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Painting Large

Hector Duarte and Mariah de Forest bring art to the Swap-O-Rama.

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Hector Duarte wears a characteristic red bandanna. It makes him look swashbuckling, a blue-jeaned pirate of mural art. Mariah de Forest has donned a print dress and a sun hat that ties around her chin; she resembles a home gardener. Today they're not up on the scissors lift painting; they're on terra firma talking. They stand together in this large empty parking lot at 4100 S. Ashland and point at a very long building wall full of flying squares and spheres. The biggest mural in Chicago is still a couple of months from being done.

"We were just arguing," says Mariah. But it's not like they're mad at each other. They were discussing. Plotting.

Hector speaks and understands very little English but Mariah is fairly fluent in Spanish. He's a Pilsen-based, nationally acclaimed muralist and painter who has founded art schools in his native Mexico; she's a part-time labor relations consultant with degrees in painting, art history, and philosophy. Since the summer of '92 it's been just the two of them and this vast wall: 425 feet long, 20 feet high--8,500 square feet. Their client, Concession Services, Inc., which owns the Swap-O-Rama flea market here on Ashland, calls this "the largest such project ever undertaken in Chicago."

The mural is inspired by the loteria game cards popular in Mexico and in Mexican American communities. It's being painted on the south wall of the Swap-O-Rama, a low, broad building set back from Ashland in this Back of the Yards neighborhood, some distance behind a McDonald's where the muralists often go for lunch and coffee.

For all its size, the mural is not readily visible from Ashland. It won't turn necks or snarl traffic. But Mariah says the wall's relative inaccessibility doesn't bother her. The challenge is the thing, "to make it as fine as it can possibly be." She points out that their previous mural, the four-story Chicago Everyone's City, is on the back of a savings and loan on Milwaukee a few doors north of Division. Displaying four flags (of Poland, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and the U.S.) that reflect the neighborhood's mixed ethnic heritage, and an el that seems to rumble right off the building, this 1991 mural faces an alley and a couple of parking lots. If you don't live, bank, or park there, you'll never see it.

Since I live in the neighborhood behind the S&L and often cut through the alley, I was able to watch Hector and Mariah slowly bring that mural alive over a period of six months. That's when I got to know them as a team. I already knew of Hector's numerous wall paintings in the Pilsen area, his murals at the Harold Washington Library and the Lakeview Learning Center at Clark and School, and his annual Day of the Dead installations at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Musuem.

I was awed to learn that Hector had been enrolled at the Siqueiros Mural Workshop at Cuernavaca in the late 1970s and went on to restore some of the master's works in Mexico: to me, this was a brush with greatness, even if he never met the man (who died in 1974). Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros were Mexico's los tres grandes muralists. Siqueiros was the most radical of the three, aesthetically and politically; he pioneered spatial and compositional techniques that Hector still uses.

Mariah was new on the street-art scene. I'd later learn that she's taught art history at many area universities since the late 60s and has exhibited her studio paintings at the Art Institute and the Detroit Institute of Arts, as well as at galleries in Chicago, California, and Pennsylvania. Her last teaching stint, in the mid-1970s, was at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she says she was "the youngest teacher and only female" in the art history department. "I'm now an ex-art historian," she says. "I decided to make an honest living."

She's only worked on a few murals here since 1990 (the first Duarte-de Forest collaboration was an indoor mural at Highland Park High School). But Mariah, a Ukrainian Village resident, is well schooled in the Chicago mural tradition; this city, after all, was the birthplace of the contemporary community mural movement and the Chicago mural renaissance, both in the late 1960s. These traditions have cross-pollinated over the last quarter century, and they merge in Hector and Mariah.

Once she didn't see the point in painting murals; now she doesn't see the point in painting much of anything else. "I used to think, you can't sell them, people can't buy them and put them in their house," Mariah says. "They fade and peel. But I changed my mind."

