“I Like to Think That We Were Kind of Pioneers.” An Interview with Cynthia Weiss and Miriam Socoloff

Images used with permission of Cynthia Weiss and Miriam Socoloff

Interviewed by Azize Harvey

“It’s September. It’s the pandemic. We can’t do this.” That’s how Cynthia Weiss remembers responding a year ago when her collaborator and friend Miriam Socoloff proposed the idea of restoring their over-forty-year-old mosaic, “Fabric of Our Lives.” At that point, vaccinations were not available and, as Weiss remembers, even working together in the studio felt risky. Still, three weeks later they had completed the tile work and repaired the whole piece. As Weiss put it, “Somehow it all came together and it was so restorative, personally, spiritually, to fix something in a very broken world, in a year of the pandemic, in a year of police shootings and a year of demonstrations and a year of fear and anxiety. To actually physically be fixing broken things just felt like this is the only thing to be doing right now. It is our job as Jews to do tikkun olam–to repair the world.” 

 Last fall, during the height of the COVID pandemic, Socoloff pushed the president of Bernard Horwich Jewish Community Center (JCC) to have the wall repaired.

Weiss and Socoloff first undertook this project to create Chicago’s first community mosaic at the Bernard Horwich JCC on the Far North Side in 1980. The mosaic depicts the struggles of Eastern European Jewish immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who came to America with little money, no jobs, and often no grasp of English.  

Weiss and Socoloff have been immersed together in the vibrant and complex world of Chicago public art for over three decades. The public art projects helmed by these women span the Chicago area. Their best-known work is the bricolage at the Foster Avenue Underpass. Socoloff has been an art teacher in Chicago Public Schools and elsewhere and makes and exhibits her own work. Weiss has written about art education in books and articles. Both have worked closely with many organizations, including Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education, the Chicago Public Art Group, After School Matters, and Columbia College Chicago. 

Socoloff and Weiss first met in the late seventies as flatmates near Wrigley Field, a formerly-shabby area on the city’s North Side. This was the start of over four decades of collaboration and partnership. They have been known to go out to the dunes and spend the day sitting together and painting landscapes.

Azize: Talk a little bit about yourselves, your work, your background, and your interest in art.

Weiss: I spent the first seven years of my life in Mexico City, before moving to Philadelphia and later to Chicago, and I remember the big Mexican murals. [The Mexican tradition of mural making] was sort of embedded in me. A lot of murals in Mexico and in Chicago were really rooted in identity and culture, and started with an African-American artist, Bill Walker, and the Wall of Respect. Public art and mural instruction quickly moved to Pilsen and Mexican communities, so I always felt connected to public art in Chicago.

We both have mothers who were artists. My mom was a painter and drew, and later became an interior designer. When I was four, I started drawing on the walls, and she got the genius idea to put up big sheets of paper on the wall. So I was a muralist from age four. I went on to get a Spanish and art degree in college and then a master’s in fine arts. I’ve always had this dual track that’s come together in so many lovely ways of arts and education. I’m not a certified art teacher, but I have worked in the public schools bringing artists to schools to connect poetry and history, or dance and science, or literature and visual arts.

Socoloff:  My mother was self-taught and she was an artist to her soul. She painted everything. She painted the refrigerator, she painted rugs on the floor. She was also a single working mother. She only had a tenth-grade education and my father died when I was six, so we were very poor. But she started making earrings that were sold all over the country through the Sears catalog and the Montgomery Ward catalog. Being an artist was just part of the air I breathed. 

Weiss: I think mentors are so important. I wanted to figure out how to make murals here in the city and couldn’t really find my way in, and in the continuing studies at the School of the Art Institute, there was a mural class. The first class, a woman, Caryl Yasko, walks in fifteen minutes late and I vividly remember her white overalls covered in paint. She had a key ring that must have had seventy keys and she said, “okay, we’re going to start! We’re going to blow things up ten feet!” Caryl was a muralist; she worked large. And she was a founder of the Chicago Public Art Group, and had us all up on ladders and scaffolds and painting. She brought me into the Public Art Group. We don’t have formal arts apprenticeship systems in the United States like you do in Europe, but the knowledge base has still been handed down generation to generation, which is really cool. So it’s nice to trace that back and, and see, you know, where people were inspired from. 

I was in grad school at UIC (University of Illinois at Chicago) and getting a master’s in fine arts and also making murals as well. Work that was not recognized or supported at all in art school. 

Socoloff: Through Cynthia, I became involved in what at the time was called the Chicago Mural Group (now the Chicago Public Art Group). I was also involved with an organization called Chutzpah-a radical Jewish organization that dealt with issues of Jewish identity, radical Jewish history, the history of Jewish labor in America, the history of Jewish political left thought in Europe, and rediscovered Jewish culture and the world that our grandparents had built coming here. Like many immigrants, they didn’t always talk about their background.

Weiss:  I had done public work before that, so we’ve kind of brought different things to the partnership. Even with that, we really kind of had no business like making a huge public art piece in the medium of mosaic, which we had never worked with before. As an act of faith, we made the drawing, solicited donations of tiles, learned how to work with tile, and found a tile contractor.

Azize: Can you touch on your history with the mosaic you did for the Jewish Community Center?

Weiss: We were literally walking up and down Devon Street and in West Rogers Park and on Western Avenue. This was forty years ago, and it was a primarily Jewish area. We knew it wouldn’t be forever. We wanted to make a mural on a building that would keep its identity as a Jewish institution. I’ve had half, maybe three quarters of the public art I’ve done in Chicago destroyed when the building changed. We had a community leader, Marvin Fox, a Holocaust survivor and rabbi. And he just loved this project, and he advocated very, very strongly for the JCC to be a home for it.

