2007 video shows creators saying Elgin lynching mural 'suggests, more than depicts'
As the city of Elgin readies to hold public meetings about the fate of a controversial mural, a 2007 video shows its creators describing the work as thought-provoking but making no mention of it being inspired by a lynching photo.
The "American Nocturne" mural by local artist David Powers was part of a series commissioned by the city to the Outside Exhibition Group in the 2000s.
Displayed in downtown Elgin until about two weeks ago, it depicts the crowd at a 1930 lynching in Marion, Indiana, but not the lynching itself. Its origins were not known publicly until two passers-by noticed the mural's similarity to the photo.
In an August 2007 segment of the local cable TV show "Elgin Today," Milt Evans, the Outside Exhibition Group's treasurer, says that while the other murals were simply decorative, this one has historical meaning, is thought-provoking and "is extremely strong in how it suggests, more than depicts."
"You see figures who seem to be focused in many different directions," he says. "The concern then becomes, 'What is it that they are concerned about in their own lives, and what is it that they are seeing?'"
Evans could not be reached for comment.
In the wake of the controversy, the city moved the mural indoors to the Hemmens Cultural Center, and a final decision about its permanent location will be made after public meetings on Tuesday, June 7, and Monday, June 13.
Powers has said recently his goal was to shine a spotlight on those who commit evil, but his comments in the 2007 video are more obscure.
Calling the mural "an allegory of the American Depression," he says: "We think that public art is a wonder. That it explains things, especially in times of stress, that are unexplainable."
Powers recently said he chose not to talk about his inspiration on camera but had discussed it with Judson University art students who collaborated on the project and fellow members of the Outside Exhibition Group.
"We could tell everyone it is about a lynching. About a dead body," Powers said. "Or we could say, 'It's about the Depression.'"
Outside Exhibition Group President Paul Pedersen, who is not pictured in the video, said he, Evans and Powell discussed the goal of the mural -- which was to exhort viewers not to repeat history's horrors.
"This was done for the future generation, for the future, and for everybody else to understand what happened ... and ensure that it never happened again."
Reactions to the mural's inspiration were divided among those who see value in it, and those who say it's offensive. A peaceful protest May 20 was attended by about 30 people, mostly black, asking for the mural to be moved.
That surprised him, Pedersen said, because the mural's aim is to decry the white crowd that witnessed the lynching.
"We thought that the white population would probably be concerned about it. We certainly never thought the black population would be concerned about it."
Those in charge of approving the mural at the time said they didn't know about the lynching photo.
Then-cultural arts commission Chairwoman Cynthia Hernandez said she doesn't recall specific conversations about the mural's inspiration.
Minutes from a March 2007 commission meeting make no mention of what the mural depicts, only that it was expected to come under its $6,000 budget.
"My reaction simply would have been, 'Explain your reasoning for this topic, of so many things you could paint," Hernandez said. "A lot of artwork can be controversial, and sometimes you just need to explain your reasoning behind it, or what your point is."
Former Mayor Ed Schock said that although he doesn't believe the painting is offensive, he would have put the brakes on it had he known of its origins.
"I'm not big on censoring art or artists, but if I had known about this picture, I would have said, 'Dave, this is not a good idea.'"
A former Judson student pictured in the "Elgin Today" segment declined to comment. The students' former Judson art teacher also didn't return a request for comment.