Large (fake) animals trying to get into buildings

The first thing I saw on a recent visit to The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis was this:

Seeing this reminded me of this:

I am in favor of both of these for multiple reasons:

-They are whimsical. This is public art but somewhat absurd and fun art. They liven up existing spaces. Both of the buildings above are glass, modernist structures and the animals are a good complement for the style.

-They are unusual. How often does a giant animal appear in these situations? They catch your attention, both outside and inside.

-They are memorable. Museums and convention centers have a certain feel about them. These creatures are a memory in themselves, helping the building and setting to stand out. (They were not created for this reason but these are certainly selfie and social media opportunities.)

All that said, if animals like these were everywhere, they would not be as worthwhile. Take the painted cows campaign in Chicago years ago: it works well once or twice but when lots of communities try it with lots of animals, it becomes less memorable.

A “weeping” statue at the library and religious phenomena

Our local library has a sculpture outside its entrance of two children sitting on a bench reading. This is what the statue looked like on a recent morning:

This likely occurred because of the chilly morning giving away to normal spring temperatures.

However, I had just finished reading anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann’s latest book How God Becomes Real. She argues that religious people learn how to interpret phenomena many humans might experience, such as getting goosebumps or experiencing sleep paralysis, as religious experiences. Across people groups in the world and even within the same religious traditions, people interpret their bodily and mental experiences in different ways regarding religion. Yet, without these religious building blocks, what Luhrmann refers to as “kindling,” it is hard to maintain religious faith.

This relates to this particular statue because of the phenomena of weeping statues or art work or everyday objects that religious people sometimes interpret as divine activity. I have even seen this up close. When I was in college, my hometown had a tree in the downtown that started “weeping.” In a community with a sizable Catholic population, some viewed this is a religious sign. I heard about it and with a friend we went out at midnight or so – we were in college and had little else to do on a summer night in the suburbs – to see what was going on. The tree had some candles and religious items around it. Something was indeed coming out of the tree.

Could we conclusively say this was a religious sign? We could talk about the biology of what was going on. We could talk to different religious residents to hear their take. We could individually put this through our grid of beliefs and experiences and see what we made of it. I remember seeing it and thinking it was interesting. That was all. My religious tradition does not have much room for or focus much on such manifestations of the Divine. And so life went on.

Luhrmann’s work helps explain why some might see that tree – or statue – as something religious. On a lighter note, perhaps the weeping statue of a child reading is a signal of the lifelong joy of reading all can experience through the library. Or, perhaps it signals more.

Using public art to promote diversity in Naperville

Naperville is more diverse today than in past decades, it has a history of promoting public art in its downtown and along the Riverwalk, and it was home in recent years to multiple incidents of racism. Put this all together and a recently formed group just completed a new art installation:

In part, this is a response to a downtown mural commissioned in 2014 that featured little diversity.

Three thoughts:

  1. Using public art, an already accepted medium in downtown Naperville, to make a new statement seems like it could be effective. At the same time, having more art that promotes diversity in the community in more prominent locations also matters.
  2. How much room is there in downtown Naperville to do different kinds of art? At this point, there are a number of murals, statues, and sculptures. How varied could future works in these formats be and what new formats might be included? More artistic freedom and new aesthetics – downtown Naperville generally has a red brick, several story building look – could also contribute to a sense of diversity.
  3. The conversation about art gets at larger questions about race and ethnicity in Naperville. Although it is more diverse than in the past, is it welcoming to all people? Do all residents feel comfortable in the downtown and in other local institutions? How does the community tell its own history? What is the vision for the future?

Creative (trolls out of recycled wood!) and profitable (record attendance!) art at Morton Arboretum

How do you attract more people to a suburban arboretum? Have unique art installations with one large work loom over a busy highway:

Created by famed Danish artist Thomas Dambo, the exhibit features six large troll statues — most 15 to 20 feet high — made of repurposed wood and other recycled and natural materials, and spread throughout the 1,700-acre arboretum…

In July, about 163,000 people visited the arboretum — the most ever reported in a single month, Sargent said. The previous monthly record of 150,000 was set in October 2011. And last month was also a successful one, Sargent said, with more than 140,000 visitors.

