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Rhapsody in East Austin: Artist's mosaic mural captures community's African American heritage

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.

John Yancey sits in front of his 50-foot-long mural, 'Rhapsody'
John Yancey is associate chairman and professor of studio art in the Department of Art and Art History.

Yancey, 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 Street,” says 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.”

Yancey’s mural 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.

Detail from mosaic mural of jazz musicians playing their instruments

“Rhapsody” was funded by the Austin Revitalization Authority (ARA), the City of Austin and Capital Metro. It provides a centerpiece 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 what I feel will resonate most strongly with the community,” he says.

To find out what would resonate with the community, Yancey talked to community members. He also did extensive research about the 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.

Three youths change a bicycle tire, detail from mosaic mural
The 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 archives.”

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 area.

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.

Detail from mosaic mural of community members out in their neighborhood talking

“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.”

The 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 B. Jones.

Installation was made to a wall constructed to Yancey’s specifications. This may have been the greatest challenge of the project.

Ancestral elders take a stroll, detail from mosaic mural
Ancestral 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.”

Carving 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 mind.”

Yancey’s idea of public art is that eventually the artist steps out and the art itself belongs to the community. Public art takes art out of the studio and out of the sometimes insular art world.

“Public art allows the art to be part of people’s lives,” says 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, it’s great.”

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.

'Rhapsody' is permanently installed in the Dr. Charles E. Urdy Plaza at East 11th and Waller streets
“Rhapsody” is permanently installed in the Dr. Charles E. Urdy Plaza at 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 university.

“Students are exposed to an artist working in a venue that isn’t 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.”

It’s 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 has been.

Vivé Griffith

Photos: Marsha Miller

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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