Visual Arts

Restoring Color

Caryl Yasko restores her mural “Under City Stone” in Hyde Park

On the first day of restorations, Caryl Yasko never stood idle, not even for a second—clad in cream overalls stained profusely with blots of paint, she scraped off huge tracts of white paint. “They told me they painted over graffiti, but I’ve yet to find any,” she said, chipping away at the whitewash. Yasko painted the mural “Under City Stone” in 1972, enduring under the Metra tracks at the intersection of 55th and Lake Park since then with limited upkeep.

The wall on which the mural sits is 211 feet long. “Under City Stone” consists of 133 distinct figures, including a depiction of Yasko with her daughter on her back.“ I wanted to paint a stream of humanity, a river of people.” Across the underpass, the first stanza of James Agee’s poem “Rapid Transit,” from which the mural’s title comes, spans the length of the mural. It is a poem that paints a grim image of the lives of the multitudes of urban dwellers. Offering her interpretation of the piece, Yasko said, “It really is a poem about how we lose our creativity as we get changed by society.”

The restoration of the mural is not intended to be a mere reproduction of the 1972 piece. Rather, Yasko intends to cover the five missing decades between now and the time of painting. “I want to mix it up, not in a chronological order. I’m not dead, so I can have fun with the piece!”

The mural, however, is not only about the people depicted, but also about those people’s lived experiences. Yasko motioned at the image of an army tank, explaining that it was an allusion to the militarism that persisted during the Vietnam War. “And now, we have more wars,” she said. “Nothing has changed. We were worried about pollution, now we’re worried about global warming.” These narratives that underpin human experiences are weaved artfully into the mural, giving voice to the varied figures in her work. “This is how muralists use walls sometimes: to sell thoughts through color, line, and form.”

Yasko’s journey from her hometown of Racine, Wisconsin to Chicago was not a direct one: she took a detour to Japan, where her husband, now a retired Japanese historian, had a Fulbright scholarship. While in Japan for several years with her first three children, she devoted her time to watercolor, capitalizing on the prevalence of washi, a Japanese paper. “I’m influenced by the strength of line in Japanese art, and the juxtaposition of different textures and prints next to another,” she said. These techniques still mark her signature style as a muralist.

After a few years in Japan, Yasko moved to Chicago and made Hyde Park her home. For a while, she was auditing Japanese language classes at the University of Chicago, during which time she met a ceramicist. Together, they founded an art school in a brick house owned by and adjacent to the First Unitarian Church of Chicago on 57th and Woodlawn, on the condition that they conduct religious education classes every Sunday.

“We did phone surveys and figured out that nobody was offering any basic drawing, ceramics, and design courses, so that’s how we became an art center,” Yasko said.

During this time Yasko also joined Chicago Mural Group, where she was the only female muralist. Now called the Chicago Public Art Group, the Chicago Mural Group included Yasko’s mentor William Walker, Mitchell Caton, and John Pitman Weber. It was this group that proposed to help Yasko restore her mural—a project she had been considering for some time.

“Chicago was a catalyst for murals all over the world,” said Yasko. “I came down several times to restore this, in 2005, 2008, and 2009, but it required fund-raising every time. This time the Chicago Public Art Group officially proposed its restoration, because this is now history, because this mural was painted in those beginning, exciting, fabulous years during which Chicago muralists led a global movement.”

“I started my career here, and I’ve never stopped,” reminisced Yasko. She has painted many other murals in Chicago, including “Prescription for Good Healthcare” at 5704 S. Kedzie, a response to the controversial Kennedy-Corman bill. “Razem,” a mural at 4040 W Belmont, is an ode to Polish heritage in America. Apart from Chicago, Yasko paints extensively in Wisconsin. Her most notable work is “The Stonecutters” in the town of Lamont, an homage to painter and muralist Thomas Hart Benton; the piece evokes the Midwestern work ethic among 19th century stone quarry miners.

Now, Yasko has come full circle. Under the umbrella of the Office for Civic Engagement at the UofC, the UofC’s Neighborhood Initiatives team has played a significant role in spearheading this restoration.

“In conjunction with the Chicago Public Art Group, we did an assessment of the murals that were in the Lake Park Avenue corridor, and decided that this was the one that needed the most restoration, that could definitely be salvaged,” said William Towns, Assistant Vice President of Civic Engagement.

In a bid to support Yasko’s mammoth undertaking over the summer, Civic Engagement has brought together various university-affiliated arts organizations, particularly the Department of Visual Arts, the Arts Incubator, and the Arts + Public Life Initiative. Miguel Alguilar, the Shop Program Manager for the Design Apprenticeship Workshop at the Arts Incubator, is hoping to promote public engagement by selecting four high school students as interns who will work closely with Yasko over the summer. Members of the public are also welcome to contribute in any capacity they can, from making monetary contributions to helping paint the figures on the mural.

“It’s really a magnificent opportunity for us to partner with the original artist and bring in university students, high school students, community members, who will all have an opportunity to participate in this restoration,” said Towns.

This project is a part of a stated effort by the UofC to engage the South Side through public art. Towns made reference to previous efforts to the University’s support for the restoration of Astrid Fuller’s mural “Spirit of Hyde Park,” in addition to a rotating mural program currently run by Arts + Public Life at Garfield Boulevard. Murals like Yasko’s are ripe for renewal efforts—not only are they public, but more importantly, they are subject to degradation over time.

For Yasko, community is certainly one of the most crucial dimensions of art. She is, at present, still searching for technical assistance that is sorely lacking at the initial stages of her restoration, especially regarding the gaps that have

appeared in the mural wall as a result of five decades of erosion. Despite this, her undying enthusiasm is palpable.  Many passersby engaged her in conversation; some even providing unsolicited donations: her mission to re-beautify Hyde Park has not gone unappreciated by those who regularly pass by the mural.

“There is, I think, a different viewpoint that I bring to the table as a female muralist. And it’s healthy to have different viewpoints, because it rounds out the human condition,” Yasko said while scraping the whitewash, slowly bringing swaths of color to light.

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