Category Archives: Art

Photo by Robert Loerzel

Burn or fizzle? Public art, economic renewal, and the curious case of the Great Chicago Fire Festival

Belt magazine, November 2014 — The critics were brutal. Headlines called it a “fizzle,” a “fiasco,” and “a total bust.” Some 30,000 people had gathered on the banks of the Chicago River in the city’s downtown on the night of October 4, waiting to see three floating houses set ablaze… Read my story in Belt magazine.

Photo by Robert Loerzel

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Art Shay Q&A

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Pioneer Press on March 28-29, 2007.

Over the last six decades, Art Shay has photographed everything from heroin addicts on Chicago streets to movie stars like Marlon Brando.

Shay, a native of the Bronx who has lived in Deerfield for 53 years, captured life’s humorous little moments as well as dramatic, earth-shaking events, such as the 1968 Democratic convention.

On Saturday, as Shay celebrates his 85th birthday, the Chicago History Museum will open an exhibit called “The Essential Art Shay: Selected Photographs.” Also, through May 26, Chicago’s Stephen Daiter Gallery is showcasing Shay photos along with a companion book, “Art Shay: Chicago Accent.”

And on April 24, Shay’s latest book, “Chicago’s Nelson Algren,” will come out, updating and expanding his earlier “Nelson Algren’s Chicago.”

“Art succeeded in a lot of ways because he is extremely versatile and ambitious, and his style is somewhat eclectic,” said Leigh Moran, collection manager for prints and photographs at the Chicago History Museum.

Shay spoke about his long career in a recent phone interview.

Q: As a young man, how did Chicago strike you?

A: I came from a sunny San Francisco, where I had been deposed as Life’s youngest bureau chief. I arrived in Chicago on a November or December gray day, came into Midway airport, and the cab driver took me on a $9 ride instead of a $4 ride. That was my first exposure to Chicago crime.

I liked the city because it’s the same sort of city that I am a person. It’s sort of rough-edged with a lot of intellectuality if you look for it. And if you don’t, well (expletive) it.

Q: You’re both a photographer and a writer. How do you balance the two?

A: I’m a writer by trade. I’ll quote Chekhov for you, though of course I’m not in his league. He said he was a doctor first, then a writer. He said, “I feel that medicine is my wife, and playwriting is my mistress. When I tire of one, I go to the other.”

I began as a kid in high school, writing for my high school paper and during my nine months in college before I went into World War II as a flyboy.

My first published picture was of a midair collision in England in ’44, when I was coming back from a mission. The sky was full of planes and I just pointed the Leica up and all of a sudden, two of the planes hit. I had about 10 shots left on the Leica roll and I kept shooting — shoot, wind, shoot, wind — as they came down with the plumes of smoke, with this colonel pulling at me, saying, “You can’t shoot that, lieutenant, it’s restricted.” I kept moving away, shooting the (expletive) pictures. Anyway, they ended up in Look.

Q: Some photographers take many shots, and others bide their time and take only a few. Which are you?

A: The first category. In 1960, for the Kennedy-Nixon debate, I bought three new motorized cameras that had just come out, took about four frames per second, Nikons. I knew we were only going to have two minutes with the candidates.

That’s when Kennedy spoke to me. I was down loading the cameras and this guy taps me on the shoulder and says, “Say, where does a fellow take a whiz around here?”

We had literally two minutes. I shot Kennedy and Nixon together. I had three motorized cameras, four frames a second. In effect, I had 90 usable color frames, of which Time used one full page.

Q: Your eldest son, Harmon, disappeared in 1972, when he was hitchhiking in Florida. How have you coped with that?

A: Not too well. He was an amazing kid who had 800 out of 800 on his SAT. He was sixth in his class at Deerfield…

He goes hitchhiking toward Lauderdale from Miami. And that’s the last we — he called his grandma and said, “I met some people. I’ll be back tomorrow or the next day.” And there’s no tomorrow and there’s no next day.

So we went down there, like people in a TV show. But we’ve never had a body, never had anything. We just know he’s dead. So, I was 50 at the time, and that broke my life in two.

We had four other kids, but this just was something you can’t really handle. I still can’t. I still drive along and occasionally cry. I talk to him.

