Mark Rogovin is a muralist, activist, and author. After working with Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974) on his final mural, The March of Humanity on Earth and Towards the Cosmos (1964-1971), he arrived in Chicago and immediately became part of the nascent community mural movement. He founded the Public Art Workshop in the Austin neighborhood, and co-authored Mural Manual: How to Paint Murals for the Classroom, Community Center, and Street Corner (1975), and Silhouette Murals (1976). He co-founded the Peace Museum in Chicago with Marjorie Craig Benton, former U.S. representative to UNICEF, in 1981. He served as the Museum’s director for four years. He currently heads The Rogovin Collection LLC, dedicated to promoting the social documentary photography of his father, Milton Rogovin, and researches and writes about the history of the left in Chicago and beyond. Rebecca Zorach interviewed him over a series of meetings in 2013 and 2014.
Rebecca Zorach (RZ): When did you come to Chicago, and were you already painting murals before you got here?
Mark Rogovin (MR): I came to Chicago in 1968. The day before I arrived here in Chicago I had been working with David Alfaro Siqueiros on his last mural, and that was an incredible experience, of course.
RZ: Was that in Mexico?
MR: Oh yes. It’s a long story, I’ll tell you briefly this story: in 1953, my parents started to go to Mexico on vacation times that my mother had. My parents were a twosome; they did nine tenths of the travelling together. My mother taught Special Ed. And my father was an optometrist. He was an organizer of optometric workers and optometrist. So they went, and because my parents were radicals they went to Mexico City to meet up with the Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP). Now some of that history is murky to me because I was a child back then, very young. I don’t know whether they knew Elizabeth Catlett before they went or met her while there, but the other person who went with my parents on their trips was a person from the FBI; they were following my parents! In Washington DC, there are photographs taken by the FBI of my parents getting off a plane in 1954. So what my parents would do, is they would go and spend time with artists like Raul Anguiano, they would go out to some of the places where the indigenous people were living, and Raul would draw and my father would photograph…my mother would actually draw as well. And they would go with Pablo O’Higgins and some of the other artists. When my parents would come back to Buffalo, the TGP would send them back with bulging black portfolios of prints by TGP artists and my parents would take all the art down from the house, and they would put up all the art…I do not remember how they would put them up. There were already prices on them. Siqueiros: 35 dollars. Posada: 15 dollars. And people joke and they say if my parents had been smart, we’d be really rich. We’d have a better Posada collection than The Art Institute of Chicago. All of these great artists! Amazing, amazing stuff. And we did buy a number of the pieces and then there was a summer fair that we would sell some of the work at in Buffalo, and then we would send back what didn’t sell. My parents went year after year to the TGP, and that’s how the connection with myself and Elizabeth Catlett came about. She was teaching at Academia San Carlos in 1964 and 65 and I was there and the second time I was there to study, she started to hit me heavy with the mural thing and gave me a letter which I then put in front of Siqueiros.
The mural I was an assistant on eventually became part of this massive space in Mexico City, but we were working in Cuernavaca in this incredible studio and we were working with a scale model that was a scale of this future building in Mexico City, so we were working with 11×13 foot asbestos panels. We were working with a scale model; the scale model was based on drawings and paintings but mainly gesture drawings that Siqueiros did while in prison. I left Mexico in 1968, and so I show up in Chicago, and I was coming here for graduate school at the Art Institute of Chicago, and I knew nobody in town, but I had a letter that said visit so and so in an apartment here, so I show up at this couple’s place and a woman comes to the door and she says, “oh yes, I know so and so” and she says, “well you know what just happened?” and I said “of course, the whole world knows what just happened.”
RZ: So this was the fall of 1968…
MR: Right. I arrived two days after the Democratic Convention, and she says, “well, if you can find a place, you’re welcome to stay here until you find somewhere to stay,” so I go into this little tiny apartment, and there, all around the walls were wounded people, with bloody knees, and other injuries…what was happening was that the cops were not only beating people up on the street, but hauling people out of hospitals and beating them up again. It was frightening! Progressive doctors were doing whatever they could, either in the hospitals or literally on the street, and many other places had become sort of “safe houses.”
So I found an apartment in South Shore, and started at the Art Institute. I did not like the Art Institute. I’m forgetting all the people who were my teachers, but I did not like it; their interests, you would know exactly what I’m talking about, their real interests were Roger Brown and others. I think Ray Yoshida was one of my teachers, and it was just not my thing. While I was at The Art Institute, I would take a bus back and forth from the Art Institute to South Shore, and son of a bitch, I’m looking out the window, there is Bill Walker and the Wall Of Respect at 43rd Street as I was heading towards South Shore, so I just jumped off the bus and had a little bit of conversation with Bill and our conversation kept on going for many, many years.
