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Thursday, June 17, 2004 05:45 pm

Whitewash

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"Corporate State: 1984" and students who helped create it
Coutesy of Mike Townsend

A community art project depicting workers as cogs in a profitable weapons factory was painted over recently by the Springfield Housing Authority. The mural, titled "Corporate State: 1984," covered one exterior wall of the SHA Community Center on East Jefferson. It was designed and painted by artist John Yancey and a group of East Side neighborhood kids in 1982.

SHA officials say the mural was painted over because it was faded and peeling, not because of its message. Jackie Newman, deputy director of SHA, declined to specify who requested the mural be covered, and said it just came up in "a regular roundtable discussion" among management. SHA then sought approval from the city of Springfield, which leases the building to the housing authority. Ray Cooke, director of the city's Department of Public Health, located next door to the mural, says he doesn't recall receiving a formal request but rather "informal discussions" about painting over the mural as a "building improvement." He said he hopes a new mural will depict "the benefits of a culturally diverse community."

At least one SHA commissioner was shocked by the agency's decision to paint over the piece without consulting the board. "It has a history!" says Linda Douglas-Williams. "And what was it bothering? I don't understand why it was such an eyesore."

The mural's content has been criticized by opinion pieces in the State Journal-Register. In 2001, the SJ-R published a letter to the editor saying the artwork promoted a "victim's mentality of helplessness and hopelessness" and that the image should be replaced with "a message of hope and encouragement." The letter writer, Steven O. Stewart, specifically suggested a new mural "honoring Lincoln and his efforts to end slavery . . . ." Contacted this week, Stewart says he wrote the letter as a concerned citizen, not representing his employer, City Water, Light, and Power.

This week in an editorial, the SJ-R applauded the whitewashing because the mural contained no "element of hope."

In the editorial as well as an earlier news article, the mural was erroneously described as featuring "an anonymous black man reaching for a door bearing the message, 'No jobs.' " In fact, the mural depicts six diverse workers reaching for a door labeled "The System Inc.--Do Not Disturb."

Mike Townsend, an associate professor of social work at University of Illinois at Springfield who helped create the mural in '82, sees its obliteration as a crime against culture committed by the "thought police."

Townsend, says he alerted the SJ-R to the whitewash, but was not interviewed by the daily paper and never got a chance to express his views. He says the mural was "in remarkably good condition" and believes it was painted over because city officials don't want such a radical image presented to tourists. "I believe serious art and literature critics will judge John Yancey's mural . . . to be a masterpiece, one of the most important and creative murals ever created in our country," Townsend says.

"What's remarkable is that we didn't realize it -- no, couldn't realize it -- until it was destroyed."

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