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Wailing Walls

Mitchell Caton's murals had the string and swing of great jazz.



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By Jeff Huebner

Few works remain from the heyday of the community mural movement in the early 1970s; fewer still retain their power to inspire or indict. One notable exception is Wall of Daydreaming, Man's Inhumanity to Man, a two-part piece painted nearly a quarter century ago by Mitchell Caton and Bill Walker at the corner of 47th and Calumet. Once a south-side mecca noted for its vibrant nightlife, the neighborhood had gone to seed, becoming a haven for gangs, gambling, drugs, and prostitution. "I felt the theme of the wall should reflect the lifestyle and values of the people in the community," Caton wrote. "A warning to all the pushers and users, chippies and chasers that using drugs is a quick way to death and no mistake about it."

If there's anything redeeming in this stark, admonitory mural, it comes from Caton's genius as a painter: his stylized, curving lines and his use of cubistlike collage and brilliant, almost musical color. The African-inspired imagery suggests that redemption lies in discovering one's cultural heritage. The mural stings--but it sings, too.

Theodore Burns Mitchell, known by many as Mitchell Caton, died of cancer on January 30 at the age of 67. When the city's jazz and blues greats die, they're often accorded glowing obits and articles exploring their lives and legacies. But Caton's passing didn't even merit a mention in the newspapers or from Chicago's cultural czars, though his name and work are legend in the African-American art community.

Caton wasn't a musician, though he blew a sax for fun. Yet "Cat" could paint like jazz. His complex, rhythmic compositions, which graced more than a dozen outdoor walls throughout the south side, brought American mural art--and Afrocentric visual expression--to stylistic heights in the 1970s and '80s, and his work influenced generations of later muralists.

That Caton was largely unknown to the general public didn't seem to bother him. "Private" and "eccentric" were among the adjectives most commonly used to describe him during a standing-room-only memorial service earlier this month in Bronzeville's Griffin Funeral Home. "He greatly contributed," eulogized Walker, who's commonly regarded as the father of the community mural movement. "He could've been greatly recognized, but he decided on anonymity."

The service was a fitting tribute to Caton the artist, neighborhood chronicler, family man--and jazz aficionado. Live sets were performed by Jimmy Ellis and Caton's son, bassist Tyler Mitchell, who's played with such musicians as Sun Ra, Art Taylor, and Al Jarreau. Other tributes were delivered by such luminaries as jazzman Oscar Brown Jr., and a nonstop slide show of Caton's work was presented by photographer Robert Sengstacke. "He was the hippest, avant-gardest brother of them all," said Reverend Siddha Webber, who'd worked with Caton on murals on and off for 18 years. "He wasn't just an artist. He was a black artist--a strong black artist sent here on a mission to create and to inspire others."

Born in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Caton was raised in Chicago and went to DuSable High School. Shortly after graduation, according to Tyler Mitchell, Caton was awarded a commission to paint a portrait of Sidney Sanders McMath, then governor of Arkansas. That commission led to an art scholarship at the University of Little Rock, and he later attended the School of the Art Institute and the Art Student's League in New York. Caton would eventually settle down in Chicago, marrying Betty Hull in 1955. They had two children, Tyler and Lynda, and Caton worked through the 60s as a mail sorter in the downtown post office, where he met Walker.

In 1969 Caton was among a group of several artists who repainted sections of the Wall of Respect, which had been created two years earlier by a cadre of 20-odd black artists at the corner of 43rd and Langley. The outdoor mural, organized by Walker, had kicked off a nationwide movement. By 1970 Caton had joined the insurgent Chicago Mural Group (now the Chicago Public Art Group) and quit his job to concentrate on art.

Around the same time, Caton became interested in a neighborhood gathering place called Universal Alley, a backstreet near 50th and Saint Lawrence. Hundreds of people came to the alley every Sunday afternoon to listen to live jazz, party, and throw dice. Caton painted a warning to the neighborhood--his first solo work, Rip-Off--in the alley in 1970. It showed a pair of dice and two figures pushed against the wall as if they were being held up. Four years later he extended the mural, renaming it Universal Alley. Now barely visible, the work is the only remnant of the once-lively street scene.

