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A controversial Elgin mural is stranded between censorship and outrage

American Nocturne was inspired by a photo of a notorious 1930 lynching.

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American Nocturne depicts the crowd that gathered to watch an infamous 1930 lynching in Marion, Indiana. - MICHAEL SMART/SUN-TIMES MEDIA
  • Michael Smart/Sun-Times Media
  • American Nocturne depicts the crowd that gathered to watch an infamous 1930 lynching in Marion, Indiana.

The Elgin mural is not the Elgin Marbles. Those Greek sculptures were infamously taken from the Parthenon to the British Museum 200 years ago, sparking a debate that still rages. But the story of this 21st-century Illinois painting, American Nocturne, with its disputed motives and retrospectively outraged public, is at least as complicated.

The mural's story begins August 7, 1930, in another midwestern town—Marion, Indiana. On that day, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, two black teenagers accused of killing a white man and raping his female companion, were dragged from their jail cell by an angry mob, beaten, and lynched.

A local photographer, Lawrence Beitler, captured the spectacle: the victims hanging from a tree above a crowd of ostensibly ordinary white onlookers. At the moment Beitler snapped the photo, some of the townspeople had turned toward the camera, one man raising his arm to point in the direction of the two bodies.

Beitler sold thousands of copies of that image, which was turned into a postcard and became a notorious icon of American racism. It inspired a New York teacher named Abel Meeropol—a Jew, a Communist, and, later, adoptive father to the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg—to write the searing words and music for the song "Strange Fruit," which Billie Holiday recorded and made famous in 1939.

A decade ago, Beitler's photograph also inspired Elgin artist David Powers, then working on the last in a series of murals the city had commissioned from the Outside Exhibition Group, a small arts organization that's no longer active. Powers's drawing for the Elgin mural, loosely based on the lower portion of Beitler's photo, eliminated the victims in order to focus on the faces in the crowd—an intense and agitated group under a threatening sky. Art students from Elgin's Judson University executed the painting in the summer of 2007 under Powers's direction. The finished work covered eight four-foot-by-eight-foot panels, and was installed in a small park that's also a walkway in the center of town.

For the next nine years, the mural hung there—under a tree, fronted by a bench, and facing a happier Powers mural that features a marching band ( Parade). If any viewers wondered about the situation American Nocturne depicted, or recognized it, they didn't bother to ask or comment publicly. That is, until May 17, when a passerby noticed its similarity to Beitler's lynching photo and his companion posted images of both on the What's Happening in Elgin? Facebook page. The post ignited a furor that quickly drew widespread attention, along with calls for the removal and/or destruction of what many saw as a racist work of art.

—Paul Pedersen, Outside Exhibition Group president

Four days later, after a take-it-down-now message was found taped to the mural, Elgin's city manager had the painting moved to the municipal cultural center, where it remained on display, but indoors. Public comment was taken at two subsequent meetings, and on June 13, the Elgin Cultural Arts Commission unanimously recommended that the city council remove American Nocturne from public display. On June 17 it was put in storage.

That prompted a response from the New York-based National Coalition Against Censorship. In a July 7 letter to Elgin mayor David Kaptain, the NCAC objected to the mural's removal. "No matter how disturbing some people may find it, the mural is a work of art, a representation of ideas," the letter read. "As such, it enjoys First Amendment protection."

But last week the arts commission recommended that the mural be kept in storage for at least seven months while it researches and writes a public art plan that can then be used to determine American Nocturne's fate. Although the city owns about 80 pieces of public art, arts commission chairman Joe Vassallo says that it never established procedures for acquisition and display, which is why the mural was up all those years without any historical context. There's a bureaucratic failure behind this muddle, Vassallo says: "Not having a process failed this piece."

Whether the city would have approved the mural knowing its source is an open question. David Powers did not respond to requests for an interview for this story, but in a 2007 video interview he described the mural as "an allegory of the American Depression."

But two other members of the Outside Exhibition Group told me that everyone who worked on American Nocturne was aware of its source material, and that the current discussion is one they expected to have nine years ago. Group member Milt Evans Jr., an artist, retired art teacher, and former arts commission chairman, says Powers was employing ambiguity "to provoke people to think about what is going on." Evans says he told Powers that the mural would be controversial, "but as an African-American, I didn't see any problem with what was being presented."

Exhibition group president Paul Pedersen says "the only ones who should be upset by American Nocturne should be the white population, dressing up to go to an affair like that—something we hope will never happen again. My wife is black, Mr. Evans is black. We never looked at this as a racial thing from the black side. More the other way around."

Pedersen says Outside Exhibition will buy the mural back if given the opportunity. "We stand by our work," he says. "I'm not a bit ashamed."

As things now stand, it'll be a while before anyone sees American Nocturne again. In the meantime, Kerry James Marshall's 2002 triptych Heirlooms and Accessories, inspired by the same photograph, accompanied by wall text, and also focusing on faces in the crowd, is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art through September 25. Peer very closely at its nearly all-white background and you'll be able to make out the ghostly trace of the rest of Beitler's photo. v


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