But one of the things that I also did at that point was I started to document with color slides the mural, the Wall Of Respect and Wall Of Truth as I had done in Mexico, where I had a gorgeous Nikon camera with a tripod.
A lot of people think they can do it all without a tripod, but it means you get a much richer photograph. And so while in Mexico, I photographed Rivera, Orozco, Siqueiros and other works and I started to photograph the Wall of Respect, and I really liked to photograph details, because in looking at details, you can see the brushstrokes and you can see the ingredients! You know exactly what I’m talking about.
When I graduated from the Art Institute, I had moved to the West Side, to the Austin community, and moved within two blocks of the Public Art Workshop, which is at Madison and Central. A couple blocks away from there was a progressive realtor. I’m sure you never heard of such a configuration! But there was a left realtor who passed away ten years or so ago, Harry Gaynor, and I said, “Harry, you know, Lester Wickstrom, who was this WPA artist and I and his wife Esther Wickstrom, we’ve been talking about a community mural center and I found a place that would be idyllic,” and it was at 5623 W. Madison Street. To make a long story short, after about six months Harry got a chance to represent the building and the asking prices was $25,000 and we got it for 11,000 dollars. This was 1972. It had a wonderful first story; the second story housed an international mural resource center and all of that material, all of the archive of that is at the Chicago History Museum, and it’s finally, after 15 years, now available to the public. For years I kept calling the museum, and I said, “what’s new?” you know, “where is it in line?” to be processed, and they said, “well, Carol Moseley Braun just bought two hundred boxes of … !” from her different campaigns or, “oh! Studs just died!” So finally it’s available and, whether it’s vital or not, it’s there.
RZ: What kind of materials?
MR: Well, the main thing I would say is that we kept track of murals around the world, and this was at an early stage. There are no slides there. It’s our bookkeeping and all that kind of stuff, to show how bad our addition was, and it shows our proposals that we wrote. We got National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grants, we were this freaking tiny hole in the wall; we had CETA people for x number of years and here’s this big NEA and we wrote to them and they wrote back at a certain point and they said, “you’re exactly what we want to fund!” And they said, “change this and change this and change this.” We got it in the same day! So OK, our interests were of serving the community. It was a 100% black community, except for me. And I mean the community used to be Ukrainian and Jewish, and then as the landlords let the properties go in terms of repairs, it became a black community. There were times when I was in my old apartment where I could stand on the back porch and look out into the alleys and see moving vans night or day. Just routine in poor neighborhoods. So we wanted to serve the community and we had a broader community that we wanted to serve. Diagonally across was an elementary school, Robert Emmit Elementary School, that had just lost their art program, and so we knew we wanted to do things both within the school and at our shop and with murals in our neighborhood.
At that point, I was employed part-time by Urban Gateways. They brought artists to schools or schools to concerts. It’s still alive and they do it well, a very, very, excellent program for decades. So I went to classrooms in five counties through that program, and I was either doing workshops for students or workshops for teachers, which I liked even more cause you knew they could affect more within the schools. Within the workshop we built a five enlarger darkroom and taught photography. A woman who came to us had taught photography for the deaf and so we had made changes within the darkroom, it was in our basement, we even raised a couple pipes so that people wouldn’t deck themselves (which I had done) and we learned a lot working with those programs, all of those programs.
We also did some murals and we did one mural that’s called Break The Grip Of The Absentee Landlord, if you don’t know it I’ll show it to you, or it’s actually pictured in the Mural Manual.
And I mean there’s a lot of older murals that I’m sure you don’t know, like this fun one which is called Bored Of Education, and this was on the exterior of St. Mary’s Center For Learning. Really wonderfully created on panels. We did some murals in our neighborhood and that was the main area that we focused on. We also developed the concept of portable panel murals, and I brought one portable panel mural to an international festival and we developed in the Mural Manual step-by-step guidelines for how to do the portable panel pieces and be able to move them from site to site. These were with Masonite. Among other things, on the second floor we had the archive but we also wrote the book The Mural Manual, when we walked in the door for the Public Art Workshop, within six months I started getting calls from old friends of mine saying “well, you have to develop a manual,” and I said, “Hey, you know, we’ve just begun learning how to paint murals, how can we develop a manual?” So I pulled a couple of people together and we wrote an 86-page booklet and it’s a very, very valuable document. We even had a paint section, which is not useful today, of course, but we had a little history section which obviously needs to be updated…but how to look at a wall, and many people don’t care about this, I still do, if you’ve got windows, do you just pretend that they don’t exist or do you weave them into the concept, into the drawing. And really, some people just have their own approach and that’s just fine. So we said ok, you know, we’ll write this book. We wrote a first edition and we had 2,000 copies, 86 pages; we hand-typed the thing, we did all the drawings ourselves, all the photography, all the layout. It was printed by a small progressive press in Buffalo, and the moment it arrived to us I sent off a dozen copies to publishers. We didn’t hear a thing for one year, and then Beacon Press of Boston wrote and Beacon is a Unitarian press and it’s a good press. I still have their letter. They said, “This is not at all what we publish but we want to publish this“ and they published 12,000 copies, so we have in total sold 14,000 copies.