Weiss: We built the mosaic in our studio before we had a wall to put it on. First we did the drawing, or as we call it, “the cartoon.” It was the actual size of the piece; ten feet by thirteen feet, or whatever the exact proportions were. We drew the cartoons and laid them out on a number of tables. Then we laid the tile on top of that cartoon, and put the contact paper on top of that. A bed of cement was put on the wall and the mosaic tiles were placed on that and directly attached to the wall.

Socoloff: Politically, the mosaic was grounded in Jewish labor activist politics. Artistically, it was grounded in a tradition of public art that the Chicago Public Art Group had started with murals representing communities. The top has a Yiddish theater actor, a person holding newspapers representing the Yiddish press and Jewish activists, showing the diverse and vibrant cultural community that sprung up from Jewish immigration. In contrast, the bottom depicts the labors and sweatshop work of Jewish immigrants. The ribbon weaves from the sweatshop workers’ sewing machines into the stage of the performers at the top, and is meant to symbolize the fact that these experiences as immigrant workers were the stage on which so much Jewish-American culture arose. They honored that desire of Jewish immigrants for culture and for dignity and for a living wage, things that workers are still fighting for today. Our community did not have representation and didn’t have a building to represent it.

Weiss: Funding was a mix.  We did some fundraising. The Public Art Group came into it. It was a mix of brands and donations and a lot of the tile was donated.

Weiss: We had retirees and younger people placing tile together, so it was intergenerational. In general, working with a big group on a mosaic is a really pleasurable thing. You’re taking little pieces and you’re adding on them, really building something that’s unfolding under your hands. And it’s very, very labor intensive. Storytelling and slow conversations kind of unfold because you’re together for hours on end. 

Azize: You both mentioned that you didn’t have a lot of background with mosaic making. So, why a mosaic as opposed to anything else? Why public art? 

Weiss: A lot of public art is about the celebration of identity and culture. We wanted to celebrate an aspect of Jewish culture that is not as well known, which was labor history and Jews involved in the labor movement and immigrant culture and Yiddish culture. Mosaics have been used in synagogues and churches. It is a religious art form. It’s been used in a huge tradition of public buildings throughout Europe. Public art is complex in the best way… you might have bankers and gang members and young children and all kinds of people working on a community project. It’s like a quilting bee, where you can get a lot of people together, all working on one piece. The act of doing this all together at the same time and letting it grow and develop under your hands is just creative and social and builds community, so it never gets boring. 

Weiss: We both went on to make many more mosaics. We had this great trip to Italy to study mosaic schools. We have made mosaics part of our medium. One of the things, that, as an artist looking back forty years, you’re not supposed to say these things, but I’m appalled at some of the quality of the mosaic from 1980. There was a part of me that wanted to tear the whole thing down and remake it. Our craft has developed so much in the past 40 years, but it is what it is and we made it, we made it work. 

Miriam and I got a Chicago international grant to take classes in [Italy], and we learned this beautiful concept in Italian mosaic making, andamento: the way tiles visually flow in a mosaic. Not just the picture that you have, but how the tiles move together and transition into one another. In restoring the work from the nineteen eighties I was like, “this andamento suuuucccks!” We knew nothing about andemento at the time or the really sophisticated art to mosaics. 

Azize: Yeah, absolutely. I love reading about the artwork of Pilsen, which is, at least in my mind, like the hub of Chicago public art. It comes from a tradition of  government funded public art in Mexico, which comes from its own tradition, which brings in Italian and Islamic mosaic making. There are all these different combinations that come into each other. This is for my own curiosity, but I feel like in the past- I don’t know- maybe ten-ish years, I’ve just seen this expansion of public art in Chicago, especially mosaics and bricolages coming up everywhere. A lot of them are through schools putting them up, but I feel like a lot of them also seem to be city funded. And I wondered if that was coincidental, just sort of the trends of public art at this moment, or if there was something active.

Weiss: I like to think that we were kind of pioneers, and in 1980, kind of did the first community-based mosaics. There were church mosaics already in Chicago, but… we train people, who train people. So there is a really pretty vast group of artists in Chicago who know how to do mosaics. The Public Art Group has continued to support a lot of projects. After School Matters and Gallery Thirty Seven have made it one of their cornerstone programs. Greenstar was all over the city. Urban Gateways  and After School Matters have funded projects to do mosaics in schools. So there is an explosion of mosaics… sponsored by the city, organizations, foundations.

Azize: I see that both of you have this really extensive background as educators and  teachers of history. And I was wondering if you could talk about the potential overlaps of your public art-or even your private practice- and the education process you bring to it.

Socoloff: At the time that Cynthia was working with CPA, there was just a lot of money going into bringing artists into schools. At the time, I was a teacher at Lake View High School and we had a very active arts integration program that brought artists into all kinds of classrooms. 

In high school, the advanced art class was where I finally found my planet and my place; where I felt safe and comfortable. That feeling of an art classroom being a beautiful refuge is something that I found very inspiring.

Weiss: Yeah, the art wing of the high school was the safe place. The printmaking classroom was where we took our lunch and hung out.  

Socoloff: And it’s what I’ve always tried to do in my own classroom.  I’ve always had a big upholstered chair in my classroom, because a teenager can come in and you don’t know what they’ve been through that day—they could have dropped their tray in the lunchroom and everybody laughed at them— but there always had to be a place where I could say, “Just go sit there until you feel better.”

Weiss: There’s a lot of space to have a lot of humanity as an artist and as an art teacher.


Azize Altay Harvey is a Chicago native and an arts editor (including for ACM), practicing artist, and nanny. She is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, where she received a BA in studio arts and Asian studies. She works as a curator with the Virtual Asian American Arts Museum.