C. Siddha Webber is a muralist, poet, musician, naprapath, and theologian who has been making art and poetry in Chicago since the 1960s. He worked closely on murals with William Walker and Mitchell Caton and with children and teens throughout the South Side. He organizes the Universal Alley Jazz Jam every summer in the South Shore neighborhood. He was interviewed over a series of meetings in 2013-14 by Rebecca Zorach.
Rebecca Zorach: How many murals have you painted since you started in the late 1960s?
Siddha Webber: I’ve painted about 57 murals. I started out painting to create change. In 1968 we were painting in The Alley, that’s when the gangs are at their highest murder rate and they’d been highly proliferated those summers, maybe two or three preceding and after. We were painting somewhat in fear, because there was so much shooting. And I took on the initiative that through art we could create a change in the environment. The summer before, in 1967, I participated in the Wall of Respect as a poet with the band that I played with at 76th and Cottage Grove.
RZ: Did the band have a name?
SW: I think it was called the Troy Robinson Quartet—maybe Quintet, sometimes Sextet. The space was called the Troy Robinson Workshop. Troy Robinson Quintet, he was the head of the group, and he owned the workshop, and we played in the group. The name of the group changed later to become the Gallery Ensemble, that we had at an art gallery, the Afam Gallery. Jose Williams, who owned it, was in the band, and we would play there on the weekend, we just called it the Gallery Ensemble. I’m still in touch with some of the players. They’re all very old, and one of them called me a couple of weeks ago from Florida, and Troy, who was the leader of the group, he was a founding member of the AACM. He did concerts with them, and he also held a workshop with some of those guys. Many of those guys who got their early start were in his workshop. There weren’t that many workshops!
RZ: So you performed with them at the Wall of Respect?
SW: Yeah, we did the Wall of Respect, and then so over the winter I talked to my friend Caton and said, we oughta paint murals. And at that time I had taken art in high school, grammar school, but it wasn’t murals. The mural thing had just come out, and he was the master artist, at least 15, 20 years older than me. He’s a a known prolific artist, and I’m a poet. So I begged him to do a collaboration where he would do the artwork and I would do the poetry, and I would do as much of the painting as possible, so that’s what we did. He was hesitant, but I kept nudging him. And he said, “okay, with my help, we’ll do it.” So he met some people in the Alley, Jimmy Ellis he already knew, and they had jam sessions on Sunday. And so he told me to come on down and check it out, get the vibe—it was hip. So when I got there, maybe 50 to 100 people were standing around inside an alley, with the big garage door, and there would be maybe 5, 4-5 DJs would be in this garage, spinning records. So we’re painting and I’m researching my poem, and I’m learning community art. And as a community artist you are making art where there was no art, only openness. Openness is spiritual. You don’t see it but you know it. So you are learning to communicate with the openness. You open yourself up to the environment and the environment opens itself up to you. So I’m being guided by the intent of the organic energy of the environment itself. And I’m learning how to do that, how to be guided by the energy of the environment. What’s going to happen, what’s my role, I suppose I’m just here painting and it’s like a role, a position that you learn. So then, one of the things that would happen, kids would come by, and I’m the facilitator, so they rapped at all the guys, they rapping gangs, drinking some wine and having a social time. So then I’m a straight-up teacher-guy, so the kids would come around “Mister, can I paint? Can I paint? I like that!”
Then I found a way of engaging them. It was a thought in my head, if I could get the kids involved, they won’t mess up the mural! And then I had to start instructing them how to paint. There was a school at the end of the alley called Willard School. And so the kids started painting, as they’d pass by, so it lets you know the kids got art in they soul, they just did extremely well, 5-10 years old. And everyday they’d get some of that, and I’d rap to them in a nice, big brother-type fashion. So that became pretty hip. So then as the painting took on more and more people during the week, they’d come back, shoot dice. They were in front of the Wall, the colors started making like a magnet to pull people. And then as an environment, creating an environment.
So then, one day, as I’m researching, thinking what I’m going to do on this wall, the spirit came to me and said to me, like, “Hey man, you wanna create prayer in what you’re doing, and pray over it before you do it, it will create this energy and vibration, whereby when you finish, people from all over the world will come and see this Wall.” Now, we’re in The Alley, and 50-100 people, it was Sunday, it was cool. I had that idea that people would come, so I shared it with my friend Caton: “Aww, man, I don’t wanna hear that.” I said, “But, really, it will!” So then we had a little break-up in opinion there. He wanted to call the wall Rip-off Alley, and I was just strongly opposed to the words “rip-off.” Although it was a rip-off environment at the time, in the alley you had kids shooting each other, and dice and drugs and stuff like that.
So that gave me my first inclination of art and change. We changed this environment, through this art we changed the environment, the spirituality of the people. So I went on and did a poem called Universal Alley—and it was a very high-level spiritual poem:
So after the Wall was done, we had a dedication, there was a community organization there called CAN (Community Action Now), and they had a lot of militant type guys in it, who would act as a buffer between the gangs. Big men. So they kind of organized the community. So, when the mural was done, we had a dedication, Fred Hampton came, and they gave a rap, and several other community leaders from CAN. The mural brought a lot of people there—hundreds of people came. And then after that week, since the people had come to that, then they came back every week, en masse, to be lined up all the way back to the mural, if you can visualize that. So now the people just came to stand in front of the mural, and then it would pervade all the way down the alley. And it was a very spiritual activity. People would come together, thousands, and just enjoy the spirit of being a community. And being with each other. There was maybe 2,000 people in an alley—it was a place where people could be hip. Hip, meaning, like right now there’s no place to be hip. Very few places to be hip. Blacks have a society, a social way of being hip, stylish, and communal. So now you need a place to be hip, stylish, and communal. And that’s part of our culture, and that’s why we are a public, street people. Corner people, corner café people. Need someplace to be hip, stylish, and communal! And so, like, when these No Loitering type things, those are things that are against our natural proclivity as a people to be social. You know, we’re not an in-the-house people. And so we’re losing who we are as people. “Who are you?” “ I dunno…American.”
RZ: So, at the Alley, they were spinning records…
SW: They had about 5-6 DJs, and each DJ would have a spin table, and they would play. One guy would play a tune, say a Dexter Gordon, and the next guy would play a tune, trying to beat that tune, sound better, he would play maybe a Sonny Stitt. And then the next guy would play maybe a Charlie Parker. So then that’s the main thing. And then, maybe once a month, live musicians would come by and join in that set—that was the main set. So people would be dancing in the garage, some kids would come by, they’d dance with the grown-ups, they’d learn some steps. People would get up and do their own dance. And maybe some cats would get up and improvise to the music. Then, when the live set would happen, live musicians would come. Sometimes they’d be joining like a jam session. And then it was so weird but there were guys that would sing, singers, both male and female singers would sing to the band. And some guys had improvisational instruments, something like karaoke—they didn’t really have instruments, but they did a real good show, pantomiming an instrument, you know what I mean? So, that’s the way that was. And then it got so it later became identified it as a sacred space. And so then I learned, sometimes you do something previously and then you learn, oh there is such thing as sacred space, oh really? That’s what we created.
And so then that took on the whole notion for me of murals, that’s what they are to do, to create transformation and sacred space. And so I learned. I did murals at public housing projects, four murals at Robert Taylor Homes, two on panels and two on the walls of the Boys and Girls Club, two in Cabrini-Green. And it was possible to see transformation in action. I did the murals at the Sears YMCA, all four walls of the gym, the swimming pool area, the weight room area, and one in the second-floor hallway. It was a super-rough neighborhood, but very prolific in basketball. And it was on Arthington and Kedzie. So one summer they asked me to paint a mural there in the gym.
I worked in the building as a part-time community college teacher, so they asked me to paint a mural in the gym. And the kids were like, gladiators! The West Side had real serious ballplayers, rough and tough. To make it there, they always had a winning team: Marshall and Crane High Schools. Really, championship guys. And then these were guys who graduated from those schools, who would play in the gym. Or the surrounding schools, Collins was one of them. So, the gym had a lot of profanity about it, not a lot of what you would call adult leadership. They’d run wild. I painted a mural there one summer using kids that had no art skills whatsoever. And the kids themselves were shocked that they could learn to draw and paint. And in the process, I put a lot of poems and slogans all over the walls. And maybe we had about twenty kids, and we’re painting all at the same time that these guys are playing basketball. And they were saying, like, “whaddya call that?” They had no injuries, nobody fell off the ladders, no paint was knocked over. These guys really playing full blast, without that much room around the courts. And we were able to do that. And then when the painting was finished, it was a miracle. The whole culture of the gym changed. It went from being loud profanities to more subtle, not as many fights, and it changed the whole culture. So that, for me, to see a visible direct transformation with them being in the building, playing ball there myself and seeing the tone and the nature change in the environment. So, that, for me, was a reinforcement of the creation of sacred space, the transformation of people, of places, Cabrini, Robert Taylor, Englewood schools.
