Mural artist John Pitman Weber reflects on the slow process of change.
By Jeff Huebner
It's been nearly three decades since John Pitman Weber--armed with a graduate degree and flush with revolutionary fervor--took to the streets and painted his first outdoor mural. All Power to the People, created with young people from Cabrini-Green in the courtyard of Saint Dominic's Church near Division and Orleans, cataloged the militant images of the day: raised fists, broken chains, flames, guns, pigs wearing helmets, and the figures of Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, and Huey Newton.
"I used to be quite the polemicist," admits Weber, who cofounded the Chicago Mural Group (now the Chicago Public Art Group) in 1970 and would go on to do dozens of murals, reliefs, and mosaics throughout the city and the world. "I used to write manifestos saying, 'We must do this! We must do that!' But I've mellowed over the years."
Not that you would notice. Sporting a bandanna and a graying ponytail, the 56-year-old Weber still looks the part of an activist. Hours before the opening of his current exhibit of prints at the Taller Mestizarte in Pilsen, he sits at a table in the Cafe Jumping Bean expounding on the civil rights protests of the 1960s as well as on the origins of the community mural movement, in which he played a leading role as both an artist and a theoretician. Weber now compares the mural movement to other cultural forces of the time: "It really was about demanding that the democratic promises of society be fulfilled a little more largely." As an artist of social conscience, he has few equals in the nation, but he's often been overlooked in his hometown, where the art scene has largely been shaped by funky figurative painters on the one hand and neoconceptualists on the other.
That doesn't mean Weber's been stymied. Always productive, he's remained committed to the notion of activist art. For the last 30 years, he's taught at Elmhurst College, where he's collaborated with students on several indoor murals. Since the 1980s, he's executed murals in New York, Los Angeles, France, England, and Nicaragua; he's led workshops in Europe and Mexico; and he continues to paint, make prints, and stage exhibitions. In 1991 Valparaiso University hosted a 69-piece midcareer retrospective. And all the while he and his wife, Elsa, have been raising four sons in Oak Park.
Yet in the last several years Weber has been edging back into the local spotlight. The social and political climate may be different now, but, like the movement he helped spawn and popularize a quarter century ago, Weber is finding ways of staying relevant. He has become a member of Taller Mestizarte, a Latino printmaking workshop, and is doing more public work with the coalition he cofounded. He's become reenergized through his role as both a mentor to a new generation of artists and a student of new materials and techniques.
"I decided a year and a half ago I had to do some catch-up because I had to be able to work in glass-tile mosaics," says Weber, referring to the Chicago Public Art Group's increasing involvement with mosaics rather than paintings, a move prompted by the impermanence of the older murals. "It turned out I really enjoyed it."
Last year Weber was involved in the painting of his first outdoor mural in Chicago in two decades. He and fellow artist Bernard Williams led a team of mostly African-American teens in the creation of Urban World at the Crossroads, a 1,700-square-foot work at Orr High School on the west side. A visually complex piece that addresses family, culture, education, and community development issues, it was created with neighborhood input. But perhaps the mural's most revolutionary aspect is its collage technique. Inspired by the art of Romare Bearden, the mural's design allowed Weber to work in a multipaneled style that's closely related to his own studio art.
Weber is also back in the public eye because of last month's reissue of the seminal book Toward a People's Art: The Contemporary Mural Movement (University of New Mexico Press), which he coauthored with muralist and writer Eva Cockcroft and sociologist James Cockcroft. Originally published in 1977 and long out of print, the book remains a classic account of the community-based movement that produced hundreds of socially oriented wall paintings in the U.S. beginning in the late 60s; as the first full-length study on the subject, drawn largely from firsthand experiences, the book has served as a bible to untold thousands of mural artists and aficionados.