And people took bunches of them to Nicaragua, I sent half a box to Cuba, but mainly we sold them around the US. We had developed a thing called Mural Resources, and it was a four-page, sometimes six-page flyer that where we offered books, booklets and reproduced pieces for people. This was at the beginning of the whole renaissance of murals, and so any books that I found on Siqueiros I would buy six or eight copies and I would write to SPARC (the mural center in LA) and say “I’m holding a copy for you,” or there was another book which is so incredible, it’s this thick, which I would only get small quantities of because there were very few, and it was an inventory of the murals in Mexico, Inventario Del Muralismo Mexicano, and it’s a profound document, and there, when I would get so few, I would call these few people and I said, “I know Ray Patlán, you’re interested in this, send me 30 bucks” and then, without permission of course, I would Xerox articles and really get them out and used. And so it served a very, very valuable role.
RZ: I think I saw a smaller pamphlet about doing silhouette murals?
MR: Oh yes. I put that booklet together. Silhouette Murals.
Break The Grip Of The Absentee Landlord, and this is what I meant by using the windows, the inserts, and all that kind of stuff. This is just 15 blocks from here; it’s been destroyed or painted out. And you know, that silhouette booklet, there were again a lot of people who said, you know, “I really like this approach.” I’m in Urban Gateways, and I developed that concept and I wrote the booklet and then I wrote another version of it, which was much, much more sophisticated, where we would take and instead of just plain-here it is—instead of just plain taking a projector and doing this, we would take and photograph the shadows and then re-project upside down, backwards, and so it became more sophisticated. I’ve got boxes and boxes of slides, all black and white, and you’ve got this person in this beautiful pose, or I would just photograph them, but usually just the shadow. It’s interesting.
RZ: That’s incredible.
MR: Remind me, I’ll show you some. There was this young guy named Johnnie Alexander; we opened our door in 1972, and there was this little Black kid who opens up the door and he looks in and I said, “hey, come on in!”
Well, six months ago I went to his wedding, I helped bury both his parents. We’ve been in touch for so many years, so many years, and he became the most photographed person in this technique. Why? Because he loved dance. He had this group that was one of the things that happened out of this Public Art Workshop, called the Rapid Hands, and it was this group of three or four guys who did this all this stuff. Now it’s called “hip-hop,” I guess, but they did cool, cool stuff.
RZ: Dance moves, you mean?
MR: Dance moves. But I have to tell you, I mean, one day I’d like to write a real book, or I’d like you to write a real book or booklet about this things, and I actually started this thing and I’ve got a box full of ingredients, but one of the many, many, many things that happened with this workshop is that we developed young people. I just met up with a woman now who was a child back then, she called the house a couple of months ago and said, “Mark, I’m in town! Come meet me at such and such a place.” But she and Johnnie and like four or five others had gone to national demonstrations, and they were “official photographers.” Well, sort of official photographers, but for marches to free Ben Chavez and you know all these other things…it was really exciting! Johnnie Alexander went to Cuba with the Venceremos Brigade. It’s not gonna happen with a kid in the ghetto, going to Cuba! And he still talks about it. He’s no radical, but he still talks about it. So, there’s a lot of stories, a lot of history. What I should do someday is to just write all these little incidents down. So that’s some of the ingredients with the Public Art Workshop, I mean, there were a lot of interesting stories of being on location, painting or doing other projects.
RZ: Did you know Don McIlvaine?
MR: Not well, not well. He was a West Sider, yeah. First, I have to tell you, I have a very bad memory, as you can tell already and you’re laughing! But so, you know, if you put a face in front of me or some of his work, I’d recognize it…
RZ: Well, I just noticed that one of his murals is in here. Black Man’s Dilemma.
MR: Oh yeah, that’s on the West Side. That was off 16th Street I think. Yeah.
RZ: They had this workshop called Art and Soul that was run by the Conservative Vice Lords, and started with support from the MCA, and then UIC kind of picked it up and he was the director of that. I was curious because it was also on the West Side, though not nearly as far west.
MR: He did a mural—you have to forgive what I’m about to say—he did a mural on the outside of a little tiny building, just forgive me for what I’m about to say, disrespectfully referred to as a “fuck shack”!
RZ: Can you say a little bit more about Lester Wickstrom?