I directed teens on youth murals on Garfield Boulevard, 55th Street, maybe about seven or eight on Garfield alone. In rough neighborhoods, the worst. There was a lay community organization who had me do one on 100th and Cottage Grove, for the purpose of curtailing violence under an underpass. People getting off the bus there, at 100th and Cottage Grove have to walk through this long viaduct, and women were being robbed, raped, and harassed. And so I painted this mural there, with another epiphany in environment associated with it. One of the epiphanies I had at that mural was while I was painting, and soliciting help from the local high school, Harlan, and another school on the mid-south side, Oliver Wendell Holmes. The teacher and children came and helped a little bit, but then it went into the summertime, and school went on vacation.
So then I had a guy working with me from Chicago State. He’s an alcoholic, and it’s kinda weird, because I like people to paint who have a feeling for what they’re doing, as opposed to just doing it for the money. This was a guy who could draw real good, but, he’d come in and get drunk and act like he wanted to molest the kids that were there. So I got rid of him, and then it was cool that I was by myself, but I said dag, I really need help.
So one day I’m painting and I started praying, I said, “Lord, I need some help, because I’m out here by myself, I can’t even go pee, leave my stuff unattended, what am I gonna do?” So when I said that, my face to the wall, I turned around and four young boys, maybe five, and they said, “Mister, can I help? Can we help?” Now, usually, when kids say that, the next question is “how much you gonna pay me?” So I say, “come back tomorrow”; I didn’t want to come down and get involved. And they said, “No, really mister, we wanna help now!” I said, “well…” so I come off the ladder, and I say, okay, I’m really being interrupted now, my head’s not there. So I said, “okay, come here and I’ll show y’all what to do.” So I showed them how to paint some design, I gave each one a brush, and they painted perfectly. And then every day after—I would come, they would come. And then a couple of days I didn’t come, and I’m feeling it, you know, when you get painting a mural you get some kind of intimate relationship, you gotta be there. So I’m painting, and I so didn’t come for a day or two and the kids come and say “mister, please come! When you don’t come we feel bad! We really want to do this, and we need you to be here, please come!” And so that was about the second or third week, and these kids haven’t played, they haven’t messed around, like normal kidding. They didn’t waste any paint, they didn’t ask me for any money, they said, “we wanna do this for our community, we like painting, please let us do it.” And that was like—a prayer answered. And they made the job. So that mural is still there. And it’s been 25 years at least. And it worked. Art was creating peace, it gave young kids something to contribute, that they are very proud of. And then when I see one of them, the mural was a high point in their life, and they created peace. And it’s still there to act as a signpost for that community. It’ll need to be redone, after 25 years—’85…it’s 26 years now. So that was another innovation of seeing sacred space being created. And transforming a dangerous area into a safe area. And kids who didn’t have a thought, they got a thought about what they wanted to do and their input and reflected for them to be more substantial, because they had been substantiated by what they contributed to the community. So it helped give them an uplift in esteem.
RZ: I have a question about the disagreement over the title, between you and Caton, about The Alley?
SW: Rip-Off and Universal Alley.
RZ: Would you say that he was more focused on a title that described what was happening already, and you were more focused on what you imagined it could be for the future?
SW: Exactly. That’s exactly what it was. He was also, in reality, on the dark side, and in reality it was dark. I think because of my age, I didn’t have as much experience in failure, of seeing it as an older artist would. As a Black artist you get so much failure and doors locked and you create such a paranoia for systems and organizations that it creates a darkness. And so I was blessed enough to have the vision of light. And transformation. So that’s basically like the poetry that I wrote. During that time I also see that I was going through a transformation, real early, as a poet. And I say real early, but in my 20s it already seemed like I was 50, you know what I mean?
I looked like 21 or 25, seemed like that was 50 years to me, so much was happening in the world, you can call it revolutionary, Black Power, militancy, upheaval, Vietnam, there was a tremendous number of marches, activism, on every count, on TV, in this town. So I was defining myself as a poet and in the early ’60s, mid-’60s, most of the poetry was Black Power poetry, militant, down with the white man, change, the burden of America. And then I started having a vision, anti-white, anti-America, so then I started saying, I don’t think that kind of poetry is going to create change, I had a vision of how far would that go. So, then it’s like: okay, change: how do you create change? In your poetry, in your outlook, how do you make a change? Because after a while, you’re hearing yourself, and what do I really want to say to myself? So for me, it took on more universal energy. From a universal point of view, I ain’t just talking about black and white people, I’m talking about the world! And the world can’t just be white people in America, Blacks in America, it has to be humanism. So, a universality of brotherhood, mankind.
So then I started looking towards that, and I wanted my statements and energy coming from me to be something that would galvanize the universal being and create a collective human consciousness. And so that’s how Universal Alley came to be. And so, and the poem, maybe one of the greatest ones I ever wrote! But anyway, that set the direction. I noticed that people would come to see The Alley, they would gravitate to the poem, as some wisdom. It became like a teaching tool. And so they would come, some would come early just to read it, and then the reading would be an embellishment, like an internalization of the thoughts. And so, so to see them, so you actually saw transformation. And so then because of that I was able to repeat that personally in some murals, to see transformation. And then you know, in the beginning was the word, and the word is made flesh. The word is extremely powerful, and so when people see the word and begin to read, recite the word, it’s an internalization. And something you internalize, within you, especially a word of utterance, if they’re uttered in your mouth, then they take on different brain stimuli. So, the power of The Alley became for close to ten years like a religious center. People had to come every Sunday and be there. And they did. It was like a spiritual communion.
RZ: All year long, or just in the summer?
SW: No, mostly during the summertime. If people came year ’round they would go into the garage, but I don’t think they did all the time because it was cold! You know garages have big high ceilings, big open space. But it was all spring and summer and deep into the fall. Every Sunday, and that’s the way that was.
RZ: So it was also important that it was a mural and not a poem on a piece of paper, right? The fact that it was painted on a wall seems important.
SW: Of course! Of course. Like, in the painting, in the mural it’s word and image. In music, it’s music and word. I created like a sing-song poetic approach to being with a jazz band, but then I transformed and went to where I stopped doing words, I just did sound, or then I’d go to words, word became sounds. And then I went from sound words to words, to sounds, and then feeling. The feel, word sounds, creation of words, but trying to open the words up to smells, trying to embellish within the word the smell itself, or the color, and create such a picture that the aura of the energy and the thought became manifest: its color, its smell, its thought. And words do have it. Words can do that, so there are words of transformation in art.
I did a painting where you could see transformation happening again, a painting on 39th and King Drive. Caton, we had a divorce, you know.
RZ: You and he?
SW: Yeah, he had another lover and—that’s the word if you’re putting it like that—he had “married” Calvin, Calvin Jones.
So during the winter, I was like, “hey man, what’re you going to work on?” just playing. And we would get together at his house and drink tea and plan for the next season. So we did, and then summer came and I’m just kind of waiting, “okay man, whaddya wanna do?” and that summer he became gone all the time. I didn’t know he was painting a mural with Calvin, he painted a couple of murals like that, with other people. I’m like a devotee waiting on the high priest to show up. So then one year he was painting with Calvin, and I didn’t know it, so I’m by his house, knocking on the door, saying hey man, and so when I catch him, I say, “what were you going to do, man?” “yeah man, Webber, you know,” and he say something crazy. And then I one day I saw a paintdrop out in front of his house, which meant he was carrying paint in and out, and I was like okay, he’s painting.
Then I painted my first mural on 39th and King drive by myself. I think I talked to Bill Walker, and he highly suggested that I do a mural across from where he’d done one on 39th and King Drive, and I was, so I got the wall and I was very intimidated to do the painting by myself, because I’d never done one. It was time for me to step out on my own, Caton with Calvin, I’m kind of holding one hand down, thinking about doing the mural, waiting on him to come and substantiate me. And Bill Walker’s like, “Go ahead, man! Do it! Do it, do it!” and I said, “but, but, I don’t know!” I’d never done one. Then it came to me, you’ve been painting with this guy for a long time—remember you did go to the art school as a kid, you were an art genius. Do it! Try! Do it! And so I prayed. There’s nothing you can’t do, do it! But, a 60 foot wall is still kind of intimidating. And then you take on the leadership, I had to get these paints by myself, I had to get the ladder, and then I had to be responsible? For that? Responsible for the whole design? So then Bill Walker said to me “well, Webber, go ahead and do it, man, and if you need some help, I’ll help you.” So that was cool, I had that going, I had some back up, some security blanket, to come and help me if I need help. So then I took some money, bought some paint, a couple hundred dollars, bought a secondhand ladder, a ball-buster ladder. The equipment wasn’t nearly adequate, not nearly. And then I jumped into the wall, didn’t know what I was going to do, but I, so then as I painted on the wall, and then it became harder work, and then I didn’t just jump into it, 12-hour days, and then the wall owns you, it consumes you.