The 1998 edition has new introductory essays by cultural historian Ben Keppel and art critic Lucy Lippard; an afterword by Bay Area mural historian Tim Drescher records the artists' continuing commitment to making socially engaged murals in the 1980s and '90s. Lippard's foreword is bracing: "This new book...will in turn be an eye-opener and an ass-kicker for a new generation, because current discussions of public art for the most part omit muralism, following the art world pattern of ignoring community-based artists in favor of those who cater to the marketplace."
Aside from a brief note pointing out a few things they missed, the authors' original text has been left intact. "Basically, Ben talked us into it," says Weber. "He felt that our book was a really important document of the 70s. The original proposition--and what University of New Mexico accepted--was to republish Toward a People's Art as a historical document. It's an artifact of a certain time, which is enormously complimentary--in fact, it blows my mind. The book is history. The book exists as something that actually played a role in the history of that time."
Toward a People's Art describes the experiences of muralists working in urban neighborhoods and the effect their art had on communities; it also includes historical overviews, profiles of various mural groups and their aesthetic strategies, and sections recounting how major works were funded. It covers a nine-year period beginning in 1967, when Chicago muralist William Walker helped lead a group of African-American artists in the painting of the Wall of Respect at 43rd and Langley. Inspired by the civil rights and black power movements, that work is regarded as ground zero for the community mural phenomenon. The year 1976 proved to be a good cutoff point, says Weber. "To my mind it marks a kind of period--the formative activist phase--because the Vietnam war and various things associated with it had ended." He says the book was also unique because it was a history written by participants, not researchers. "We felt that our experiences were very exciting, moving, and life changing, and we figured if we don't write it down then it won't get written again till much later."
Weber says his life changed in 1968, when he first visited the Wall of Respect. He immediately saw that mural painting could draw together diverse groups of people for a single goal. Murals could also depict social problems and therefore become vehicles for change. In 1970, Weber and Walker formed the Chicago Mural Group; by the end of the next year, Weber recalls, a "consciously multicultural" cadre of artists had done some 60 pieces in the city's working-class and minority neighborhoods. A 1971 exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art called "Murals for the People" included a statement of purpose penned by Weber, Mark Rogovin, and Walker and his frequent collaborator Eugene Eda. "The Artists' Statement" became the movement's founding manifesto.
Over the next several years, Weber worked with artists and community groups in the painting of such surviving classics as Rompiendo las cadenas ("Breaking the Chains") at Rockwell and LeMoyne; Unidos para triunfar ("Together We Overcome") at Division and Hoyne; For a New World at the Parish of the Holy Covenant, 925 W. Diversey (which he repainted in 1996); and Solidarity, inside the United Electrical Workers Hall at 37 S. Ashland. In the early 70s, Weber was particularly active with Latino organizations in West Town and Humboldt Park; the Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center is currently raising money to restore early Weber murals installed inside that facility.
"All this stuff was in the air," says Weber. "Did Chicago have some influence? Yes, we did. First of all, we have to look at Walker, who was really, more than anyone else--more than Rogovin or myself, more than Ray Patlan and Caryl Yasko--the carrier of the idea of a mural movement being based on artists united by a common commitment and common ideals, a movement of artists, not just as a civic amenity.
"All of us who participated in the beginning, to one degree or another, had already participated in the social movements of the late 1960s. We'd all been profoundly influenced by the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, so the idea of an artistic movement had resonance for us, had all kinds of historic echoes. For those of us who had been involved it seemed like this is where we belonged, this is what we should be doing."
The mural movement soon spread to other places--most notably Detroit, where Walker and Eda temporarily set up shop, and California, where murals depicted the struggles of the Chicano farmworkers and served as an important organizing tool for their nascent union. Toward a People's Art recounts the formation of mural collectives in Chicago, in New Jersey (at Rutgers, led by Eva Cockcroft), in New York City, and in Santa Fe. The new edition does include more material from California, which, the authors concede, had been given short shrift in the original book.
