This 100-foot-tall (10 stories) mural of legendary Chicago blues musician Muddy Waters (1913-1983) was dedicated in June 2017 on the north wall of the 19-story Stevens Building at 17 N. State Street in Downtown Chicago.
Painted by Brazilian street artist Eduardo Kobra (b. 1975), it took over two weeks to paint it. The new mural covered over a big, yellow “Go Do Good” painting. The Stevens Building itself is a notable early skyscraper on the east side of State Street near its intersection with Washington Street. When it was built in 1912 by Daniel H. Burnham (1846-1912), it was one of the most modern business structures In Chicago and filled with retail shops. The Charles A. Stevens & Bros. building is nineteen stories above ground and three below,
The colorful portrait mural of Muddy Waters is part of a campaign to beautify the walls of some tall buildings in Chicago as well as to mark the significance of Black music in Chicago. Specifically, Eduardo Kobra’s mural is a tribute to the legacy of Muddy Waters in the Chicago blues music scene. Among Muddy Waters’ many titles and accolades, he may be perhaps best known as the “King of Chicago Blues.”
Growing up in Mississippi, Muddy Waters was first exposed to music at the local Baptist church. During World War II, when Muddy Waters was still in his 20’s, he moved from Mississippi to Chicago. He came to Chicago because he wanted to be a professional musician and Chicago since the 1920’s had been a center for jazz and blues music production.
In 1951 when Muddy Waters recorded his song “Still A Fool” at newly-founded Chess Records on the southside of Chicago, he started the next decade making several blues classics. In 1951, the Chess brothers, Leonard and Phil, both around Waters’ age, wanted the new blues musician to record using the new label’s professional musicians instead of Waters’ own band.
By September 1953 Waters was recording with his own band which became one of the most acclaimed blues bands in history. It included Little Walter Jacobs (1930-1968), a Blues and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame harmonica virtuoso; Jimmy Rogers (1924-1997), a Blues Hall of Fame musician on guitar who, with Little Walter and Muddy Waters, helped define the Chicago Blues sound; rural blues legend Elga Speed Edmonds (1909-1966) on drums; distinctive keyboard stylist and Blues Hall of Fame inductee Otis Spann (1930-1970) on piano—and, at times on bass, Willie Dixon (1915-1992), Grammy Award winner, and inductee in the Blues, Rock and Roll, and Songwriters Halls of Fame. The clarity of the clip of Muddy Waters’ electric guitar and his gravelly voice, deep and wide, were also distinctive features in a career that spanned 50 years and included 11 Grammy Award nominations with 6 wins.
In June 2017 at the dedication of the mural at the busy intersection of State and Washington Streets in the heart of downtown Chicago’s business/shopping districts, Muddy Waters’ family was in attendance. Of Muddy Waters’ legacy, born in Mississippi and living and working in Chicagoland since the 1940’s, Rolling Stone wrote: “With him the blues came up from the Delta and went electric.”
Chevy Dealership: A Tribute to Route 66, 2007, 396 N. Chicago Street, Joliet, Illinois. One of two acrylic murals at this site by Marion Kryczka with the assistance of community members. Photograph by author.
Joliet, Illinois, a city of nearly 150,000 people about 45 miles southwest of downtown Chicago, is famous for many things not least of which is its appearance in the opening credits and scene of the classic 1980 comedy film, The Blues Brothers. Starring John Belushi as “Joliet” Jake Blues and and Dan Ackroyd as his brother, Elwood, there is a flyover of Joliet’s old steel mills in operation at night as well as the old limestone walls of Joliet Prison at dawn. The city of Joliet takes pride in this popular culture heritage, though those manufacturing mills are shuttered and the old Joliet Prison, only one mile away from Chevy Dealership: A Tribute to Route 66, closed in 2002.
JOLIET CELEBRATES ITS RICH AND DIVERSE HERITAGE IN PUBLIC ART
Joliet set out in the early 1990s to celebrate and present its rich and diverse heritage by way of a city-wide public artwork initiative.