Murals become like your baby, and you’re possessed with them. Then after you do something for that five months, 3 months, you’re totally consumed. And you like it! Because it’s a real one on one, she—the mural becomes a she, it becomes a he—and it’s like, talking with your baby, so to speak. It’s very intimate, what color are you gonna wear today, what color am I gonna put on her, the shape, I don’t like that shape, that nose is a little bit too long, how are we gonna create it. It envelops. And there are different ways of doing a mural, But you start it off, you don’t know what you’re gonna do, then as you do them for a while, you better know what you’re gonna do. You have to have an idea, a pretty worked out idea. If you started work out with an embryonic idea, maybe one, two develop as you go from the energy in the environment, it’s like a bird you take in, a naturalist, you don’t know you’re creating it, but it fits in, you’re taking what’s in the environment. So the poetry, I used to never start out with a poem, I’d start out with not even an idea. And I’d let the environment dictate the words and the thoughts and the people would say something to me. Whatever they’d say to me would stimulate what I would write. It’d be a conversation—not like now, sitting down—but a conversation on the street and lotta guys did have a lot of good insight, experiences, and whatever, so they’d share that. I’d ask questions: “what do you think about something something something?” I think people amaze you. And then you work in their thoughts, because usually people with thoughts are pretty prolific people. Then they, that person would see that, come back and benefit from that, spend a little time with you, to dialogue, and hopefully give you some more ideas! And then the years in the future they can come back and see their idea embellished. And that’s another way of transformation. And many times, those people who engage with you become the storyteller of the community and you perpetuate that storyteller, or the storyteller of the wall. People say, “ooh, this is so nice” and then one of those storytellers would be able to tell a story. “I was here when he painted that, this represents that, and yeah, he did this,” it would become like a myth, you know! A legend! Just stretch out, stretch out.
On my first solo mural I was tempted to be selfish. I remember going through an experience with my mentor Caton. I got at least halfway through the wall, Bill Walker says, “I wanna do something.” I say, “It’s cool, I got it now”—I’m in control—“it’s okay, man.” And he’s like, “I want to do something on the wall!” “I got it!” More or less he was like, “Siddha. I feel like putting my hand on it.” “…no problem, Bill.” I knew he didn’t have the time, and now I’m protective of the wall, but I’m not looking at his desire, but he’s showing me some of his stature, and he just wanted to do a design and fill a part of my elevation. So I said, more or less, I apologize, Bill, do whatever it is you want to do, whatever it is. And I really wanted company. Company is very vital on the street. If you know somebody, talking to, keeping you company, with Caton I didn’t mind being the runner, to go get coffee or whatever it is the runner does, or just somebody to stay there and watch your stuff as you go pee, whatever you’re doing, rapping, someone to keep things busy, keep things moving, watch your back…so I didn’t have any company. But I found that I started praying even more, because I didn’t have Caton to encourage me. Bill Walker came a couple of days, painted his design, helped me out painting some people’s feet, of my design. But it was like this, having been at the wall painting everyday, I would have hours of prayer and meditation.
And then you go off into a thing where you become perpetual, at what you’re doing. So it became very perpetual, and I had a couple of really fantastic poems, a poem about a spaceman, cosmic. I did a poem about the meaninglessness of meaning, the matterlessness of matter, what matters is that we love one another, and that’s the only thing that really matters, is loving each other each day, and that man is a matterless man, not composed of composite matter, but is more or less composed of more or less ethereal matter. So I created some ethereal man with dots and he was in maybe running in a globe, in a world, really. So it became philosophical. So on the painting I put the 23rd Psalm—the Lord is my shepherd—I put the whole poem. And then one of the people that helped me in that area that the poem was, is, was a prostitute. A heroin-addict prostitute. One Saturday I was painting early in the morning and this prostitute came, in shorts and high-heeled shoes, evidently not ready to do painting, but she begged me to paint. She wanted to contribute something to her community, the area she worked in. and so after me putting off a while, trying to, ’cause I didn’t want her pimp or drug dealer to come bother me or her for contributing her work. Her hands were puffy and sore and, this was not latex washable paint, but oil-based paint. She begged me to let her paint, and I did. And she painted like four hours straight, sun blasting down. She had to make a contribution, in her heart—that was what she told me. And then from that, her contribution to that, she felt it was a spiritual contribution. And then, by the 23rd Psalm some people would come by there, by the wall, drunk. Sometimes they’d been out all night. And then they would stumble and see the words. And then they would look up and start reading the prayer. And then after they’d read the prayer, they would get hope and embellishment in what they read. “The Lord is my shepherd,” they started praying, and then it would send them on their way. Under that energy, with the colors, the ideas, whatever it was. It would supplement the energy or the thought. That mural’s been there since 1981, 34 years and still unscathed.
RZ: How did you meet Caton?
SW: We worked at the Post Office together, ’64, ’65. I’m full of myself, dropped out of college, a real know-it-all, I’m talking so hip, and there’re some guys who say “we’ve got someone we want you to meet,” ’cause he was the hippest. But he was on suspension. Then when we met—I was intimidating…and he was intimidating, ’cause he read books. So he asked me “what do you create?” And I’m—“ummmm”—I said “I’m a poet.”
He said “so let me hear one of your poems.” “Ummmmm…I don’t remember them, I have them at home.” He said “you’re not a real poet if it’s not inside of you.” So then I started to recite a poem I’d heard at some hootenanny. It was a poem by Kent Foreman, and I started reciting and what I didn’t realize was he was the same generation as Caton and Caton said “man, that’s not your poem, that’s so-and-so…”And that changed my thinking, and made me a different kind of poet. He told me to memorize my poems, and to improvise, and I improvised to music so I became like an early rapper, I kind of invented freestyle rap like what they do today. But Caton, he was our god, he was this older artist who was the first to do everything, drugs, he was hip—meaning stylish—and he was militant.
A lot of artists just talked a lot but Caton put his words into action, by standing alone, resisting being a part of groups, politics, organizations. Many times organizations lose their purpose that brought them together as an organization. It becomes about trying to get money for the organization or trying to be a leader. Caton was just willing to say “let’s shut up and do the work.”
RZ: You do a lot of different things, like painting and music, poetry and healing…
SW: I’ve always had multiple interests. In elementary school I was a good reader and I liked autobiographies and the people I liked did more than one thing. So I said, why can’t I? But the environment didn’t do that many things, when I was in high school, I tried to do everything in the school. I was in the drama club, the art club, went to the Art Institute, in the concert band and football team, baseball team, basketball team, track…I wanted to be in the choir, I wanted to be on the dance team, there just wasn’t enough time!
RZ: You don’t see any split between healing arts and creative arts?
SW: No, no, because I use it in healing, they’re one and the same. It’s the perspective. We all know that healing is an art—we all know that. We already know that spirituality and prayer is an art, you have to be creative to go from one space and whatever, physical, mental and spiritual, you gotta be able to create a man, a body, and a context to do that. The richness of healing is open to the opener, to the open. And that’s very creative…mind, body and soul is transformed, that’s what it is. You go from bad to worse, you need somebody to go from worse to bad, from worse to good. So, no, I don’t see any conflict and everything I do is art. I used to give talks. Everything I said I’d try and make it poetic, or talking in a rap. And that’s very much significant to Black culture, rapping—since that’s poetic, but that’s not mainstream America, ’cause that’s more lended towards a business language. Automated language: yes, no, ditto! Now we have the text language, which is very staccato, abbreviated, very much Americano. Now it’s become national, international. So as a creative person, I’ve always created words, but I don’t want to be limited to any other context too much outside of myself. As far as the thought process. Because I dropped out of art school because I didn’t understand. And as a musician, I became a musician poet and I don’t think that the creative spirit should be limited to the context of an overriding supervision. And because it is, so somebody pays you, you become a patronistic artist, you have to limit what you’re doing and expressing—and that’s okay too, if you’re getting paid, you do what you gotta do. So I’ve always maintained an openness and a naturalistic approach, and so I think creativity is very naturalistic, so I’m in this Frank Lloyd Wright-ian thought process, you know. He’s one of my great heroes, as far as what he’s about, his philosophy.