"The fascinating thing is that it became very widespread," Weber says. "You had a fairly broad spectrum of groups participating. It began originally in the black community, then in the Chicano community. Murals ended up appearing in every major city in the world, including the third world. So you had by the early 1970s, maybe even by the late 1960s, people doing murals with a popular cultural and democratic aspect to them. It was associated with a demand for political and cultural autonomy. Chicago was one of the places where it had a strong beginning--it was clearly one of the places where it crystallized and where it had a clear continuation."
The scale of the buildings--mostly two-story brick--was well-suited to the genre, says Weber. "You also had a neighborhood-organizing structure that was particularly strong. And you didn't have a lot of art press here--we still don't--so you could do what you liked and nobody much was going to notice anyway."
Weber says a "whole new generation has come forward" in the two decades since Toward a People's Art was first published. "Some of us old warhorses are still there, still doing something, still prognosticating. Our business now is to be mentors, and to continue to carry on and to find a way to remain active. There was certainly a period in the 1980s where we felt like the aging holdouts--here we are, the last of the Apaches holed up in the mountains. And where's the reinforcements? Lo and behold, they appear.
"But where are they going to take it? I don't know. You have to reinvent, not just continue painting walls."
Weber has also noticed a recent reexamination of the social movements of the 1950s, '60s, and '70s. "There's been a whole effort to revalidate the cultural struggles of this period," he says. "The vilification of the 1960s was a fundamental part of the ideological mindfuck that conservatives or reactionaries, all these various characters, all these bastards, wanted to put over on us. They vilified and dismissed the 1960s--it was just sex and drugs and so forth, kids and hippies running in the streets, and adolescent rebellion. But just as there was this very cheap journalistic broad-brush attack against the 1960s, there's been this much more staid and cautious and piece-by-piece effort to put back together a more credible, fleshed-out, and fully realized view of what really went on."
Weber was born in Washington, D.C. His father came from Virginia, an activist southern Baptist who believed in the New Deal, worked for Henry Wallace in 1948, and later became a Wall Street economist. "My father was a southern radical who was part of the civil rights movement a generation before the civil rights movement, in the 1930s and '40s," says Weber. "He was involved in fighting the poll tax and for the right to vote."
His parents divorced when he was two, and his mother, a sociologist and early childhood educator, took him to the Bronx, where he was surrounded by a large circle of her Russian-Jewish relatives and friends. "They were involved in issues," he says. "I was raised in this atmosphere of engagement and discussion. The world was a topic of conversation." He says his eventual involvement in community art was "a way of rebuilding for myself a network of friends that allowed me to make a home here."
Weber received his bachelor's degree from Harvard, where he majored in history and literature; from 1964 to '66, he studied the French Revolution at the Sorbonne in Paris on a Fulbright Fellowship and a grant from the French government. He also took printmaking classes with Stanley Hayter at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and was greatly influenced by the works of the late-cubist painter Fernand Leger and the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. He then moved to Chicago to attend the School of the Art Institute, where he received an MFA in 1968.
Along with the mural work, Weber began exhibiting his prints and easel paintings in 1969. His studio work was also concerned with issues of peace and social justice, at home and abroad; many of these early pieces centered on the riots, assassinations, and student protests of the 1960s, as well as the Vietnam war. In the catalog for Weber's 1991 retrospective, Richard Brauer, director of the Valparaiso University Museum of Art, wrote that "Weber has the largest body of work in the midwest known to me that reflects a coherent aesthetic and moral vision focused on that tragic conflict."
By 1977 Weber's approach had changed. "In the strict sense," he says, "the movement phase of the mural movement had ended, that phase of it being a national, self-aware movement where many of the participants regarded themselves as being part of a larger movement. Energy didn't stop--people continued--but there was a kind of running out of energy of that generation."
The previous year he had completed the mural Tilt: Together Protect the Community at Fullerton and Washtenaw, but he vowed never again to make a "unified, heroic" type of work. "I said every mural from now on was going to be an experiment, that I'm not going to do any murals where I'm repeating myself, that I know how to do it now so I can teach other people how to do it. I felt like in '76 I knew every trick inside out. I said, this was a great experience, but now we have to reinvent. So I've been pushing that line ever since."
