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Artists say women’s suffrage mural is being blocked in South Loop because it’s ‘too political’

The mural design displays Kamala Harris’ quote, “I’m speaking,” from the 2020 vice presidential debate.

“Speak Up” was set to be installed over the “Harmony” mural, but the owner of Loop Auto Parks refused to rent parking spots necessary to install it, according to the mural’s commissioners. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times
“Speak Up” was set to be installed over the “Harmony” mural, but the owner of Loop Auto Parks refused to rent parking spots necessary to install it, according to the mural’s commissioners. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Artists behind a women’s suffrage mural in the South Loop say a parking lot owner is refusing to rent them the space they need to set up scaffolding and paint.

“He felt that this work was too political,” said Meg Duguid, chief curator of the Wabash Arts Corridor, where the mural was to be displayed on the wall of a Columbia College Chicago building at 525 S. State St.

The painting, titled “Speak Up,” was to feature the words, “I’m speaking,” a refrain repeated by Kamala Harris during last year’s vice presidential debate.

It is meant to be a companion to a mural titled “On the Wings of Change” already painted on an adjacent wall at 33 E. Ida B. Wells Drive. It depicts a young girl with a book open in front of her as she gazes up at Ida B. Wells, Frances Willard, Jane Addams and other women’s suffragists.

The group said it needed to rent parking spots at Loop Auto Parks to give artists access to both walls. They said the owner of the lot, Thomas R. Baryl, allowed artists to complete the mural featuring the girl but not the other one.

Baryl “inadvertently saw the design ... and he asked us to choose something else,” Duguid said. “To seemingly kind of watch it fall apart due to the accessing of the building was disappointing.”

Baryl did not respond to requests for comment.

Artist Dorian Sylvain sits behind an in-progress rendition of her mural “Speak Up,” which quotes Vice President Kamala Harris saying “I’m speaking.” Installation of the mural was blocked by a neighboring parking lot owner.
Photo by Sandra Steinbrecher

Lambrini Lukidis, a spokesperson for Columbia College, said Baryl was concerned about losing business because of the mural and that the school had a “very positive relationship” with him before this.

Both murals were commissioned with more than $100,000 raised by the Wabash Arts Corridor and the Chicago Womxn’s Suffrage Tribute Committee. The committee was formed in 2020 to honor the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women suffrage.

“On the Wings of Change” was created by artist Jasmina Cazacu, who goes by the name Diosa.

The “Speak Up” mural was created by artist Dorian Sylvain. It was to cover the 250-foot rear wall of Columbia’s University Center. While the wall is owned by the school, the parking lot is not.

“It’s one thing to express your opinion,” Sylvain said. “But to take the power, to use the power to literally block something, I’m just stunned that somebody would do something like that.”

On the left of the far wall is “On the Wings of Change,” a mural of a young girl gazing up at women’s suffragists. Its partner mural “Speak Up” was set to be installed over the “Harmony” mural, but the owner of Loop Auto Parks refused to rent parking spots necessary to install it, according to the mural’s commissioners. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times
On the left of the far wall is “On the Wings of Change,” a mural of a young girl gazing up at women’s suffragists. Its partner mural “Speak Up” was set to be installed over the “Harmony” mural, but the owner of Loop Auto Parks refused to rent parking spots necessary to install it, according to the mural’s commissioners. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times

The committee brought in experts to see if there was any other way to access the wall, Duguid said. There wasn’t.

“While we do absolutely respect [Baryl’s] right to his property, what we don’t do is ask a neighboring property owner what the building next-door can put up,” Duguid said.

Changing the content of the “Speak Up” mural is “not an option,” Lukidis said, explaining it would go against Columbia College’s core value of free artistic expression.

“You have this message and content there that is talking about a woman speaking, and then we have the situation where this message can’t go out,” she said. “The irony of that is not lost on anyone.”

The committee is now looking for a new, “equally prominent” location for the second mural, Duguid said. Though the design was originally done to match “On the Wings of Change,” she said the committee is “extremely energized” about finding a new place for it.

The committee hopes to have the mural installed by the spring, though the delay will add $35,000 to $50,000 in costs that must be raised.