He was one of the first guys to tailor the home to the individual. In terms of you taking a survey, like home design: “Who’re you? How many kids you got? What do you like to do? What sign are you? Like Red, Blue? Negro? Whaddya need?” And that was medicinal—architect as medicine. Now you need a cubbyhole, you need a playroom, you need the sunroom, you need an offshoot, that stuff. And that’s very intimate planning, and that’s very individual. Because kids now, like for instance, I don’t feel like I could live in an apartment with a person. A condo, two bedroom, maybe, it’d have to be a minimum of two. You need a room designed for what you do. I need—personally, I’m an artist, so I have an art space. Now I gotta have a computer space, and now I gotta have practically separate spaces, gotta have a huge reading space. Then, I need a huge hiding space, somewhere I can feel like I’m totally isolated. I mean, that’s a lot of rooms, and I’m glad to have it—I got a basement and the kids’re gone. So I was studying Wright—he understood that kids needed hiding space. And creative cubbyholes. The home, if it’s made for the person, must surround the individual with things that’s significant, and you take that from nature. The kitchen, really a natural place, and studying that architectural design, the kitchen is the place where the center of his architecture, his home architecture, was the hearth or the fireplace. So I just think that he was, not ahead of his time, but on time, but I think, since most of the world, from the West, is going backwards, it makes everything appear to be going forwards.
RZ: Were there other murals that you and Caton worked on together besides the Alley?
SW: Caton and I did together two murals with Sun Ra. Painting Sun Ra—you’re talking about transformation, uplift of consciousness, space is the place. The one at 75th Street was Sun Ra and a policeman with a gun.
So when I came out of Dartmouth, now I have an addiction to painting, and so it’s like it’s in my blood, I got to paint, it’s like that kind of addiction. I’d just graduated and then Caton got this wall here on 75th Street and St. Lawrence, and we painted about 5 years maybe or more, at least 5 different years, and so we’re painting it. And then I got another brother who wanted to paint murals with the name Brother Ayé. Ayé later on played drums with Sun Ra, and he had attended Kentucky State. And he wanted to paint with Caton but they didn’t get along; very few people did get along with Caton, so he knew me, so I said, “well you can come paint with me” and I’ll cool him out so you can paint. So we painted the mural. There was a lot of police brutality, there was a police station down the street on 75th Street, so Caton painted a mural, and I did, as usual, a lot of the fill-in painting, and now, that word is called “grunt work.” I did a few designs on it the first or second time that I independently put some designs on the wall. And at the corner of it was a huge face of Sun Ra, and I was to paint part over the face of Sun Ra, then in the middle of it, towards the middle in, was a big, huge policeman holding a gun towards the street. At that time there were a lot of murals about police brutality. Sun Ra took up this whole space, policeman here, and here was a silhouette of a dark lady carrying like a dance movement. And then, next to that were some children, some starving children, like their bones were showing, next to that. And then, at the south corner, Sun Ra in the east, and at the top of that was a picture of a ghetto prophet, playing the kazoo, and his name was KeRa Upra. He was a cosmic wisdom knowledge messenger who was one of my leaders. He used to shine shoes at 63rd and Cottage Grove and when you get a shoe shine from him, it’s a two-hour experience. Time means nothing. He talks in discourse and his discourse just opens up and opens up.
So I did a poem on that wall called “Run to the Sun.” And on that wall, it became kind of philosophical art, and Sun Ra was philosophical and very super, super, super powerful. At that time Sun Ra was talking about Space is the Place, and we were able to do stuff in a tone, in an image, that really captured the time.
The poem was a nice, long poem, so I really like that personally because I learned over the years to critique the poem and make them smaller; shorter and more impactful, with shorter statements. But it was a time for Sun Ra, for him to counterbalance the police, you know? So it was like a balancing act of trying to stay between making a powerful statement, artistic and poetic, and then between making an intellectual statement, and so it was a way of bringing back some knowledge for me back into the community, and I found that however much high level…however much intellect you bring back, intelligence, it worked and resurrected people. There’s always some people there to raise themselves up to the level of your intellectual poetic discourse, and so that was always encouraging and motivating. Caton was a great reader, too; an appreciator of, I’ll say spirituality, and so it gave me a chance of spirituality and intellectualism combined in poetry that abetted that kind of uplift to community.
So, painting Sun Ra—talk about transformation. Uplifting consciousness of Space is the Place. And a broader consciousness developed. That’s why, when Sun Ra was still living, at the time that we did that mural, as with the Wall of Respect, it galvanized the Black community, and so did most of the murals that Caton and I did murals that created a lot of interest and community coming together, and community pride. So, it inspired me to be a minister, and that’s a long progression. But I saw that by doing the wall in The Alley, how art and spirituality could change people. So that my dissertation was that we are a spiritual people. And spirituality is grounded in creativity. And we are a very creative people, and so we express our spirituality also though being creative. And we call that gospel music or jazz and sometimes rhythm and blues. But those are very creative, open expressions.
RZ: And when was it that you painted that?
SW: That mural was done in ’72. And we worked on the one on 47th and Calumet, which is still there, it was refurbished about 5 or 6 years ago. Man’s Inhumanity to Man, with Bill Walker, Caton and myself, Caton did the centerpiece, and Bill Walker did the two endpieces to the mural.
And then I did two poems, one to Bill Walker’s Man’s Inhumanity to Man and one more that’s related to the piece that Caton did, I think I called it “Echomistry Man.” And it was a fantastic mural and had a fantastic community relationship, and very, very, very positive influence in the community.
There’s an area where the backdrop was pimps and prostitutes, drugs and thugs, 47th and Calumet, real hotspot for that kind of deep street activity. So they would keep us company every day, kinda using us as a camouflage, and company. And so they make very good company. And one guy was labeled the Mayor of Bronzeville—the Mayor of 47th Street—name of Raymond Mason. He was a drug guy, but knowledgeable, and he would come and rap with us everyday so he would become the historian, the storyteller of the mural. And so it had a lot of street elements, and so we believed in and mostly cultivated a lot of street social work. Allowing myself to be the arbitrator and negotiator of street dialogue. And then we all fitted into the street dialogue: Bill Walker, myself, Caton. We became more or less like street social workers, or street communicators.
RZ: And working out in the street, on the mural, made that possible?
SW: It made it possible, ’cause the street people looked to identify with the artist, and the happening on the street. And then they needed us and we needed them. And then for me as a poet, they gave me a lot of ideas, I would try to use their ideas. So like, with that type what we did the mural for me, and mostly Caton, we collaborated very intimately together, so we did, most of the time we wouldn’t have a pre-plan. We may have a couple of, he would have a couple of image ideas, and I would have to work out the poetry. My job was to communicate with the people and to keep him focused on drawing, and then I would fill in painting. Some creative art stuff, but mostly fill in the wall. I did a lot of the painting, and then he would have kinda just the rap. And rapping is a real big part of it, and then I would incorporate the street dialogue or needs or philosophy into the poem, the poetry that was on the wall.
RZ: Can you think of any sort of specific examples of that? Particular ideas?
SW: Oh, everything that was in it! The one on 47th and Calumet, oh my God. The wall took on a supernatural, powerful effect. One of the poems—I’m trying to think of the name of the poem—lemme just say that we changed the poems about six years ago to have something new. So when they restored the wall, we redid it and I created two new poems to go up on the wall. Let’s say, for instance, “Man’s Inhumanity to Man”—my biggest thing was to incorporate the great aspirations of the community and the great aspirations of the community, the heart of the community, the soul of the community. And to take that and to create understanding and uplift, a spiritual type of uplifting presence. Understanding that the community is really innately intelligent and a spiritual people—in heart, in soul. So, “Man’s Inhumanity of Man,” the poem had a lot of symbolism. So it was like, “47th Street is 4+7 levels of attainment to achieve one complete cycle in this time outside of mother. Are we thankful?” So it was like 4+7 equals 11, 11 equals 1 1, 1 1 which is 47th Street, 4 7 levels of attainment to achieve one complete cycle in this time of our time on the planet, so we come to 47th Street to achieve this cycle of evolution. So, there was a line in there about “we led to the supreme connector.” So the artwork and the energy is to connect us to the supreme connector, and God is the supreme connector. So we’re being connected through art and through the energy to God, which is the energy to connect us to the supreme connector. And in some ways it had a format, similar to the format of finding a way not to be preachy but spiritual, and finding a way to reach the soul of the people. Now I can’t do justice to them; I haven’t recited them in years. But that was Man’s Inhumanity to Man…but the Wall is still there.
RZ: But it’s different poems now?