Depicted in painted murals placed at strategic points throughout the city, it presented the various historic periods, people, and significant activities that preceded and followed Joliet’s establishment.
WIDE PRAIRIES, DEEP RIVERS — AND THE I&M CANAL NATIONAL HERITAGE CORRIDOR
After many hundreds of years living on the undulating prairie with its deep rivers, Native American communities were met and later expelled by European explorers and settlers. This displacement process in Joliet’s history began in 1673 when French-Canadian explorer Louis Jolliet (1645-1700) guided a French Jesuit, Père Jacques Marquette (1637-1675), up the Des Plaines River and camped just south of today’s downtown. As inevitable as it would seem to be, there are other theories as to how the city of Joliet was named besides after Louis Jolliet.
By the nineteenth and twentieth centuries came a proliferation of canals, various industries, railroads, and quarries that saw the economic boom of this northern Illinois city surrounded by a broad geographical area of farms. In 1964, Joliet’s significance in the development of this part of the nation’s interior was officially recognized with the establishment of the Illinois & Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor designation.
IN THE 1990S, A CITYWIDE PUBLIC ART MURAL PROJECT
In the early 1990s, Joliet started a public art mural project. Contemporary art murals were created throughout the city often on exterior building walls or under viaducts. Several of these early murals, after 30 years being constantly exposed to the harsh weather conditions in summer and winter, are today in varying need of restorative work. Whether as an individual mural or as part of a series, these public murals have looked to depict in contemporary art the diversity of Joliet life in more than five centuries of its history.
CREATED IN 2007, ACRYLIC MURAL CHEVY DEALERSHIP: A TRIBUTE TO ROUTE 66
The 2007 acrylic mural called Chevy Dealership: A Tribute to Route 66 is the artists’ imagined depiction of a Chevrolet automobile showroom in Joliet, Illinois in the mid-1950s. Newer than other murals in the city, the mural is in remarkable physical condition as it sits in the direct western sun on an exterior wall along a high-trafficked downtown street corner. The 10-by-15-foot mural was created by a team of artists led by Marion Kryczka, a Chicago-based artist who was a longtime professor at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The artists who matured under Kryczka’s mentorship are today accomplished artists in their own right.
SERIES OF MURALS DISPLAYED ON THE EXTERIOR WALLS OF A 1930’S CHEVROLET SHOWROOM BUILDING
The mural is part of a series at the site. It is the larger of two murals displayed on west and south walls of a historic one story red-brick building at 396 N. Chicago Street in downtown Joliet, Illinois. The building had been the original showroom of Winston Chevrolet, a busy auto dealer in the mid-1930s and 1940s. In 1955 the dealership was acquired by Bill Jacobs, Sr. A vintage photograph from that time connected to the mural shows a bevy of new and used cars lined up and parked around the perimeter of the building apparently awaiting customers.
The acrylic mural of Bill Jacobs’ dealership in the 1950s is imbued with cultural and historical significance. Bill Jacobs Chevrolet, which opened in 1955, stayed in the family until it was sold in 2015.
BY 2010 BILL JACOBS AUTOMOTIVE GROUP EMPLOYED 500 PEOPLE AND SOLD LOTS OF CARS AND TRUCKS
The founder’s son, Bill Jacobs, Jr., bought the dealership from his father in 1978 at 23 years old. In 2010, Bill Jacobs, Jr., following a 7-year battle with cancer, passed away at 55 years old. Starting at this showroom building in 1955, Bill Jacobs Automotive Group had, by 2010, expanded to five Chicagoland dealerships. It employed almost 500 people and generated about $300 million in annual sales. Mrs. Jeanne Jacobs, the wife of Bill Jacobs, Sr., and Bill Jacobs, Jr.’s mother, passed away in October 2020. It was because of Jeanne Jacobs that her husband Bill Jacobs, a university professor, entered the car business. Jeanne Jacobs’ father owned a car dealership in Chicago where Bill Jacobs worked before he bought his own dealership in Joliet in 1955.
