#118: Chicago by Poster

January 28th, 2013

“Most people don’t look up in this neighborhood,” he said. “But if you look up, right above the Swedish American Museum is a water tower with the Swedish flag on it. The neighborhood was a Swedish neighborhood. There’s still a Swedish bakery and there’s a deli and it’s still definitely part of the neighborhood today.”

“This is my neighborhood,” he said, giving the poster an unintentional tap with his finger before he the print marked Andersonville at the bottom of the pile on our table.

I was sitting down with poster artist Chris Gorz of StudioChris. Andersonville resident Gorz, originally from the South Side neighborhood of Clearing, is 12 into his project to design and create one poster for each of Chicago’s neighborhoods.

After graduating in 1991 in graphic design and advertising from Columbia College Chicago, he’s spent the last 20 years doing global marketing communications for a pharmaceutical company. It’s a good job and he likes it. But he missed art.

“I just wanted to get dirty,” he said. “I wanted to see ink under my fingers.”

In 2010, he took a screen printing class at the Lillstreet Art Center to re-scratch his creative itch. His class project, one of the bold eagles outside the WPA-era Uptown Station Post Office, got some good feedback and even a sale. StudioChris was soon born.

“I wanted to work for MTV and I’m in this heavily regulated industry, so this is the most beautiful project ever because I can do whatever I want without any constraints,” he said.

Each of the posters picks a non-landmark landmark in a neighborhood and re-creates it in this sharp, colorful and somehow eerie Art Deco style. You know these places, but you don’t know them. They’re familiar, but not jumping out at you.

When he did Edgewater, he didn’t pick the famous Edgewater Beach Hotel. He picked a manor house “that was built to be the British consulate but it was never used as the British consulate.”

He didn’t pick the wrought iron gates welcoming people to Old Town. He picked the facade of the Second City improv club.

He said if he ever does Wrigleyville, he’ll probably do something Cubs, but not the Wrigley Field sign.

“I kind of go for the more underdog type. Even Uptown. People say, ‘How come you didn’t do the Green Mill?’” Chris said, chuckling and shifting his coffee cup in a slim hand wearing a wedding band. “Because I like this.”

Gorz’s current project is Victory Monument in the South Side neighborhood of Bronzeville. The monument was put up in the 1920s to honor the Eighth Regiment of the Illinois National Guard, an all-black unit that served in France during World War I.

“It’s something that the people in the neighborhood can relate to and it’s part of Chicago’s history because a lot of African-Americans from that area fought in that war,” he said. “So that’s how I decided what that my next poster would be.”

Neighborhoods in Chicago are a motley bunch, based on everything from century-old plat maps to the ethnic groups that once lived there to what developers think will sell houses to 40-year-old nicknames some old-timer at the bar swears the place “used to be called.”

There are 77 designated community areas, the Realtors and that poster every Chicagoan owned briefly in their 20s say. The best estimates for the number of neighborhoods and pocket neighborhoods head well past 200.

Chris Gorz can do about six posters a year.

He works a lot on the train during his three-hour round-trip commute to the suburbs. He builds Chicago by poster as Metra takes him away from it.

After coffee and a monkey bun, a farewell and a handshake, I trudged the few blocks down Clark to see the Swedish flag water tower Chris used in his Andersonville poster. Once I spotted the tower, I walked up and down the street to find the exact spot where the parallax would jut it over the Ann Sather roof at the angle Chris’ poster shows.

I found the spot a bit back from a bus stop, near a gift shop with a going out of business sign. I held up the poster for comparison, a greeting card version Chris gave me as a souvenir. It was perfect. The angle, the mood, the tracing of the word “Hall” over the old building. It was right.

I looked around at the people wandering through the neighborhood that cold Saturday morning.

No one was looking up.

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