In surveys and anecdotally, visitors explain they come specifically to see the trolls, but they’re also staying to see other parts of the arboretum they’ve never seen before, she said…

Dambo told the Tribune earlier this year that after he was approached to work on the exhibit — similar to art installations he’s completed in Copenhagen, Denmark, and South Korea — he would ride his bike around the arboretum to identify spots to place his creations. He wanted people to explore the grounds and its hiking paths to find all the trolls.

Art works often serve two masters: aesthetic beauty and reflection on the world as well as commercial concerns. Artists may not often talk about the commercial imperative – they have to eat too – while other actors may use art to bring in money.

Take public art displayed on street or public spaces of communities. On one hand, the art can enhance the experience of being in particular locations. Think of the Picasso statue in Daley Plaza in Chicago: it is a unique work by a very famous artist that is not easy to interpret. It is still popular decades later. Without the art, the plaza could be interpreted as a dreary concrete land amid tall buildings.


On the other hand, art can draw people to a location and help encourage them to spend money. Communities want more visitors because they then buy items in shops, eat at restaurants, and bring in more money through payment to local businesses as well as through tax revenues. Take this statue of Paul Revere on the Freedom Trail in Boston:


The statue commemorates an important historical event but think of all the visitors that come to Boston to partake in this colonial history. Think of how much money they spend on hotels and food and tourist activities. This statue is part of a system that helps the local economy. It is still art but it also helps generate money.

There are inevitably tensions between these two poles: beauty and money. We have terms for this, such as sellout, someone who has given up on the artistic and creative side and now is just in it for the money. With public art, the two sides often go hand in hand: creativity leads to money which can lead back to more funds and will for creativity and so on. It is probably too simple to say everyone can win in these scenarios and yet many communities (and artists) continue to seek public art installations.

What it costs to maintain dozens of pieces of public art in Naperville

Naperville’s Riverwalk and downtown features dozens of works of art. However, it takes resources to keep that art nice and to keep adding new pieces:

In 2016, the city started to set aside about $50,000 a year for maintenance of public art from its food and beverage tax revenue, which is pooled into a fund named for the activities it supports — Special Events and Cultural Amenities.

Since its founding in 1996, Century Walk has installed works at 48 locations, some of which involve several pieces by large numbers of artists, and others that involve intricate or large-scale works by individual talents…

Others on the council agree, but some say there should be a stronger focus on planning for the future of Naperville’s outdoor art, setting aside money for maintenance or requiring future projects to come with some sort of endowment for their long-term care. Century Walk Chairman Brand Bobosky, for his part, wants the city’s maintenance fund increased and coupled with money for new art creation, to the tune of $200,000 a year…

In the past three years, Mondero has repaired the broken tiles on the bench damaged by skateboards, rebuilt a wall called “Man’s Search for Knowledge Through the Ages” that was damaged by a vehicle, repainted two murals, bolted the arm of a sculpted man to hold it in place and cleaned several plaques.

Not all suburbs would be willing to (1) initiate public art in the first place and then (2) invest city resources into it. Yet, Naperville clearly sees it as part of the package it offers to residents and visitors: come to the Riverwalk, enjoy the vibrant suburban downtown, and take in the public art that often commemorates the suburb’s past. The art is not exactly edgy; Naperville is not going after street art or modern art (see the example of the Bart Simpson image that popped up a few years ago). The art that Naperville does have is intended to help tell the community’s story and present interesting visual displays for visitors.

Whether the public art can come first and help create a vibrant suburban area is debatable. Plenty of suburban communities want mixed-use areas that bring in visitors and generate revenue and art is often viewed as part of that package. But, it is unlikely that public art alone could create such a setting. The suburb would already need a confluence of enough residents, resources to apply to such an area, and a good plan for development or redevelopment.

Man fills Chicago potholes with mosaic art

Chicago has had plenty of potholes in recent months and one man has taken to filling a few potholes with art:

The perfect pothole might not exist for many people — but for mosaic artist Jim Bachor, it’s one with a nice oval shape. Bachor began filling those potholes a little more than a year ago, after one in front of his house became a hassle.

Bachor doesn’t just fill them with cement, though. He’s turned pothole-filling into a public art project — one with a sense of humor. He fills them with mosaics.

“I just think it’s fun to add that little bit of spark into (an) issue that people moan about,” says the Chicago resident, whose work also hangs in galleries. He was first drawn to the ancient art form because of its ability to last.

