A bronze bust of Jean-Baptiste Pointe DuSable that now sits on the Magnificant Mile was hit by vandals recently, but the black paint marring DuSable’s face had been removed by Monday night without any obvious permanent damage.
The city had earlier told the artist who created the work that it would hire an outside conservator to remove the black paint that had been applied across DuSable’s eyes, some of it running down his face to give the appearance of tears. City officials confirmed the conservator began work Monday morning.
Artist Erik Blome told the Chicago Sun-Times on Monday that his assistant noticed the defacement on Saturday while biking past the bust of the “Founder of Chicago” in Pioneer Court, on Michigan Avenue just north of the Chicago River. A vandal used what looked like black enamel to paint what appeared to be a mask over the eyes of DuSable, Blome said.
Blome, whose studio is in Woodstock, notified a Chicago friend, Owen Leroy, on Sunday about the defacement. Leroy went to the scene later Sunday and took photographs of the vandalism.
“When you see something like that, it hurts, definitely,” Leroy said. “I didn’t want to make anything about it except, who is that idiot who has the time to do such a thing?”
Leroy said he also wondered “Why would they do that on Martin Luther King weekend?” Blome said another friend indicated he noticed the vandalism as recently as last Thursday.
DuSable, a native of Haiti, is credited with opening Chicago’s first trading post and settlement in the 1770s near the junction of the Chicago River and Upper Michigan Avenue.
Haitian-born Lesly Benodin of Evanston donated the bust to the city of Chicago, and it was erected in 2009 under then-Mayor Richard M. Daley. The Haitian community pushed for years for a Chicago monument to DuSable, but since its donation, the city technically owns the bust, Blome said.
Blome said that’s why he couldn’t just repair the bust on his own. Blome said he notified Nathan Mason, the city’s curator of exhibits and public art, by email late Sunday morning about the vandalism and offered to repair it at no cost to the city. But Mason replied by email that he had called a conservator to repair it, Blome said.
Mason did not respond to emails from the Sun-Times seeking details on how and when the paint was removed.
Blome had been worried that an outside conservator would not know what chemical to use to ensure the bust’s color and patina were maintained.
A city spokeswoman said the restoration work was estimated at $500 and “it is the best practice in conservation to hire a conservator to deal with object restoration rather than the original artist.”
But Blome said he used a very specific patina, an unusually hot ferric nitrate and a special wax on the bronze bust. “I wish they had consulted me. I didn’t hear from them in any way that gave me a chance to do the work correctly,” at no cost to the city, Blome said.
In an emailed statement, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said, “The defacement of this treasure disrespects all Chicagoans and attacks the heritage of our heroes and the common values that they stood for.”
Chicago Police were notified about the defacement shortly after 1:30 p.m. Monday, although who alerted them was not known, a police spokeswoman said. Investigators were dispatched to the scene.
“I’ve seen a lot of defacement to sculptures, but this was kind of weird,” said Blome, who also has created public sculptures of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Milwaukee, Rosa Parks in Dallas and the Blackhawks at the United Center.
“The problem with [defacing] a sculpture of the only African-American on Michigan Avenue in bronze is it looks racially motivated. But it may be that they just did it to the first sculpture they saw. You don’t know,” Blome said.
Thousands of emails about the vandalism were shared over the weekend, particularly among Chicago’s Haitian community, said Leroy, a native of Haiti and owner of a Chicago publishing company. Even Lesly Conde, the consul general of the Republic of Haiti in Chicago, called Leroy afterward to get details about the incident, Leroy said.
“He kind of calmed me down because I was so upset about it,” Leroy said.
“To all of us Haitians, the bust was very important for us, just as a way to say `We are in Chicago,’ ” Leroy added. “He said it was probably some kids who did that and not to take it seriously.”
The bust also has special meaning for the DuSable Museum of African-American History, which uses the image of the bust on its website and banners.
Its curator, Charles Bethea, said in an emailed statement Monday that the DuSable Museum “is saddened that an image which we often use to represent our connection to the Founding Father of the City of Chicago was damaged in such a manner.”
By Monday night, the paint had been removed. | Rosalind Rossi/Sun-Times