Chicago mural artist imbues his work with symbolism from growing up on the South Side

Chicago mural artist imbues his work with symbolism from growing up on the South Side

Artist Max Sansing in front of his mural “The City is Yours” that he painted in the gym at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boys & Girls Club at 2950 W. Washington Blvd. on the West Side. | Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times

Max Sansing’s work is rooted in his family and where he grew up in Avalon Park. He started with graffiti. Today, he works on a grander scale.

When Max Sansing was young, he’d tag along with his father on errands all over the city.

They’d catch the Red Line at 79th Street. But, instead of just taking any seat like everyone else, his father would unlock the motorman’s door, and they’d ride in there.

His father, having worked for the CTA, had a key that, in Sansing’s eyes, unlocked the city.

Now 38 and one of the city’s most prominent muralists, Sansing has developed an artistic language that he says takes its symbolism from his years growing up in Avalon Park on the South Side.

Keys, like the one his father used on the L, are a common sight in his contemplative works.

“I use them as a metaphor for how we open pathways and open nontraditional routes to get to where we want to get in life,” Sansing says.

 Erin Brown / Sun-Times
Artist Max Sansing shown in 2018 in front of a different project.

The Chicago-born artist’s path began at 14 with graffiti, painting under expressways and on “permission walls” where graffiti writers had permission to tag. Now, Sansing makes a living creating oil paintings and murals — around two dozen in Chicago and a few more in Denver and Boston — including commissions from Nike and the Chicago Fire.

“He told me every mural he wanted to do last year, regardless of where they were in the city, he wanted to tell a story,” says Damon Reed, a muralist who has known Sansing for more than 20 years. “Most people don’t even think like that.”

Sansing’s work is hard to miss. There are keys adorning the necks of figures. Streaks of paint decorate cheeks. Flames lick the tops of heads — the fire a reminder, he says, to hold tight to your passions and ambitions.

His figures are often rich with color — say, midnight blue or emerald green.

“What if this person was purple? They’re still human,” Sansing says. “It speaks toward humanism and less about people getting caught up in one’s color.”

He graduated from Kenwood Academy and later studied graphic design for two years. He describes his murals as a “gumbo” that’s part graffiti, part graphic design, part portraiture.

One part of the mural “New Frontiers, Same Old Nine” Max Sansing completed in 2019.Provided photo
One part of the mural “New Frontiers, Same Old Nine” Max Sansing completed in 2019.

His projects dot Chicago. One brightens an outside wall of Horween’s Leather Shop in Bucktown. Another breathes life to the otherwise monochromatic exterior of CH Distillery in Pilsen.

Kayla Mahaffey, who worked with Max Sansing on “New Frontiers, Same Old Nine.”Provided photo
Kayla Mahaffey, who worked with Max Sansing on “New Frontiers, Same Old Nine.”

And then there are his works along 79th Street. Growing up in the same area as his parents, Sansing wants to infuse as much color on buildings and in vacant lots there to pay homage to where he grew up and give a boost to the neighborhood.

His 79th Street mural “New Frontiers, Same Old Nine” — comprised of two paintings on buildings across a vacant lot from each other, completed last year with Kayla Mahaffey — shows a woman in a helmet, Bulls jersey and cape looking into the distance.

Sansing says he hopes it will help people see there are possibilities everywhere and they don’t need to move away to find them.

“Culture is Power” is one of Sansing’s biggest murals. It’s at 79th Street and East End Avenue, set against a purple backdrop and featuring images of five people. It’s meant to convey family.

“Where Shall We Go,” painted outside Horween Leather in 2017, shows a woman in a purple motorcycle helmet, with a key floating above her hand. It’s meant to capture the excitement of daydreams and escape.

Sansing takes care to make his murals universal, says Jon Pounds, former director of the Chicago Public Art Group, who says of the artist: “His mind is open. His ears are open. His eyes are open.”

“Culture is Power,” one of Max Sansing’s largest murals, focuses on family.Robert Herguth / Sun-Times
“Culture is Power,” one of Max Sansing’s largest murals, focuses on family.

While painting his murals, Sansing has had the occasional run-in with gangs. One time, there was a memorial to slain gang members on a wall he was going to paint, and the gang wasn’t happy about that. So he made a deal: He would leave a sliver of the wall for the names of their dead.

“I couldn’t get it done soon enough,” Sansing says.

Another time, on the West Side, a boy was shot in front of him as he worked on a mural in North Lawndale.

But generally it’s the weather that poses the biggest problems, especially when it’s cold enough that his paints freeze.

Of people’s perceptions, Sansing says, “There’s still a chance to change that with the art. Mother Nature and her being cold, there’s nothing I can do about that.”

Click on the map below for a selection of Chicago-area murals.

Source : Emily Rosca Link

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