An Artist Versus Amoco
The wall at the rear of the Amoco station on the far eastern edge of Oak Park was streaked with graffiti. So station co-owner Johnnie Mason brought in artist Tia Jones to cover the wall with a mural, and things haven't been the same since.
The issue is this: Jones spent almost four months creating that mural--a colorful epic dedicated to the old African proverb "It takes a village to raise a child"; now Amoco wants to resurface the wall.
"We have no problems with the mural the artist put there," says Gary Stewart, a public affairs director for Amoco. "We have arranged for the artist to put up another mural or the same mural after the resurfacing is done."
Needless to say, Jones is horrified by the prospect of destroying the product of so much sweat and inspiration. She now finds herself in the unenviable position of trying to convince a corporate monolith that barely knows her name that a mural's no gas station to be erected, demolished, and erected again with one call from the boss downtown.
"They don't understand the way an artist works--they don't understand the hard work and preparation I put into this mural," says Jones. "I didn't just come out there and slap some paint on a wall. They don't understand that lightning can't strike twice."
In many ways the incident symbolizes her ambivalence toward Oak Park, where she's lived for the last six years. A south-sider by birth, she moved to the north side after graduating from the School of the Art Institute. Then she read an article about Oak Park's efforts to lure artists by offering them reduced rents in buildings near the village's east-side border with Chicago. "They interviewed me, made me show slides of my work, had me fill out forms," says Jones. "I was one of about 50 applicants. I didn't think I'd get it, but I did."
She moved into a village-owned two-flat on Harrison just west of Austin Boulevard, and opened the Whatever Comes to Mind gallery. Her early days were a struggle. Her work (jewelry, paintings, drawings, sculpture, and puppets) was well received, but the world had a hard heart for the unknown. Even Oak Park, open-minded and cosmopolitan by its own definition, was provincial in a way. Art lovers rarely made it to the east side, and those who came didn't have much money to spend. For a long time she had to work at a grocery store to pay her bills.
"People always tell me how grateful they are that I'm here, but they never darken my doorstep to come in and spend money," she says. "I don't think they understand art as well. On the other hand, there are some people who do feel the way I do and are very supportive. And I can't really say anything negative about the Oak Park officials who own and manage this building. A lot of artists would have been thrown out on their duff by now for being inconsistent about paying rent."
Jones settled in. She sent Skylar, her 11-year-old son, to local public schools, began to perform puppet shows around town, and was a dutiful neighbor who beautified the block by clearing the weeds from her front yard and planting a garden, which she embroidered with a lovely little picket fence made from twigs, sticks, and other scraps of wood.
"Tia's a good person to have in the neighborhood," says Helen Hardimon, Johnnie Mason's sister and the other owner of the gas station, which is just across the street from Jones's gallery. "I'm glad she's here."
About four months ago, Mason asked her to cover the wall with a mural. She retreated to her study to sketch, working on different designs for several weeks until inspiration struck. It would be a mingling of images--a little Norman Rockwell, a little folk art--dedicated to one theme: a community must take care of its own.
The mural she created is divided into three panels. "The first is something I took from a Norman Rockwell painting of a painter sitting on a scaffold painting the word 'life' on a billboard," says Jones. "In my mural he's painting 'It takes a village to raise a child.' Next to that I have an image of a baby floating in the sky and the baby has its umbilical cord attached to the city to show how the city nourishes the child. The third panel, which I haven't finished, will show an angel or a woman with wings and a child leaving her lap."
She worked on the mural off and on over the summer and into the fall, and had almost finished it when Mason stopped her on the street a few days ago. "He said Amoco's going to do a major thing--they're going to come out and prime the whole wall and I'll have to pay you to paint it again," says Jones. "I'm like, 'What? Pay me to do it again?' They're destroying my work, they're disrespecting it, and I'm supposed to come out there and do it again? I spent hours on a ladder risking my life to paint that mural, and you want me to just do it again?"
"I don't know why they're doing this. But I wonder sometimes if it's the subject matter. I was clear not to make the woman with the wings voluptuous. I made sure not to add nipples because that's sexual. I guess it all comes down to how anal you are."
