clock menu more-arrow no yes
Artist Chris Devins in front of his photo mural of Nat King Cole at 43rd Street and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
Artist Chris Devins in front of his photo mural of Nat King Cole at 43rd Street and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
Chris Devins

Filed under:

South Sider creates ‘photo murals’ of artistic icons from Chicago’s black community

Gwendolyn Brooks, Common, Jennifer Hudson, Nat King Cole and others with links to the city are among those featured on Chris Devins’ murals.

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks died in 2000, but her presence still looms over the South Side, where she lived and produced some of her most important work.

A “photo mural” of Brooks as a young adult — holding a copy of her acclaimed, 1945 poetry collection “A Street in Bronzeville” — was unveiled earlier this year on a building at 43rd Street and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

The image is more than an homage to a woman who, as one retrospective of her work put it, “illustrated the beauty and hardships of African American life on the South Side.”

It’s part of a larger vision of artist Chris Devins, who has made it his mission to beautify South Side neighborhoods by creating these kinds of murals while also showcasing and celebrating the area’s African American culture, past and present.

A photo mural of storied poet Gwendolyn Brooks holding her 1945 book “A Street in Bronzeville.”
A photo mural of storied poet Gwendolyn Brooks holding her 1945 book “A Street in Bronzeville.”
Sun-Times staff

Other murals from Devins, a Hyde Park native, feature famed pianist and singer Nat King Cole (a photo mural at 43rd Street and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive) and writer Lorraine Hansberry (a more traditional mural that he commissioned and Jeff Zimmermann painted at 51st Street and Calumet Avenue). Cole and Hansberry, both dead for many years, had deep Chicago ties.

I’m not trying to live in the past, but sometimes you can’t get where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been,” Devins says, adding, “The South Side still has a lot of local flavor to play with.”

A mural on 51st Street of writer Lorraine Hansberry, commissioned by Chris Devins and painted by Jeff Zimmermann.
A mural on 51st Street of writer Lorraine Hansberry, commissioned by Chris Devins and painted by Jeff Zimmermann.
Sun-Times staff
A photo mural at 43rd Street and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive shows Nat King Cole.
A photo mural at 43rd Street and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive shows Nat King Cole.
Sun-Times staff

Current artists with South Side roots, including singer Jennifer Hudson and rapper Common, are the subjects of other Devins photo murals, on buildings along 79th Street in Chatham.

A Chris Devins photo mural of Jennifer Hudson.
A Chris Devins photo mural of Jennifer Hudson.
Provided photo
Common as seen in a Chris Devins photo mural.
Common as seen in a Chris Devins photo mural.
Sun-Times staff

Not all of his images focus on the famous.

For instance, his “Black Girl Magic” photo mural at 60th Street and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive features a woman standing in front of a leafy bush, arms by her side, palms open.

A Chris Devins mural he calls “black girl magic” has been washed from a previous location and recreated at 6059 S. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr.
A Chris Devins mural he calls “black girl magic” has been washed from a previous location and recreated at 6059 S. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr.
Provided photo

At 104th Street and Maryland Avenue, Devins created a photo mural of black rail workers and their pioneering labor leader to decorate the outside of the National A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum, which focuses on Pullman porters, who hold an important place in Chicago history and, more broadly, black history.

Devins, who’s an urban planner in addition to being a well-known artist, doesn’t like to talk in detail about how he creates his signature photo murals. Generally, he says, he uses wheat-based paste to “wrap” images onto structures, mixing the paste in a way that can make a mural last as little as six months or as much as years, depending on the nature of a project and the goals of a building’s owner.

Earlier this year, he was putting a mural on a building at 68th Street and Halsted Street that he thought was abandoned. Someone saw him working and called the owner.

Devins sent a photo of the mural in progress to the owner, who he says liked it and told him, “Just move it to the front of the building.”

Click on map below for a selection of Chicago-area murals

Murals and Mosaics

Old dormant grain silos on South Side are an enduring industrial canvas for graffiti artists

Murals and Mosaics

Felix Maldonado Jr. gets paid now, not scolded, for using walls as a canvas for his art

Murals and Mosaics

Now 80, Caryl Yasko restores iconic 1975 mural honoring Lemont quarries, stone-cutting past

View all stories in Murals and Mosaics