March 15, 2010
Bro. Mark Elder, C.M., was in Rome creating a mural in the Vincentian headquarters in 2000 when he got word that the giant mural of St. Vincent that he and eight students had painstakingly painted the previous summer on an outer wall of Levan Hall would soon become invisible.
Bro. Elder, an art instructor and the university’s public art coordinator, thought he had found the perfect spot from which the five-story mural of St. Vincent could peer out across the Lincoln Park Campus for years to come. But only a year later, the university decided to gut Levan to create modern classrooms and construct a bridge connecting the upper floors of Levan with O’Connell Hall, covering the striking mural. Naturally, Bro. Elder was disappointed over the demise of the work dubbed “We Are DePaul.”
The mural—a collage of miniature painted faces of 16 faculty, staff and students repeated many times over to reflect DePaul’s diversity—had grown on people who streamed past it or studied it during its relatively brief display on Levan’s south wall. A number of them called the president’s office to complain about its disappearance.
After Bro. Elder’s discussions with then-President Rev. John P. Minogue, C.M., it was decided that a new mural would rise like a phoenix on the west wall of McCabe Hall, where it now towers above Wish Field during this, the 350th anniversary year of St. Vincent’s death. The 70-foot mural also overlooks the CTA tracks, where passengers often gaze curiously at the painting. Like its predecessor, the nearly identical “We Are DePaul II” consists of the same pattern of 16 faces. And like the original, it was done by Bro. Elder and eight students who manned the scaffolds during the summer of 2001.
Bro. Elder, whose larger-than-life handiwork appears on inner and outer walls throughout the world, didn’t set out to be a muralist. He enrolled in the Vincentian seminary in Perryville, Mo., before he transferred to DePaul where he earned an education degree in 1979. He then taught high school and coached soccer in the St. Louis area. He became a vowed member of the Congregation of the Mission in 1983.
A self-taught artist, Bro. Elder began refining his technique while acquiring an M.F.A. from the University of Denver. He returned in 1994 to DePaul, where he is an instructor in the Department of Art, Media and Design.
The greatest concentration of his and his students’ work can be found in some of Chicago’s underserved neighborhoods. The murals not only give students hands-on experience at creating public art, but the murals themselves become points of pride in the neighborhoods. He listens carefully to residents for themes and values that he incorporates into the work.
As part of the university’s DePaul Day for Haiti on April 1, Bro. Elder is creating a mosaic of the colorful illustration that lies at the center of quake-stricken country’s scarlet and blue flag. The mosaic will consist of 1,296 tiny tiles that can be individually purchased to support the country’s recovery efforts.
Although he’s a native Virginian, Bro. Elder looks like he’d be right at home on a Montana ranch with his wide-brimmed felt hat, fringed leather jacket and well-worn cowboy boots.
Why is your artwork so big?
A portrait on the scale of “We are DePaul” is monumental, and that gives it accessibility. You don’t need a ticket to go see it. It doesn’t hang in an exclusive gallery. It’s available to everybody whenever they want to see it. It’s a very democratic concept, which, I believe, reflects our Vincentian nature.
How do people react to the giant mural of Vincent?
When members of the DePaul community see it, they know they are home—there’s Vinnie. People in the non-DePaul community don’t quite get it. Some people have told me they thought the mural was of Pope John Paul II. One day when I was up on the scaffold, a passerby yelled up to me; ‘Why are you painting a picture of Abraham Lincoln?’ Another person told me that Vincent should be smiling more broadly because he’s looking out over an athletic field. I think he’s smiling just as much as he needs to be. His look is gentle but determined. But it’s the people who see it up close, who are the most surprised. They say they didn’t realize the mural consisted of all those faces.
What do your students learn from working with you on public art projects?
They gain insight in how to systematically approach a project on a grand scale. They walk away with the sense that: ‘OK, I can do this too.’ They take enormous pride in their particular corner of the portrait. Murals are essentially paint-by-number projects in which everyone plays a role.
Describe the process of painting the giant Vincent portrait?
For the first project, we used stencils of the tiny faces and painted over them. It was very laborious. For the second mural, I had the good fortune of finding someone who made hand stamps of the faces that we’d apply to the wall. We use masonry paint—mineral silicate—which should last for 70 years. The wall, of course must be properly tuck pointed and the roof in good repair.
Of the two Vincent murals, which is your favorite?
That’s hard to say. They’re like my children, and I can’t play favorites. The first one was more intimate because you could walk right up to it at the door of Levan and look into the faces. The second one is much more visible, but people usually can’t get close enough to appreciate the details.