Mason says he finds nothing offensive about the mural, and that he's only following company policy. "The Amoco sales rep told me it had to come down because the wall's peeling," says Mason. "It's nothing against the artist. I like the work. She can come back and paint it again if she wants."
Stewart agrees. "The bottom line is we want to be a cooperative member of the community and honor the diversity that's there as we spruce up the station," says Stewart. "We have talked to the artist. We will continue to talk to her. But the fact is the wall's peeling and we'll just have to do the best we can to deal with the cards that Mother Nature has given us. Despite the fact that Amoco is a global business we have great value for the neighborhoods we work in--we hope to always maintain our focus on that."
Such assurances, Jones says, are irrelevant. "They can peel around my mural without priming over the whole wall," she says. "They can peel what's peeling and then let me paint and seal it. But tear it down? No way. If I did, you watch, in six months they'd come back and take it down again. It's so disrespectful. I don't think Amoco sees the difference between this and if I just went up there and drew a picture of Fred Flintstone."
If the party's like the planning sessions, it will be one rocking affair at Roosevelt High School come November 17.
That's when the alumni club organized by retired Merc trader Arnie Kamen (class of '50) holds another fund-raiser to raise money for scholarships and equipment for the high school at Wilson and Kimball in Albany Park.
These fund-raisers have become an annual ritual for Kamen--an eloquent expression of his unceasing, almost maniacal dedication to Roosevelt and its students. It goes beyond the rims, uniforms, TV cameras, and scholarships he's purchased. Or the school games he attends (all sports, both sexes), or his endless noodginess. It's his heartfelt conviction that no spirit is as transforming as the pride and love one has for one's school. "If you believe in your school you can believe in yourself," he says.
Two years ago Kamen filled the gym for a roast honoring Manny Weincord, the Roosevelt Rough Riders' legendary basketball coach. Last year he organized an old-timers basketball game. The highlight came at halftime, when an ex-cheerleader named Harriet Wilson Ellis ('56) burst from the stands to lead the crowd in cheer.
This year Kamen's staging a sock hop, with a DJ spinning everything from standards to rock 'n' roll. Rumor has it that Ellis has cooked up a surprise, though she won't give a clue.
"Von Steuben had a sock hop in May and they got 2,000 [people]; they've been talking about it ever since," says Kamen, barely hiding his disdain for Roosevelt's ancient rival, located a half mile north on the "swankier" side of Lawrence Avenue. "Of course, that was their first affair in 50 years and we bring them in every year. Anyway, we're gonna have hot dogs, chips, soft drinks, and a disc jockey. Bob Sirott's gonna be there; he's a graduate, you know. It starts at six and goes to whenever. If anyone has any questions, tell them to call me at 708-432-2773."
Kamen's been plotting the event for months, meeting with a planning committee consisting of Weincord, Ellis, and Roberta Goldin, another grad. I joined them one evening in September as they plotted strategy over pasta at an Italian restaurant on the near north side.
After hearing endless analysis of such things as who's bringing the soda pop, Weincord could take no more. "Arnie, I love you," he blurted, "but how many times are you gonna tell us where you're putting the tables?"
Afterward we drove west on Montrose to drop Weincord at his car. Kamen and I huddled in the front over the radio, listening as the Packers pummeled the Bears.
"If the Bears don't make this first down the whole season's over," Arnie declared. Green Bay was up 27-7.
"Arnie," I said, "it's the second game of the season."
"I'm turning it off--we're jinxing them," he said.
"That's crazy--nothing you do has any effect on that game."
Nonetheless, when he turned the radio back on the Bears had not only made that first down, they had scored. By the time we dropped Weincord off they had scored again. By the time we returned to the near north side they were within three. "I told you, I told you," Kamen said.
Unfortunately they lost in the last minutes when quarterback Erik Kramer fumbled, just as Kamen and the others went to a jazz club and I headed home for bed. "You're too young to go to bed so early," Kamen said when he called the next morning. "You young folks don't know how to have fun."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.