SW: Oh no, different poems, but these poems are just as elevating, they really are. And the other poem has some great lines in it, and I used elements of prayer—always use elements of prayer and fasting—creating new words. The street people as now, as they use creative words to make up words like “hip,” “cool,” and then it goes on beyond that. And so, as a poet I create words and, like, the Echo Mystery Man, one of the words in the other one was the Echo Mystery Man, so I called it “echomistry,” which is the chemistry and the study of the echo. And so the poem embellishes the study of the echo, and you’ve got the echo and it goes into an infinite round. And it talks about purity and in other words “cleansed.” Cleansing oneself by that fast, it’s like speeding through life fast, then you become a faster. The faster is the one who’s fasting, like the Messiah fasted forty days or whoever fasted so they could cleanse themselves so they could go faster into stages of evolution, faster into purity of consciousness. And that, to be in the community. And then that faster, cleanser story was speaking directly to the drug that they choose, because there we had pictures of the drugs and needles and drug users.
RZ: Did you ever go back and ask people about the effect of a mural on the local community?
SW: That’s the one that really leads me towards my doctoral dissertation and confirmed that my idea was very much on target. What I did to confirm the spirituality and the community connection is with the 39th Street wall I went and interviewed people from the neighborhood—taping, like you’re doing—and it’s different when they’re talking to you on the street “oh yeah, this is cool brother and it’s happening and I like that” and then hearing “I don’t like that.” Those people that don’t like it keep going pretty fast: “I don’t know what you’re doing.” But then so many people who would like what you’re doing, so then, as I was doing my dissertation at school you pick out a topic. So mine was in theology. My first topic was going to be community information and resource services. And I identified services that the community needed and how to reference this, their resources. And give them a spiritual, religious point of view. And then, one of my last teachers in theology school, she happened to be a gay person, and she began to help me have a foundation for change. So I was…not accepting of gay people, although I’ve had many instances where gay people had been my guardian angel, I still hadn’t been open. So we were taking this class on community something, and so she was teaching it. Some friends in the program said they were gonna take it, “I don’t wanna take that class with that gay lady.” That was me. And then, I guess I was phobic and scared. And then they took the class and—maybe a week intensive, or something like that, two week intensive—and it was over maybe a month but it wasn’t a full term class and it was intensive and I was supposed to take an alternate class. We had a latitude of schools we could take a class from. And, so I didn’t take the substitute class, but then the class was over and I saw my colleagues, “well, how did it go?” I’m looking for some downer, you know. “It was cool, man, real cool. She was real cool, you oughta go in there and take the class. It’s too late, but talk to her! She cool.” So I went in and told the lady a lie, you know, “…I was sick!” I didn’t take your class, I was sick! I told some lie. “Can I make the class up?” “Sit down!” And she interviewed me, more or less, and she found out that my passion was art, and I’m already feeling as ministering transformational sacred space art. But I’m just thinking that that’s not going to be orthodox-ly acceptable in theology school, but she got to me. And she said, “why don’t you write about art, ministry through art, why don’t you write about that?” and that saved my heart, because that was what my heart wanted to do. And then, in her class, I wrote the art paper—it wasn’t my dissertation yet—I wrote the paper and it was an excellent paper, and I had the substantiation of interviews, I went to the wall—I had finished the Wall maybe a year or so before. And people still remembered me.
RZ: And which wall was this?
SW: The one of Dr. King on 39th and King Drive, on the east side. And it’s called Have A Dream.
So I finished that, so then I went back and interviewed some people who passed by the Wall every day. And they all gave, “the wall’s very positive, make me feel good when I pass by, I feel good when I stand around it, the vibration and the words,” I got all that on tape, and then it just helped to enhance the whole project. I got an A or something in the class, and I hadn’t gotten a lot of As. So, she opened me up and then she recommended me to do my dissertation on it, and that’s when I got to change the topic. So now, so I had to come and reckon with myself little later, about me being all “I don’t want to be about no gay people” and you gotta grow up! I mean, just for all the reasons: gay people have helped me, come to my aid, all the teachers, whatever it is, friends …they’re very open and very supportive and accepting of new ideas whereas straight people don’t, they just act straight, whatever the hell that is. It was gay people at different stations, at different times. Intellectually, they’re cool, bright, they do things that dummies can’t do. So then I went on and researched for art as it effects transformation in community. And I went to the historical view that communities were more architecture as art: pyramidal art, African art, totems, all these are they representing the environment and people in the environment. And then body art, certain tribal designs.
On the wall on 47th Street that I painted with Caton, the poem on the mural took on, was so powerful—it was a guy there in the community when we first did it, because he used to come and teach us, he used to come and kinda keep us company too. But I found that the poem touched him so emotionally, because it was reaching to the real spiritual heart of people, and the drug people could relate to it as cleansing, so that, but this one guy, he didn’t openly take offense to it, but he was talking to us every day and one night he came and sabotaged the poem, he blacked it out with a spray can—because the words were too powerful. I found that powerful words in the street are offensive, they can be very offensive. They can be extremely elevating, and extremely intimidating—not offensive, but intimidating. So this guy came and defaced the poem, one of the first instances of direct defacing. And so like, it was like, man! It really hurts, ’cause we spent a lotta time and energy, and I didn’t—I’m a spiritual artist, so I didn’t make a dime outta the work, I’m just doing it because of my love, I’m not making money, period, for the first 8 years I painted, I didn’t make a dime. Didn’t want no money. And so the next day the people came to a community rally and said, “hey man, somebody attacked the wall!” so it was supposed to be a secret thing, secret in not telling each other, but naw, “that dude did it! That dude did it.” “And he did it, and we gonna get him!” Okay, and so it really created a rallying point. And so for that point on I was adamant about restoring the poem. And I did and now the community came and said, “we wanna protect this wall forever.” And it’s on ground level, it was supposed to be a super-ghettoish drug corner, but these are the kind of people that are not supposed to be guardians of the community, but they are. So this brought that out, ’cause this is their spot, this is their corner, and the energy of the mural embraces them. And so from then on the guy never came back, although he was coming every day initially, faking like he was with us, wanting to bring us food. And I was always skeptical about taking food from people on the street. Because you know I have a strict diet and you just don’t know. So that kinda verified my apprehension, in that way. But he never came back to the wall after that, and then the people there took ownership of the wall—the kids and everybody. So I let some of the kids paint.
47th Street was drugs, prostitution. There were gangs, they understood who had that spot, people have spots, that spot belongs to the drug dealers, the drug purchasers, prostitutes and the pimp. For the most part, those were the street people there. There were street vendors, fruit sellers, maybe sno-balls. 47th Street is a major crime-filled area in the black community, and people had different spots. And so that spot belonged to those particular people in that whole area. So, gangs, no, you would talk to gang boys, but they didn’t identify themselves as gang, ’cause each part of the mural took on an identity of its own as a safety zone. The mural created a zone of peace, because of the poetry mainly. I took on defining myself job, poet, poetically, by the mission of the streets at that time. So like I said, I had a calling, spiritual, deep, to create unity and love from this, and we talked directly to the spirit of the community, from the paintings. Recognizing that in the Alley, recognizing that is my job, it’s my calling. And my position with Caton, it was like hard and soft—you know, he’s real hard, he paints kinda like rough things, skulls of people, guns, depicting images of police violence, drugs, in a very pronounced manner. So then I took on a role of creating an opposition, a contrast, and in contrast to the drugs it was cleansing, cleaning yourself up.
RZ: So you balanced each other out?
SW: Oh yeah. So that made me more focused on research for balance, to make sure that I contrasted what he was saying. Sometimes he’d come off kinda negative. Kinda negative or anti-social.
RZ: So can I pick up on something from the last time we talked about your political orientation, when you were in college. You had talked about being very militant when you were at Kentucky State, and I’m wondering if it was a change, from your perspective, from that orientation to being more sort of spiritual and into the community, or was it all part of the same thing, just emphasizing different aspects?
