On the windy grass outcrop bulge created by the funnel pull into Diversey Harbor, a shirtless man kicks the air next to a cast aluminum and steel eagle.
He kicks kicks kicks, either Tai Chi or Kung Fu. Over and over, he rehearses in the sun as the bikes speed by and subtler lollygaggers wander through their days. Between the bike path and the water, he kicks again, straining and trying to get it right.
To his left is the eagle diving toward girders. Behind him, a hole-ridden flat blue steel arranged like an upside-down snowman. And across the little slip where the boats pull into the harbor, a long savage curved bit of stainless curved 12 feet high and 25 tip to tip as a warrior’s bow, primed to fire an arrow into the downtown buildings tinged bluish by the distance.
“It has to survive in this environment, not only weather-wise, but it also has to do with the fact there’s a bunch of drunk people running around,” said the man to my right as we stood under the bike path bridge guarding the entrance to the harbor.
The woman with the curly blonde hair nodded in agreement.
The pair were Eric W. Stephenson and Dusty Folwarczny of Chicago Sculpture International, the group that brought the new slate of 64 modern sculptures to the lakefront over the past year. The exhibition, which runs from Promontory Point in Hyde Park up to Belmont Harbor near Boystown, will be ending in a few weeks.
After a year of upside-down blue snowmen, diving eagles, concrete and steel zeppelins, wavy red chairs, orange mesh faces and various swoops, whorls and steampunk cacophonies, the pieces will be coming down. The Chicago Park District, host for the last year, might move about a third of the sculptures to other properties — they’re in talks.
The rest will go back to the artists to put in other shows or just throw a tarp over and toss in cold storage.
Art is cute. Art is fun. Art brings meaning to meaningless moments, letting us know that who we are is not the limit of who we could be.
Sculpture is all that, plus it could brain a drunk guy.
“We do have sculptures all over the city that are just outside of bars or much less outside of Navy Pier,” Stephenson said. “That was always a major issue of people spilling out into the night at 2 o’clock in the morning-”
“With extra confidence,” Folwarczny added.
“And going, ‘Hey, there’s this big toy or clay thing,’” said Stephenson.
The pair are both sculptors, that weird visual medium where artistic concerns must be tempered against whether a little kid running circles is going to clock herself on a jagged but emotive outcropping.
The fire was lit in Stephenson at an early age.
I’m sorry, I meant to say he lit a fire at an early age.
“They caught me sticking a broom handle into the oil furnace in the basement, pulling it out and watching it burn in the dark,” said Stephenson, now 48.
His mother flipped and instructed his father, a fourth-generation artist, to get the kid out of the house. They went to his father’s studio, accidentally ensuring there would be a fifth generation.
“I’m sure my mom’s attitude was like, as I said, ‘Get him out of the house now before he burns the place down,’” Stephenson said. “As a 5 year old taking this on, I took it as like going, ‘Oh, you want to play with fire? That’s fine. Let’s just go to the studio and make things.’”
When Stephenson first moved to Chicago, he and a group of sculptors he fell in with had what they called the “hypothetical Zulu test,” where the utility of a public piece would be considered not only on its beauty and creativity, but “if you could stick a public piece of sculpture out in front of an elementary school and after a week if no one went to the hospital and the sculpture is still standing.”
No, he doesn’t know why it’s called the Zulu test.
Folwarczny, 33, caught the bug a little later on.
“I ran out of theater classes to take and speech classes in high school. So I took the studio art class and it turns out I kinda liked it. So then I took the 3D sculpture and ceramics class and it turns out I really liked it. That began the struggle of my left and right brain,” she said.
Her main job is a professional “graphic recorder,” where she trades welding mask and steel for marker and whiteboard. It’s a 2D/3D mental switch she likes.
“Sculpture, you have to really plan things more, so it really does involve your left and right brain,” she said. “With painting you don’t have to figure out how your painting’s going to stand up.”
Chicago Sculpture International has gotten some attention for this outdoor exhibition, odd since outdoor work is only a portion of what the group does.
“Gallery, small works, installation, some performance,” Stephenson said. “That’s actually one of the nice things about sculpture in general. If you’re a painter, you’re a painter. A printmaker. Whatever. But with sculpture it’s 2D, 3D, performance, video. Basically, it’s more about the idea and you wake up some day and it’s like, ‘What’s the best way to communicate my idea to the audience?’”
That’s what sculpture is, this odd pairing of transmitting artistic notions and deciding if they’ve just made a place for teens to make out.
Folwarczny’s exhibition piece, a magnificent 14-foot metal circle equal parts heavy and light, airy and earthen, has become a favorite for skateboarders. One of her first public pieces, a child soon carved four stars and a smiley into using a rock.
“It really didn’t bother me that much because it’s like, well, I usually want to touch stuff too, so I understood what the kid was doing,” Folwarczny said. “And I came back another time and there was a little snowman right next to it. I thought that was cute.”
But the child carving a smiley can easily become a teen with a swastika. Or an adult who decides to tear it out of the ground since the Miller Lite told him to.
Some of the pieces in the exhibition were previous works — pre-tested against drunks and skateboarders. Others were submitted to the show as scale maquettes, little models approved for artistry and selected without the full-size ready to go.
“Unfortunately, in those kind of situations you get picked and you find out 30, 60 days before the show starts and that’s how much time you have to crank out a sculpture,” Stephenson said.
The beautiful swooping eagle by which the Kung Fu man kicked was one of these.
“That’s actually his first large-scale public sculpture of his own,” Stephenson said. “He was visually cranking it out and got it in in the nick of time.”
Now come the giraffes.
The exhibition is ending. In our little talk by the wind and the water and the man kicking Kung Fu, I fish for a sad response. I don’t get one.
“Aside from putting work out in front of people, one of the best ways to actually make them notice it is to take it away,” Stephenson (Eric) said.
“Just like the giraffes,” Folwarczny (Dusty) added.
The giraffes, Eric and Dusty told me, were metal sculptures that stood in a North Side neighborhood so long everyone assumed they were owned by the city, not the landlord.
“They became so commonplace, no one really responded to them, but then when they were yanked out it created this whole neighborhood-wide kind of controversy. Everyone thought they were public work. They weren’t. They were actually privately owned,” said Eric.
“It was like a meeting place, like ‘Meet me at the giraffes,’” Dusty said, completing the tale of giraffes and sculpture for you and for I.
“Even if they didn’t understand it, it was still part of their life.”