Joe Nelson’s Ode to the Pullman Porters in Vibrant Mural Masterpiece
PHOTOS COURTESY THE NATIONAL PARK FOUNDATION When you turn off 95th Street and head south on Cottage Grove, past the London Towne Houses and Gately Park, it sneaks up on you. Right there, nestled under the Metra viaduct on 109th Street, is a mural of a towering Black man in his deep blue Pullman Porter’s … Continued The post Joe Nelson’s Ode to the Pullman Porters in Vibrant Mural Masterpiece appeared first on Chicago Defender.
PHOTOS COURTESY THE NATIONAL PARK FOUNDATION
When you turn off 95th Street and head south on Cottage Grove, past the London Towne Houses and Gately Park, it sneaks up on you.
Right there, nestled under the Metra viaduct on 109th Street, is a mural of a towering Black man in his deep blue Pullman Porter’s uniform set against a blazing orange sky. It’s the work of artist Joe “Cujo” Nelson, and it serves as an ode to the Black men who worked the passenger trains and made labor and civil rights history.
And though Nelson unveiled the work earlier this month, it may already be one of Chicago’s most historically significant murals. It is also a high point for Nelson, the 45-year-old, Englewood-born artist who took weeks to produce it.
“I think out of everything that I’ve created, this one probably has the most significance,” said Nelson in a phone interview with the Chicago Defender.
The Story of the Pullman Porters as Told by the Mural
In 2021, the National Park Foundation commissioned Nelson to create the mural highlighting the Pullman Porters and their protracted battle with their employer to earn labor and civil rights.
But the project concept came from a mini mural that Nelson and a group of young students from Little Black Pearl Art & Design Academy created together.
An inscription briefly tells the story of the porters forming the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters to fight for better pay and working conditions. These Black workers were so underpaid that they had to rely on passenger tips to earn a livable wage.
After a 12-year battle with their employer — a company founded by industrialist George M. Pullman, who also constructed the town where they lived — the BSCP successfully negotiated its first contract.
It was the first Black union in history to sign a collective bargaining agreement with a major U.S. corporation.
“I’ve experienced some of the same struggles that the Pullman Porters have of working strenuous hours and kind of unfair conditions at times,” said Nelson. “But making a way, not just for yourself, but for your family and your community.”
“The Pullman Porters were a brotherhood, and that’s a lot of the story I actually wanted to tell,” he said.
The rendering of the old Clock Tower and Administration Building — a landmark associated with the Pullman community — serves as the backdrop to the Black Porter. Besides the inscription, it’s another aspect of the work that speaks to the neighborhood’s history.
Opposite that mural is a companion piece depicting a Pullman train car and an inscription that memorializes their place in history: “Pullman Porters rose from the rails to create a legacy of resilience, resistance, and progress for our nation.”
Something Old, Something New
The mural is a mix of the old and new.
“It’s not totally retro, and it’s not totally modern, either. It catches you somewhere in the middle,” said Nelson. “I think that’s a cool combination because it draws people in, and it tells a story of something old but still relevant.”
In creating the piece of art that would serve as the inspiration for the mural, Nelson said his Little Black Pearl students opted for colors that were bright, “energetic and beautiful.”
The choice to paint the sky orange was intentional, for example.
“It gives you a sort of a sunrise or sunset. So, you don’t know if the sun is going down or coming up. But either way it goes, like these dudes are up and ready,” he said, referring to the porters.
“Everybody else is sleeping like they’re up and ready.”
The Portrait of an Artist as a Child
Nelson has been ready for this opportunity for decades.
Nelson has always wanted to draw since he was five. In kindergarten, he either wanted to be a firefighter or an artist when he grew up.
“I passed the fireman’s test twice but didn’t get a call,” he said.
Still, his murals have graced walls and landscapes throughout the city for years, from Grand Crossing to North Lawndale and beyond.
And like the piece on 109th, his street art tends to be vibrant and colorful, enough to stop you in your tracks or at least compel you to slow down your vehicle and take it all in.
“The art has been a great ride because it has fed me, and it has taken care of me since I was young,” he said. “I love it, and I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else.”
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