Chicago murals: Donny Hathaway inspired Hyde Park mural by Richard Wilson promoting mental health

The Hyde Park mural features a towering image of Donny Hathaway, the late Chicago-born singer-songwriter who won a Grammy Award with Roberta Flack for their 1972 recording “Where is the Love.”

The painting, taken earlier this year by Richard Wilson, was meant to “pay tribute to Donnie for the gifts he gave us”, he says.

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The image also aimed to raise awareness of “mental health issues in the black community, especially men” and the “often unspoken daily pressures that exist in being Black in America and the mental journey,” says Wilson.

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Hathaway struggled with mental illness, including schizophrenia. In 1979, he was found dead on the pavement below the high-rise hotel room he was staying in in New York. His death was ruled a suicide. He was 33 years old.

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Rob McKay of the South Side’s Connect Gallery says he’s wanted to create a mural series for several years that would feature people who have “impacted the community,” starting with musicians and others famous, famous or not.

Artist Richard Wilson (seated) with Rob McKay of Connect Gallery.

Artist Richard Wilson (seated) with Rob McKay of Connect Gallery.

“I also wanted to show that mental health needs to be talked about in our community,” McKay says.

After COVID-19 hit, taking lives and exacting a terrible toll on mental health, “It just clicked” that the first mural “should be Donny Hathaway,” he says.

Wilson, who is from London and now lives in Detroit, says he met McKay in 2018 “when I first came to Chicago to try to find an opportunity to paint some walls, hoping to celebrate some of the musical icons of Chicago. Through a great friend in London, I was introduced to the Eric Williams of Silverroom boutique in Hyde Park and then to Mackay.

“In the years since – and Rob’s hard work to make the initial discussion a reality – we finally got the chance to paint.

It happened in May at a building operated by the University of Chicago that houses the Small Cheval restaurant at 1307 E. 53rd St.

“Donnie was on my list of icons I wanted to paint, although it was Rob who suggested Donnie specifically for this wall,” says Wilson.

The mural at 1307 E. 53rd St.  as it rose in May.

The mural at 1307 E. 53rd St. as it rose in May.

Spanning roughly 25 feet by 30 feet, the mural took about two weeks and 20 gallons of acrylic paint to complete, Wilson says.

At the bottom of the section, there is a QR code that can be scanned with a mobile phone to tap information on mental health resources.

The mural also includes the lyrics to “Someday We’ll Be Free,” a song recorded by Hathaway:

“Hold on to the world.”

as it spins around

just don’t let it spin

put you down

things move fast

hold on tight

and you will endure.

take it from me

sometimes

we all will be

for free.”

The text was by Edward Howard, Hathaway’s collaborator and friend.

“The power of great songwriting stands the test of time, and we can also interpret great songs in different ways,” says Wilson. “These lyrics are often associated with the Civil Rights Movement, although, according to Ed Howard, they were written for Donnie more about his mental health issues.”

“Decades later, the words still ring true,” says Wilson, who says he suffered “on and off” from “sometimes pretty severe depression.”

“I take medication for it, and without it I really struggle,” he says. “My artwork is something that has really helped me.

He says he took “tremendous inspiration, hope and strength from a song like that. “It’s always felt like something I should, it’s my favorite song.”

“Usually when people paint something, they might not have that connection to it,” says Wilson. “But this is, for me, personal.”

One of Hathaway’s children, Donita Hathaway, was 2 years old when her father died. She runs a group called the Donny Hathaway Legacy Project that celebrates his music and promotes mental health.

Donita Hathaway, daughter of Donnie Hathaway, at the Hyde Park mural site as he posed for pictures in May.

Donita Hathaway, daughter of Donnie Hathaway, at the Hyde Park mural site as he posed for pictures in May.

She visited while Wilson was painting the mural.

“I could get on the crane and go right up to my dad’s face, and I was just staring,” she says. “We look so much alike it was like staring into a mirror.” I fell in love with him.”

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



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