Seventy years ago, East 11th
Street was Austin’s mecca for
jazz. Amateur groups played at local parks on weekend afternoons,
and legends Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Ornette Coleman played
at eastside venues like Charlie’s Playhouse and the Cotton
Club. Those great jazz joints may be a thing of the past, but the
brass is alive again on the east side. It bursts forth in “Rhapsody,” a
vivid and intricate mosaic mural by artist John Yancey.
Yancey is associate chairman and professor of studio art
in the Department of Art and Art History.
associate chairman of the Department of Art and Art History in
the College of Fine Arts, has designed a piece of public art
that both celebrates history and preserves the cultural heritage
of an area undergoing rapid change. His 50-foot-long mural pays
homage to longstanding African American institutions and community
buildings. It is peopled by elders and youth alike. Bright suns
and the patterns of a quilt hold it together. And it culminates
in a jazz quartet caught mid-song, honoring the earliest music
scene in town.
“Before there was a Sixth Street, there was an Eleventh
Yancey. “When that area went down, we lost a lot of that
jazz and blues kind of energy. But that’s certainly one of
the parts of history that people remember most fondly. When people
talk about it, their eyes light up.”
has been catching people’s eyes since
its dedication in October. Its completion marks the end of three
years of work for Yancey, a process that began with a competition
submission and ended when the last of thousands of pieces of tile
was placed on the wall. In his 20-year career making public art,
this is the project of which Yancey is most proud.
“Rhapsody” was funded by the Austin Revitalization
Authority (ARA), the City of Austin and Capital Metro. It provides
to the efforts of ARA to develop this historic area of the city,
a project they’ve named “Eleven East.” The project
includes the construction of commercial and residential space,
street improvements and the Dr. Charles E. Urdy Plaza at East 11th
and Waller streets. The plaza—named for educator, scientist
and long-time community leader Urdy—hosts a clocktower,
green space and Yancey’s mural.
The project is not without
controversy. The neighborhood has been a primarily African American
area since the 1920s, when the City
of Austin passed an ordinance declaring it the “negro section
of town.” While revitalization will bring needed resources
to the area, it also puts area residents at risk of being pushed
out through gentrification. Yancey, who lives in east Austin, designed
the mural with these issues in mind.
“What I’m looking for with any kind of public art
project is an intersection between my own artistic interests and
feel will resonate most strongly with the community,” he
To find out what would resonate with the community, Yancey
talked to community members. He also did extensive research about
area at the Austin History Center. There he found business registries
from the 1880s, photographic archives of the area and histories
of the African American institutions that the area is rich with,
such as Ebenezer Baptist Church and the Masonic lodge.
round shape circling these three youths changing a bicycle
tire represents a structure that protected children,
just as the church and Masonic lodge in the backdrop do.
“I was able to gather not just historical information,” Yancey
says, “but also a lot of images. There are a number of images
in the mural that are actually interpreted from those photographic
The mural stands in two parts on an irregularly
shaped cement wall constructed specifically for the project. The
left side of the
wall begins with the patterns of the costume of a West African
ancestral dancing figure. Recalling the “Egungun” masquerade
ceremony connects the history of the community to an African ancestry.
The pattern then transforms into that of an African American quilt,
the bright shapes of which reappear throughout the mural.
The left side
also recreates some of the institutions of the area, including
a church and school, as well as historic community elders
out for a stroll. People converse on porches, and stretches of
green offer a sense of neighborhood and the quiet hills of the
The right side of the wall opens with a rendering of the Masons’ symbol.
Urdy Plaza sits next to the Masonic lodge, which is historically
one of the most important institutions in the area. It moves to
an image of three youths changing a bicycle tire. Many people have
asked Yancey why he chose this image.
