Art for the People: William Walker’s “Wall of Love” at the South Side Community Art Center

In the spring of 1971, the “Wall of Love” was installed on the exterior of the third story of the South Side Community Art Center. The panels were painted by William Walker, the father of the Chicago mural movement, at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). The experimental exhibition, “Murals for the People,” took place in the MCA’s basement galleries, transforming the exhibition space into a workshop. The public was invited to observe Walker and three other public artists at work producing the mural panels that were to be installed in neighborhoods throughout the city.

With the creation of the “Wall of Respect” in 1967 at 43rd Street and Langley Avenue, spearheaded by Walker in collaboration with the Organization of Black American Culture (or OBAC), the mural movement in Chicago was launched.[1] In response to the rapidly spreading movement, Joseph R. Shapiro, President of the MCA, approached the artists in November 1970 about the idea of bringing their public art practice within the museum’s walls.[2] Artists William Walker, Eugene Eda, Mark Rogovin, and John Weber were offered materials and a month’s salary to produce the murals.[3]

As activist artists committed to making the “people’s art,” the exhibition provided both a unique opportunity for recognition and dialogue with Chicago’s more established, commercially-based art scene, and to earn money from their work. However, their participation in the exhibition posed a challenge to their ideological commitment to make a truly public art, born in the street and for the community.

They agreed to participate and negotiated a contract with the MCA that ensured members of the communities where the murals were to be installed received free passes to the museum. The artists also secured a guarantee that the murals would not be censored.[4] Walker later reflected that the exhibition brought him into contact with people from the suburbs and neighborhoods with which he did not typically interact.[5]

William Walker (from left), Eugene Eda, and Mark Rogovin preparing materials for “Murals for the People,” Museum of Contemporary Art. Photo from Chicago Tribune, February 15, 1971.

The artists avoided personal fame by skipping the exhibition’s opening, and instead held a press conference later at which they released, “The Artists’ Statement,” a manifesto affirming the artists’ commitment to producing a socially relevant and public art. The four had met at the Center between September 1970 and January 1971 to collectively draft the manifesto.[6]

Panel of “Wall of Love” by William Walker, 1971. South Side Community Art Center, Chicago, Illinois.

Walker’s mural at the Center, aptly titled “Wall of Love,” emphasized the importance of love in the black family.  Later Walker noted that he chose the subject because of the importance of his own family to him, and he was concerned with the negative stereotypes associated with black families.[7]  Painted in warm sepia tones, a father holding his child is at the center of the composition, surrounded by family and members of the community. According to Waker, “A wall’s message must be meaningful … The message on a wall projects a permanent statement. Therefore it must educate the pubic and help people accept rather than reject the truth. It is only through truth that the artist can put man on the right path to save him from destruction.”[8]

On December 12, 1971, the Center was rededicated to commemorate the thirty years since it opened. Walker’s mural  on the front of the building harkened back to the public murals promoted by the WPA , the same program that initially funded the Center.[9] Battered by the elements but still eloquent, the surviving panels of Walker’s mural remain at the Center, a testament to the public mission of the Center, to promote an art for the people.

[1] For more information on the “Wall of Respect,” see Jeff Donaldson, “The Rise, Fall, and Legacy of the Wall of Respect Movement” in International Review of African American Art, vol. 15 no. 1 (1991), 22-26.

[2] Victor Alejandro Sorell, “Contextualizing ‘The Artists’ Statement’: Before, During, and After 1971,” ICAA Documents Working Papers, Number 1 of Documents of 20th Century Latin American and Latino Art Series, (September 2007), 38-45.

[3] Linda Winer, “Contemporary Art: A Clash of Emotion and Object,” Chicago Tribune, February 15, 1971, B7.

[4] Ibid.

[5] William Walker, “William (Bill) Walker Oral History,” with Victor Sorell, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, June 1991, 19.

[6] Sorell, “Contextualizing ‘The Artists’ Statement’.”

[7] Walker, “Oral History,” 21.

[8] Angela Parker, “Portraying the Black Heritage on City Walls,” Chicago Tribune, July 18, 1971, A1.

[9] “A Day of Rededication,” December 12, 1971, SSCAC, Part I, Box 5 (1970-1971, undated),  Folder 9, Chicago, Illinois.

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