“A loss of life, a life begun,” reads the “Wall of Struggle and Dreams.” The theme of resurrection sprawls across the very surface of the wall and surrounds the story behind the mural. Providing a backdrop for Clyde-Brummel Park, two blocks north of Howard Street, the piece was conceived “In loving memory of Marchelle Gibbs,” a 14-year-old girl who was shot and killed on a sidewalk near her Evanston home on the night of May 9, 1992. Sixteen years after the incident, the mural is set to be renovated, and with the renewal, a story reemerges of a community that united over a wall.
“Twenty-six cultures in two blocks, with no support system,” said Karen Chavers, former executive director of the Evanston Neighborhood Conference, describing the Clyde and Brummel neighborhoods at the time of the killing. She characterized the community as one that suffered from drug infestation, an astounding 67 percent poverty level, and large apartment buildings where “the people in 1A didn’t know the people in 1B.” Ms. Chavers said she can still remember the night of the shooting: groups gathering outside to mourn and fear, and anger flashing throughout the conversations she overheard – raw emotions, aired by people who, as she put it, “didn’t have a voice.”
It was those conversations that sparked the flame for what was to follow. Community meetings, designed to help with the healing process, turned into conferences where neighbors verbalized unmet concerns. Some of the problems included a park frequently inhabited by drug-dealers; a chain-link fence that had been repeatedly broken, allowing children access to the dangerous third rail of the CTA tracks; and a history of violence that had made neighbors fearful and apprehensive for their safety.
With a multitude of issues to address, the question soon evolved into “How do we make this community safe year round?”
Eventually, the idea emerged of a wall with a mural painted on its surface, as both a practical and symbolic solution to many of the neighborhood’s problems.
“I dream that we all keep dreaming.” — from the Wall of Struggles mural
A wall could achieve the following: provide a barrier between the park and the train tracks, reclaim the park as a safe place in the neighborhood, unite the community, and honor a young life that had been cut short.
Perhaps most importantly, though, the wall would become a home to stories of the community that had never been told. “They did have struggles,” said Ms. Chavers, “but they also had dreams.”
With the help of the Chicago Public Arts Group, the neighborhood commissioned the mural, and a search for a suitable artist soon yielded Kiela Smith-Upton (then Kiela Songhay Smith), 23-year-old recent graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Ms. Chavers noted how Ms. Smith-Upton fit the position from the start. “When she first came in,” said Ms. Chavers, “she had as many questions for [the community] as they did for her.”
Ms. Smith-Upton specializes in both murals and collaborative art. She related her love for the process as a series of interactions: the interaction of a body and a wall, the interaction within a community, and the interaction between the community and the passerby.
“What I do,” she said, “is not art for art’s sake.” Instead, she cited African art as an inspiration, where a focus on functionality, need and purpose are central. Ms. Chavers repeated this sentiment, saying the mural “had less to do with art than the human condition.”
The role of both the artist and the organizer was to help draw from within the community, visions, works and images, and integrate these desires for all to see.
In fact when pressed about their roles in the process, both women modestly characterized themselves as “facilitators” rather than central figures.
Ms. Smith-Upton elected to recite an old African proverb that she said illuminated the process. “One head does not make a council,” she said. “Two or more minds can bring more insight and bring to bear an end result that is so much stronger and more compelling,” she explained, “I prefer that connection, richness and input.”
“These stories were larger than us,” said Ms. Chavers, “They were part of the community and deserved to be told. [You] see the pride that people have in their cultures. [We wanted to] see if we could create the same sense of pride in our community.”
In total, over a 12-month period, more than 100 people volunteered to help with the creation process. From organizers, to designers, to painters, to brush cleaners, to people who brought food, to people who located supplies, everyone had a role. “Family paint-ins” became a regular weekend event. “It was an exciting time,” said Ms. Chavers, “Something to look forward to. We were … closing the human gap …, laying a foundation that could be built upon.”
The hard work paid off. Only one year removed from the shooting, the area had a thriving new neighborhood association, complete with organized leadership, said Ms. Chavers. The community gained a focus on connecting its members with the rich resources that Evanston had to offer.
The negative influences that had long plagued the area were replaced with new goals of improving the quality of life. The loss of a life had resurrected the neighborhood, and the wall, standing eight feet high and 350 feet long, appears to have certainly played the role of a catalyst in a community in dire need of something to unite over.
This time around, Evanston’s Public Arts Committee is getting involved, providing a portion of the funding for the project.
Kiela Smith-Upton will also reprise her role, helping the community to address new dreams and challenges with updated imagery. “We hope to reengage the current community by revisiting the original themes,” she said, “and tell how the community experience is both similar and different.”
In addition to the new imagery, Ms. Smith-Upton said she wished to focus on the wall’s longevity, noting how the renewed structure will be water-sealed and more apt to endure wear and tear.
Jeff Cory, the Cultural Arts/Arts Council Director for the City of Evanston, and one of the individuals responsible for assigning funding towards the renewal project, describes the wall as “the most significant mural we have in Evanston, and one we would like to see restored.”
Art Resources in Teaching supplied the additional funds needed for the project through the Julie Reynolds Shaw Artist Position Grant, though a secondary proposal still needs to be approved by the…
Perhaps the most compelling of all the quotes on the wall is one that reads, “I dream that we all keep dreaming.” Fifteen years later, with a renovation in the works and an enthusiastic community behind it, it seems that dream is still alive.
Anyone who wishes to assist in the creation process of the new “Wall of Struggle and Dreams,” can contact Kiela Smith-Upton at email@example.com.