“It came from a historic photograph that I changed a bit,” says
Yancey. “I think it represents a time when children had constructive
activities, when they had to make their own games and figure out
together what to do and how to play. The round shape around them
represents the protective institutions around them. It was a time
when communities were a guiding and protective force for children.”
mural then rises to its peak, under which two saxophonists, a trumpeter
and a vocalist make music. The shiny horns, bright
curves and vivid suns confirm that this mural is, more than anything
else, a celebration. No matter what happens in this neighborhood,
its glorious history will stand.
One of the amazing things about
Yancey’s mural is that it
isn’t rendered in paint, but rather in thousands of pieces
of broken tile, each individually cut and placed to provide the
shape, shading and pattern of the image. Yancey began with regular
commercial tile in eight-inch and 12-inch squares. He then broke
them, filling buckets with each color, then cutting the pieces
to fit his design.
The mural was actually fabricated in Yancey’s
studio using an indirect mural process. The design was drawn up
to scale, laid
out on a 25-foot-by-10-foot platform, and then each tile was cut
to fit the shape in the design. Yancey then used clear contact
paper to hold the mural together, cut it into 330 sections and
stored it until it was ready to be installed. He worked on the
installation with master artisan Luis G. Alicea and artist Steven
Installation was made to a wall constructed to Yancey’s
specifications. This may have been the greatest challenge of the
elders take a stroll, an image Yancey based on a historic
photograph. He added a West African walking stick, a symbol
of dignity and pride.
“One of the things I wanted was for the wall to be permanent,
to reflect a certain monumentality,” says Yancey. “There’s
a trench that goes eight feet underground, and the wall is made
of cinderblock filled with concrete. Then we had to go in and shape
the wall. We cut it with a saw, then with a chisel hammer, then
with a sledge hammer, kind of inch by inch carving out the wall.
We removed a ton of concrete and stone to get the shape.”
and surfacing the wall took five weeks during the height of an
Austin summer. The process brought Yancey closer to the community
he was working in.
“It allowed me to have another element to making this a
public art project, and that was being out there in the street
all day long
when people would walk past and talk,” says Yancey. “I
got to interact with the community. People would come by and tell
you everything that happened on that street, what used to be there.
Everybody that lives there is at least a historian in their own
Yancey’s idea of public art is that eventually
the artist steps out and the art itself belongs to the community.
takes art out of the studio and out of the sometimes insular art
“Public art allows the art to be part of people’s
Yancey. “It’s part of their environment, what they
live with. When a piece of public art works, it sets up a dynamic
with the community that’s more fulfilling than any exhibit
could be for me. They take ownership of it. It becomes their mural
on their block in their neighborhood that talks about things that
they know and they are interested in. When that dynamic works,
Growing up in Chicago in the 1960s, Yancey
saw that dynamic at play. Murals found new life in America after
various artists created
the “Wall of Respect” in southside Chicago in 1967.
The mural was a spontaneous expression of painters and poets that
drew hordes of visitors and national attention. It sparked a renaissance
in mural art in Chicago and across the country. The artists behind
that movement inspired and mentored Yancey.
is permanently installed in the Dr. Charles E. Urdy Plaza
East 11th and Waller streets.
Public art has been
at the center of Yancey’s career, even
while he’s maintained a studio practice. He’s completed
both painted murals and mosaic murals in Chicago and Springfield,
Ill., as well as here in central Texas. One of his murals is in
the new Austin Convention Center, and he’s working on a project
for the San Antonio Convention Center.
His is a career trajectory
that is out of the ordinary, and that’s
one of the advantages of his being on the studio faculty at the
“Students are exposed to an artist working in a venue that
the traditional gallery setting,” says Kenneth Hale, chair
of the Department of Art and Art History. “Having someone
on the studio faculty with that as his focus offers a breadth of
ideas and issues to students.”
Hale adds, “John has
always had the idea of bringing the community together.”
this focus that comes through so clearly in “Rhapsody.” East
11th Street today rings out with the noise of construction crews
and traffic, and placards mark the changes that are already underway.
It is a community in flux. There’s no telling where it will
go, but Yancey’s mural ensures no one will forget where it