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Go, Girl and Go Big: Kerry James Marshall’s All-Female Mural in The Loop

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Marshall’s mural in process at the end of October. Photo: Noël Jones.

After decades of creating bold, large-scale, figurative paintings that inject an awareness of African-American life largely missing into the continuum of art history, celebrated artist (and Chicago resident) Kerry James Marshall is using his platform to highlight another group of people that history has neglected to honor and record: women.

Maggie Daley, Oprah Winfrey, and Gwendolyn Brooks are household names to many Chicagoans, but what about Sandra Cisneros, Barbara Gaines, and Sandra Delgado? These are just six of the 20 women Marshall has chosen to honor in a massive mural on the exterior west wall of the Chicago Cultural Center as part of Chicago’s Year of Public Art.

Marshall has enjoyed no shortage of attention since his 2016 retrospective, Mastry, at the MCA, so perhaps it’s fitting that he now share the limelight with other figures. Marshall’s mural presents an opportunity for Chicagoans to learn more about the women to be immortalized in the 132 by 100 ft. painting.

Beyond Faces and Names
In addition to being a critically-acclaimed actor and writer, Sandra Delgado is a founding ensemble member of Collaboraction, an experimental contemporary Chicago theater company started with her husband in 1996.

Delgado discovered she was to be included in the mural during a rehearsal for Oedipus El Rey at the Public Theater in New York, where she will be performing through December. While checking Facebook during a break, she noticed she had been tagged in a press announcement.

“I had to read it like, five times,” Delgado said. “I kept thinking, ‘What?! … What?! Oprah Winfrey, Gwendolyn Brooks — Sandra Cisneros.’ I performed in House on Mango Street at Steppenwolf in a tribute to Sandra Cisneros and got to meet her — I was so excited — and now to be included in a mural with her??”

Barbara Gaines, founder and executive director of Chicago Shakespeare Theatre (CST), will also be featured — and Gaines was taken by surprise by the news, as well.

“I’m a really private person, so it’s like the shock and the joy of someone throwing you a surprise party,” said Gaines. “I was overwhelmed — I still am. It’s difficult to take in.”

Delgado recognizes that her place in the mural is “a great honor,” but adds that “it’s also a great responsibility. I’m one of the youngest women in the mural and when I read [the words] ‘past, present, and future,’ the responsibility of living up to the intent of the mural hit me: I’m a face of the present and of the future.”

When the mural was announced, most Chicago media celebrated the news by highlighting Marshall, Jeff Zimmerman (the muralist painting under Marshall’s direction), and Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel.

While these men are to be commended for their roles in the project, aside from listing the women to be featured, the majority of word counts in the press so far have been paid to the men involved. It is worth noting that that the artist is refusing to take interviews until the mural is unveiled later this year, which could be taken as an attempt to send a message. By fixing these women’s faces in weather-proof paint to the exterior wall of a prominent building and then stepping away from the press temporarily — intentionally or otherwise — Marshall leaves us to remember that we should be paying attention to what these women continue to say and do within Chicago’s cultural landscape.

Women Who (Actually) Work
Outside of Collaboraction, Delgado has been doing interview-based work to create plays that capture untold Chicago stories. La Habana Madrid, for example, recounts the stories of Chicagoans in the 1960s who were living in the area of Belmont and Sheffield, a thriving Caribbean/Latino community along Lake Michigan.

Comparing the area then and now, Delgado said, “It’s beyond gentrification. It’s erasure.”

Gaines focused chiefly on directing in the beginning of her theater career, but one of her biggest responsibilities now is fundraising to make sure CST survives and thrives. CST’s student programs have previously served 40,000 students each year. Two weeks ago, CST announced the opening of The Yard, a cutting edge modular theater space on Navy Pier, enabling the company to reach tens of thousands of kids who have been on their waiting list.

What would Gaines like most to be known for?

“I love directing Shakespeare, and working with great artists as well as Chicago’s students. That and being a great aunt.”

Into the Light
While it is unfortunate that Marshall’s mural faces Garland Court, behind the Cultural Center, it is located in one of Chicago’s most highly-trafficked corridors.  

According to a statement posted on the City of Chicago website, Marshall intends to create “a park-like view with a bright sun and stand of trees … to make of the trees a kind of Forest Rushmore acknowledging the contribution of 20 women who’ve worked to shape the cultural landscape of the city, past and present.” If anything is going to draw the attention of passers-by into narrow side street, it will be a gigantic, brightly colored mural by a famous artist.

I asked Delgado what she would like people to know about her, now that she will be included in the mural.

“I’m a Chicago girl, born and raised, and I am a teller and interpreter of Chicago stories,” she said. “At this time, I am still an anomaly when you consider the number of Latina playwrights produced annually. It goes back to responsibility, a responsibility that I felt even before the mural. It is my duty to bring Chicago’s ‘under-known’ stories to light. My hope is that the communion people feel in the dark at my shows, they’ll take that out into the light with them.”

Kerry James Marshall’s mural — currently in progress — can be seen on the Garland Court façade of the Chicago Cultural Center on Michigan Avenue between Washington and Randolph Streets.

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