SW: That’s a real good question. No, you know, I’m still militant. I am a revolutionary. I am out to change the world. How? I want to bring the world back to God. I want to be part of the sustaining force of the Earth, to help evolve humanity. Where’d I get that idea? John Coltrane. Jazz is creative music. It came from God. So it’s like, what is militant? You learn as you grow. Militant means standing up for your rights. Militant means with the people, the 99%. Militant means power to the people. Militant means equality, not second-class identity. Militant means self-assertion, and assertion to the people, from the people, by the people. And as a representative of the people, as an artist, you represent the spirit of the people in the community, so militancy does that in a very pronounced manner. Pronounced in that you’re not going to say, uh, so then, so what I learned as a poet, even throughout my life, is that you have a very powerful calling to say, to call yourself a poet. Confidence is a gift of words and the challenge to know what you’re talking about. So like, dealing with Caton, he was like, at least maybe 15-20 years older than me. So as I would rap about stuff outside of my realm, just flipping off at the mouth like young people do, he would challenge me, to say, “what do you know?” and instead of saying, “uh, uh, well, I know everything.” “Well, what?” “uh, uh, uh…” I had nothing to say. And so then, that would challenge me—he read prolifically, just mountains of stuff, and then I had a white guy that I worked with at the post office, when I met Caton, whose name was Joe Baker, Joe Baker was white and being a militant I didn’t like white people. But Joe, we worked side by side, and every day we became closer friends. So I wanted to attack Joe, ’cause he was white, but Joe became my best friend. And so Joe, I would say, he would ask me about black people, and I didn’t know nothing about Black people, he said, “do you know about Frederick Douglass?” “Nah, man, don’t be talking about my people” “Well, Frederick Douglass, he’s a great orator.” Why you talking about black people? He asked me about Black artists. He had studied black people. I would just say something rebellious and protective of my ignorance. And he would say, “well, I’m just talking.” So that inspired me to read, go find out what it is he’s talking about, and it was Black stuff, Black history, Black artists, Black politicians. And as a Black student in Chicago, they didn’t have Black Studies in the early 60s, and I’m talking about ’64, ’65. Inspired, and so I got with Caton in ’67, and he would challenge me in terms of talking, to know what I’m talking about. So I’d move from one spot of working to another spot, from working with Joe to working with Caton, at what they called the dock. So working with Caton, I worked on the dock, kinda like we were outcasts so to speak. We were both working intellectuals, hippie-type cats, and we knew more than the other guys so we talked a lot. And we acted very militant, had beards and stuff like that. So then the job people kinda put us together.
When I started working, Caton had been on suspension, and they said, “there’s a guy coming who can tighten you up, set you straight.” “Where is he? Ain’t nobody gonna rout me!” So then Caton came back to work, and see I could talk real fast, but I didn’t have depth. So he gave me, made me get depth. To know what I was talking about. And have more depth about what I was talking about. So I used to those things of depth to get deeper. So then when I found out what Joe had experienced, I started searching myself poetically, creatively, that Black and White, talking about white people, “down with whitey,” or something, to use those term, wasn’t enough. Then I started thinking more futuristically. What’s the future going to be like? I don’t think in the future we’re gonna be talking about black people and white people as such. So then I started developing, I said, I’m going to be universal. I wanna be universal because in the sense that when you’re writing stuff, because sometimes when you say black, you don’t mean Black people, I mean it’s a color! It’s something else, and when you say white, it doesn’t just mean white people, we developed that at that time, at that stage in history. So I said, well, what’s gonna be here forever, what thoughts are gonna be forever? And so then that started pushing me very early in my development as a poet and realist towards more universal thoughts. And so it made me read more psychology, Freudian and Jungian philosophy. History itself, about history period, African politics and—I was a history student in college, studied that a lot—sociology, philosophy, to become more substantiated, and more deeper in…so I found that depth was in spiritual thought. And spiritual thought makes greater than the mental thought, it reaches the heart and soul of the people. Of people period, and all people have a spirit, and if they didn’t have one, I was to invoke them. So I took that as my position as a muralist, to touch the spirit, and so when we did the Alley, the first piece we did, I was evolving as a poet, a jazz poet, and I developed the forms from those studies to look at plant life, human life, past, present life. Life of color, life of flowers: just energy itself. So then, in the universe instead of localities: American Black people, Negros, to look at the universe as one. And so Caton and I had a mental, verbal fight over what we would call the Alley—he wanted to call it Rip-Off and his pictures showed that rip-off effect of police ripping off the people, up against the wall, and he was interested in the title Up Against the Wall, or Rip-Off. And I was in to Universal Alley. So the people took to Universal Alley, and they took to the poem and they really, the poem got to the soul of the people, and they got to, that they really come alive in the alley. And so Caton dropped the title Rip-Off, and I think in interviews he did he would still call it Rip-Off, but the wall, the title was on the wall, Universal Alley, so the people gave it that name. People had evolved. So for me, I never wanted to create any conflict with Caton, because he was my elder, mentor, my superman. And I just let it be, and then I let it happen because one of the big things happened was that I wanted him to create, and he didn’t want to create art. He wasn’t a people person like that. So it took my instigating. And then also submitting my personality in a very humble, submitted way. And so through that submitting, we were able to paint 6, 7, 8 murals. And I found that that worked. I encouraged him, and he wanted to be challenged, and I would challenge him to do the work, “let’s do a mural, lets do it, do it, do it” other people giving back. And so as we gave back, particularly in the Alley—I went away to college while we were painting, I spent every day of my summers painting, I had children, my wife’s like, “what’s wrong with you, come on! We need some money!” I had become possessed with painting. And the spirit of it, and so she allowed me to do that. And finally I saw how divine intent works, so through what I was doing, as far as artwork, I was given a grant to go to Dartmouth. But I spent my last day in Chicago working on the mural.
RZ: That’s the Alley?
SW: No, we painted two summers in the Alley at 51st and Champlain, then in ’69 we painted one at 40th and Cottage Grove. So I spent actually 12 hours a day painting. Get up in the morning, we’d move scaffolding and stuff and paint, get them from where we had them stored. ’69 was a very super year, but it showed me and the community, when you create a spirit of energy, like a tornado or a vortex, you create energy that becomes very pervasive. And as it’s created, it becomes contagious. You know there’s different contagions in the street. There’s a gang contagion for young blacks, there’s a drug contagion, and there’s a creative contagion. And so I was caught up in the creative contagion. And the creative contagion meant, for me, it meant jumping into the heart and soul, feeling the pulse of the community, speak and represent that heart and soul of the community. And that becomes contagious, because when you’re creating it becomes possessive and you’re feeling—your energy goes out and your tentacles go out to receive the energy that you’re putting out. You give and you receive. So as you put out that energy into the community, you’re receiving that energy back. So, like all day you’re painting, people are passing by, and they’re speaking to you, “hey, man, I really like that! That’s cool, right on!” “thanks, right on!” Every now and then you get somebody who says, “I don’t like that. What the hell y’all doing? Why you doing that?” Those are cool because then they give you an opportunity to communicate. Those are very good challenges too. And so maybe those people who didn’t like it, they would say stuff like, “hey man, why are y’all here doing this?” or they wanted to get involved. So we became street social workers, because many people used it as a spot for different things. Prostitutes, drugs. But then we had the chance to educate and become informed, and find out what they were about. And then they would find out that you were interested, that you were gonna be there, that you’re planting a seed, that this is your wall, your community, and then for me it would be like, well, what do you think? What are your ideas?
And then they would tell me their ideas and in that way those thoughts would be incorporated. I would always say, “you know, I’m writing a poem, and I wanna hear your thoughts because I need your words, I need some hip words, hip ideas. What do you think?” And most street people have a good conversation, and they would begin to give me the conversation. And then the conversation, maybe a line would be on the wall, maybe a word that would be pretty focal, a hip word, a word of power. Then I developed what I call street poetry. And street poetry becomes different than regular poetry, it becomes words of power as opposed to lines of power, or phrases of power. Because in a street poem, it’s like in advertisements, it’s a word, and that word has to jump out and have a meaning, as opposed to seeing the whole line. If you have the chance to read it, then you get the concept, and if you don’t, you see the word. And each day you pass by you get a word or a line, and each word or line has to give you, the reader, something to nibble, something to embrace. So the picture, that’s the balance of it. So the words in the street don’t become like the page of poetry, it become like phrases of thought, phrases to live on, phrases to repeat, phrases to elevate your body. So that becomes holistic: you see a visual, and you see words and phrases that do that. And then, so then you have to do, I started doing research because all this stuff is just off the top of your head, and some of them do, I mean, you’re scolded when you begin to write that you have to write what you know. One word leads to another word, and then you have turning thoughts that pull into what you’re doing. And the real words come from the street, and once you hook into that and then you hook onto others’ philosophy of thought, and a lot of that philosophy of thought comes from study. And you study something and you catch a word and you read something else and you get a word or two from the street that hooks in, and that carries what you’re doing.
RZ: So, you did the mural in the Alley, and the 40th and Cottage, and then the 47th and Calumet one, and then what else, around that time?
SW: Okay, so we did the Alley in about three phases. Because when I go back to school I would come home every summer, about two or three summers, and paint. And kinda like, that’s basically all I would do. That’s all I wanted to do. And that was hard, in the sense that I had no money.
