Artist restoring her past in Hyde Park

Caryl Yasko, 67, is doing something new for something old under a Hyde Park viaduct: restoring the mural that jumpstarted her career as an artist in the early 1970s.

The mural, 'Under City Stone,' near 55th Street and Lake Park Avenue, depicts a poem called ‘Rapid Transit,’ written by renowned author James Agee.

Yasko started the restoration a few weeks ago, stopping Oct. 10 for the winter. She plans to continue restoration next spring after she finds funding sometime this winter.

Painted with the help of community volunteers in 1972, Yasko’s work has long been deteriorating due to wet conditions and the efforts of various cement-patching crews over the past 36 years. Yasko has since painted many other murals throughout Chicagoland and Wisconsin, but, she said, this one is special.

“It’s a historic piece,” she said, reverently touching the crackling paint she applied so long ago. “I was volunteering [locally], working with William Walker, the father of the mural movement in Chicago.” She said after she had volunteered with him for a while at a local elementary school, he asked her to work on a proposal for a mural. A year later, she was awarded the project.

Over the course of a few summer months, Yasko’s dream became a reality, and causing what a writer for the Hyde Park Herald called an “explosion of murals,” and the founding of the Chicago Mural Group, now the Chicago Public Art Group. She said she has moved on to paint many more murals, declaring the work “fine art.”

Approaching the portrait of a woman on the wall, barely recognizable except for the remnants of painted folds in the figure’s green and yellow skirt, Yasko jabbed a finger at the artistic elements of her design. She said her intention was to paint fine public art.

And the mural was fine art: bright clothing a backdrop for diverse faces and figures rushing towards unknown destinations. The poem flows along the top of the painting, noting sparkling city lights and the roar of the trains above.

Thirty-six years later, the paint is chipped and peeling, and encroaching water damage overrun the emotion and expression that Yasko and 44 others put into the work. Water leaks from the ceiling towards the ground, evading gutters, and a new drainage system installed by the railroad flows directly onto parts of the giant painting.

Yasko said it is worth the $40,000 price tag for initial restoration, and she looks forward to repainting the mural’s slightly dated portraits. Chicago Public Art Group is helping her raise funding and at least 30 donors have pledged or given everything from charcoal to lunch.

She said whether or not those faces are still part of the community is immaterial to the project because of what the mural actually represents. It is, she said the first in Chicago by a woman, and the last remnant of old mural tradition she learned.

She will be using a different type of paint she restores the mural to allow it to last longer than her past efforts.

Asked if painting over the lines she painted all those years ago upset her, Yasko grew quiet and teary-eyed. She didn’t answer.

Discuss

JULIE CRAGHEAD, 10-21-2008

Great article. Who doesn't love public art?