Such straightforward subject matter was a departure from the images of black pride that dominated African-American murals at the time. Two other lost works from the early 70s, Nation Time and The Philosophy of the Spiritual, intricately depicted both the harmony and discord in the urban black experience, affirming the strength of African heritage while at the same time staring ghetto life straight in the eye. But Caton also differed from other muralists of the day because his work wasn't purely rhetorical. His fresh visual style--with figures emerging from backgrounds of colliding planes and colors--prompted Alan Barnett, author of the encyclopedic Community Murals: The People's Art, to proclaim Caton "among America's finest living painters."

Caton's collaborations with artist Calvin Jones, another member of the Chicago Mural Group, elevated form and style in mural painting, melding abstract design with narrative elements. Most of their brilliant Afrocentric collages can still be seen. The pair first worked together in 1976 on A Time to Unite at 41st and Drexel. A year later they painted In Defense of Ignorance at 83rd and Ashland; this now-faded mural broke new ground with its explicit critique of the black middle class, whose pursuit of wealth, the artists claimed, came at the price of cultural self-knowledge and the abandonment of the race.

Over the next decade, the duo painted Another Time's Voice Remembers My Passion's Humanity, a juxtaposition of images from traditional African society with scenes of the contemporary black neighborhood at 40th and Michigan; Builders of the Cultural Present, which praises such figures as poet Gwendolyn Brooks and sculptor Marion Perkins, at 71st and Jeffery; and the monumental Bright Moments, Memories of the Future, a celebration of black entertainers, on the New Regal Theater at 79th and Stony Island (finished in 1987, it was their final work together).

Jones, an advertising man turned painter, was featured in the Museum of Contemporary Art's recent exhibit "Art in Chicago: 1945-1995" (Caton was given a cursory mention in the show's catalog). Jones once told me that Caton had been one of his major influences. "I'd enjoyed the things he'd done around the city, and I wanted to hang out with him and clean his brushes," he said. "Cat and I both had vision problems, but we complemented each other. He was a gift to me because he was able to execute those things I had in my head but couldn't do. Another gift he gave me was a philosophy. He once said, 'Jones, just do it. Do it even if it's wrong. But do it.' It was like a light that went on, and his saying that to me has lasted to today."

Caton also painted indoor murals, including several celebrating Black History Month at the Museum of Science and Industry. He also left behind "hundreds" of paintings and drawings, few of which have ever been seen, according to artist Nii-Oti Zambezi, who worked with Caton on an antiapartheid mural in 1985 outside the Chicago Defender Building; it's Caton's most pointedly political piece.

In recent years, Caton spent more time away from Chicago. He'd been staying with his ailing mother in Oklahoma and with his son in New York. He painted his last outdoor work, Maya, with Siddha Webber in 1988 on a viaduct at 55th and Leavitt. "He was a producer to the fullest," says Tyler Mitchell. "You could do art shows from each of the last five decades, and every one would be different. He was always experimenting, constantly trying to develop new concepts. He was a master of detail, and you could tell he spent a lot of time at it. He worked nonstop; there was no time for framing or exhibiting. He wasn't interested in exhibiting his work--he just couldn't put a price to it. He was more into the art forms than the marketing part of it."

Despite the ravages of time, much of Caton's work can still be seen in the streets of the city. Five years ago, artist Bernard Williams restored Another Time's Voice Remembers My Passion's Humanity; there's also talk of his retouching Builders of the Cultural Present and Wall of Daydreaming, Man's Inhumanity to Man. But longevity was never Caton's goal. He described his mission 23 years ago after painting the Wall of Daydreaming: "The artist has an obligation to express his or her times, open up social ills, express People's needs, Community grievances--lay out the future for the naked eye to see or not to see. Sometimes an Individual has to go to the wall many times before they see the message there....If times change and it will and this mural does not fill the needs of the people in the community, then I feel the Mural should be painted out and another one painted in its place."

So far, that hasn't been necessary.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by Robert Segugstacke; "Builders of the Cultrual Present" by Mitchell Caton and Calvin Jones photo by John Pitman Weber.

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