Elgin commission: do not display lynching mural in public

  • The "American Nocturne" based on a 1930 lynching photo is displayed inside the Hemmens Cultural Center in Elgin.

    The "American Nocturne" based on a 1930 lynching photo is displayed inside the Hemmens Cultural Center in Elgin. Rick West | Staff Photographer

Updated 6/14/2016 5:37 PM

The Elgin cultural arts commission unanimously recommended that a controversial mural inspired by a 1930 lynching photo be removed permanently from public display.

"Everything that you said was really moving," Commissioner Karly Kirkpatrick said a commission meeting attended by about 50 people Monday night. "If this piece divide us, then it really is doing no good."


The mural has become a source of "deep pain" within the community, Commissioner Kate Darling-Bond said, after about a dozen or so residents said they didn't want the mural to be shown publicly because it is offensive, painful and divisive.

The "American Nocturne" mural by local artist David Powers depicts the crowd at a lynching in Marion, Indiana, but not the lynching itself.

Painted in 2007, the mural was displayed downtown until last month, when two passers-by noticed its similarity to an original photo of the lynching. The mural was moved indoors to the Hemmens Cultural Center shortly after. The mural's fate ultimately will be decided by the city council.

"The best thing to do is to burn it," longtime resident Ina Dews said.

The city had commissioned the Outside Exhibition Group, to which Powers belonged, to create the mural in conjunction with Judson University students.

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In the wake of the controversy, Powers said his goal was to shine a spotlight on those who commit evil. Group President Paul Pedersen and former Judson student Natalie Doolittle-Shadel confirmed that was indeed the artist's intention. The mural has been "sorely misunderstood and misrepresented," Doolittle-Shadel said.

It's too late to explain any original intent via signage, said Healy Rodman, a high school teacher in Elgin. Instead, the message of the mural is that "racism and violence is the way to get your portrait displayed in this city."

Monday night's public comments echoed comments made at a public meeting last week hosted by the human relations commission. Thirty-seven percent of those who attended last week's meeting want the city to find another permanent location for the mural, while 35 percent don't want it displayed at all and 17 percent want to return it to its original spot downtown. A total of 92 votes were cast.

The commission will discuss at its next meeting what it recommends doing with the mural. That could mean auctioning it off, donating it to a museum or even returning it to the artist, commissioners said.

Commissioner R. Darryl Thomas said he was "moved and educated" by the public comments. "We don't need to support hatred and violence with taxpayer dollars," he said.

The commission has been working on creating a comprehensive public art for Elgin, a process that will include two public meetings. The plan should be ready for discussion by the city council in about eight months, staff liaison Amanda Harris said. "The positive impact of the public art plan is well noted in every community we looked at," Harris said.


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