Elgin to examine mural that evokes lynching photo

Should a mural in downtown Elgin - depicting a crowd watching a 1930 lynching - continue to stand intact?

City leaders say they were unaware of the story behind the free-standing artwork, and they plan to hold a public debate about its future.

The discussion started after two friends on Tuesday night walked by the mural by Elgin artist David Powers and realized it's an almost exact replica of a photograph of a crowd that gawked at the lynching of two black men in 1930 in Indiana.

Located along a pedestrian walkway between Spring and Grove avenues, the mural shows only the crowd, not the bloody corpses of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith dangling from tree branches, which are depicted in the original photo.

Still, that was enough to stop Alex Cokinos of St. Charles and Richard Farr of Elgin in their tracks.

"I thought, 'Wow,'" Cokinos said. " I had probably seen the photo once or twice before. It's kind of a unique image."

Farr didn't recognize it but was shocked when Cokinos pulled up the photo on his smartphone. "I couldn't imagine why that would be there in Elgin," Farr said.

Shortly after, Farr posted a photo of the mural, along with the graphic original photo, on the public Facebook page "What's Happening in Elgin?" which prompted the media to make inquiries and city officials to debate the issue.

No one at city hall knew the provenance of the image behind the mural, which had been commissioned by the city at least a decade ago, Mayor David Kaptain said.

The decision was to ask the cultural arts commission to hold a public meeting on the topic, likely early next month, Kaptain said. The commission then can recommend whether to remove the mural, replace it or add explanatory signage.

"Taking it down and painting it over was part of the initial discussion (Wednesday)," Kaptain said. "I recommended that we take the opportunity and we have an open discussion, a community discussion. I think it's healthy."

The original photograph was taken by photographer Lawrence Beitler in Marion, Indiana. Shipp and Smith, along with a third black man who escaped the lynching, had been accused of murdering a white man and raping his white girlfriend.

Cokinos and Farr said they are not advocating the mural to be taken down, but they want to know about its meaning.

"I was really asking the city, 'Why is it up and what is the whole point of it?'" Farr said. "I'm OK with it there, but there needs to be an explanation, or an artist's statement about it, so we understand the context of it."

Art can be understood only in context, Cokinos agreed. "There are a lot of stereotypes associated with that photo, and maybe (the mural) is there for a reason," he said. "Context is everything."

Powers, the artist, did not answer his phone Wednesday, and no one appeared to be at his home on the east side of Elgin.

In a 2011 Daily Herald profile, Powers was described as an artist of four decades with contempt for the typical juried art shows. Instead, he said, he favored "the open honesty, savage, uncensored idea of telling the truth in the visual arts."

A longtime Elgin resident, Powers trained at Northwestern University and the Art Institute of Chicago. His interest in visual arts stemmed from its value to society. "It really talks about who we are," Powers said in 2011. "Sometimes it explains what's going on when you can't even use words to express it."

Councilwoman Tish Powell said she'd like to hear from him. "I had never known the story behind the mural," she said. "I'm not saying it may not be offensive to some people, because it obviously is. But I am also interested in knowing what the artist's intentions were in painting this."

So had city officials known about the history of the image, should they have put a stop to the commission of the mural?

"I think that's a really good question," Kaptain said, "and I think that's a question that the community should try to resolve."

That's especially important because the city is planning to commission more public artwork in the future, Kaptain said.

"It's an artist's interpretation," he said. "That's what an artist would tell you, that it causes you to think. Is it a bad thing that we are showing it? If you don't show it, (the history) won't go away."

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This is a cropped version of the iconic Lawrence Beitler photo showing the Aug. 7, 1930, lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana. America's Black Holocaust Museum/public domain photo
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