Irene Siegel’s fresco-style mural “The Aeneid” was completed at the Sulzer Regional Library in 1985 — after considerable controversy.

Irene Siegel’s fresco-style mural “The Aeneid” was completed at the Sulzer Regional Library in 1985 — after considerable controversy.

Emily Rosca / Sun-Times

North Side mural based on ‘The Aeneid,’ once a cause of great controversy, is a survivor

People upset about Irene Siegel’s fresco-style work at the Sulzer Regional Library unsuccessfully demanded it be painted over in 1985 before she was done, saying it looked like graffiti.

SHARE North Side mural based on ‘The Aeneid,’ once a cause of great controversy, is a survivor
A four-walled mural inside the Sulzer Regional Library in Ravenswood is one of Chicago’s artistic gems — painted in a fresco style and based on the Virgil epic “The Aeneid” that dramatizes Rome’s origins.

Completed by artist Irene Siegel in 1985, it’s one of Chicago’s older public murals but remains in good shape and accessible to library-goers.

Chicago’s murals and mosaics sidebar

Chicago’s murals & mosaics

Part of a series on public art in the city and suburbs. More murals are added every week.

Which probably no one would have foreseen back when Siegel was creating it. There were doubts then over whether she’d even be allowed to finish.

Her images stirred considerable controversy, with some community members saying it looked too much like graffiti, calling for it to be painted over and suing, which briefly halted her work and made national news.

The New York Times quoted one opponent at the time as saying the neighborhood would “work until we die” to rid the library of images including “dark, frightening sayings.”

Part of Irene Siegel’s mural, completed in 1985 following an uproar by people who thought the artwork was too graffiti-like.

Part of Irene Siegel’s mural, completed in 1985 following an uproar by people who thought the artwork was too graffiti-like.

Emily Rosca / Sun-Times

As the Chicago Reader, a decade later, described the dust-up: “The painter’s bleak rendition of Aeneas’s voyage through the netherworld, from defeat at Troy to the founding of Rome, got neighborhood anti-gang activists up in arms. They thought the mural’s combination of scrawled text and stark figures implicitly endorsed graffiti.” The dispute “developed into a debate over the control of public art.”

Siegel, now 88 and still living in Chicago, says of what happened, “I don’t think of it anymore.”

Artist Irene Siegel inside her Chicago home with one of her works.

Artist Irene Siegel inside her Chicago home with one of her works.

Rich Hein / Sun-Times

She says it was an unpleasant time for her, even though she and the library prevailed and she finished the mural, and it survived.

“They attacked me, and I’m not a politician who knows how to deal with this,” Siegel says. “As an artist, you don’t spend your time in combat.”

Born and raised in Chicago, Siegel won a scholarship when she was in fifth grade to take Saturday classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. She later taught undergraduate and graduate art classes at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Her work has varied from vibrant paintings to graphite drawings and inkjet prints, with pieces in permanent collections at museums.

“My ideas come from the world, from life around us,” Siegel says.

Siegel’s Sulzer mural was among several pieces of art commissioned in the mid-1980s for what was then a new North Side library as part of the city’s Percent for Art Program.

A different view of Irene Siegel’s mural at the Sulzer Regional Library. The artwork is based on the Virgil epic “The Aeneid” that dramatizes Rome’s origins.

A different view of Irene Siegel’s mural at the Sulzer Regional Library. The artwork is based on the Virgil epic “The Aeneid” that dramatizes Rome’s origins.

Emily Rosca / Sun-Times

Siegel’s mural, “The Aeneid,” was born of her love for Virgil’s ancient poem. The painting includes some of her favorite characters and scenes — including the Trojan horse and Aeneas’ journey to Hades.

Before embarking on the project, for which she got a $10,000 commission, Siegel spent months studying and traveling to master the technique of fresco, which involves painting on wet plaster. The process can be tricky. After a section is plastered, the artist has only a few hours to paint the surface before it dries.

The results that can be seen in the meeting room at the library that’s home to the mural? Bright pinks, reds and blues on one wall contrast with the dark tones depicting sorrowful characters on an adjacent wall.

Etched into the mural are quotes:

“Would you care to join us in this realm on equal terms?”

“Who put this thing up, this horse?”

“Let such suffering goad you to fury past control.”

Sulzer Regional Library at Montrose and Lincoln avenues in Ravenswood.

Sulzer Regional Library at Montrose and Lincoln avenues in Ravenswood.

Chicago Public Library

Evolving with the times, Siegel has since mastered the art of digital painting. She says she made the switch about 20 years ago, using Adobe Photoshop as her primary medium.

“I painted before it was discovered that paint material was very toxic,” Siegel says. “I also painted very large paintings, and they are very hard for me, as an older person, to handle. So I have found a way to work that is, hopefully, as powerful as painting is in a different way.”

Siegel has traveled the world. She lived in Spain for a year and New York for about nine months. But Chicago has always been home. It’s her city, she says.

“This is a microcosm of the world as it should be,” Siegel says. “Young, old, rich, poor, every [person] from around the globe living here peacefully. It is pretty wonderful.”

The way she looks at art has changed. She used to be inspired by the nature and landscape surrounding the cabin she used to have in Indiana. Today, she finds inspiration in the city, surrounded by multitudes of people.

“I’m still excited by art,” Siegel says. “I’m excited looking at it, doing it, discussing it.”

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

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