Some amazing public art is being created along the Chicago, Calumet and Des Plaines rivers
Instagram user Andy Bellomo
Community members helped paint and gild a new mural at Ping Tom Park in Chinatown
For anyone that knows me, were they asked to describe me, it would probably take a while for “arts buff” to come up. My favorite painter is probably my 3-year-old daughter, but that’s for reasons that have nothing to do with aesthetic sensibilities. The last time I went to the Art Institute it was to buy a refrigerator magnet. You get the idea.
That being said, I have nothing but the utmost respect for anyone that can conceive of an idea and then make it physically manifest in the world, artists included. If that art can also serve some purpose above and beyond itself, all the better. In some ways, the work we do at MPC is similar—conceive of a policy or program idea, make it real in the world, and make sure it’s in the service of something greater.
Our rivers are becoming a legitimate tapestry. It may not have been predicted, planned, or even envisioned, but that makes it all the better...
All of which is why I’m extremely excited about what’s been happening along our riverfronts in the last few weeks. I’m also a little surprised. Some history—roughly two years ago MPC, Mayor Emanuel’s office, Friends of the Chicago River and many other partners released Our Great Rivers, a vision for a more inviting, productive and living future for the Chicago, Calumet and Des Plaines rivers. But, for all the goals and recommendations in Our Great Rivers, the words "art" or "artist" appear exactly three times in the vision document, with only one recommendation. Before you assume that’s because I was the principal author, and as established above, am just not that into art, in all of our outreach to more than 6,000 people about their desires for the future of the riverfront, art came up exactly 15 times (in contrast with the most common words, which were trails, watercraft, entertainment, access and recreation).
The notion of our rivers being the setting for public art just wasn’t high on anybody’s radar. And yet in the last few weeks we’ve seen some amazing public art pieces unveiled along all three rivers, with more to come. I’ve had the good fortune to support most of these, and am very proud of the role MPC has played in moving these from ideas to reality. It’s hard work, and if MPC can provide some capacity, coaching and connections to the community leaders and artists working to transform their riverfronts, then we’ve done a good thing.
John Sterenberg, Forest Preserves of Cook County
The first mural visible from one of our rivers? It is until someone convinces me otherwise.
Down on the Calumet River—or really, over the Calumet River—there is now an amazing mural depicting the life and impact of Major Taylor, a cyclist who was the first African-American to win a world championship in any sport. It’s an amazing piece that will surely catch the eye of anybody using the trail, but it’s also distinctly visible from the water itself, which is in itself unique. And if you ask our pal Brenda Dixon, the principal organizer for the mural, it’s just the start. She’s using that progress to create more programming to bring people to the trail and the river, and to engage the Forest Preserves of Cook County (whose land is on the south end of the bridge) and the Chicago Park District (north end) in discussion about planning viewing platforms, cyclist amenities, water fountains and more.
At the riverfront park I frequent most, Ping Tom Park, the Coalition for a Better Chinese-American Community and several other partners have developed what promises to be the first of several murals on the lower support structures of the 18th Street Bridge. This complements more extensive wayfinding signage, Dragon Boat and other paddling programming, and other efforts to make the river an active amenity for the park and the community—not just the backdrop to many, many pictures (including the cover shot of Our Great Rivers!).
And out on the Des Plaines, last week my colleague, Chloe, and I had the humbling and inspiring opportunity to attend a ground stomping ceremony to prepare the earth at the Forest Preserves of Cook County’s Irving Park Road Canoe Landing for installation of an effigy mound. For centuries before European colonization the indigenous communities of the Midwestern river valleys built effigy mounds extensively, but many have been destroyed or lost over the years, and according to the project partners (the American Indian Center, Chicago Public Art Group and Portage Park Neighborhood Association), this is the first “noted installation of an effigy mound by an indigenous artist in North America, since the founding of the United States.” It was a moving ceremony meant to remind us of our connection to the river and to nature more broadly. The mound
itself will be installed in the coming weeks, and a sister mound is in the works for Horner Park in Chicago.
These were all supported by the Chicago Community Trust’s ongoing commitment to the Great Rivers vision, and with a new round of grants being announced soon, we’ll likely see even more, as the combination of CCT’s resources, community desire for great public spaces, and the amazing landscapes of our rivers seems to be compelling a release of some pent-up creative juice. If you add these to the forthcoming Art on the Mart and the other art installations along the Riverwalk, and suddenly our rivers are becoming a legitimate tapestry. It may not have been predicted, planned, or even envisioned, but that makes it all the better—the organic desire of communities upstream and downstream, in the woods and in the heart of the urban canyon, is being revealed through these artworks, and the result is richer, more vibrant places along our rivers. If that’s not consistent with Great Rivers ethos of inviting, productive and living rivers, I don’t know what it is.
It is a notably happy coincidence that all of this riverfront art is being unveiled mere weeks before MPC’s Annual Luncheon on September 12, where we’ll explore how arts and culture impact communities. I hope you can join us there, and I hope I see you out along our rivers soon checking out some of these recent pieces and more to come.