More than 18 months after being removed for repairs, Byron Peck’s great portrait of Duke Ellington is on the road to restoration. The striking landmark in the neighborhood where the Duke grew up was originally on the side of Mood Indigo, a consignment shop adjacent to the U Street metro. When the shop was sold and the location redeveloped in 2004, the mural was enlarged and relocated to the historic True Reformer Building nearby. Unfortunately, however, the monumental mural, painted on removable panels, began to show signs of wear in 2012 and when pieces fell into the street the art was removed for repairs. While the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities deliberated about the best strategy for preserving the iconic piece, the mural remained in storage at Artex, a conservator in Maryland.
“I was getting at least one query a week about the status of the mural,” Peck said. 2015 brought good news—In January Peck learned he had received a $200,000 special commission from the city to undertake the work. Under terms of the award, Peck has a year to complete the project. “It’s complicated,” Peck explained. “To preserve the design and sight lines the mural must be laid out on the floor. One of my first tasks is to rent a space that will accommodate that.”
In addition, the project must receive the OK from the DC Fine Arts Commission, and two teams of civil engineers must certify that the building can support the mural’s weight. Because of the building’s historic significance as an African American institution and to Ellington —The Duke played his first gig there—both the city and Peck are eager to make it work. To that end, Peck will replace the concrete backing on the panels with much lighter aluminum.
The fact that the mural is still there at all is thanks to Byron Peck’s pioneering work in creating public art on removable panels. “I first came across this technique with the work of Mame Cohalan, an early DC muralist,” said Peck. The process was prescient in this case—redevelopment throughout the city has taken down many a mural—most recently, Three Macaws, Peck’s homage to ethnic diversity at the corner of Columbia and Adams Mill Roads.
However, the technique is expensive—typically, city grants do not cover the costs. Peck was able to employ the panels in this case because the Ellington was originally funded by Mobil Oil and neighborhood businesses. Commissioned in 1997, Peck based his uncharacteristically somber portrait on the frontispiece of Ellington’s autobiography, Music Is My Mistress. Immediately on its unveiling, the mural became a focal point of the iconic U Street corridor, famously the “Black Broadway” that hosted the exclusively African American entertainers at the Lincoln and Howard Theaters during the decades of segregation and into the 1960s.
When the mural had to be relocated in 2004, the city stepped up and funded an enlargement and the actual move to the True Reformer. The local ANC contributed lighting later. The mural is considered one of the most powerful portraits of Ellington ever done, and has been reproduced all over the world. Byron Peck, one of Washington’s best-known muralists and founding director of nonprofit City Arts, continues his career, now spanning three decades in the District. Known for his monumental pieces in a variety of styles, Peck has also just received a grant from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities to create a mural at the Shaw Library on 7th Street.
DC Murals associate Cory Stowers has also received a major Arts Commission grant to create a mural depicting the life of great athlete, performer, and Civil Rights activist Paul Robeson. The interactive mural will depict Robeson in various activities and garb over the decades of his life, beginning with a photo of him as a football star in1929 and ending with a cameo of him in stage costume in 1969. carrying his legacy into perpetuity. The narrative is anchored at each end with over-size images of Robeson as a young man and at the end of his life.
The mural will cover the side of the Hung Tao Choy Mei Leadership Institute at 13th and U Sts., NW. Institute president Abdur-Rahim Muhammad has modelled the curriculum of his martial arts academy to mirror the values of personal integrity, responsibility, and leadership that Robeson personified. Muhammad has honored this legacy by organizing the “Paul Robeson: Here I stand Awards” held annually at the Lincoln Theater.
Although he never performed at the Lincoln Theater, Muhammad’s program and Robeson’s depiction with the pantheon of African American heroes echoed in art and architecture on U Street—is eminently appropriate. (Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, and Miles Davis come to mind) In an era of segregation and bitter racism, Robeson was a brilliant scholar, then continued on to a storied career on stage and screen, coming to international prominence in such productions as Show Boat and Othello. The icon spoke out against racism and inequality all of his life, and was directly instrumental in the long fight to integrate entertainment venues in Washington during the 1950s and ‘60s. Stowers has incorporated Robeson’s motto, “I make no distinction between my work and my life as a human being,” into the mural design. The piece will illuminate local and national history, and in the process stir awareness of its long shadow.
Stowers has intensified the mural’s impact through his innovative use of technology. In an approach he has dubbed “Living Murals,” the artist has embedded Augmented Reality (AR) image recognition into the art, enabling viewers to snap a picture that triggers downloaded information about the piece onto a mobile device. Living Murals can enhance educational programs and make the mural content more accessible and meaningful to viewers of all ages and backgrounds.
Cory Stowers began his career two decades ago as a tagger in Washington. He has emerged as a leading figure among younger muralists who pioneered the new style known as “street art”—a sophisticated adaptation of graffiti and innovative design elements to produce dramatic and engaging works that capture community and context. From 2007-11 he was Artistic Director for the prominent local hip-hop and mural group Words, Beats & Life; in 2011 he founded Art Under Pressure, a retail store serving street art communities. He has now operating Art B.L.O.C., a group that plans to extend the interactive murals concept across the city. Stowers has worked 17 publically funded murals and 25 private commissions, and has mentored scores of muralists-in-training.
In 2014 Stowers joined DC Murals: Spectacle and Story, as a senior associate in charge of Public Outreach. In that role Stowers serves an educational function—he works with individuals and groups who are seeking direction in creating murals, have questions about existing murals, desire tours, or would like classroom instruction. In addition to currently working with several individuals who are planning murals, Stowers is leading two tours next month–one for the Art in Architecture Symposium taking place at American University March 21-22, the second for Loch Lomond Elementary School in Virginia on March 26.
CALL FOR CONTRIBUTIONS
DC Murals: Spectacle and Story is preserving and interpreting our magnificent public art for future generations. We are not privately funded, and are in a pause re new documentation (i.e., photography and oral histories) pending additional grant funding or donations. If you would like to donate you can go through the PayPal application on this website. Alternatively, you can send a check directly to our nonprofit partner: DC Murals, c/o DCAC (DC Arts Center), 2438 18th St, NW, Washington, DC 20009. Of course, your contribution is tax deductible.