A project to bring some color to the streets of Deep Ellum has created murals of a dozen elephants; jacks and rubber balls; iconic scenes of contemporary Dallas; a mural based on a 1938 picture of downtown Dallas; what looks like the child of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings; graffiti; and plenty of abstract art. But in a neighborhood known for music, an image of bluesman Robert Johnson and a mural that tries to capture the energy of a concert are the only works that acknowledge Deep Ellum’s rich history.
The 42 Murals project — which is placing 42 murals on 53 bare walls on 39 Deep Ellum properties owned by 42 Real Estate — is being completed this month. Lesli Marshall, owner and operator of Articulation Art, is curating the project in collaboration with the owner of the real estate firm, Scott Rohrmann. It's a positive thing to give the area color, but the project could also be another example of commerce overlooking culture.
Marshall agrees that few of the murals draw from the area’s musical history. Other important parts of Deep Ellum’s cultural history are also underrepresented by the massive project, which will significantly alter the look of the area. But Marshall says these murals reflect the 200 proposals she received. “This was more towards the arts,” she says. “It’s also been a very creative and art-filled neighborhood for a long time.” In any case, Marshall says the murals are not permanent. The plan is for them to evolve next year, with proposals for new murals to replace the current ones.
The murals definitely look better than bare walls and this is a great opportunity for artists to express themselves on huge canvases. But in some ways, the project is a blow to Deep Ellum's history. Sure, this is a new era. Comparing it to days gone by may be useless. But it's essential to have a proper knowledge of history as we move forward.
“In recent years, perhaps since the late 1980s, Deep Ellum in its efforts to redevelop is often mythologized beyond recognition for the sake of commerce," says local writer and filmmaker Alan Govenar, who has co-authored two books on Deep Ellum with Jay Brakefield, researched and written 17 plaques in the district to commemorate historic sites and is founding director of the upcoming Museum of Street Culture. "Deep Ellum in its heyday of the 1920s was really not more than a few city blocks on Elm, much of which was bulldozed away for the Central Expressway.”
Govenar says that in those years, Dallas was a hub for recording African American music. “Deep Ellum was the meeting ground of African American musicians who came to the city hoping to be discovered,” he says. Govenar points out that while blues legend Robert Johnson became famous posthumously, he was relatively unknown in his time and only spent a weekend in Dallas recording music.
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There is certainly nothing wrong with having a mural of Johnson in Deep Ellum, especially since he made his last recordings at 508 Park in 1937. But what is missing in these murals is Dallas' history of blues and jazz. The absence of a mural of Blind Lemon Jefferson is particularly shocking. He was one of the first African American country blues artists with a successful recording career. He was tremendously influential, recording more than 80 songs between 1925 and his death in 1929. He played on the streets of Deep Ellum, where he met Lead Belly, who joined him for his performances. Jefferson inspired countless blues artists who came after him, including Robert Johnson.
But there are many other artists without murals who recorded and performed in Dallas. Washington Phillips, a unique gospel blues songwriter who performed with a zither that sounded like a toy piano, recorded all of his songs here. Blind Willie Johnson was another crucial gospel blues artist from Dallas, known for his haunting growl on incomparable classics such as “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.” There were also many classic female blues singers such as Lillian Glinn, Hattie Hudson and Bobbie Cadillac.
Deep Ellum is surging again as a center of entertainment and that is a good thing. But understanding the history of Deep Ellum is crucial in order to move forward. “It’s deeply disappointing that these murals don’t draw upon that rich history,” says Govenar. Even beyond musical history, Union Station used to be located on the Deep Ellum side before it was relocated downtown. This was a place where all sorts of cultures mixed, and pawnshops, which provided loans to those who couldn’t get them elsewhere, played an enormous role.
“We have few opportunities to do it right,” says Govenar. “Why not try harder?”