When the City Colleges of Chicago announced plans in 2012 to replace the 41-year-old home of Malcolm X College at 1900 W. Van Buren, one of Chicago’s most unusual, if little-known public artworks became threatened — a group of 32 door murals by Eugene “Eda” Wade.
Eugene Eda’s Doors for Malcolm X College
When: Jan. 21-June 25
Where: Yates Gallery, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington
But through the efforts of Michelle Perkins, a member of the Malcolm X art faculty, and others, the doors were saved. They will go on view Jan. 21 at the Chicago Cultural Center as part of the events surrounding the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events’ Year of Public Art.
Daniel Schulman, the DCASE director of visual arts, calls this body of work from the Black Arts Movement one of the “landmarks” of public art from a nearly half-century ago.
Public art typically conjures outdoor sculptures like the iconic steel abstraction by Pablo Picasso that sits downtown in Daley Plaza. But the term also describes more broadly artworks of all kinds, including, yes, even door murals, which are on view in public realms beyond the confines of art museums or commercial galleries.
“The shows that we’re doing,” Schulman said of the DCASE’s Year of Public Art offerings, “emphasize how the definition of public art is pretty hard to pin down in that it’s always changing depending on the time and the place and how artists work with communities.”
In early 1971, Wade, fellow co-founder of the Chicago Mural Group, William Walker, and two other artists, took part in in an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago titled “Murals for the People.”
Malcolm X campus projects coordinator Rosa Moore approached him and Walker during the show’s run about painting murals on the 10-by-4-foot steel fire doors that led to four interior stairways in the renamed college’s then-new building. Walker declined to take part, so Wade took on the project on his own in 1971-72.
The structure, which was razed in 2016, was a noted example of international-style architecture by Gene Summers, a former assistant to Mies van der Rohe, and the Chicago-based-firm, C.F. Murphy Associates. They are best known for designing the 1971 McCormick Place convention center.
“When I went over there and I saw those doors, they were jet black,” Wade, 78, said from his home in Zachary, La., where the native Louisianian moved in 2005. “They were quite depressing. I thought it was a challenge.”
The artist chose acrylic paint for the project, because it dried quickly. “You must realize that during the time I was painting it,” he said, “I had students, constant traffic back and forth, and sometimes I would have to close off a section, so the students wouldn’t knock over my paint.”
Wade painted the same composition on both sides of each door, so that it could be seen regardless of whether the door was closed or open. He applied the paint in thick coats and then added two or three coats of varnish to protect it, and Schulman said the doors are in “great condition.”
The door murals depict subject matter from African and African-American history and culture. The artist sought to relate the imagery of each painting to the subjects being taught in that part of the building. For the doors near the music department, for example, he included images of John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.
Wade made full-size drawings on large sheets of tracing paper and transferred the compositions directly onto the doors. “Of course,” he said, “you can have pre-conceived ideas, but once I got under way even with the exact drawings, I ended up changing it, because it wasn’t working out with the composition and design that I had. Some of the objects were too small or too large, so I had to kind of adjust, and that’s what most artists do.”
Besides Egyptian and West African influences, the murals reflect modernist currents in 20th-century art, especially the flattened imagery of famed African-American painter Jacob Lawrence, one of Wade’s professors at Howard University. Among other influences, he cites Michelangelo, Picasso and Mexican muralists like Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros.
“If you look at various doors,” Wade said, “they deal with certain styles. Some of them are flat, graphic and two-dimensional and others have more of a painterly quality. And, then, some of the techniques are a combination of both types.”
Although several Chicago institutions, including the DuSable Museum of African American History, have expressed interest in acquiring the door murals, it’s not clear what will happen to them after the exhibition. “CCC is exploring permanent exhibition options both inside and out of our colleges that will allow our students and the public to continue to appreciate this historic artwork for years to come,” Wade said.