That’s why I’m especially sensitive to the losses in Iraq, knowing that each family is bearing the kind of thing that I’m bearing. I went through (World War II), and would gladly have given my life up for my country. … But that seemed to me a war worth fighting. This one doesn’t. They project those pictures (on television news) of these bright young soldiers, guys and girls, and I just weep and turn it off.

Q: As a photographer, do you see the world differently?

A: As a photographer, the camera is really an extension of the eye. When we’re kids, we all think we see the world privately, the way we do and nobody sees it the same way. And then, when you get older, you realize everybody sees it the same way. But when you get older still, you realize you were right the first time.

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Grace Slick Q&A

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Pioneer Press on September 6, 2007.

Grace Slick hasn’t sung on a stage since 1989. These days, the former vocalist for Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship spends her time drawing and painting.

Slick will make appearances Sept. 8 and 9 at the Wentworth Gallery in Schaumburg’s Woodfield Mall, where her paintings of rock stars, animals and Alice in Wonderland are for sale. Slick talked about her art and her musical career in a recent conversation from her home in Malibu, Calif.

Q: Is it true that you were born in Evanston?

A: Or Highland Park. And I literally don’t know which. The hospital record says one thing, and the birth certificate says another thing, and both my parents are dead. I was only 2½ when I left, so I don’t remember Chicago. The first town I remember is L.A. I’m pretty much a California girl.

Q: Did you read Alice in Wonderland as a kid?

A: Yeah, I identified heavily with it all throughout my life. The ’50s in this country were real straight, very rigid. We decided to live the way we wanted to live in the ’60s. But that’s a big jump. It’s very much like Alice being from very straight Victorian times, going down the rabbit hole into Wonderland.

Q: How did you develop your singing style?

A: I’m very loud, so I was born for rock ’n’ roll. I have a range of about four notes, and they’re all real loud.

Q: It sounds like you were pretty uninhibited when you were on stage with the band.

A: Well, yeah. That’s called being drunk, actually. Liquor will do that. It will make you real loose. At that time, in the ’60s, whatever you did, except for killing people, was OK.

Q: When did that change?

A: I don’t know, because I kept right on doing it, and other people stopped. I was 36, 37, and the highway patrol’s chasing me around, and I’m thinking, “Boy, I’m all alone doing this. My friends are getting old.” Well, no, it’s just that they stopped because you’re going to die if you keep behaving that way.

My idea of hell is having no car in California. So the only thing to get me to stop using drugs was the highway patrol saying, “OK, we’re going to take your license away if you don’t cut this out.”

Q: You retired from performing live music in 1989. Did you just feel like it was time?

A: Yeah, I don’t like old people on a rock ’n’ roll stage. I think they look silly.

Q: When did the art begin?

A: I was (feeling) sad, and I drew a bunch of animals, because I like animals. They make me happy. And I put them up all over my walls where I live in Laurel Canyon.

My book agent said, “I know you can draw. I’ve seen these pictures of animals. I want you to draw two rock ’n’ roll people.” I said, “No, that’s too corny.” She said, “Just two, for the book.” So I did. And I found that I actually enjoyed it. These people are interesting, that I’m drawing. They’re multifaceted, they’re very talented, they’re flamboyant. And so I kept on doing it.

Q: Are you still doing art inspired by Lewis Carroll?

A: Yes. The various characters can represent political, social ideas very well. The song “White Rabbit” was written at the parents. … Our parents were bitching at us about, “Why do you take these drugs?” while they’re sitting there with a glass of Scotch, right?

With the Red Queen, (Carroll) was making fun of their government at the time, but it goes for George Bush. The heads of state generally do what they want and the people suffer. The Red Queen’s army was a deck of cards. And she’d scream, “Off with their head.” It seemed nonsensical in the book, and it seems nonsensical now — to go over into Iraq and to start killing people, and stir it up so it’s even worse than it was before we went in.

There’s a reason why that story is very popular. I feel that the white rabbit represents her curiosity. She’s a bright little girl and she follows her curiosity. She does it all by herself. And your curiosity, as the white rabbit was, is always just a little bit ahead of you. You look at where your mind wants to go, and most people go, “Oh, no, I couldn’t possibly do that.” Well, yeah, you can.

When you get to be old, it’s not what you did that you regret, it’s what you didn’t do. I didn’t do Peter O’Toole and Jimi Hendrix. And I didn’t learn how to ride a horse. Those three things I regret.

