My husband and I recently visited Chicago. We took the train across the country with plans to go to the Blues Music Festival. Everyone knows that Chicago is the home of “the blues”, but imagine our surprise when she shared with us her passion for art.
Chicago is intoxicating. It wins you over with some of the finest architecture in America and houses an art gallery with more impressionists than the Louvre in Paris. Chicagoans have a passion for public art and the cities offers an abounding amount. There are more than seven hundred sculptures, mosaics and paintings displayed throughout the city including a Picasso, a Miro and a Chagall. In fact, the day we arrived, the city was installing a new piece from the Spanish artist, Juame Plensa; a twelve metre high white bronze sculpture of a young girl's face, one of four in Millennium Park. Her eyes are closed as if dreaming and she faces Madison Street.
You can experience the art by walking the city or by jumping on Chicago's elevated train system, affectionately called the “L”. The inner centre section is referred to as the Loop. The train loops around the financial district where you can catch a variety of connections that will whisk you out to the different neighbourhoods in Metro Chicago. The Loop's construction started in 1892 but was extended into1893 when it was expanded to reach the site of that year's World's Exposition. The “L” is a piece of art in itself. At first view, it looks clunky and overbearing, plunked down in the middle of this historic city. Metal girders seem to appear everywhere growing out of the ground and shading the city from light. But when you ride it, you see the architectural “art” of the city from a different vantage point. The ride allows you to peek into offices, homes and backyards, observe the Chicago River bridge system and check out the Riverside walkway, just to name a few. It gives you a different sense of the city. For us the “L” quickly became synonymous to what Chicago represents, a city prepared to be different. One that embraces it's nicknames including the “City of Big Shoulders” and the “City That Works”, and true to that name, the “L” works.
The city is a open pallet for artisans. A while back, a Chicago artist specializing in mosaics began covering the cities potholes after one in front of his house became a hassle. He didn't use cement to fill them but turned them into a public art project by inlaying them with his mosaics. To date the city hasn't shut down his project and many community members have expressed gratitude.
There's a wonderful neighbourhood called Pilsen, a very comfortable working class district, rich in art and historic architecture. Originally settled by Irish, German and Czech immigrants in the late 1800's, the area was named for the famous beer town in Bohemia. In the 1960's, when the University of Chicago was built, it displaced a community of Mexicans resulting in them resettling in Pilsen. Today Pilsen is the heart and soul of the Chicago Mexican community. Artists are encouraged to enhance the neighbourhood by picking up their paintbrushes and painting murals. These pieces of art portray messages of hope and reflect the artistic community voice. It shows the pride of the hood and brightens up this gentrifying area. It's a great area to walk through and definitely has a certain “je ne sais que” that's worthy of a visit.
Chicago has many thriving art communities. This is evident in the plethora of “art shows and art walks” that happen in the many eclectic neighbourhoods of the Chicago area. We has the pleasure of visiting two. The first one was the 40th Annual Wells Street Art Festival, a community cultural event, operating in the commercial section of the “Old Town Triangle”. The “Wells Street Art Festival” is the first event of the season where many east coast artisans come to start their summer circuit. The streets were packed with many gifted artists willingly to share their sculptures, paintings, ceramics, weaving, metal work and their craftsmanship in other medias. There were venues for kids, tantalizing smells for the foodies and many, many different amazing artists. A definite vibe of partying and celebration was in the air. After a lovely lunch and another good look we decided to head home. On the way we enthusiastically discussed the amazing show and the uniqueness of the artists, happy with our day. A couple of blocks away, we stumbled upon the “65th Annual Original Old Town Art Fair”, another popular artisan showpiece. This fest seemed different somehow. Instead of being in a business area with shops, this art show was in a residential neighbourhood. It felt like a community collaboration.
As we meandered around admiring the different art mediums, we noticed people entering private homes and gardens. So we followed them. What we found were compact little homes displaying imaginative ways to make the best out of small spaces. This area is the original Chicago neighbourhood that arose out the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The fire killed up to three hundred people and destroyed Chicago. When the fire was finally defeated, the city set up a “shanty town” called the old town, housing more than one hundred thousand residents left homeless. This weekend the current owners of the “shanties” proudly shared their unique chunk of preserved history with visitors.
This continued to be another amazing experience, listening to the local musicians on charming, tree lined sidewalks, watching children playing, and enjoying the smells of delicious food wafting in the spring air. To top it off it all off, we chatted with and admired the work of over two hundred world class artists willing to share their creations with us.
Chicago is the home of many unique first and inventions. Spray paint was invented here, yet there was a remarkably small amount of graffiti. This “Windy City” was the first to build a skyscraper and an erect an art gallery in the country. Chicago is a multicultural gem which thrives on it's harmony and diversity. It's alive, unique and welcoming. It's a friendly place where a myriad of art and historic architecture treasures appear around every corner in every one of the seventy-seven designated communities and one hundred neighbourhoods. Our visit was an amazing ride, and like the song says, “I can't wait until the next time I'm Chicago bound”.