Hector returns from the McDonald's with three cups of coffee. We go sit on a big pile of railroad ties in the middle of a weedy lot. Mariah explains that this lot was recently purchased by the Chicago Board of Education as a future school site; visible from here is the board's imposing complex on Pershing Road, poking up behind a tangle of railroad switching tracks. It's a quintessential south-side landscape, industrial brawn and wholesale meat houses colliding with corner taps and frame housing. It occurs to me that if Siqueiros had come to Chicago, the Back of the Yards would've been the ideal place for him to paint a mural to the working masses. From where we're sitting, we can take in the entire sweep of the loteria mural a few hundred feet to the north. Mariah says that she and Hector often take breaks to sit here on the ties and compare their scale drawing to the wall.

"If you saw this mural on a piece of paper, it would look like a Chinese scroll," says Mariah, lighting a smoke. "And like a scroll, it recounts a series of events over a period of time, like a series of snapshots. It's not something you can look at and apprehend in one glimpse--you have to stand back two blocks. How's it going to look in its totality? If you saw it all at once, would it make sense? You don't want a series of disconnected things. We want a unified whole. But it's a three-part composition, because your eyes can only see one part at a time. As an art historian and practicing muralist, I can't honestly think of any other mural compositions that do this--that are conceived as an event in time, as a continuum from one point to another point till you get to the end of it."

Loteria is played much like bingo, except that pictures are used instead of numbers; Hector says he played the game at a Pilsen art opening a few nights before. The pictures, on a set of about 50 game cards, are of such things as a parasol, cactus, hand, rose, palm tree, Jolly Roger, moon, bell, and heart. If your game board contains a picture matching one on the card a caller draws, you place a kernel of corn on the square. You win a prize if you complete a row.

Altogether, there will be 23 loteria game card images on the mural, on either side of a huge, ugly heating and air-conditioning unit. Since the unit's there in the middle of the Swap-O-Rama wall, the muralists have embraced it; Hector is el maestro at site-specific improvisation: The intrusive box functions as a "deus ex machina," as Mariah says, a generating force that sucks in cards on one side and spits them out in spinning bubbles on the other.

Mexican Americans will instantly identify the loteria pictures; Anglos won't. But Mariah says that doesn't make any difference. "We chose images primarily for visual reasons, the ones that would most easily hark back to the culture of Mexico," she says. "But other people will look at them and sense they're tied to another culture, too. [The mural] will have a very evocative, mysterious quality to it, an almost strangely surrealistic resonance, with things floating in ethereal space."

The theme was their idea. "Nobody ever said, we want this or that," says Mariah. "Maybe something with a Hispanic theme--that's the most specific anybody has been, because this area has changed [ethnically]. Loteria cards have never been utilized in a mural before, and we fully expected everybody to steal the idea from us. It's a theme that expresses Mexican popular culture and reflects daily life in Mexico. It's not pyramids and feathered serpents."

The commission came through in mid-1992 and Hector and Mariah started working on the mural a year ago last fall. They painted for about six weeks, until it got too cold. They rented a scissors lift, and used brushes attached to 12-foot poles and pricey but durable acrylic paint. After Swap-O-Rama workmen primed the wall, Hector and Mariah laid down a geometric grid as a compositional guide--a 400-foot-long series of crisscrossing diagonal, vertical, and horizontal lines. This, they explain, is "polyangularism," a method developed by Siqueiros in the 1930s to project the illusion of three-dimensional space.

Hector mastered the polyangular "dynamic symmetry" technique in 1977-78 when he won a scholarship to the Siqueiros Mural Workshop in Mexico and was officially designated by the Siqueiros family to restore some of the master's murals in Cuernavaca and Mexico City. Hector has also painted his own murals in Cuernavaca, Zacatecas, and Michoacan, and he was a founding member of the House of Culture in Zamora, Mexico. Like Siqueiros, who equated politically radical art with radical methods and materials, Hector has got mural art down to a science.

"This method isn't well-known anymore," Hector says in Spanish, as Mariah translates. "I'm the only one who uses it [in this country]. Even in Mexico, they don't like to use it. Since the 60s, the old ways have been repudiated. A newer generation of painters are painting with New York and European influences."

