Wall flowering

Jeff Zimmerman's streetwise, painterly murals catch the fancy of the Museum of Contemporary Art

On a forgotten corner of Damen and Lake, what was once a plain brick wall is now "Top of the World,"a beautiful and unsettling painting by a West Side artist named Jeff Zimmerman. Set against its shimmering, blue-green backdrop are the glittery discards of modernity. Crushed tin cans. The silver lining of Fritos bags. A grizzly old man's face, gazing blankly past the asphalt and scrub grass.

With each viewing, the mural's effect is slightly different, depending on time and tide, traffic and cloud cover. More "urban tumbleweeds" turn up on subsequent visits--sentence fragments, pop-bottle shards--even though they've been there all along. "I don't know much about painting murals," says Zimmerman, whose handiwork stretches across at least six buildings around the city. "I just do it." The former Pilsen art teacher does it well enough, in fact, to have landed a show at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Through the month of August, Zimmerman's mural "Dark Matter," created especially for the MCA exhibit, has the run of a front gallery, filling all three walls with a disconcerting tableau of downtown scenes. The image of a Chicago cop dominates the center wall, his faint grin impenetrable, his eyes hidden behind massive mirrored sunglasses. There's a Streetwise vendor looking like he might be having an out-of-body experience, and images of secret hand motions that could be gang signs, or stockbroker code language sent across the trade floor.

Rather than an easy message, the work projects an overall sense that deals are being made, people are being affected and transformed.
Lynne Warren, curator for the Museum of Contemporary Art, was struck by Zimmerman's work for some time before she met the scruffy, bleach-blond painter behind it. She first encountered one of his typically unsigned murals on a North Avenue wall east of Damen--called "Paid Programming,"it has since been painted over. "I noticed that this was a little different than a lot of murals I'd seen around the city," Warren recalls. "It had a lot of content, and a lot of skill--more than what I was accustomed to." She finally put a name to the work last year, when Zimmerman helped set up a friend's show at MCA. "I said 'Oh my gosh, you're the person who's done these walls,'" Warren recalls. "I was surprised--he doesn't fit the typical muralist mode," a disposition she describes as "dogged" and "didactic." "Jeff was bubbly and full of energy," she recalls of that first meeting. "He was bright--not just smart, he's that too, but sunny. He had a very open personality."

That ebullience comes through in Zimmerman's street paintings, whose colors, poignant presentation, and wry humor bring some much-needed vibrancy to heavy, gray sections of town. But his work goes deeper than that. There is a social conscience here, it's just packaged and presented in a livelier, more engaging way than a 40-foot wall would typically lend itself to.

The Damen and Lake mural, for instance, is on one level a commentary on the divide between the haves and have-nots. The two characters depicted on the painting are black. The title, "Top of the World," refers to the Great Migration of blacks moving North in the 1950s. Rising in the background like a giant sun is a label from the 50/50 beverage, which in all its cheerful, bursting lemon-limey-ness makes a darker statement about having to settle for less.

During migration, "If you were going to Chicago, you were going to the 'Top of the World,'" Zimmerman says. "That meant you'd made it. But once you got there, if you ended up living across the street from the mural, you got fucked."

Zimmerman takes commissions about half the time, but his best work (the Damen and Lake piece, several along or near North Avenue on the way to Humboldt Park) tend to be his "private murals"--created on walls he can talk a building owner into letting him use as a canvas, free of charge. That's easier said than done, especially because he doesn't just want a nice, clean wall--he also wants an owner who doesn't come with a lot of baggage.
"Then there's people who say--'Great idea. Thanks. We're gonna paint the name of the company on the wall.' They're really excited. Or they say--"yeah". Why don't you paint a couple dancing under a palm tree, there's a full moon. The woman's got a martini. Wouldn't that be bad ass?'"

Only rarely does he get a "Dude, do whatever. I don't care," in which case he's eager to break out the ladder and the oil paints as soon as the weather's decent.

Warren sees the private murals as an essential part of Zimmerman's process, because they let his aesthetic shine through.
"Many muralists have to work very closely with communities and often with youth, and subsume their own aesthetic to the desires of the commissioner of the mural--the church, the community center, the grocery store," Warren says. "They have to listen to what their clients want, which usually means commemorating some heroes--there's a fairly standardized palette of subject matter.
"I know from talking to other to other muralists that that can be very stressful. Jeff has developed his own kind of spin on that by finding his own wall, and convincing the client to give him free rein."

Seen throughout Pilsen, Zimmerman's commissioned works are more restrained, but his hand is still evident in the bright color choices and the touching, intimate way he renders people, even on a billboard-sized surface.
A former graphic design student, Zimmerman talked his way into a Jesuit Volunteer Corps service program in Peru in the early 1990s. The program required Spanish fluency, and he couldn't speak a lick. But he was a quick study, and spent two years digging ditches and living in shantyvilles there before returning to Chicago. A friend helped him get a job at St. Pius Church in Pilsen, where he taught art to Spanish-speaking youngsters for awhile.

"I was a tough teacher," Zimmerman recalls. "They hated me. They hated me because it wasn't googly eyes and popsicle sticks. I'd bring in crumpled paper and sombreros and try to teach them how to draw perspective. The class went from 30 to like, 10, which was good."

One of the projects was a small mural, which the kids painted on a church garage with Zimmerman's help. The pastor of the church was pleased enough with it that he asked Zimmerman to paint a towering Virgin of Guadalupe mural at 19th and Ashland when the original artist dropped out.
Zimmerman agreed, hesitantly--then signed up for his first-ever painting class, at Columbia College. "The teacher was going to kick me out because I hadn't painted before. And I'm thinking, 'I gotta do this mural in a month.'"

He worked his charm on her and she let him stay--and soon found he could genuinely paint. "I already knew something, but I thought 'Don't try and paint the way you usually do, just try and let this woman give you some pointers.'"

When not in class, he was climbing a 30-foot ladder every day to add some more beatific brush strokes to the Blessed Mother's sky-colored gown. Every hour or so, he'd climb down the ladder, jump off a low roof, head down an alley and cross a street to check out his latest handiwork, making sure he wasn't totally screwing things up. The pastor was pleased enough to give him another commission, this time a mural about the love, struggle, and working together that goes on in a family.

He asked for volunteers from the church to pose for the mural, and took tons of photographs before deciding on the few who would serve as models. "There were three people who made it, and I shot about 50 frigging people," he says.

As a break from the murals, he painted a series of small-scale "portraits" of ice cream trucks, which were exhibited last year a downtown gallery. Like his larger works, despite their gleeful packaging, they're not all sunshine and happy faces.

"At first, you think 'Ice cream trucks--yeah!'" says Zimmerman, who spent many tortuous hours painting the locket-sized pictures of Bomb Pops and Orange Push-ups on the sides of the trucks. "They're beautiful and happy. But then you see there's something wrong. No sunshine. No grass." And worst of all--a loop tape of "Pop Goes the Weasel."

copyright 2003 Luara Putre, The Chicago Journal