Academics & Research

The Finishing Touches

On the eve of emeritus, John Pitman Weber, professor of art, creates a series of campus mosaics that will add to his outsized legacy.

Most professors facing retirement might be content with a watch, a couple of speeches, a clap on the back. John Pitman Weber, however, is not going quietly into the night. This past summer, he capped four decades of teaching with a six-week stint in the Basque city of Vitoria as the U.S. State Department’s Cultural Envoy to Spain. Then he launched a grand farewell project: a series of stunning mosaics for Old Main, the Schaible Science Center and other campus buildings. “I wanted to make sure the College had something very special,” Weber says. “I wanted art that’s seen as distinctive and important. I wanted to go out with a bang.”

He will surely get his wish. On his return from Spain in the fall, the Barbara A. Kieft Accelerator ArtSpace was transformed from an exhibition space into a group workshop. A dozen current and former students plus three research assistants worked liked elves to devise the concepts and execute the tiles. The results, laid out on tables beneath the ominous soaring coils of the old accelerator, were a typical Weber mix of bold graphic invention: snatches of language; images as varied as a Medieval cathedral and Lucille Ball; allusions to science, art and religion.

“That’s German for ‘In your light we see light,’” he explains, peeling the cover off a tile. “There are seven languages. Spanish, Korean, Latin, Arabic, English, Hebrew, German, Italian—wait, that’s eight. And Zulu. Nine!” (“In your light we shall see light” is the English translation of the Latin motto on the Elmhurst College seal.)

The campus already is a showcase for Weber’s art, all done in collaboration with Elmhurst College students. His work “For the Harmony of Man and Nature” is displayed on the lower level of the Frick Center. His best-known mural is in Daniels Hall, a sweep of color embedded with quotes, words, phrases, even musical notes (from a Mozart sonata) and a famous haiku in Japanese characters.

Outside Elmhurst, Weber, 68, has long been acclaimed for his art. He has had 30 solo shows, five in New York City, and many retrospectives of his work. He has created public art for a half-dozen major U.S. cities, and has pieces abroad in France, England and now Spain. In Chicago, his best-known mural, “Tilt” (also called “Together Protect the Community”) transforms the wall above a Midas muffler shop on Fullerton Avenue, depicting a neighborhood coming together to cope with drug dealers, absentee landlords and corrupt politicians. “People of the Future,” at the corner of North and Springfield, fused innovative techniques to suggest the dualism of nature and culture. In 2009, he worked with local artists to complete a 3,000-square-foot mosaic at the 47th Street underpass in Bronzeville; 
it was supposed to be his swan song. But as retirement loomed, he grew determined to leave a more memorable mark at Elmhurst.

“I’ve done public art for decades,” he says, “and thought it was strange the campus only has what it has.”

For many, Weber’s greatest legacy remains the third floor studio of Old Main, where he patrols the forest of student easels as both grinch and guru. “I’ve told you people over and over,” he exclaimed one day. “The lips and eyes do not have an outline. That is forbidden! Do them in chiaroscuro. Put down that graphite. You should be using your Number 16 pencil. That pencil should be down to a stub!”

The class, accustomed to Weber’s fulminations, didn’t cringe. It was nothing personal. Later, wandering amid the easels, he was more genial than gruff. “Very nice,” he said, and, “This is good, you’re doing great!” And, good-naturedly, “What a challenge this is!”

At another class, a slide show of Dutch interiors demonstrated the play of light. This prompted a lecture on mercantile ideology, the rise of perspective and the dualism of markets.

“If my students wait for me to stop talking,” he says with a smile, “they’ll never start working!”

 “When I first met Professor Weber I was terrified of him,” remembers Kevin Daley ’06, a printmaker and instructor of art at Moraine Valley Community College. “When the intimidation wore off, I realized how helpful his criticism was to me as an aspiring artist. Despite his very busy schedule, he was always selfless and accessible. He’s been a great mentor and friend.”  

“He’s a dominant force as a public artist,” says Suellen Rocca, a pioneering Chicago Imagist and curator and director of exhibits at Elmhurst. “He’s a passionate and dedicated teacher.”

Weber says his long tenure at Elmhurst has given him a unique perspective on the College and its students. “What I love about teaching is seeing the change in the students. They can be kind of amorphous when they start college, but almost all emerge as unique and interesting young adults by their junior year. Elmhurst is a school with a real commitment to students. The idea is to guarantee success, not in terms of grade inflation, but in terms of learning and mastering the material.”

Weber’s own mastery got an early start, at age 15. A native New Yorker, he attended a private school in the Riverdale section of the Bronx and was struck by 1940s-era murals in the library and outside the gym. That glimpse of public art sparked a lifelong passion. He painted in high school. He painted as an undergraduate at Harvard. He painted during two years in France on a “Half Bright” (“I had a French government stipend for living expenses and Fulbright paid my travel.”) He has painted throughout his time at Elmhurst College, where he has been on the faculty since 1968.
 