Ironically, Toward a People's Art first appeared at that time, when Weber increasingly turned to studio work and more experimental types of public art. In 1979 and '80, he collaborated with other artists on the creation of some of the earliest outdoor free-form cement reliefs (each including some painting and mosaic work): Children Are Our Future, at California and Bloomingdale, and For the People of the Future, at North and Springfield. They're still there (as is the 1989 relief Life-Tree, at the Center for Neighbor-hood Technology in Wicker Park).
In 1981 Weber stepped down as director of the Chicago Mural Group. Two years later, he was among the hundreds of artists who became involved in the group Artists Call Against U.S. Intervention in Central America; over the next several years, the organization staged a wide array of exhibits and events in more than two dozen U.S. cities as well as in Mexico City and Paris. Weber helped convene activities in Chicago, which took place at several artist-run spaces in 1984. More than 400 local artists participated--many more than had ever taken part in art activities in opposition to the Vietnam War, he recalls. "It was surprising how all of a sudden a bunch of artists who weren't particularly activists got involved in questioning social issues--and what the role of an artist should be as a citizen."
While many of Weber's prints and acrylics from this fertile period focused on human rights abuses in Central America and South Africa, the pieces--single images, pictures within pictures, diptychs, triptychs, and collages--had a universality that indicted state-sponsored violence anywhere on the globe. Two works--one about Vietnam, the other El Salvador--appeared in "Committed to Print," a touring exhibition organized in 1988 by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
At that same time, the sanctuary movement was starting, as U.S. church groups began taking in undocumented Central American refugees who were fleeing torture. The first area church to do so was the Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ, where Weber had an exhibit in 1984. Finding that churches served as an evocative backdrop for his work, Weber exhibited bannerlike canvases for the next seven years almost exclusively in activist churches in Chicago, New York, and Milwaukee; hung on the walls and from the ceilings, these "liturgical installations" wedded biblical themes with social issues and were reminiscent of religious tapestries and frescoes.
The exhibit "John Pitman Weber: 10 Years of Printmaking," now at the Taller Mestizarte through January 15, contains 40 woodcuts, lithographs, and etchings. Many of the prints are in color and are more painterly than his earlier work. Some contain personal images--foliage and family. Others allude to the plight of people in third world countries. The figures are often cut off or juxtaposed in fractured compositions.
Despite his continued commitment to social issues, Weber claims, "I've never been involved in didactic art, agitational art. I've always tried to establish images that had an emotional resonance, both in my public art and in my studio art. I don't think my work is explicitly political. Some are a little more obvious; some are a little less obvious. Some are more directly responding to events or images that are out there; others have a lot more personal allusions. I'm just trying to accept what's on my mind and what I see in the world around me, what concerns me. In a sense, I'm appealing to people to care. I'm not trying to say 'Do this.' I'm trying rather to say 'Feel this,' identify with these people.
"Sometimes the question's been asked, 'What's this white guy doing with all these nonwhite characters appearing in his work?' But what world do we live in? It's not my problem if somebody's living in a white world. That's a problem that they have."
Two lithographs, both called Shoes, appeared in a 1997 exhibit at the Rhona Hoffman Gallery, "No Small Feat: Investigations of the Shoe in Contemporary Art." Weber says he was pleased but still surprised to be included in a commercial gallery exhibit after all these years; every one of his other shows in North America has been in a nonprofit, community, or university space. Yet Weber doesn't think he's missed anything by not being a gallery artist beholden to markets and fashions. While most artists cloister themselves in their studios, he's been out in the public arena leading the charge for a "people's art." For Weber, the personal will always be political.
"I can't be all things to all people--why should I be? The art that I do comes out of who I am. It's not about a desire to be somebody else. It's about who I am and what I see. That's what I'm striving for." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): John Pitman Webber photo by Dan machnik; "Tilt: Together protect the Community" (1976), Fullerton and Washtenaw.