Restoring Puerto Rican Congress Murals: Oldest surviving community murals in Chicago are in Wicker Park

By: 
Jeff Huebner
Date: 
10/25/2013
PRCongress

Images of Edith Garcia Ruiz and her husband Joseph A. Ruiz Sr. (Carlos “Caribe” Ruiz ) have been added (lower left) to the mural section closest to North Ave.*

Joseph Ruiz had wanted to restore the fading murals on the side of his building at 2313-15 W. North Ave. for years. This past summer, he finally had the opportunity.

“The bottom line,” he told me in late August as we stood in the courtyard where muralist Brendan Hudson applied new paint to 40-year-old old images on a wall, “is we wanted to make sure the legacy was still here.”

It is a storied legacy. Few realize that the courtyard-facing murals are historic. The so-called Puerto Rican Congress Murals, a familiar sight to passers-by in Wicker Park just west of Oakley Ave., are among the oldest surviving community murals in Chicago as well as the nation, painted by several different artists led by mural pioneer Mario Galán starting in 1972 at the dawn of the Chicago-originated mural movement. They depicted Puerto Rican arts and cultural figures as well as historical and iconic island scenes.

Another reason Ruiz wanted to bring the murals back to life is because they meant something to his family, which is intertwined with the history of Puerto Rican Chicago.

The building, located just to the west (and back) of the courtyard, was a former social service center that has been owned by the Ruizes since the 1960s, when patriarch Joseph A. Ruiz, Sr., turned it into a civic organization and community center. In the 1970s, he founded the Midwest-renowned Puerto Rican Congress Conservatory of Music there.

Carlos “Caribe” Ruiz, as he was also known, had attained fame as an orchestra leader, record label founder (Ebirac, or Caribe backwards), musician, dancer, and arts promoter while also employed as a social worker and journalist. Inside the building is a little-seen museum dedicated to his life in the community and his legacy in music. And outside were the murals, which the elder Ruiz commissioned and safeguarded. He died in1987, at the age of 60.

Untouched

High over head, this section remains unrestored, giving tje viewer an idea of how much work went into the completed restoration*

The renewal of the Puerto Rican Congress Murals—still a work in progress—is just one of several restorations of classic, nationally renowned community murals that took place in Wicker Park and East Humboldt Park in the summer of 2013. They give a new lease on life to fading neighborhood landmarks as well as bringing renewed attention to a still-vital public art form (socially conscious outdoor murals) that was invented on the streets of the South Side of Chicago by African-American artists starting in 1967 and that continues to evolve.

Unlike most public sculptures in cities, community-based public art works, including murals, are not foisted on or “plopped” into urban neighborhoods and other communities, but are generally planned, designed, and created through engaging with local residents and other constituencies and led by professional muralists. Works reflect people’s values, concerns, hopes, protests, histories as well as cultural heritage and pride.

Puerto Rican Congress Murals Renovation
Joe Ruiz, Jr. hired artist and muralist Brendan Hudson in July to restore the artworks on the lower-half side of the Congress building, which depicted 26 notable Puerto Rican artists, grouped by the fields of visual art, music, theater, literature, and dance, from Trina Davila to Rita Moreno to Tito Puente. “We’re doing it all on our own—this is all our money,” Ruiz said.

ArtistsImages

A palette of artists is closest to the south wall of the space

The entire set of murals was painted between 1972 and 1979, and originally went all the way up the wall and continued on the other side of the courtyard (on what’s now Handlebar Bar and Grill). Most of the sections had faded to near-illegibility, or had been sandblasted away; the recently restored section of heroes was still the most visible.

Mario Galán began painting the walls in 1972, assisted by teens working in a summer youth employment program. They were joined by other artists over the years, some working in federal Changing Education Through the Arts (CETA) programs, including Hector Soto, Ray Camaro, Nereyda García, Efraín Vargas, and Luis Rivera, along with band members Hector Bermudez, Jimmy Hernandez and Tony Gonzalez.

Part2

The center of the mural includes another new addition of Joseph Ruiz Sr. in his persona as Carlos “Caribe” Ruiz (lower left)*

“We’re basically bringing back the history that our young people don’t know about,” said the enthusiastic Ruiz, mentioning the Mexican-flavored graffiti spray pieces on the east wall of the courtyard done a couple years ago. “We’re just trying to show our Hispanic heritage—the two cultures coming together. We wanted to make sure that we don’t forget our past, but that we’re still looking at our future.”

Hudson, 28, was a former street artist who got his start in Chicago working as an assistant to master muralist Jeff Zimmerman on a few of his Pilsen murals in the mid-2000s. A Toronto native by way of Minneapolis, Hudson has worked with youths to paint a number of murals in the favelas outside of Sao Paulo, Brazil, and in Chicago’s East Garfield Park.

In 2011, he was one of six artists commissioned to create a mural for the WPB SSA #33's Orange Walls project. His With Patterns is located (on the former Salud Tequila Lounge and soon to be Rick Bayless restaurant) at 1471 N. Milwaukee Ave. 

To repaint the Congress Murals, Hudson consulted frequently with Ruiz, who shared old photographs, videos, and other documents of the walls. Hudson then washed and repaired the brick surface, used water-based acrylic over the original enamel and then applied coats of varnish sealer to protect the paint.

“It’s a different kind of energy” doing restorations, said Hudson, who’s working on an MA in arts education at the School of the Art Institute. “I’m not getting the creative juices flowing, really, I’m just trying to restore what’s originally there and bring it back to life. The attention and focus to the craft is just one thing that keeps you going too. Having pride in your work, whether it be a restoration job or your own creative work, should always be there.”

There was, however, some new work done: As part of the job, Hudson added several new figures to the mural, mostly Ruiz family members—Carlos Caribe Ruiz, his wife Edith, and Joe Ruiz’s sister Nilda Ruiz Pauley, a teacher, dancer, and director of the Chicago-based dance company Lasting Impressions. Ruiz said he eventually plans to add a gallery of Puerto Rican sports stars on the wall. “Little by little, we’re moving along and getting the things done we have to do,” he said.

*Photos by Elaine Coorens

Two other mural restorations are the subject of the upcoming second part of this story.

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