WALLS OF FAME
Appearing on a mural by Jeff Zimmermann can change your life, just a little
Rod O'Connor, Special to the Tribune. Chicago Tribune. Chicago, Ill.: Jan 16, 2005
[Jeff Zimmermann], 34, has been painting outdoor murals in Chicago since 1997. In 2003, he was selected to participate in the Museum of Contemporary Art's "12 x 12: New Artists/New Work," where he created an indoor mural featuring subjects from the surrounding Streeterville area. But for a free showing of Zimmermann's work, just hop in the car, bus or "L" and use this list as a guide.
(Copyright 2005 by the Chicago Tribune)
QUALITIES OF LIFE
"I'm gonna make you famous." That's the response local artist Jeff Zimmermann offers his subjects when they ask why he's taking their picture. Most don't believe him. Maybe they don't want to get their hopes up. But sure enough, a few weeks later, there they are: immortalized in one of his outdoor murals, sometimes at massive scale.
If you frequent Pilsen, Wicker Park, River West, Austin or several other neighborhoods, you've probably passed Zimmermann's murals. With their bright colors and vibrant imagery, they bring life to some of the city's grayer areas. Take for instance the corner of Damen Avenue and Lake Street, in the industrial wasteland between Ukrainian Village and the United Center. A wall there has been painted blue-green, and the images of crushed cans and other "urban tumbleweeds" frame the floating head of a man who looks strangely familiar to neighborhood residents.
This is no typical outdoor mural--no smiling children, no blatant sloganeering. According to Zimmermann, the title, "Top of the World," refers to the Great Migration of African-Americans who moved north in the early 20th Century. The face in the center is that of Oba Maja, 61, self-proclaimed "poet of the streets" and one example of those unable to make good on the promise of a better life.
Originally from Birmingham, Ala., Maja has spent most of his life in Chicago. He was an altar boy at St. Patrick's High School and has worked as a CTA driver, a postal worker and a cabdriver.
lived for the moment . . . staying alive on my creativity," he says, and
for the last six years he has eked out a living hawking poems on Milwaukee Avenue
in rapidly gentrifying Wicker Park.
He views himself as a messenger, a teller of truths, but he never pushes his optimism too hard; he just lets you know it's there if you need it. Talk with Maja for a few minutes, and it's obvious why the other down-on-their-luck folks from the neighborhood see him as a leader, a ray of light in the darkness. He says that meeting Zimmermann was one of the brightest moments of his life.
"He saw me doing my thing and said, 'I'm going to tell the world about you,'" explains Maja. "Now, everyone who passes by on the Green Line sees my picture. ... People who might not have wanted to give me a chance will come up and talk to me. Some buy my poems. That mural says, 'Someone took the time to do this. I'm somebody.'"
Helping tell a story
So how does Zimmermann select who makes the wall? Well, that depends on a number of factors. And he is quick to point out that, although his subjects help him tell a story, they are not the story themselves.
"I want it to be someone who reflects the area where the work is located, so oftentimes I find these neighborhood eccentrics most people try to steer clear from. It's like, 'Uh-oh, don't make eye contact,'" he says. "But when they're up on the wall, you have to look them in the eye. You can't ignore them anymore.
"Once in a while, I'll drive by and find someone staring at their own image. They can't believe it. There's a feeling they've participated in something important. And in some cases, that person might walk a little taller because of it. People always ask me, 'Why did you paint that guy or that woman?' My response is, 'Why not?'"
Inspiration in Pilsen
Several of Zimmermann's works can be found in Pilsen, where Rev. Charles Dahm, pastor of St. Pius V Church, asked him to apply his unique brand of realism to an enormous, multistory wall on the northwest corner of Ashland Avenue and 19th Street. What began as a straightforward, albeit striking, mural of the iconic Virgin of Guadalupe soon evolved into a valuable symbol for this primarily Mexican neighborhood.
Ana Maria Diaz, 36, had been living in Pilsen with her husband and child for only a year when she was approached to be part of the mural three years ago. Not knowing much English, she spent her time volunteering in a soup kitchen. With her cherub face and sunny disposition, she was a natural candidate.
"My friends say: 'You must be important. You must be famous,'" Diaz explains with a laugh. "For me, it's beautiful and very spiritual. It represents hard work. When I first got here, my English was not so good. The mural says to me, 'You can do it.' It picks me up. And the community gets a nice piece of art."
On another panel is Karla Rivera, 21, a humble and focused young woman who isn't immediately recognizable as the high school valedictorian frozen in time by Zimmermann's brush strokes. Rivera and her family came to Pilsen from Mexico in 1993 when she was 10. Now she's studying psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and plans to pursue a master's at Northwestern University.
She passes the mural just about every day but is still a little uncomfortable with the attention. Only her family and a few close friends even know that's her up there.
"Part of me wanted people to know, but for the most part I kept it to myself," she says. "I imagined only famous people or heroes [in murals]. But every time I look at it, I think maybe a younger person might be inspired ... especially kids coming here from Mexico. I want to show my grandkids someday: 'Here's what I was like at 18.'"
As for Zimmermann, he's always on the lookout for more empty walls in Chicago. And he's even offering his services to communities in other parts of the world. There are plenty of famous people out there--they just don't know it yet.
- - -
Art with an address
Jeff Zimmermann, 34, has been painting outdoor murals in Chicago since 1997. In 2003, he was selected to participate in the Museum of Contemporary Art's "12 x 12: New Artists/New Work," where he created an indoor mural featuring subjects from the surrounding Streeterville area. But for a free showing of Zimmermann's work, just hop in the car, bus or "L" and use this list as a guide. Also, Zimmermann's studio paintings can be seen at Linda Warren Gallery, 1052 W. Fulton Market.
Lake Street and Damen Avenue: "Top of the World."
Chicago and Milwaukee Avenues: "Chainge."
Carroll and Ashland Avenues: "It's All Knew."
19th Street and Ashland Avenue: North side, "Increibles las Cosas que Se Ven" ("Unbelievable the Things You See"); south side, "Familiar."
21st Street and Blue Island Avenue: "Educacion--See y Know."
Lake Street and Central Avenue: "FICA."
Irving Park and Sheridan Roads: "Challenge."
PHOTOS 4; Caption: PHOTO (color): Street poet Oba Maja says now that he appears on the mural "Top of the World," people who might otherwise ignore him come up and talk to him. Photo for the Tribune by Anthony Robert la Penna. PHOTO (color): A three-panel mural of the Virgin of Guadalupe features faces from the Pilsen neighborhood. PHOTOS (color): Karla Rivera (left) wears her cap and gown in the left panel. Says Ana Maria Diaz (right), who is in the middle panel, "The mural says to me, 'You can do it.' It picks me up." Tribune photos by E. Jason Wambsgans.
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.