With orange cones and vests displaying his last name, Bachor and his helpers look official enough to shut down a street section to work on filling a pothole.

Bachor uses the Chicago city flag design in his pothole art. Some versions hold phone numbers to local auto repair shops, while others simply read “POTHOLE.” His most recent installment north of downtown Chicago — “(hash)21914” — pokes fun at the huge number of potholes that exist in the city.

Public art that also helps the city fulfill one of its basic duties. How long until he is shut down for not filling potholes to standards or because it leaves the city liable?

It would be interesting to test the durability of mosaics in potholes. Given their construction with numerous small pieces, wouldn’t they be particularly susceptible to pressure, water, and freezing? I suspect there are much better ways to address potholes but they may not look as good or have any moxie.

Naperville to commemorate deadly 1946 train collision

Naperville likes its public art so it is not surprising to see that a memorial for a deadly 1946 train crash is in the planning stage:

In 1946, two trains crashed at the Naperville station and killed 45 people, including some military personnel returning from World War II…

Plans are moving forward to place a sculpture as a memorial near the site of the train wreck. The project would be installed on the day after the 68th anniversary of the April 25 crash. The memorial would honor those who died and recognize heroic rescue efforts on that Thursday afternoon in 1946 when the Exposition Flyer, a passenger train heading west from Chicago, plowed into the Advance Flyer, which had made an unscheduled stop at the Naperville station to check mechanical problems.

About 125 people were injured in the crash.

“It’s a story that I bet 95 percent of the people in Naperville don’t know about,” said W. Brand Bobosky, president of Century Walk Corp., a public-private partnership that has installed dozens of sculptures related to the city’s history in and around downtown.

This was a large incident, even among a metropolitan region full of railroad lines (which leads to some smaller accidents), lots of freight moving through the area, and high commuter counts in places like Naperville. To some degree, perhaps it is remarkable train crashes don’t happen more often given the number of at-grade crossings as well as the number of trains.

The majority of the statues and public art in Naperville celebrate important figures, reinforcing the narrative of the suburb’s impressive community spirit as well as it is remarkable growth. At the same time, there is currently a 9/11 memorial along the south side of the Riverwalk. This new memorial might be the first to commemorate tragedy that occurred within Napeville itself. Is building a memorial a signal of the maturity of a suburb (that may or may not be related to how much time has passed or the size of the community)?

Aconsequence of this crash, according to Wikipedia, was that it contributed to lower train speeds in the United States:

This crash is a major reason why most passenger trains in the United States only travel at a speed limit of 79 mph (127 km/h) or below.[2][3] The CB&Q, Milwaukee Road, and Illinois Central were among railroads in the region running passenger trains at up to and above 100 miles per hour (160 km/h) in the 1930s and 1940s. The Interstate Commerce Commission ruled in 1951 that trains traveling faster must have “an automatic cab signal, automatic train stop or automatic train control system”,[4][5] expensive technology that was implemented on some lines in the region, but has since been mostly removed.

An interesting legacy.

Naperville to add to public art with statue of founder Joseph Naper

A new statue will be coming to Naperville in the near future as a cartoonist is creating a new sculpture of Naperville’s founder.

Dick Locher, a longtime Naperville resident and legendary cartoonist known for both his Dick Tracy strips and his political cartoons, is helping create the statue of Capt. Joseph Naper that will be placed on the founder’s homestead this summer.

Bryan Ogg, curator of research for the Heritage Society’s Naper Settlement museum, called Locher’s involvement in the project a “natural union.” Locher, a Pulitzer Prize winner, has spent four decades living in Naperville and working for the Chicago Tribune. He just recently retired from political cartooning.

But the 84-year-old’s passion for art has not waned, and he said he was happy to take on the project to commemorate Naper, who founded the city in 1831…

Locher visited Naper’s homestead site at Jefferson Avenue and Mill Street and researched the 1830s before making sketches of the statue. He had little to go on when creating Naper’s likeness, but said he was determined to make it a piece that would stand the test of time.