Siqueiros was a charismatic, polemical Communist Party firebrand who with muralists Rivera and Orozco agitated for a revolution in Mexican politics and a renaissance in Mexican art. He was repeatedly jailed in Mexico for his leftist activism and hounded from one country to another. Seeking a worldwide "artists syndicate," Siqueiros held workshops in Los Angeles in 1932 and in New York in 1936; an unknown Jackson Pollock was a student at both.

With these early workshops, Siqueiros sought to overthrow the elite orthodoxies of easel art and create a monumental public art--a "dialectical realism" that would express the social ideology of the masses. A true cultural worker, he called for the use of modern industrial tools (spray guns, auto lacquer paint, airbrushes) and "revolutionary" spatial-compositional techniques. Over the years, Siqueiros--who would win increasing acceptance in Mexico--perfected his "polyangular vision," in which rectilinear compositional devices and architectural elements are used to create a unified environment.

It's this method--minus the strident plight-of-the-oppressed-proletariat message--that has been passed down to Hector. And then from Hector to Mariah. (Most of Hector's murals, including the recent Honor Boricua at Evergreen and Rockwell, stress themes of cultural identity and racial harmony.) The loteria mural, says Mariah, "will be a leap beyond what Siqueiros developed in Mexico."

Siqueiros set up his workshop in Cuernacava in the 1940s. Wen he died in 1974, his wife Angelica continued the workshop for a few years; it was headed by a cadre of the artist's close associates and older students. They taught technique and restored their teacher's murals. "I learned directly from them," says Hector. "The people who worked with him, they started out painting just like him. When they stopped painting directly with him they started painting in their own particular styles. They modified certain aspects, so they didn't pass along precisely original ideas. But they made it a point to try and teach his methods and concepts to others, how to do it step by step. It was almost like a formula, broken down by numbers, so others could utilize it. They taught you how to break down a wall so that it becomes a dynamic, living thing that also has a strong relationship to the architecture, how to organize three-dimensional space."

Though Hector never worked directly with Siqueiros, he feels he knows him. "He was a master, with a wild mane of hair, an impresario. He was a natural-born leader who risked his neck for his politics, an innovator--idealistically as well as technically. He was the first to use modern materials and not stay in the past. When he came [to the U.S.], he took advantage of the very advanced materials and techniques that were here. He didn't want to stay in the Renaissance."

The loteria mural's polyangular grid stayed on the Swap-O-Rama wall over the winter, and the muralists resumed work last May. Now Hector and Mariah have only to polish up a few of the loteria card images and finish filling in the city-lights backdrop. Battling the weather and working into the night under the building's spotlights, the two don't expect to be done until mid-November, maybe later. They won't have a dedication until early next summer--when they'll be painting the front of the flea market building, too.

I ask Hector and Mariah how they hooked up as a mural team. She translates; they laugh. It was fall 1986, a Mexican mask exhibit at the Cortland-Leyten Gallery. Hector was working on his Lakeview Learning Center mural. Mariah went to see it. Though she wasn't really thrilled with murals, she started "advising" him, on the street and in the studio. "Then I dropped by to look at the mural he was doing at the Highland Park High School," she says. "He asked me, would you like to paint? He gave me the hardest areas to do. It was the most frustrating thing in the world, painting on a wall. I was extremely embarrassed. But I sort of like hitched on."

And then one day she had an "illumination."

Now, Mariah says, "it's extremely thrilling to paint large, because you're changing space in which people live. It's not a solitary, solipsistic activity--that gets dreary. You're out there in the public, with people walking by, and you're a social human creature. Most of the time people see a mural when it's not finished, so 99 percent of the time it doesn't look good. What's that, people ask, how big is it gonna be, how much you getting paid? It's like being in the world of the living, and it does a lot for your morale. It makes you feel like a member of the human race. Art on the walls in a museum sense has been eliminated as a meaningful activity. It's trivialized, meaningless. There's tremendous disenchantment and a lack of belief in art for viewing. But [painting murals] is a heroic endeavor. How much art can you say these days is heroic?"

Hector smiles and says in English: "It's not enchiladas."

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

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