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Art People: Olivia Gude speaks your mind

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Pullman artist Olivia Gude paints other people's words on walls and banners hanging in public places. Using quotes from interviews with area residents, Gude says she wants to show a community what's on its mind.

Gude and fellow Chicago Public Art Group member Rolf Mueller first put the oral-history technique to use in the summer of 1992 with Where We Come From . . . Where We're Going?, a mural painted in the Metra underpass at 56th and Lake Park. That spring Gude stood in front of the commuter station and asked passersby, "Where are you coming from? Where are you going?" Their answers, ranging from the mundane to the metaphysical, became part of the mural, along with portraits of some of the respondents. Gude says the work "attempts to reflect the various, often contradictory influences in a multicultural community, rather than the usual homogenous picture of a mythic, unified people in joy, in work, in struggle." She found that the variety of quotes in the mural suggests that people in a diverse neighborhood don't necessarily hear each other's voices, but she hopes that their overlapping stories form the start of a conversation, creating a "community of discourse."

Gude has continued her oral-history approach, combining public art and community discourse in Echoes of the Heart: A Banner Arts Project, a series of eight-foot banners about race relations in the southwest-side neighborhood of Marquette Park. Though drawn from a specific neighborhood with a history of racial tension, the words on the banner--actual quotations from residents--strike a universal nerve. Their spirit and power form a frank portrait of a neighborhood in flux talking to itself. As one of the more than a hundred entries asks, "How do we communicate what disturbs us, but do it in a way that keeps the door open?"

In the fall of 1992, the Southwest Catholic Cluster Project--a coalition of churches and other community institutions in southwest Chicago--brought together a group of 15 black, white, and Latino residents of Marquette Park for a series of discussions about race, culture, and their changing neighborhood. Gude was invited to tape-record the meetings, and selections from the conversations provided material for seven of the ten banners, which Gude then designed and painted with the help of community residents in a storefront studio on 63rd Street. Students from area schools helped design two other banners, incorporating their own perceptions after participating in special workshops. Most of the banners picture the adults and kids taking part in the discussions; others contain intricate patterns.

"The basic idea was to let people have the chance to reflect on their perceptions publicly, because substantive, difficult conversations about race aren't often shared," says Gude, taking a break in the basement boiler room of Steinmetz High School, where she's directing students working on a Chicago Public Art Group mosaic. "To me, it's as though you were eavesdropping on really interesting conversations about race relations. I think people will hear things in the project they might not have heard otherwise."

One banner, for example, explores media stereotypes of blacks and whites; in the background is a painting of a TV showing Martin Luther King Jr. shielding himself from stones, a reference to the 1966 open housing march that was pelted with rocks. As one quote reads: "In the national imagination, Marquette Park is associated with the horrors of racism. But the southwest side could be a beacon of hope."

The 43-year-old Gude is from "a working-class, Catholic background" in Saint Louis, where she attended Webster College. She received an MFA from the University of Chicago, and in 1976 began teaching at Bloom Trail High School in south suburban Chicago Heights. Gude started collaborating with fellow art teacher Jon Pounds on projects she describes as "nonpermission street pieces." In 1981 the pair performed their first public artwork, a temporary project commemorating the 100th anniversary of Pullman's founding as a planned factory town. The work consisted of chalked words and silhouettes scattered throughout the community, and lasted from May to August, the duration of the 1894 Pullman strike.

Gude and Pounds joined the Chicago Mural Group (now called the Chicago Public Art Group) in 1983 and continued working on community art projects, including a playlot in Pullman's Langley Park. They both recently left their teaching positions at Bloom Trail to devote themselves full-time to CPAG; Pounds has been the group's executive director since 1988. That same year the two teamed up for I Welcome Myself to a New Place, a mural on a 113th Street viaduct dividing Roseland and Pullman. While doing that largely textless work, Gude says she started thinking of ways to create a public art project about race where individual voices could be heard.

Since being unveiled at Saint Rita Church in March 1993, Echoes of the Heart: A Banner Arts Project has appeared at 19 sites in the Marquette Park area, including 12 southwest-side churches representing different denominations. Requests for the banners have come from as far away as Kansas and upstate New York. "We like them to be in places where they can generate reaction and conversation," says Leesa Albert, director for the Southwest Catholic Cluster Project.. For six years the group has strived to promote economically stable, integrated neighborhoods, and they've discovered the banners are an effective medium for their message. "It's about how we can occupy a common plot of land," explains Albert.

Gude says she realizes that her art alone won't bring social change or calm fears. Instead it provides a framework for discussion. The banners, like most of her work, address two questions: What is community? And how can we make it talk? While she points out that the discussions weren't acrimonious, the banners aren't without their tensions and contradictions. No attempts have been made to resolve differences; the dialogue is open-ended, ongoing.

"It was a very profound experience," Gude says. "People were really being truthful and frank with each other, actually trying to bridge gaps without annihilating their differences and without glossing over their personal pain. People don't put themselves in the position to talk about pain; it just doesn't happen in society. When people hide the pain, the gap grows wider."

Seven works from Echoes of the Heart: A Banner Arts Project are currently at the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago, 126 E. Chestnut. The remaining three banners are included in the exhibit "Public/Private: Women Artists Negotiate the Terrain," which features work by Gude and six others, at Northern Illinois University Art Gallery, 215 W. Superior, through February 18. For information about future showings, call the Southwest Catholic Cluster Project at 471-8208.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.

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