MR: Oh yeah, Lester Wickstrom. Well, he was one of the people I met first in 1968. There were a couple of really important people I met at the beginning when I came here. One is an artist named Peggy Lipschutz, a chalk talk artist; very, very active in peace and justice and other things. Lester was a master cabinet maker, and he did, during the WPA, little tiny carvings that are somewhere at the Chicago History Museum, probably in their bowel somewhere, and there was a display which Les brought me to see, which had 200 people and Abraham Lincoln on the train giving a talk, and he had carved a little boy with a newspaper in his hand who was running. He was just a master cabinet maker and I used to go to their house in Rogers Park, I really went for the food, but I’d see all his carvings and whatever, really a great guy. Lester’s wife Esther did all the bookkeeping, helped with proposal writing.
RZ: I’m interested in connections between the ’60s and the WPA period. Were there a lot of people around from that era?
MR: Not at all. Not at all. I would say frankly that the only people that I knew of were people related to the South Side Community Art Center, and I did not know many of those people. I was a West Sider. I would go sometimes for presentations.
RZ: Were you part of the mural show with the South Side Community Art Center?
MR: Yes, of course, oh yes. They borrowed two 2’x4’ panels that were part of a scale model for a silhouette mural, and that was the silhouette mural that I did that was at Columbia College. It was five 4’x8’ Masonite panels. The Peace Mural.
RZ: Is it still at Columbia College?
MR: No, the fuckers destroyed it. It was in the Harrison Street entryway to the 600 building. They took it out at one point. There was a Plexiglas shield in front of the mural.
RZ: You were part of the MCA mural show?
RZ: What was that like?
MR: Well, Joe Shapiro was president of the museum’s board at that point. The group of artists—we sort of asked that I be the coordinator for the artists and so I negotiated the paint and the amount of money that Joe Shapiro was to put out—a freaking fortune, I mean, when that project was done, we walked out of there with ten gallon buckets and this was great, great paint; this was some of the paint that I used in Mexico with Siqueiros. It was quite something. It was really a great time for us, we had a chance to talk to the public; people could walk into our studio area and I developed this piece on Angela Davis and it was a piece that was meant to travel. I don’t remember how many venues it went to but I remember one where Sally Davis, Angela’s mother, came and it was a precious event. But we had, or it was determined, that Bill Walker and Eda and John Weber and I were to be a part of it and at some point we made this decision to bring in Ray Patlán and that was really a good decision.
RZ: There were some kind of aggressive comments made to the press about the museum by Bill Walker, which was interesting—it’s art for the people that’s really not supposed to be in museums and here’s a museum wanting to capitalize, but also maybe having some genuine interest in it at the same time.
MR: We did write this paper, it was a page or a page and a quarter, about “We the artists…” The artists asked if I would draft the statement, if I would be the “coordinator” or “spokesperson” or whatever for this project at the Museum of Contemporary Art. So I think that I did a draft of the mural statement, and everybody had their input and it’s served for many years. One of the sort of amusing things about the employment of this little group of artists was that we used to refer to, and I think we mentioned it in one of the newspaper interviews, that we were employed by the museum of contemporary art and that we were doing this project in the “basement” of the museum, and they got all bent out of shape because they referred to it as the “lower lobby,” but we always used to joke about that. But this was really one of the first projects that employed artists to be there on a full time basis, and that the public could meander from project to project and talk with us. It was really wonderful, it was wonderful for us and wonderful for the public and the press and it was a great experience. Plus we got to purchase whatever paint we wanted and so we ordered the polytech acrylic, which was the best acrylic in the world and by far the most expensive acrylic in the world, and when we finished with the projects it continued to supply the mural movement in Chicago for endless projects! It was great stuff.
RZ: I’m curious about like what the day-to-day life of the Public Art Workshop was like. Were kids coming in all the time?
