Monday, May 20, 2024
Public Art

An Artist Received A Lucrative Commission To Paint A Soviet Mural Of Cookie Monster. The Patron Wasn’t The Building Owner.

2020 has had its share of oddball moments, leading to the inevitable commentary that “I didn’t have that on my bingo card.” But this one– especially as far as city planning and public art topics are concerned- has got to be one of the top contenders.

Peoria, Illinois painter Joshua Hawkins recently received what he described as a lucrative commission to paint an odd mural on the side of a local building. Not, as we see in many murals these days, some sort of elaborate, abstracted floral motif blurred into a stylized, giant human face, nor meticulous graffiti art. Rather, this mural was Cookiemonster– holding up a cookie, whence emanate rays of rainbow light. Vivid radial lines of yellow and red emanate from a sun hidden below a skyline at the bottom. Even before seeing the text, I was thinking that it looked pretty, well, socialist realist? Underneath, text proclaims, “мир, земля, печенье,” that is, mir, zemlya, pechenye, or, “peace, land, cookies.”

It is a reference to an old Bolshevik slogan promising “мир, земля и хлеб,” or, “peace, land, and bread.” Rebecca Johnston, a doctoral candidate of Russian history and scholar of post-Soviet history at the Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas (and a schoolyard chum of the author at Grinnell College), explained to us that this was a slogan used to rally support from the peasantry “among whom land ownership was a top demand” in the early days of the Russian Revolution.

A mysterious story surrounded the commissioning of a Soviet-esque mural of Cookiemonster on a building in downtown Peoria, Illinois. Shared from artist Joshua Hawkins’ public Facebook page.

When Hawkins got an irate phone call from building owner Nate Comte, he was confused. The patron who commissioned the work had identified himself as Nate, Hawkins explained. Comte explained that he had painted over the mural, much to the dismay of Hawkins’ fans.

The burning question in everyone’s mind– apart from who would commission a Soviet propaganda mural of Cookiemonster himself- is the question of who would spend this much money on such an elaborate prank? A Russian oligarch, one Facebook commenter postulated. Another suggested that the fake Nate Comte was somehow involved in a dispute with the real Nate Comte and used Hawkins as an intermediary. Whatever the real cause, it’s certainly a pretty damn bizarre– and oddly delightful- tale. Tragically, Nate Comte painted over the mural. But the legend shall live on forevermore.

The age-old question of relatability: Will it play in Peoria? One hears this story– and supposes not.

Joshua Hawkins, the artist, did not respond to a request for comment as of the time of publication.

Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP, MBA, is a city planner and energy professional based in Detroit, where he writes about infrastructure, sustainability, tech, and more. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he attended Grinnell College in Iowa, the Kogod School of Business at American University, the POCACITO transatlantic program, the SISE program at the University of Illinois Chicago, and he is also a StartingBloc Social Innovation Fellow. He enjoys long walks through historic, disinvested Rust Belt neighborhoods at sunset. (Nat's views and opinions are his own and do not represent those of his employer).

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