Lynching mural is about confronting evil, Elgin artist says
"Don't you be the monster. Don't you be one of these people."
That's the message of a mural in downtown Elgin that depicts the crowd at a 1930 lynching, artist David Powers says.
Located on a pedestrian walkway between Spring Street and Grove Avenue, the mural drew scrutiny this week as many for the first time discovered it is a near-identical replica of the crowd shown in a photo of a lynching that took place in Marion, Indiana.
The mural shows only the crowd, not the bloody corpses of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith dangling from tree branches, which are in the original photo.
Powers, 66, of Elgin, says he didn't expect the explosion of attention his work, titled "American Nocturn," is getting a decade after it was installed.
"I wanted to create fine art. That was my goal," he says. "If you don't look evil right in the face, that evil that in your country still exists and that in some quarters still agitates -- it will happen again."
Reactions about the mural on a public Facebook group in Elgin have been mixed, with some saying it's important to remember history through art and others offended by the mural's context -- or lack thereof.
Sitting on a step in the back of his home on the east side of Elgin, drinking a "tallboy" beer and wearing paint-splattered jeans and flip-flops, Powers says he doesn't care whether he's praised or criticized.
He says he wouldn't object to signs that provide context to his mural. But he is contemptuous at the suggestion that the mural should be defaced or taken down, and at veiled threats to his safety. "I am not one to take it lying down," he says, adding he's ready to call police at the hint of a nuisance.
Listening to Powers is both fascinating and exhausting, as he reels off a litany of seemingly disjointed stories.
He learned his "take up the lost causes for the little guy" attitude from his father, a local surgeon, he says. He talks about his love for Paris, and gives a reporter strict instructions to visit the top of the Eiffel Tower with a large bottle of alcohol in hand.
Some have accused him of being a racist. Far from it, he says, relating the time when, as a boy, he addressed another boy using the N-word.
"The look of horror on his face -- he was so hurt," he said. "That changed me forever and taught me about the impact of language. And how you should really be aware of what the consequences are, if you don't stand up for equality and respect. Respect, especially."
But he also uses profanity with abandon, has a never-ending array of choice insults for those he dislikes, and makes pronouncements like "I hate women" and "Men are weak and evil."
Powers was commissioned by the city around 2003 to create several murals with art students from Judson University. The idea for this particular work came from a book about lynchings across America, which contained the 1930 photograph by Lawrence Beitler, Powers says.
He presented the students the original photo and his own mock-up sketch and set off to work, not realizing it would become controversial later, he says.
Elgin has its own racist history that should not be forgotten, including the documented presence of Ku Klux Klan members at the funeral of an Elgin mason in 1922, he adds.
As for his choice not to show the men's corpses, it wasn't about being sensitive -- which by now you know would be entirely unlike him -- but about shining a deliberate spotlight on the everyday men and women who perpetuate evil.
"The import is not to show the act," he says. "The import is to show the people who commit the act.
Public meetings about lynching mural in ElginThe city of Elgin's human relations and cultural arts commissions invite residents to provide input about the "American Nocturne" mural by David Powers at two meetings in June.
As part if its "Courageous Community Conversation," the human relation commission meets at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 7 at The Centre of Elgin's Heritage Ballroom, 100 Symphony Way.
The cultural arts commission meets at 7 p.m. Monday, June 13 in the second floor of city hall, 150 Dexter Court.