MR: Yeah, we had after school classes. We went into Robert Emmit Elementary School, the school I mentioned were they had cut the art program. We taught a program, I think it might’ve been for a Catholic school or schools around the Chicago area, a class in photography for the deaf. We had converted an unused basement into a gorgeous five-enlarger darkroom. And we had to make some slight additions or chages, so a light would come on if somebody needed to come or go through the main door instead of knocking…We had two very, very skilled teachers, one of them being Jerry Zbiral, who lives in Evanston. She produced a film on the artist Peggy Lipschutz. So the students produced some superb work in the afterschool art program. Students produced excellent work and then we produced some murals in our area. The Peace Mural was done there, so all the beautiful movement of the young people was photographed there.Another thing was that we worked for the peace and justice movement around the city. It was mainly myself but I did banners; I’m a great banner maker although I don’t do them anymore, my hands are too shaky. And picket signs, I did some trade union stuff and peace and justice stuff, and then in 19…I think it was ’72 although you could check, there was a major march down State Street that was demanding that Nixon sign the peace treaty with Vietnam and some people approached me and said, “would you develop some street theatre props which would becomes the focus of this demonstration?” And I did major banners that went lengthwise down the street so people could read them from both sides. And then I…Lester, Peggy Lipshutz, and Bert Phillips, a black painter, and I did this thing called the “Mad Bomber.” You’ve never heard of it before? This was like a 7 foot high piece that was carried by four people that led the demonstration that had a face on both sides. It went down the center of State Street demanding an end to the war in Vietnam. It was Nixon and in the center, there was a shaft and there was a person, turned out to be me, dressed in an American flag. I was turning that shaft and the shaft had an arm in each side and a hand, and in each hand was a bomb, so it was this spinning bomb, and coming from Nixon’s mouth was a balloon that said, “Peace is at hand.” It was sort of a balloon-like cartoon. Peg did the bulk of the cartoon work of the Nixon image. That was really spectacular. Then there was another thing that went with it, which was this big fist with a pen in its grip, and on it it said, “Sign the treaty with Vietnam” and it was jousting with Nixon.
RZ: And there’s this Free Angela Davis image….
MR: That’s something that I designed with some friends and that was at Bud Billiken Parade.
RZ: Oh my gosh.
MR: And listen to this, this, you’ll get a kick out of this. It was designed by Peggy Lipshutz, Bert Phillips, myself and Lester Wickstrom but we bring this thing to the Bud Billiken Parade and Lester has this really nice car and like thirty feet into the parade the fucking thing overheats and Sylvia Woods burst into tears, she said, “you worked so long and hard on this thing you got to be in the parade.” This is, you know, 300,000 people; it’s the biggest parade in the Black community. So I said let’s unhook it from the car and we artists started to pull it and as soon as that happened like 25 kids started pushing and it went all the way through the parade and when we got to intersections there was a roar that went up, I mean it was great. For some people we had painted signs that they could hold behind the Angela float.
RZ: So that was around ’72?
MR: Somewhere around there, yeah. Now, I have to tell you some other fun things that I did. Nobody knows that I ever did this. I developed these things called “truth balloons”—around an election, I took bumper sticker stock and I developed these designs.
I just for fun put BRP in the bottom corner, tiny. You have no idea what in the hell that means, it’s this left Chilean mural group, Brigada Ramona Parra, just great. Now, I was so afraid that the cops were going to find out about this that I put down KofC Oak Park. Now KofC does not mean the chicken place…
RZ: Knights of Columbus?
MR: It means Knights of Columbus, yeah! I figured, let me really try and throw people off. They were beautifully printed and really, really interesting, and I went on the El, I got on the El at like five in the morning and I put these up on two El lines on every single one of a certain image, it was a certain person, basically it was calling somebody an idiot or something like that, and it was one of those truth balloons kind of thing. It says, “this is what Jimmy said about Mike,” and then “He’s a fraud but so am I.” So we did these double-sided…but this is really precious now. These are all the work on the El. And then, I came back to the Public Art Workshop, got my camera and returned to the EI, and photographed them. And later that day, I handed the film to Johnnie and I said, “Johnnie, would you process this film?” and a little later I hear this whoop from the basement; he says, “I saw those things,” he said, “where did you see them?” and I said, “Johnnie, I did that.” So, you know, it was sort of trying different things, playing with different things. Nowadays there are these stencil makers and all sorts of other people who are doing great stuff.
RZ: How did the Peace Museum start?
MR: Well, in 1981 we opened our doors. In 1974 I developed the concept. About two years before we opened our doors, I met up with Marjorie Craig Benton, a North Shore peace person, US representative of UNICEF, real active.
Basically the Peace Museum took seven years from a concept to the day we opened. The concept came from Johnnie and I conversing in the garage of the Public Art Workshop about should we throw out those props from that 1972 demonstration down the center of State Street, the Mad Bomber. We brought these props home, back to the workshop. There were theatre people involved as well. I forget the name of the theatre…it was in an inset in the front window of the workshop and then we retired it to the garage, and then one day we had a big cleanup and Johnnie said to me, “let’s throw that thing out, you know it’s just taking up space,” and I said just casually, “you know, Johnnie, it’s a beautiful work of art,” I said, “it really belongs in a peace museum,” and I was sort of dumbstruck and I ran upstairs in the workshop and I wrote five pages of notes, and that led seven years later to the Peace Museum. About how that work of art, that beautiful work of art, was going to help stop the war in Vietnam. And so my life is sort of a shaggy dog story.
RZ: So then it took seven years?