Since the 1970s, artist Marion Kryczka has had a career as an artist. Mr. Kryczka’s drawing is rooted in his foundation as a figurative artist and a lively technique which uses realism as a launching point to create familiar, beautiful, and meaningful scenes. For Chevy Dealership: A Tribute to Route 66, Krycka’s painting imagines a realistic American social scene which reflected Bill Jacobs Sr.’s business philosophy. Mr. Jacobs believed that business is about people and the mural’s showroom is filled with people who worked, lived and played in Joliet in the mid-1950’s. For a public mural like this one, community input was an important part of the process. There were group design sessions and meetings with city officials, with the city approving topics and contracting for the projects. For historic pieces, local residents sometimes posed.
MURALS FACE U.S. ROUTE 66, A 20TH CENTURY NATIONAL ROAD, AT JACKSON STREET IN JOLIET, ILLINOIS
The placing of Chevy Dealership: A Tribute to Route 66 in the mid20th century in the middle of the 1950’s helps express several important historical facets about the building, its car dealership, and the road (U.S. Route 66) that runs past it. In this art project are displayed many facets of Joliet’s rich heritage.
The mural is directly meaningful as a display of Joliet, Illinois, especially as it developed into a vibrant city where the Jacobs and many others put down roots. The mural also expresses the profound economic and cultural impact of the car industry in Joliet at that time reflecting national trends. Finally, it evokes the popularity of the legendary U.S. Route 66 which had opened in 1926 and followed a quilt of interconnected state and county roads for motor travel from Chicago, Illinois, through Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and all the way to Santa Monica, California in Los Angeles County. Chevy Dealership: A Tribute to Route 66 shows Joliet’s connection and contribution to this important larger national phenomenon.
MURALS DEPICT A UNIQUE MOMENT IN HISTORY THAT IS FOREVER CHANGED
The mid1950s for the Chevy dealership mural depicts that unique historical moment when old Route 66, just then 30 years old, was already on the threshold of major change. In the mural U.S. Route 66 was still in its hey-day—though, at the very same time, it was headed for a rapid and transformative decline.
In 1956 the Federal Aid Highway Act was passed by the U.S. Congress and signed by President Eisenhower. It authorized $25 billion for the construction of over 40,000 miles of an Interstate Highway System. The bill was the largest public works project in American history—and quickly displaced U.S. Route 66 as a major throughway.
SEA OF FLAGS, 2004, 2500 West Division Street, Chicago (Humboldt Park) by Gamaliel Ramirez (1949-2018) with the assistance of community members.
The mural entitled Sea of Flags depicts Fiesta Boricua (De Bandera a Bandera), an annual 3-day music and cultural event in the Humboldt Park neighborhood in Chicago. Attracting tens of thousands of visitors, the fiesta is held starting in late August or early September. In 2018 the Fiesta Boricua celebrated its 25th anniversary and offered 3 stages booked back to back with scores of musical and cultural performers specializing in the pulsating rhythms of Puerto Rican salsa, reggaeton, bomba, plena, and merengue music, and more.
Some of the famous people depicted in the mural Sea of Flags include Puerto Rican nationalist Lolita Lebrón (1919-2010), Nuyorican (“New York City/Puerto Rican”) poet and playwright Pedro Pietri (1944-2004) and, depicted as a bronze statue on the image’s left side, Don Pedro Albizu Campos (1891-1965), the leading figure in the Puerto Rican independence movement.
An abundance of Puerto Rican flags in the mural is intentional by the artist and his assistants. Since Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States in 1898 following the Spanish-American War — and ceded the Philippines and the island of Guam at the same time — Puerto Rico and the U.S. have had a complicated political relationship that is yet to be completely mutually resolved today.
Gamaliel Ramirez was born in the Bronx in New York in 1949. He spent most of his career in Chicago teaching and as a working artist. After 35 years in Chicago he retired to Santa Rita, San Juan, Puerto Rico. Following Hurricane Maria in September 2017, Mr. Ramirez was hospitalized for many months and passed away on May 21, 2018. The artist of this colorful mural has left behind for us a legacy of paintings, other murals, photography and poetry.