DU Alumni

Art school alum spreads the power of the mural

Art graduate Mark Elder is now a well-known muralist in Illinois. Photo: Dave Clark

Mark Elder likes to explain his unlikely transformation at age 35 from physical education teacher to painter—and ultimately to accomplished muralist—as something magical.

“One night, the art fairies came into my room, picked me up and carried me away,” Elder says. “That was that.”

If only it were that easy. Elder (MFA ’94), a Vincentian brother, art professor and public art advocate at DePaul University in Chicago, put in hours of lonely dedication. He began painting with oils, not in a studio but in a school closet in Cape Girardeau, Mo.

He says he was “dabbling and entertaining myself” at the time, while teaching physical education in a grade school. But even at that early stage, Elder’s painting had direction and a serious purpose. He had become enamored of the murals of Thomas Hart Benton. Reading books by and about Benton gave Elder a heady notion: “Hey, I can do this.”

Elder had his first art show in Cape Girardeau in the mid-1980s, exhibiting landscape scenes, not murals. A few years later, Elder, then teaching physical education and typing at a Vincentian high school in St. Louis, painted his first mural — a black hawk soaring across the back wall of the school’s gymnasium.

He sought approval from the Vincentians to go to art school, and in 1991 he received an MA from Fontbonne College in St. Louis. Elder was then sent to St. Thomas Seminary in Denver, where he ran an art program and continued his studies at DU. He had graduated from DePaul in 1978 with a degree in physical education, and after leaving DU, Elder came full circle and returned to DePaul to teach art.

Every spring, Elder’s mural class goes to a nonprofit organization, listens to the people there and paints a mural for them. This spring, that project is at the St. Vincent de Paul Center, which is several blocks from the DePaul campus and, among other things, houses a large daycare facility. Elder stresses to his students that listening to and getting input from those living where a mural will be completed is a vital first step and a crucial part of the process.

“Seeing people respond to the fact that they’ve been heard and their ideas are being visualized is really a great service,” Elder says. “Students who want to learn the discipline of mural painting find out they can collaborate with people that maybe don’t have the art skills and do them service by giving voice to what’s important to them.”

Elder’s ninth mural is finished and waiting to be hung this summer at the DePaul Catholic School in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. The mural is 40 feet tall and 85 feet wide and wraps around a corner of the school.

The mural depicts two trees facing each other. The head of St. Vincent is in the leafy portion of one and represents the future. In the other tree is the head of Martin De Porres, who was from Peru and is the patron saint of mixed-race people. He represents the past, since the school used to be Martin De Porres Catholic School. While the design elements are Elder’s, they reflect input from members of the school and from people in the neighborhood, who stressed the importance of having the future and past depicted through St. Vincent and Martin De Porres.

“That’s to really give people ownership as to the direction of the piece itself,” Elder says. “And that’s how I serve. I listen to them, and then I try to reflect how I listened by designing what it is that I heard people say.”

The mural will be dedicated Sept. 27, which is the Feast of St. Vincent de Paul, always a special day to Vincentians but especially so this year at the DePaul Catholic School.

“They’re even talking about getting me a horse to ride in on,” says Elder, who wears a cowboy hat and boots and a buckskin vest and wards off the Chicago winter with a duster.

Elder created a mural for the lobby of the Vincentian headquarters in Rome, the only one of his murals that is indoors. Four are in Chicago. Having joined the Vincentians soon after high school, Elder has been a man of faith for many decades. But his murals have deepened his spirituality.

“When you do these projects often enough and you see how it is that they can bring people together as well as reflect deep-seated values,” Elder says, “you can certainly bolster your own faith as other people are going that way, too.”

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