It was real hard in that sense, but it gave me some kind of depth of commitment. But I wonder, I look back and I’m like, how did I do that, with no money? But it evolved me in a spiritual way, and everything was taken care of financially, but still, I didn’t have nothing, not a dime. And it still worked. So we did, when I graduated finally in ’72 from Dartmouth, I came home, we were working on the mural at 75th Street about Sun Ra. So I had just graduated from Dartmouth College, didn’t have a job, came home that summer. We started at the wall at 75th Street and St. Lawrence. We were able to do stuff in a tone, in an image, that really captured the time. And for me being a graduate from this great school, coming back and working full-heartedly in the street again, was totally the kind of giving that I wanted to do of myself. And then I kind of found myself in a precarious position: now you got a college degree, you promised your family you was going to provide, and you’re still out here caught up in this art thing. But at the same time, the mural was so powerful that the next summer they built a building right on top of that mural. And we could easily see that it was done in order to negate the power of the art. And so each summer I could see supernatural power developing from art. Manifested in ourselves, manifested in the community, and something that would be there and that wasn’t defaced or anything. They were all pretty much at eye level, and the community as it interacted with us, we became like street teachers and philosophers of art that took on a thing of teaching, 24 hour a day teaching: symbols, words, energy. So 75th Street, that one didn’t last long, but the mural’s still there, the back part of it you can see, the rear wing of it. It lasted a year or something but like I said, they built something right on top of it, and the Alley itself actually took about three years to complete, because we were discovering how to do public art with no budget, no real equipment. No decent ladders or nothing, no decent paint. And then as we developed that stuff, companies developed mural paint! And then we used different paints, and we discovered what paints to use. Outdoor paints were too expensive for a no budget type of situation. And then I think people would tell me, like Bill Walker would ask me, am I getting any money? He’d say Caton is getting grants. I didn’t care, really. I’d say, “no, I’m not getting no money.” When they finally came and got me different funding agencies, to do a mural for the community or such, I was pretty apprehensive. I don’t know if I was dumb or just very apprehensive, because I told the guy who came and got me, the alderman, he said, “we’re gonna help you get some money” “I don’t want no money. I just want to do the artwork.” And I found out over the years that that was very naïve, that there was people making nice monies, and I just wanted to do the artwork.
RZ: But you also, if you take money then you can be beholden to someone else’s agenda.
SW: And that’s what happened. But I found ways to circumvent it, so they finally came and said, “Webber, would you do a mural over here, and so on and so on,” but I developed by myself. I am extremely rich. It’s not money that makes you rich—it’s what you do. When I went to Dartmouth, I left there, Chicago, painting a mural. My last day in Chicago I was painting, and then got on a plane. So we were painting that mural in The Alley and we were painting 39th and Cottage Grove. It was a funeral home—that mural’s not there anymore—and it was called Home. So at that time I had written poems in The Alley, and they wanted innovators of mural poetry as such.
RZ: Tell me about Dartmouth. Did you go there through the same grant that some of the members of the Vice Lords had?
SW: Same grant, I was with those guys.
RZ: But you weren’t a member of the gang.
SW: No, no, I wasn’t a member of the gang, I knew some of the leadership in the gang but I knew some of the leadership in all three of the major gangs. You know, and being a proponent of freedom, justice and equality, I’d espoused that to all of the gang members, you know that really Black Power type of rhetoric. I thought gangs were nonsense. But the whole public fabric of the Black community knew about Black Power. They had the Panthers and other groups like that. The SDS and so forth, and there was a lot of integration in social and political movement at that time, whites and blacks, Students for a Democratic Society and Communist Workers and along with the different gang people in the factions with the political and social commitments. There was more communal interaction in the city than now, so you could know these diverse people, because you were more culturally communal and centered. And they had community theaters and stuff, that were about community coming together to do, see, and feel, and express different things, and it wasn’t as fragmented as this environment is now. So, yeah, I met the Vice Lords when I was working at Carson, Pirie Scott. And I worked as a shirt salesman in the ’60s, this was about ’67.
RZ: Was that still in high school?
SW: No, I graduated high school in ’61. And so I got married in ’65, went away to college right after I got married. I dropped out—wasn’t a good student—I was caught up with social and political change as opposed to education. I dropped out several times. And I don’t know how I did that, I was so desperate to get my education. But I think it was about divine organization, must have been, because I ended up going to Dartmouth, which was my ideal fantasy, but I never envisioned myself like that, but one failure opened up another door. And then I think that by being relevant at the door that closed, I was fitted for the door that opened.
RZ: And at Carson Pirie Scott you met some of the Vice Lords?
SW: I sold shirts. I had been working at Karroll’s Men’s Store and I left there and applied for other jobs and they called me at Carson Pirie Scott, and then they allowed me to be a salesman. And I was the best salesman they had and sold men’s clothes on the first floor. At the store, there weren’t many blacks. So then I’m on the first floor at the Wabash and Monroe side and so when black guys would come by, I would be giving them the black power sign and I’d be yelling out “black power.” So I’d be with this black power thing, young and all that, with a long Afro standing in the middle of Chicago and I’d be shouting out “Black Power” to the Black people that went by, raising my fist. I would talk politics all the time and talk about whatever was happening with Panthers and Dr. King, civil rights movement and why they should have a black consciousness and participate in the movement. Then there was white people that were SDS and CORE and communists. It was very intellectual. I didn’t understand Marx and Lenin, but I did understand some part of socialism. I mean, it sounded good to me. The schools would tell you “don’t be a socialist,” and in the street they’d say “don’t be a socialist,” and I never understood why; that we always had that question, “what’s wrong with socialism?” you know, equality, what’s wrong with that? It was answered real simple and stupid—socialism is red. What’s wrong with red? It’s communism. What’s wrong with communism? It’s socialist. And the answer would just be back and forward without any conclusion, I said, “well, I’m for equality, aren’t you?” and so it was part of the American oppressive education, and it was similar to the same crap that’s happening now with people programmed to be dumbed down and ignorant.
So when some of the gang guys came by—I didn’t know the gang, I’m just a Black Power person. And so we’d have rap sessions. At that time, there was a lot of dialogue among Blacks called rapping, we rapping, because there was a lot of dialogue in the background with King and Malcolm and other people, Eldredge Cleaver, Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Floyd McKissick, James Forman, all these, Elijah Muhammad, and so you had a lot of rhetoric flourishing. I would spew out a lot of the rap that the environment had, militant Black, and one of the keywords at the time was Black Power. So I dropped that, so they said, “man, this guy can talk and organize, and talking about it like he knows something or feels something, and he’s with the people…” so they embraced me. So then they would come to the store, these three guys, very well dressed from the West Side, cool dudes, Ivy Leaguers. I didn’t have an association with gangs but we became friends. And these particular new friends, I’d invite them to the South Side to cultural events—jazz, poetry sets—at that time we had some of those. Wasn’t that many, but I was involved in the jazz poetry movement, and I had become a member of the Troy Robinson Workshop band and I used to invite other poets to be a part of the band and work with me or do their own thing. I remember Don Lee was one of them, “hey man, why don’t we come together and rap together?” and he never did but I knew I would invite him all the time cause I knew that it was a hip opportunity that I had, because the guys in the band liked me and the more voices the better.
RZ: Were some of the Vice Lords poets also?
SW: One of them was, Henry Jordan. He was one of the major Vice Lords. He was extremely creative, and he was one of the enforcers of the Vice Lords, but I just knew that he was a good guy. He was a very good poet and artist but he didn’t perform his poetry.
RZ: Who were some of the other guys you met?
SW: Other guys I knew was Allan Evans “Tiny,” called him “tiny.” He wasn’t a poet, “Tiny” was just a good friend of Henry’s and the Vice Lords, so then…and another guy’s name was LZ, LZ was a cool dude who grew up with them two, and they were all from the west side, so to me, they were my west side buddies, and I would invite them to the south side, and I would take them to hear Phil Cohran on the beach at 63rd Street, or either I would invite them out to jazz, we had a gig every Saturday, Friday night, Saturday and Sunday at the Troy Robinson Gallery.
RZ: And where were those on the South Side?
SW: We had the jazz workshop on 76th and Cottage Grove. So I was a poet in a jazz band in ’67. And that was rare then as it is now! And that was the beginning, so I’d invite some of those guys out to partake. They came from the West Side to the South Side. We performed what we called The Black Mass, which was a structured jazz program. I did some poetry around the black causes and movements, a couple of poems to Malcolm X and we had a gospel quartet that participated with us a lot of times, I think two or three women and a guy, and they would do something, a tune or two, and I would do a poem, two or three poems…
RZ: So it was like a jazz liturgy?
