‘This is me being a performance artist day to day’: The colorful past, present and future of Mark Elder
May 15, 2023
DePaul professor of Fine Arts and Service-Learning Coordinator Mark Elder’s — better known as Brother Mark — Byrne Hall studio is as one would imagine. Bottles of paint and duct tape line the workroom’s desk, complementing the experimental sketches and abstract compositions that dot the walls, creating a space that is crowded but not messy yet overflowing with budding creativity.
Elder is best known for his pieces on and off campus, such as “We Are DePaul2,” the over 36-foot-wide and 68-foot-tall mural on the side of McCabe Hall. Rubber stamps featuring the faces of students, faculty and staff comprise the 2001 portrait of St. Vincent DePaul. His most recently completed project, “The Little School Under the L,” showcases the university’s past, present and future on pillars beneath the Fullerton stop.
Like his larger-than-life murals, Elder’s outgoing presence and regular cowboy getup make him difficult to miss on the Lincoln Park Campus.
When he is not working in his studio or teaching, Elder acts as the service-learning coordinator, connecting art majors to internships around the city.
Yet, before he picked up a paintbrush, Elder’s life began as a blank canvas in Quantico, Virginia.
Far from a sedentary childhood, Elder, alongside his seven siblings, moved regularly due to his father’s career in the Marine Corps. In 1969, he left home to attend Catholic Minor Seminary in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, hoping to join the priesthood.
However, after leaving Cape Girardeau for the Vincentian novation in Santa Barbara, California, Elder found his love for the Brotherhood.
“I figured early on that I didn’t want to work Sunday,” Elder said. “I enjoyed living in the community and doing work for the poor and being in a group bigger than myself because it reminded me of the kind of pathway my father took with the Marines.”
After taking his Vincentian vows and becoming a brother — a role characterized by working in outside ministries like education, fine arts, and care of the sick and poor — Elder came to DePaul, where he got his bachelor’s degree in not art but physical education.
After graduating, Elder drifted between middle and high school classrooms, even formulating a grade school soccer league in southeast Missouri. Still, no matter how comfortably he lived, Elder remained unfulfilled.
“All along I was being tempted by the art fairy, and the art fairy would visit me from time to time and I would do art, purely on my own and purely out of ignorance, because I didn’t know any better,” Elder said.
It was modesty that delayed Elder’s career in the art world.
“If you’re going to live off what you do, you got to market yourself,” Elder said. “You have to get up there and do the kinds of things that attracted attention to your work. You know, me doing that in the Vincentian community goes against the grain because we’re not supposed to be attracting attention to ourselves. There is kind of a rub which should tell you why I’m the only artist in the Vincentian community.”
Still, at age 34, Elder participated in his first solo gallery show in Cape Girardeau before enrolling in art school at the University of Denver and finally returning to DePaul as a teacher in 1994.
Influenced by his religion and affinity for helping others, Elder adopted a community-supported approach to art, leading him to murals.
“[St.] Vincent himself said, as members of the community, you have to be inventive unto infinity for the poor,” Elder said. “That meant I should be the best artist I can be but do these art projects that would benefit a common good for everybody which is why I do murals.”
Described as a “community investment,” Elder’s murals symbolize neighborhoods and their history, encouraging viewers to understand where the painting comes from and why. His lattermost project, “The Little School Under the L,” catalogs the university’s rich history through 25 pillars beneath the L tracks.
Beginning in 2016, “The Little School Under the L” has highlighted many leading figures and moments throughout DePaul’s history, like Father McCabe, the university’s third president; the origins of the ‘D-Men,’ the sports uniforms responsible for DePaul’s demon mascot; but also, those not as well-known, such as Mary Teresita and Marion Amoureux the first female and African American graduates.
The over seven-year-long project saw the contributions of hundreds of students, like senior Tayvia Ridgeway, all enrolled in Elder’s creating murals class.
“He’s been the driving influence for my time at DePaul,” Ridgeway said. “I’ve been involved with him literally every year, freshman through senior year. … Every step of the way, he’s provided me with resources and been a guided mentor.”
Much of Ridgeway’s time working on “The Little School Under the L,” was spent with Elder alone due to pandemic restrictions. Over the thousands of hours she put into the project, the quiet moments in Elder’s studio were the most memorable.
“Working with him made me feel like a true DePaul student because I was constantly learning the history of DePaul because every pillar is a dedication to different parts of DePaul,” Ridgeway said. “It really just felt like I had a close personal relationship with him because we would share these moments of doing art together.”
Elder granted Ridgeway creative freedom on the final pillar of the project. Titled “End of Trail,” Ridgeway’s mural commemorates the names of students, faculty and staff involved in the mural while paying homage to her past as a Black woman in Chicago.
DePaul alumni Jessica Freeman, who graduated in 2021, was introduced to Elder through a focal point seminar on murals in Chicago.
“My first impression was, I mean he was really intriguing,” Freeman said. “I had never, I mean I grew up in Springfield, Illinois, so I understand country folk, and that’s not him at all. He has this persona that can put you into a trance.”
Never without his wide-brimmed cowboy hat, crimson wild rag and western fringe jacket, Elder is easy to mistake as fresh from the rodeo. However, despite his status as an actual cowboy, Elder’s Western attire goes beyond practicality.
“It’s still art,” Elder said. “This is me being a performance artist day to day. The stuff that I wear are symbols. … My cowboy regalia is there to challenge the viewer … and for me, it’s another visualization of Christ. When people put these initial thoughts of what they see in a person and they judge accordingly, they’re not respecting the image of Christ in every person. … The image is challenging them to look deeper.”
Still, for Freeman, Elder has been more than a professor but also a colleague and mentor. From co-hosting Elder’s former art-centric radio show, “The Buffalo Bro ½ Hour Show,” to designing his website, Freeman regards Elder as one of the constants throughout her undergraduate career.
“It [the radio show] was definitely an adventure,” Freeman said. “His influence in that was huge, and it brought me out of my shell even more than just, you know, getting to know him. He let me find people to interview and have some control and creative authority.”
While Elder may not have enough time to run his radio show anymore, his genial spirit constantly spurred individuals like Freeman to step out of their comfort zone and put themselves out there.
“He was like the follow-up person,” Freeman said. “He was always there to remind me of what I could take further and explore.”
As Elder enters his 29th year at DePaul, his next project returns him to DePaul Catholic School in Philadelphia. There, he is finishing a mural mimicking the same technique seen in “We Are DePaul2” by using stamps made from the faces of the students, faculty and community. As he embarks on this colorful project, he reflects on his extensive career.
“I look back at many of things that I’ve done and think wow, I really did that … but I never did them alone,” Elder said.