Whenever I visit downtown Naperville, I’m impressed with the number of statues and public art pieces. The downtown isn’t that large but the public art is prominent. Here are just two examples:



To hear Naperville tell it, the art was made possible by a concerted effort known as the Naperville Century Walk:

Genevieve looks up at us from her bench outside of Barnes and Noble on Washington Street. The Cat and the Hat practically takes our hand and strolls with us into Nichols Library. Officer Friendly, known to us today as Mayor Pradel, reminds the children of Naperville to be careful on one way streets ensuring the safety of our town’s youngest citizens. We are reminded of uncommon valor when we gaze upon five of Naperville’s most highly decorated servicemen from World War II immortalized in the bronze sculpture Veterans’ Valor in the plaza next to the YMCA.

Each of these works is just one of the 40+ pieces of public art that make up Naperville’s Century Walk.

In 1996, Century Walk began as a public art initiative featuring murals, mosaics, reliefs, mobiles, and sculptures throughout downtown Naperville. Each of the first 30 pieces in some way represents the history of Naperville during the twentieth century through people, places and events. It is a fascinating way to portray the history of Naperville through public art. Several of the last pieces were not limited to historical themes as they expand the body of artwork throughout Naperville.

See a map of the variety of art here. All of it adds a nice touch to a downtown that made quite a comeback in the 1990s when it attracted national retail stores and a number of restaurants. Many of the pieces, such as the statue of Genevieve Towsley or of Harold Moser, reference small-town Naperville which existed into the 1960s. I suspect many Naperville residents may not even know the characters referenced (for example, Genevieve Towsley wrote a newspaper column about local history for several decades) or much about Joseph Naper who came from Ohio and served for a number of years in the Illinois legislature. The art both enhances the public spaces and helps local residents and visitors, if they read the plaques, understand how much the suburban community has changed.

Livening up Modernist architecture with public art

While recently taking an architecture tour in Chicago, I was intrigued by two scenes in the Loop: the Alexander Calder piece “Flamingo” in front of Mies van der Rohe’s Kluczynski Federal Building and the and Picasso’s sculpture in front of the Richard J. Daley Center. Here are the two sites:



Both sites feature a similar set-up: modernist buildings on superblocks surrounded by large concrete plazas. On one hand, these could be dead zones as Americans tend not to like such spaces, particularly in cold weather or in the shade. But, introducing a little bit of color and disorder through the art compared to the repetition of the modernist buildings leads to a pleasing contrast. Both sculptures are tactile, particularly the Picasso one where kids were climbing on its lower levels. Americans tend not to not think modernist structures are worth of preservation or landmark status but it is hard to imagine these pieces of famous art working so well in front of different buildings.

Chicago does some interesting stuff with public art but I still wish more cities would engage in more projects like this in public spaces. What is there to lose?

Buried McMansions as art in New York City

A new art installation in New York City buries McMansions:

McMansions are being buried in Midtown! (People never really like Suburbia anyway.) The Art Production Fund and artist David Brooks are currently installing “Desert Rooftops” at The Last Lot project space, on 46th Street and 8th Avenue. The 5,000-square-foot sculpture is meant to recall suburban developments, and it’s further explained by APF:

“The piece examines issues of the natural and built landscape by comparing the monoculture that arises from unchecked suburban and urban sprawl with that of an over-cultivated landscape—creating a work that is “picturesque, familiar and simultaneously foreboding.” Brooks’ sculptural approach gives a nod to Robert Smithson’s earthworks and Gordon Matta-Clark’s building cuts while offering a much needed sense of humor to help digest today’s somber environmental issues. As housing communities devour more and more land and resources each year the outcome is equivalent to the very process of desertification.”We were just sent this latest shot of the project going up, and you can expect the installation to be finished up sometime today; after that, it will be on view through February 5th. Photos of the entire construction process can be seen here.

While the pictures are quite interesting, here are some more details about the project:

Desert Rooftops is a 5,000-square-foot sculpture that is an undulating configuration of multiple asphalt-shingled rooftops similar to those on suburban developments, McMansions and strip malls conjoined to resemble a rolling, dune-like landscape.

This sounds like much of the commentary about McMansions and puts it into literal form: bury the McMansions! I don’t know how humorous it looks but it is a pretty interesting juxtaposition with the New York City streetscape. Also, is the title, “Desert Rooftops,” a reference to particular locations for McMansions (like Las Vegas or Phoenix) or a shot at the cultural desert McMansions contribute to? Could the display also work with the title “New Jersey rooftops”?

Note: I’ve tracked several instances of McMansion art in this blog space. See examples here, here, and here from earlier this year.