Singer Donny Hathaway inspired Hyde Park mural celebrating his music and promoting mental health

Singer Donny Hathaway inspired Hyde Park mural celebrating his music and promoting mental health

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

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

The painting also aimed to raise awareness of “mental health issues within the black community, especially men” and the “mostly unspoken daily pressures that exist while being a black man in America and the consequences that can have. on the mind,” says Wilson.

Hathaway battled mental illness, including schizophrenia. In 1979, he was found dead on a sidewalk under the hotel room he was staying in in New York. His death was ruled a suicide. He was 33 years old.

Rob McKay of the Connect Gallery on the South Side says he’s wanted for several years to create a series of murals featuring people who have “impacted the community”, starting with musicians but also including other notables, famous or not.

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

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

“I also wanted to show that we need to talk about mental health in our community,” says McKay.

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

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

“In the years that followed – and Rob’s hard work to make that first discussion a reality – we finally had the chance to paint.”

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

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

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

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

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

At the bottom of the room there is a QR code that can be scanned with a cell phone for information on mental health resources.

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

“Hold on to the world

while it spins

don’t let it spin

bring you down,

things go fast

hold on

and you will last.

Take it from me

one day

we will all be


The lyrics were by Edward Howard, a collaborator and friend of Hathaway.

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

“Decades later, the words still ring true,” says Wilson, who says he “intermittently” suffered from “sometimes quite severe depression.”

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

He says he got “massive inspiration, hope and strength from a song like that. It’s always been like a staple for me, it’s my favorite song.

“Usually when people paint something, maybe they don’t have that connection to it,” says Wilson. “But it is, for me, personal.”

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

Donnita Hathaway, Donny Hathaway's daughter, at the site of the Hyde Park Mural as it was painted in May.

Donnita Hathaway, Donny Hathaway’s daughter, at the site of the Hyde Park Mural as it was painted in May.

She visited while Wilson was painting the mural.

“I was able to get on the crane and get up to my dad’s face, and I was just watching,” she says. “We look so much alike it was like looking in the mirror. I fell in love with it.”

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

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