MR: Seven years. The first six years was really in little one on one meetings with friends, little committees, little groups. While the Public Art Workshop was open, I would come to homes or meet people at the workshop and have meetings just like this and I’d say, “the concept is developed this far…” and the person would say to me, “well, I’m a poet, you haven’t said a thing about poetry, you know the important role of this poet and that poet in terms of anti-war poetry…” and I’d go home and I’d expand the concept. So, it expanded by rooms. A room to show this, a room to show that, not that it ever happened like that. But people would say look at the role of film, etcetera, etcetera, and so because my background was as a visual artist, the museum mainly had visual shows although it went far beyond that. One friend of mine who passed away not long ago, Mark Barens, he actually was the first person to visualize what a peace museum could be, and the Public Art Workshop was on the West Side of Chicago in the Austin community, almost 100% black community when I was there, and so we were not that far from the Garfield Park Conservatory and the Gold Dome Building. Do you know the Gold Dome building?
RZ: I’ve seen it from the outside.
MR: It’s this incredible building and Mark on his own—Mark was a railroad worker/artist-sculptor, and on his own he came up with this concept that we would get that building and you enter the building and you would basically go through and see all the “problems” that we have in the society, in the world, and as you head toward the exit you see the possible future. It is so amazing. I don’t believe that he did a drawing. I actually have an architectural rendering of the layout of the Peace Museum. So you know that kind of thing is available. A woman named Adelaide Bean who was a former actress who was blacklisted, I kept brainstorming with her and she says, “you know, I’ve got this friend who I think you should go to, so I went to Vincent Petrilli. He and his wife were the most anti-social couple that I have ever met, but he doggedly for months worked me through the development of the concept, and at one point he says, ‘that’s it! No more meetings! I’m sick and tired of this whole thing.” ’Cause we would meet once a month and he finally said ‘OK, here’s what I want: I want you to name six people—I mean this is really fascinating—six people, and I want you to give me three sentences about each of these people, and then we’ll figure out who to approach to go to the next step.” And a month later I come back to him with this list of people.
RZ: And these are people to potentially help with the museum?
MR: Yeah. And one woman was the executive secretary of the Chicago Peace Council, Sarah Staggs. But while her organization was a real activist organization, they did not have money. They helped with the concept. But one of the people I mentioned was Marjorie Craig Benton, an Evanstonian, she came from a family of wealth and she was at that point the US representative to UNICEF, and I think that Vincent said, “go get her.”
RZ: Did you know her already?
MR: No. No concept as to who she was, so I wrote a letter to her cold, I forget whether I actually wrote a letter or called her, and she said, ‘well, I think it’s an interesting idea, why don’t you come to my house?’ and I called my buddy Reverend Tom Strieter and I said, “hey, Tom, you and I have been talking about this Peace Museum thing, I’d like you to come to this initial meeting with Marge Benton.” And so we had this meeting and she was really struck by the concept. Marge not only was very valuable, but she saw us out till the very, very, very bitter end of the Peace Museum and she actually was meeting with this little grouping at the end to try and do some of the rescue of the archive, and most people would’ve ditched long before…especially since we were somewhat of a ragtag group.
RZ: So I have a question of the sort of conception of it because, as you said, it started from this conversation about what to do with these materials that you had, so that suggests that it’s the very beginning the idea came from, it was a sort of notion of a repository to put this stuff.
MR: Not an activist place, but at least…
RZ: A place where this activist movement could be documented and presented. But it seems as if ultimately the conception must’ve shifted to a sort of pedagogical focus—not just chronicling something but pushing it forward? And I’m sort of curious about how that happened.
MR: Well, I do not think that we ever articulated this. Well, I’ll give you an interesting example. We always knew that we wanted to engage young people; there was no question. And we had one show, once the museum opened in ’81, I think in ’83 we had a show called The Unforgettable Fire, on drawings by survivors of Hiroshima Nagasaki, and we get a phone call from the Chicago Board of Education, and they said, “would you accept a busload of students?” and I of course said, “absolutely, when are you coming? We’ll have somebody walk your students through.” And I hung up the phone and I called the staff together and I said, “Wow we have made it!” I used that term “we have made it.” And because I always, always, thought that people were going to look at us as either hippies or commies or both, and so I know there was a point where I said, I think it was with that call that I said that we are going to have to stop dressing in freaking dungarees and we’re going to have to—well that lasted about two weeks. We rarely articulated that the sort of educational angle that we were driving at, we really wanted it to come through the mainly art that was on the wall and through the labeling and we had handouts and we did walking tours and things like that.
RZ: It’s a typical question for museums, but it seems like it would be even more of a question for something like the Peace Museum, not necessarily a split, but the relationship in the mission between something like preservation, documentation, collecting, maintaining on the one hand, like outreach, education, activism, like pushing forward a particular point of view on peace on the other.
