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Writing on the Wall

How Constance Mortell went from battling graffiti artists to making them her life's work.


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By Jeff Huebner

Constance Mortell says that if you'd told her a decade ago that someday she'd invest her life savings in making a film about a group of Chicago graffiti artists, "I would've laughed in your face." But a few months ago the first-time writer and director screened an early version of her feature-length Sketches at the Mercury Theater on Southport, and interest was so high that back-to-back screenings had to be quickly arranged.

Mortell had produced several promotional videos before, but says, "I'd never taken a film class in my life. I didn't know what I was doing. Are you kidding? I'll never do another movie without preproduction. I didn't see an inch of film for a month. And postproduction, editing, music--I've literally learned every lesson and made every mistake that you could possibly make. But I felt so strongly about the young artists I'd met."

Mortell grew up in Kankakee, spending the summers in Montana on her grandparents' ranch. She says she was a "clinically hyperactive, rebellious tomboy. I was a terrible student, and I was in trouble all the time." In 1971 she got an English-literature degree from the University of Colorado ("I spent a lot of time marching against the war"), then moved to Denver to work as a sound engineer and commercial photographer. For most of the 80s she ran a real estate development company that specialized in moderately priced apartment-to-condo conversions. But when Colorado's tax laws changed, she says, "it drove apartment buildings sky-high--and drove me out of the market." She came back home and in 1988 earned a master's degree in urban planning and policy from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

She then took a job as the development director of the Holy Family Preservation Society, helping to raise $2 million to restore the near-west-side landmark. A video she produced about the church's history won a local Cable Access Network award and was a documentary finalist at the 1990 Hometown USA Video Festival.

Mortell got the idea for a film about urban teens while she was at Holy Family. "I met good young people and families at ABLA Homes. I saw strongly spiritual families of men and women coming together, really good kids trying to do good things in their lives. I said, One of these days I'm going to mouth off about single mothers, families, and urban neighborhoods. I've seen so many good things, but all I read about are bad things."

In 1992 she moved on to the CTA, where she worked on publicity and special projects. Among other things, she coordinated the media campaign for the reopening of the Green Line, persuaded the agency to let artists paint some of the buses in the fleet--and figured out a way to deter vandalism. She'd toured CTA sites with president Robert Belcaster, and they'd seen plenty of good illegal paintings. "We saw how technically skilled these artists were. They had real, raw talent and deserved more venues. They were doing highly sophisticated art with a lot of abstraction--a very intuitive, in-the-moment outpouring of complex characters and wild-style letters--and they were using spray cans! We said, 'Let's try to harness this creativity and do something positive.'"

In September '92 Belcaster told reporters, "There is a form of graffiti that is in fact art," the first time an agency official had publicly acknowledged a difference between graffiti art and mere tagging. Mortell put the word out on the street that the CTA wanted to hold a graffiti art contest, and later that year she met with more than 50 young artists in a CTA boardroom. "We told them, 'We're willing to give you walls in exchange for you to stop bombing our stations and railcars.' Most crews agreed, since they just wanted legitimate places to do art, to get their good pieces up."

Over the next four years as many as 28 groups of artists participated in the annual spring contest, painting 14 designated CTA sites--subway and el stations, bus terminals, and retaining walls. Members of the crew that took first place each year won scholarships to Columbia College or the School of the Art Institute. Mortell, who ran the contests, says only one crew was kicked out, for illegal painting.

The CTA had been spending as much as $15 million a year on graffiti removal. "We saved millions of dollars over the first year," says Mortell. "Painters at the CTA were amazed at how much less they had to clean up. Nobody could believe that it worked." A video she made for the American Public Transit Association about the contests, Make the Change, which aired on local public TV, spawned similar efforts in other cities.

As she worked with the kids, Mortell realized they'd been given a bad rap. She was especially impressed with their color-blind collaborative spirit. "These young people come from all kinds of ethnic and cultural neighborhoods, and they work cooperatively to produce meaningful art with positive results. They're highly intelligent, highly sensitive, with an incredible sense of humor. They're really underestimated. They take life's difficulties and tragedies and turn them into art."

Resolving to turn the kids' lives into art, Mortell wrote the script for Sketches over nine months of evenings and weekends in 1995, basing her two dozen characters on teens she got to know while running the contests. In May 1996 she left the CTA to devote full time to making the film.

Mortell had offers of outside funding, but she wanted to retain control of the script. She wound up investing almost all of her savings, $50,000, in the film, and later she would have to raise $20,000 more to finish it. The picture--which features original art and a score by local hip-hop, rap, jazz, blues, and rock performers--was shot in 18 days last summer at various near-west and near-south-side locations. Mortell worked with a crew of 15, who were "paid next to nothing," and an unpaid cast of more than 20 young people, most of whom responded to notices in newspapers and at the Chicago Film Office.

A blend of narrative and documentary elements, Sketches is a series of gritty vignettes that focus on a group of inner-city teenagers as they forge friendships through art, poetry, and music. A climactic graffiti art contest ties the threads together. "It's all about extended family, about the values of urban kids in general," Mortell says. "I wanted to show a vast variety of kids--we had storytellers, we had skateboarders and hip-hoppers. It's not just about graffiti. Most people have such misperceptions about inner-city neighborhoods. But there are people living lives--families get up and go to jobs, kids go to school, people pay taxes, they plant flower and vegetable gardens. It's not all Beirut. It's not all drive-by shootings and random violence. I wanted to show the positive side, the flavor of neighborhoods."

This fall Mortell screened a new cut of Sketches at the Independent Feature Film Market in New York, where she says it received a "very warm response. The fact that anybody's interested at all--I was thrilled. I'm still learning this thing." She says she was especially gratified by the comments of the young people in the audience. "They said it seemed really true to them--that they came off believing these were real kids and that's what kids' lives are like. I'm going, 'All right!' It was the same kind of feedback I'd gotten from kids in Chicago." She's now in touch with several small distributors and agents and says she might show the film in Chicago again soon.

Mortell is quick to point out, "It's not just my film. It's a reflection of the cast, the crew, the musicians, the artists--all the people who brought the story of these kids' lives alive on-screen. I can't tell you how kind and helpful people have been. I gained so many friends. I love this part of the world--the people in it are genuine, and they genuinely love art. It was truly a collaborative effort."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Eugene Zakusilo.


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