, or you’re painting, that’s not going to cost $11,000,” he said. “ ... I do community mural projects and the budget is not $11,000, especially not for a 10 by 12 piece. That doesn't make any sense and by him not being transparent of his process makes it seem all the more" concerning.
A representative from GoFundMe said Devins had provided receipts for "paints and other materials."
Although Devins credited Mesfin hours after the announcement of his completed work was finished, artists said he should have went to her beforehand. He admitted he was "sloppy" and didn't originally realize who had created the work. He has since said he will donate to another GoFundMe set up to aid her.
Alvarado said "it seems that he got busted and was trying to defend what he was doing, to me that seems ridiculous."
Smilie said he could have used the experience as more of a “teachable” moment.
This could have been “an opportunity to show his own integrity, that he could’ve said I did make a mistake, it wasn’t my art. ... And to own the whole story upfront rather than confuse it with recantations,” she said.
Alvarado said artists need to learn from the incident.
“I think the responsibility we kind of shoulder as artists is to realize that people are watching what we do ... and it’s important that we’re careful in our ethics, with what we create because that is as much of the story as the art itself,” Alvarado said.