As Chicago’s Year of Public Art draws to a close, the city on Monday will dedicate a most powerful entry into its cultural landscape: the Kerry James Marshall mural honoring 20 prominent women, adorning the Garland Court façade of the Chicago Cultural Center.

Artist Kerry James Marshall | FACEBOOK

“This is one of the premiere artists in the world, a Chicago resident, who has created a mural that speaks to the history of women who’ve changed the trajectory of our city,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel. “[Over the course of this year], the work of hundreds of artists across the city who are mural painters, or sculptors or photographers is being recognized. … Chicago as a city is a canvas [for] public art.”

It was Marshall who decided the massive mural’s topic and the list, which includes such luminaries as Gwendolyn Brooks, Maggie Daley, Sandra Cisneros, Oprah Winfrey and Lois Weisberg.

“Given it’s the Cultural Center and its role in the city, it made perfect sense to honor these women who’ve been important to cultural life in so many institutions,” Marshall said. The artist then sought out images of each of the 20 that would “fit together” on the shape and space — the fresco mural covers 132 feet by 100 feet — of the doorway façade. Most of the actual painting was done by Chicago muralist Jeff Zimmermann and his team based on Marshall’s studio artwork rendering, enlarged and transferred to the wall using series of cutout pattern sheets and charcoal dots.

Artist Jeff Zimmerman paints a mural by artist Kerry James Marshall on the Cultural Center on Wednesday, November 29, 2017. | Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun Times

“It’s kind of a concrete canyon back there, and I wanted an image that does not close it up even more,” Marshall said, “but give it a more expansive feel, a green space feel. … Conceptually, if you think of a tree trunk and carve into it, you end up with [the color palette] because it’s a brownish hue, the color of wood. Then it’s a matter of where the heads are carved out, much like a totem. And that limestone surface is not smooth, though it looks like it should be smooth. [Laughs] It made it difficult to go against the grain of the stone. That was maybe the biggest challenge.”

Chicago Shakespeare Theater artistic director Barbara Gaines was stunned to learn of her own inclusion in the work. “I look at Gwendolyn’s poetry, and I look at Jackie Taylor and all these other women who are brilliant artists and leaders in their own right, and being in their company is just impossible for me to process,” said Gaines, a longtime friend of Marshall and his wife, Cheryl Lynn Bruce (also depicted on the mural “for her work with Goodman Theatre’s Dearborn Homes Youth Drama Workshop”).

Taylor, the founder and CEO of Black Ensemble Theater, was also unaware of her inclusion in the artwork, until she read about it in a newspaper.

“I glanced at the story and then I saw my name and it was ‘Oh my God!’ ” Taylor said. “To be part of this group for all time, I’m just ecstatic that it’s a women’s tribute. I think it’s so vitally important and speaks to how society must change in terms of honoring women.”

What will the mural say to young women years from now as they glance at the names and faces?

“You can do it!” Gaines said emphatically. “You can have your dream and make it come true. Look at what you can accomplish when you have a passion for the arts.”

Added Taylor, “I hope young girls 20 years from now will know it’s their choice to be whatever they want to be. There are no limitations.”

For the artist, the list is just the beginning. “Of course, there’s always someone else who could be there, and I got a few emails from folks about that,” Marshall said, with a chuckle. “If that’s your belief, then this is an opportunity to do another one. There are lots of buildings in Chicago. One picture should not have to do everything for everybody.”

The painting of the Kerry James Marshall mural at the Cultural Center’s Garland Court entrance has been going on for the past several months. | Patrick L. Pyszka

The 20 women featured in the mural are:

Gwendolyn Brooks, Illinois Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner
Abena Joan Brown, founder of eta Creative Arts Foundation
Cheryl Lynn Bruce, actress and co-founder of Goodman Theatre’s Dearborn Homes Youth Drama Workshop
Margaret Burroughs, founder of DuSable Museum of African American History
Sandra Cisneros, literary icon
Maggie Daley, longest-serving First Lady of the City of Chicago
Sandra Delgado, founding ensemble member of Collaboraction Theatre
Barbara Gaines, founder and artistic director of Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Suzanne Ghez, director and chief curator of The Renaissance Society
Joan Gray, dancer and president of Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago
Monica Haslip, founder and executive director of Little Black Pearl
Barbara Jones-Hogu, founding member of AfriCobra artists collective
Harriet Monroe, founder of Poetry Magazine
Achy Obejas, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist
Ruth Page, dancer/choreographer and founder of the Ruth Page Center for the Arts
Jacqueline Russell, founder and artistic director of Chicago Children’s Theatre
Jane Saks, founding director of the Ellen Stone Belic Institute and Project&
Jackie Taylor, founder/CEO of Black Ensemble Theater
Lois Weisberg, longest-serving commissioner of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs
Oprah Winfrey, cultural icon, media mogul/Academy Award winner