MR: I’m sure it all got mushed up together. We did not usually push people into activism; we did not see that as our mission. We wanted it very much and what we would hope for was that it would lead to activism. When we had the exhibition of drawings by survivors of Hiroshima Nagasaki, it was because there was an elderly man who was a volunteer at the Peace Museum, and we used to have occasional meetings and this guy said to me, “my son lives in Japan, fluent in Japanese, and he is translating a book called The Unforgettable Fire which is on the drawings by survivors.” And I’ll tell you; I’ll give you a two-second background on what that was. One day an old man walked into NHK TV in Japan, a survivor, and brought in a drawing that he had made for the head of the station, and the guy was so moved by this image, that he put out a call for drawings by survivors. I flew to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and I flipped through or edited through about 2,000 drawings, and they had a size constraint too, they were all about this size, about let’s say 16 x 20 inches. And they were amazing drawings, many of them in black and white. Why? Because that’s what these survivors saw: char, burnt buildings, burnt flesh and that’s what they saw, and there were some other photographs or drawings. Some of them frightening, of bodies floating down rivers. And I learned so much trying to figure out, and you would have appreciated this, what do I want to select. What is our role? Is it to make kids and others rush to the bathroom and vomit? Or was it to have people head out the door when they finished and say this shit can’t happen again. This can’t happen again. And so these were kind of last second learning things for us. I stayed at the home of hibakusha survivors when I was both in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I was actually sponsored by this national organization of survivors; they actually brought a full time translator for me. But just to tie strings together, this guy, this old man named Sid Schoenberger, one day he said to us at a group meeting, “why don’t you consider getting to young people through music?” and it was like, oh my god, we never, ever, ever thought of that. See, the Peace Museum because it was so much reflecting my background was primarily a two-dimensional place; it was not sort of a multi-media center. And so what happened was that this is the exhibition called Give Peace A Chance and it would be a long, somewhat difficult project, but if you ever want to do something serious on it, two or three of us have a lot of visuals on bus flyers, I mean, bus…rear-lit bus posters…
RZ: so you actually have that stuff?
MR: Well, I have stuff that came from my period of time, which was the first four or five years. So literally, without much discussion at all after he made this comment about young people, I wrote a letter to Yoko Ono and sent it to the Dakota and five working days later her second in command, Sam Havatoy, who eventually married Yoko, calls. Can you imagine that? I mean, usually 99.9% nobody fucking responds, period. “We’d like to help, we think it should be bigger than what you’re thinking about, we will loan, we will donate items…” The concept of the show was on the peace campaigns and peace songs of leading rock and folk musicians from the old timers from a Woody Guthrie and a Paul Robeson and others all the way up to U2, through The Beatles on up to U2, and U2 got somewhat involved with the Peace Museum, they gave us a 10,000 dollar check that we picked up backstage after one of their concerts. I mean, this was really sexy.
RZ: And when was that show?
MR: 1983. The museum opened in 1981. Let me clarify, the first five and a half to six years were just single meetings with me or little mini group meetings and then at one point I tried to pull together an informal steering committee, and then when I met up with Marge, she said let’s form a formal board and then it’s complicated, and then we needed to raise some money to get launched and it was one very unfunny story, and that is where I approached Mike Alexandroff, do you know Alexandroff?
RZ: From Columbia College?
MR: Old radical. And I approached him pre Marge Benton, like six months before. It’s sort of a mushed up beginning, so I had a meeting with Mike Alexandroff and he was the president of Columbia and he got real wide eyed about the concept and he says, “Mark,” he says, “this is a great idea but…” now, of course my initial idea was “you’ve got all these god damned buildings in the South Loop, you’ve got the janitor, you’ve got the space, you’ve got the expertise, you’ve got a video department, you’ve got recording departments and all these kinds of things that we wouldn’t want to do; we didn’t have the expertise in.” So he says, “Mark, there’s only one problem. With your politics, you’re not gonna be able to do this thing.” And just to be straightforward with you, at that point I was a member of the Communist Party. And so that was the end of that meeting. And then, six months later I call him back and I said, “Marjorie Craig Benton and I want to come in and have a meeting with you,” and he says, “well, come right on in.” And then we got going, but we still had a slow start because he says, “well, we need something to happen, to sort of bring things together,“ so he said “well, you’re a mural painter, why don’t you paint a mural?” It was called The Peace Mural. And that hung in the Harrison Street corridor for like 15 years and when that mural was done, we had a special meeting with Studs Terkel in that little mini auditorium that used to be on the Harrison Street corridor.