SW: Right, that’s what it was, that’s exactly what it was. And I was very consistent, serious about what I was doing, and the band would ask what I was doing, so they made me a major part of it because it worked. So we’d do regularly poetry to music and it enhanced the music or it enhanced the words and we would bounce off each other. And so one of the Vice Lords had gone to Dartmouth, and a white guy from Dartmouth, DeWitt Beall, wanted to film the Vice Lords. DeWitt got the Vice Lords to allow him to film their organization, and he made the film Lord Thing. And then Henry was one of the main brainiacs and was very creative, and so we’d read poems with each other every now and then because he could really write. He just didn’t follow up on it for some reason, and I did, and he could paint and so we had a very good interest together. And Tiny, his friend, he would be the guy to come to the South Side and make more of the activities of what was happening on the South Side from the West Side. So Henry and I were good friends, and the three of us became really close. So then when they got a chance, so when they hooked us up with DeWitt, Henry and Tiny went to Dartmouth and they came back and they asked me if I wanted to go with them the second year, and I said no, cause I didn’t trust white people, and I didn’t want to be around them, and I’m going back to Kentucky State and graduate. And then after King, when King was assassinated, then sort of the whole world went up in flames. Kentucky State, there was a riot there. And I’m the leader of the Afro-American Society, so I’m naturally at fault! So they kicked me out of the school, and I came back to Chicago. And then I re-met one of the guys, and I asked him if I still had a chance to go to Dartmouth. “Yeah, sure.” “Really?!” They were looking for some good men. Who might fit in, and I had already been to school and I wasn’t a total street person and might could hack it, you know, make a good balance for the group.
RZ: What was it like?
SW: It was utopia. It allowed me to grow to my fullest potential. And to grow intellectually and socially and culturally, especially. So it gave me a lot of opportunity. And it was like, “oh, you wanna do something? Here, go ahead.” You know! “Go do it.” “Whaddya wanna do?” “Oh, I wanna do…” “Great idea!” And then after doing it would be, “wow, that was great!” You know, accepting. So, intellectually it was just the top of the line, gave me a lot, taught me a lot, and helped me tremendously. And it’s such a broad thing, but I accomplished a lot there, personally and institutionally.
RZ: When did you decide it was okay to call yourself an artist?
SW: I developed a form of mural poetry as a mural-poet, and there was nobody else doing mural poetry as a mural-poet, so I liked doing that, and that evolved: you’re a this. And I was always afraid of labels because they were always super-powerful, “I’m an artist? Oh no, I’m not an artist!” “Yes you are!” You know, kids would say that, “yes, you are, because you’re doing art.” But the title of an artist to me was so supernatural, it was like, God. So then after a while, “well, I guess I am an artist…wow. I guess I am, I’m doing it. Kids keep saying it.”
Art is everything. It’s the art of breathing, the art of living, the art of loving. The art of caring and all of that is the art of healthful living. And so I’ve been able to define myself as a holistic artist. And feel good about it and to be able to talk about it. Without, and sometimes, there was times as an artist I didn’t want to be—I had some intimidation about being an artist. But it was such a lofty title, my gosh, “artist?” No, I’m not there! How could one possibly be an artist? And it was like that for me, so when kids would come over and say, “Mister, you must be an artist!” and it was so humbling and so overwhelming to be an artist I’d say, “no, I just do art.” So after about ten years of mural painting—maybe longer than that—I didn’t want to be called an artist, I just couldn’t embrace it with my whole heart. Art to me is being a priest. And I take it very holistically, it’s to preach. So when I got my act together in theology school, art became a priesthood, and I became a priest-artist-minister.
I never really did want to be formal—and what I call formal is getting a grant or something. I never really wanted to get a grant, initially, because once you start getting money, to me, it slows down your progress, your production. Now you gotta wait on the money. It slows down your passion. Now your passion is tempered by the amount of money you’re gonna get. And it tempers your focus, ’cause if you get deep into that thing, you’re looking at somebody making competitive, or you look a fool cause you ain’t making. But it takes away the drive, and even the design. So you discover different things, once, I notice, I got a grant or two, then they call you ‘the artist,’ the ‘so-and-so artist,’ the ‘directing artist.’ Then you’re in a structured situation, and they say, “oh, you must be the artist” and then there’s no way of escaping. You can’t tell that group, “well, no, I’m not really an artist, I’m just a guy who does art!” so then the situation put me into, and I said, “okay, I must be an artist, I’ve done all this artwork…and I have to accept it because the work is there. I guess so.” It’s still humbling.
RZ: Is there a difference between being an artist and being the artist? In those contexts where you’re working with kids, and they’re saying you’re the artist and the kids are…not the artist?
SW: It really is, it really is. Because when you’re The Artist, you take on a responsibility. And so, check this out, when you’re the priest-artist, the transformational artist, the artist of transformation, or whatever, those things go—then you definitely have a responsibility to minister, to create sacred space and energy. That’s transformation. So as just an artist, I found a way to do it, with Caton, and that’s the kind of thing that started out Rip-Off and Universal Alley, and Universal Alley won out. So I was very proud of that. Over a long time, he would still call it Rip-Off Alley. And he would condescendingly say, “oh, yeah. well, jazz in the alley or something like that.” But it was known as Universal Alley by the people—well, just The Alley, in the time it was happening. So, with more teaching jobs you have to take on the title of substantiation, it makes you acknowledge your responsibility. As uplifters and innovators in the community and through the world. And that, so I’m not, I don’t uplift patronistic art. I understand it, and I have a lot of deep discussions about it with friends for ever. And eventually I had to get some money to do the art, so I couldn’t spend every summer no more painting for love, I had to cover my back. For many years my painting didn’t make a dime—didn’t want no money, because I didn’t want to be consumed. And as time goes on, kids grow up, start needing more milk and stuff like that. So I still look at the artist as a priest, period. The true artist is one who is sent or called by a higher authority, and that person is a person who has to accept responsibility for his art. Now, we see it now, me, a as a poet, people like Jay-Z, he’s now saying, “oh, I’m gonna change my rap cause I got a baby now. So instead of me saying ‘bitches and hos,’ and ‘hos better show me the money,’ I’m gonna say something different!” So I say to myself, he’s not an artist, he’s an entertainer, and so I have to speak the difference between entertainment and art. An artist is an artist like a minister—of the people, for the people. So you got people like Mahalia Jackson, those are artists. Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye. Some border entertainment and art, but the original Black artist was a very religious person. And then they got co-opted into commercialism. Okay, I accept that, they need some money. But now, all of the people who call themselves artists have very little spiritual foundation. So they’re just entertainment. And some of them are very corruptive because they use most of that against the public for their own personal gain. So calling the women bitches and hos and getting famous doing that and now you’ve impregnated “ho” into society and a group of people going “hos better give me my money,” and you’ve made that a household norm, in a sense. All this money in it. And now you come back after that drug is out, that satanic energy is out, and you say—and I’m just not using him, but a whole group of people—but saying, “Imma change my ways, ’cause I got a kid.” And it’s alright, Prince did the same thing, “the artist known as Prince,” many of them do. And so for me, those who seek fame and fortune in a category like that are not artists. They’re not working with their heart, they’re not working with the spirit of art.
So when I paint through poetry, I find that the children can relate to it, they relate to profound stuff, much heavier than grownups. They like simplicity, to know what’s real, they like what they know what they like, they like color, they like design. So if the kids like it, I love it, and I would use the kids as my major guides. So that’s why I embrace kids in the street and I would use them as my guides. If they liked it, I loved it. And if they didn’t like it, I wanted to know why. They would tell me simply why they didn’t like it, what I should change. So even when I was drawing incorrectly, I would ask kids for correction, “how does that hand look? You sure that looks alright?” “Well, you could change it around, make it look a little bit this way and a little bit that way.” And then I would ask them about images: “what does that look like? What do you think about that?” “It looks good…” and they don’t tell you just generically, “it looks good, it’s cool.”
Kids would say, “I like it because I think of this. I think of that.” Or in the poem, I would ask if they could read the poem, because I’d always use words that kids could relate to. And kids would read the poems and I would be just amazed at their interpretation of the poem. And it would always touch my heart. I write poems with dual, dual or triple expanded meanings, but they would get the essence of the meaning—the kids would always say, “oh, this means this and that.” And then they’d say, “neighbor, like it means God.” And that’s just what I want to hear. “Really, how did you get that out of that?” And they say, “that’s what I feel when I read it.” And that’s just what I meant when I wrote it! So if they can embrace it, that meant that everybody else could. Kids are universal. If they don’t like it, I don’t like it. Because they definitely center the world, and my world, and they have a purity of heart that’s beyond adult prejudice. They haven’t gotten into that stuff, money, whatever. The world has evolved rapidly over the last 20 years. But most times, kids are very pure and they see things in a very pure way. So, I use them as my guides as much as possible.