Public art, unlike portable art intended for galleries, museums and homes, is in situ work aimed at the street and the community. “It started as a way to make myself at home in Chicago, where I arrived as a stranger in 1966,” he says. “It was a way to build myself a big network.” It also suited Weber’s taste for social activism. He was struck by “The Wall of Respect,” a painting by 20 black artists on a semi-abandoned South Side warehouse, and was soon spearheading a group of teenagers who were painting another wall in a church near Cabrini-Green. In the early 1970s, he co-founded the Chicago Mural Group (now known as the Chicago Public Art Group, or CPAG), and then co-wrote the classic 1977 book, Toward a People’s Art, which chronicled the early days of what’s been called the community mural movement.

“Working in public gives you immediate feedback—everyone’s a critic! It’s an adrenaline rush to work big,” he says. “Once you’re hooked, it’s hard to give up.”

But public art has its downside, too. “You don’t get the big elite commission for international work or downtown stuff,” he says. “The funding is limited to local sponsorship. There’s nothing prestigious about public art.”
 
Weber’s decision to pursue public art in Chicago—instead of returning to New York after earning an MFA at the School of the Art Institute—likely cost him visibility as well as prestige. “From a career standpoint,” he says, “I haven’t always made the smartest decisions. When I was a teenager, my father said everything he did in his life was a mistake. At the time I thought that was a horrible thing to say, a real downer. Later on I thought it was probably true. One could always make a better deci-
sion. It could always lead to someplace better. Then again,” he adds, “it might not.”
 
This type of switch in viewpoint pops up all the time in conversation with Weber. It’s the same impulse that informs his mistrust of a single perspective in art. Indeed, his life seems ruled by these intriguing dualisms. He could have tried for broader recognition; he loves to work local. He’s a solemn moralist; he has a quick sense of humor and a wry view of himself. He leads what he only half-facetiously calls a “double life”—teaching on a suburban campus while he paints and draws in Pilsen, where he lives with his wife, Elsa, above a sprawling ground-floor studio. At Elmhurst, he’s Professor John Weber; in galleries, he’s John Pitman Weber. He was brought up a secular humanist; he’s a stout defender of Elmhurst’s ties to the United Church of Christ.

At a faculty meeting during which several newer members of the faculty questioned that enduring connection, Weber stood up to enumerate its benefits. Among them were the UCC students’ involvement as “joiners,” the large number of Catholics on campus, and the UCC’s historical role in fostering American democracy.

“Ironic,” says Weber with a smile, “that a secular Jew had to say this.”

Of late, Weber’s secular Judaism itself has undergone changes. He has become passionately engaged with Israel and the Middle East.

“I’d avoided touching anything about Israel with a 10-foot pole,” says Weber, whose mother was a Russian Jew but came from a background that he describes as “anti-rabbinical, anti-Zionist, atheist, secular and social activist.” The extent of Weber’s own commitment was attending  
 “a bar mitzvah here and there.” That changed in 1982 after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Appalled at subsequent massacres at refugee camps, he began to do drawings and clay reliefs that depicted grieving; in 1993 he won a competition to design and paint an 80-foot wall for a Jewish Community Center in Van Nuys, California—a “real turning point,” says Weber, because it enabled him to put the themes of exile, oppression and struggle into a Jewish/biblical context.

It was the Van Nuys mural, “Toward Freedom,” which dealt with the story of Passover, that eventually led to Weber’s summer in Spain. A young intern in Van Nuys, Veronica Werkmeister, reconnected with Weber several years later as part of the Chicago Public Art Group, then moved to Spain with her older sister to launch a public art program. For a major project last year—the fronts of two three-story buildings themed for music and gardens—they contacted CPAG, then submitted Weber’s name and work to the U.S. Embassy in Madrid for a cultural programming grant.

“They put me up in student housing and gave me a bicycle to ride,” says Weber. “But I’ve been paid worse. I’d have done it for airfare and room and board.”

He was eager, however, to return to Chicago and start the mosaic project. Early attempts to create an outdoor piece for the campus had been frustrated by the cost. Undaunted, Weber scraped together private seed money, then landed a research grant and a $10,000 gift from art patron Ray Allen to create mosaics at a much lower cost.

The working title for the mosaics is Indoor Public Art on the Campus and in the Curriculum as a Site for Public Memory. “How’s that for grandiosity!” he says.

He anticipates a gala spring dedication and even hopes that some of the tiles will find their way back to the accelerator workshop when it is restored as an exhibition space. Talk of a new building for the arts on campus leaves him both skeptical and nostalgic. “There were artists who jumped at the chance to work alongside this goofy old science fiction machine in such a memorable building,” he recalls. “It was like working under the shadow of Michelangelo.”

Retiring from his tenured position isn’t the end of Weber’s presence on campus. In the fall he’ll teach a course on figure drawing. Whatever regret he harbors is more than compensated for by all that’s changed thanks to his four-plus decades at the College. “I’ve now accomplished almost everything I wanted. We now offer a BFA,” Weber says proudly. “We have a bit more space, a bit more scholarship money, more majors and a stronger program. And, of course, the College will have the mosaics. They’re my valedictory.”

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