So we had this nice place and we had an auction where we raised I don’t even remember, I honestly just don’t remember what we raised but we raised some good money, we had some very, very nice artwork at the auction and Studs Terkel was the auctioneer and really good. I don’t even remember how much we raised, maybe 20,000 bucks. We had some fairly big name people and then I went out and I found a location and it was a beautiful location. It was a place that was owned by Mickey Pallas. Mickey Pallas owned Pallas Photography, which was on the Near North Side, right near Gamma Photography, and he eventually sold out to Gamma.
So let’s see, where do we start? The museum started with a couple of shows that were lent to the museum by a Jewish man, Ben Goldstein, in New York City, a businessman who had an incredible collection of posters and fine art, and when he passed away the collection went to the Smithsonian, which was just where it belonged. We had some shows, one of them a poster show “from the French Revolution to El Salvador,” and just unbelievable stuff and most of it was from him, and I have posters upstairs in my collection from our show and from other shows that he had, he and his wife Beatrice had, but they were profound things, and this is something very important that I always believed, and that is that you did not always have to have pristine works of art, that if works of art had pushpin holes in the corners or were scraped off of walls during the French Revolution. Hey! You know? That was a goddamn revolution, you know? Let’s learn from it, you know? Or if they came off of walls that the Black Panther Party had wheat pasted their material up on walls—how can we use it, how can we learn from it? So some of our early shows fortunately were somewhat readymade. There is a man who I’m going to give you his name for you to look up sometime, ’cause I think he’d be a great resource for you. His name is Dave Gartler. He owns Poster Plus downtown and they forced him to move but he was with a national organization of “cause poster collectors” and, so you know in other words, if I’m trying to hunt down a poster on the Spanish civil war, so and so in Bridgeport, Connecticut’s got it and he’ll trade for something.
RZ: So you opened in 1981 and you left after four or five years…
MR: Yeah, and I was invited to join the staff of La Rabida Children’s Hospital when I needed to leave the Peace Museum. I was really burned out, really badly burned out, and I just needed to leave. Marjorie Benton said something to the effect that either we can close the museum or that I would leave and let it continue on and I of course wanted to see it continue. I think that I would like sometime to discuss what I think I would’ve needed for me to keep going at the Peace Museum, and that would be in effect more support staff.
RZ: You were kind of doing everything?
MR: Well, no. But I was more—and people might disagree—I was more the idea person and I couldn’t do everything. We had at the beginning two or three paid people, up to a high point under my leadership where we had seven or eight full time paid people and lots of volunteers, and then it meandered back down. Now, there are other people who could fill in a lot of the blanks; one person is Marianne Philbin who took over after me.
The man who invited me to work at La Rabida was Kostas Arhos, he was a left Greek, very active in his community and during Harold Washington’s run for office, he was head of Greeks for Harold Washington. He gave me a chance to have a 9 to 5 job and to get actually a decent wage, which I’ve never had in my life. A real sweet guy.
RZ: And what was it that you did there?
MR: Well, I was loosely attached to the engineering department but I’m very, very far from being an engineer, and I wound up taking over the carpentry department. I did some murals with some of the kids who stayed at La Rabida, a variety of projects.
RZ: When did the museum close?
MR: Well, it’s kind of a murky subject. The last director actually had some good shows, but she just sort of flaked out in a major way and left town, literally left town without communicating with any of the funders, without communicating with the attorney general of the state—she didn’t turn in any records. The attorney general, about a year and a half ago, went and clamped down on the entire archive of the Peace Museum. And we are still waiting to figure out what the demise is. We had thousands of posters. We had incredible items. I curated a show of the drawings by survivors of Hiroshima Nagasaki. I went to Hiroshima and Nagasaki; I brought back a roof tile, a melted roof tile. And we don’t know where those are now; we understand that the stuff is in a warehouse of the Park District of the city of Chicago, but legally nobody is allowed to tell us and all this kind of stuff; it’s complicated, it’s a long, complicated story. And I’ve been recently in touch with somebody who’s trying to get like 300 posters that her father loaned to the Peace Museum which are very valuable. They were posters collected by one of the founders of Vietnam Vets Against The War, and this guy was a veteran and he collected during Vietnam and immediately after. And all this shit is, you know, in some storage bin, and I mean, a lot of my posters and a lot of other people’s posters are in there. I don’t care about mine anymore. I just let it go out of my brain, but I am doing every single thing I can to get the museum’s posters to the Center for the Study of Political Graphics in LA.
RZ: That would be great.
MR: Because that’s where it belongs now. And I’m actually working on my archive upstairs, because if somebody comes to your door and says, “Hey Mark, I’m really interested in your slides,” or “I’m really interested in your posters,” they don’t belong there anymore, they belong at the National Museum of Mexican Art or they belong at some other place. My wife and myself and my sisters, who live in other cities, we’ve donated a number of artworks from the Taller de Gráfica Popular to the National Museum of Mexican Art.