Q: Whenever rock stars or actors paint, some people say they’re just getting attention because they’re already famous. Do you ever hear people saying that about you?

A: I’m sure they do, just not to my face. A lot of musicians paint and a lot of actors paint, and a lot of painters play guitar. I mean, it’s all the same part of the brain. Now, you don’t want me doing your accounting, because that’s a different part of the brain.

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Ivan Brunetti profile

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Time Out Chicago’s May 31-June 6, 2007, issue. For more, read my Q&A with Brunetti at Underground Bee.

For a collection of comic books, Ivan Brunetti’s Misery Loves Comedy (Fantagraphics, $24.95) looks unusually plain on the outside. No dust jacket. No illustration. Just the title and the author’s name embossed on a dark green cover.

“I wanted the book to look like a psychiatric case study,” Brunetti says. “I wanted to have a cover that would seem nonthreatening, and when you open it, then it would hit you.”

Boy, does it hit you. Self-loathing and misanthropy are standard topics in underground comics, but few artists have tunneled down to the extreme depths that this Chicago artist explored in his Schizo comic books. Collected in the new anthology, these 1990s cartoons reveal Brunetti feeling violent impulses, shame over lustful longings and disgust at humanity. Decapitations, eruptions of puke and elongated penises fill the panels. These disturbing (and often disturbingly funny) confessions are punctuated by comic strips with titles such as “Drink My Piss, Motherfucker” and “Please Hurt My Oversized Testicles.”

After reading the first Schizo, R. Crumb wrote a letter published in the second issue: “Have you given any thought to getting on PROZAC? … I thought your comic was sharp and funny, but SO fucking NEGATIVE and SELF-ABSORBED, it’s hard to take… But then, Kafka is hard to take, so I dunno…” The later cartoons in Misery Loves Comedy show evidence that Brunetti has mellowed a bit, and further proof is revealed in the two almost-sweet covers he drew this year for The New Yorker, one of a little girl skating on an ice floe, another showing a variety of costumed kids.

It’s not just New Yorker covers that are keeping Brunetti busy. Between his job running Columbia College’s website and teaching classes there, Brunetti edited 2006’s An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, & True Stories, (Yale University Press, $28), an omnibus of comics by some 80 artists, and he’s starting work on a second volume, slated for 2008.

Brunetti, who lived in Italy until he was 8 and then grew up on Chicago’s southeast side, is sheepish when he talks about his early comics. What was the response when his family and friends saw Schizo? “Very bad,” Brunetti says quietly. “Very, very negative. No good came out of that. I regret a lot of that. I wish I could have stepped back from everything and written it as fiction. Now I feel like I’m trapped. If I wrote something as fiction, it would just seem really false. It would be obvious, from having read my other stuff, that I’m really talking about myself.”

Brunetti describes himself as a private person who hates violence and vulgarity, and his friends agree with that assessment.

“Anyone who’s familiar only with his work might be surprised to learn that in person he’s incredibly kind and generous, but if you think about it, this isn’t really that much of a contradiction,” says Chicago cartoonist Chris Ware says. “Despite his regular territory of the dark, dirty depths of the human soul, he also never diverges from the Charles M. Schulz basic charter of the cartoonist: ‘Cartooning is, after all, drawing funny pictures.’”

Allowing the old comics to be collected in a new book was a difficult decision, Brunetti says. “The issues had gone out of print, and people kept asking me. It’s like a repository for those things. It’s like a tombstone. I almost wish people would think I was dead or something, that it was a posthumous project.”

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sower-by-ninniane

The sensational ‘Sower’

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Pioneer Press on June 23, 2005.

A naked man extends his hands, casting seeds. Although it was inspired by a Bible verse, this 7-foot-tall bronze sculpture scandalized Chicago in 1916. After being hidden away in storage for decades, Albin Polásek’s statue has found a new home at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe.

ALBIN POLÁSEK PACED HIS STUDIO, imagining that he was tossing seeds onto the floor.

It was 1912, and the 33-year-old artist, who was finishing up his sculptural training in Rome, was determined to create a statue capturing the essence of these lines from the gospel of Matthew:

“And he spake many things unto them in parables, saying, Behold, a sower went forth to sow.”

After he found the right pose, Polásek holed himself up in his studio for a long day of intense work. Using himself as a model, he switched between striking the pose and putting clay onto the large framework he had constructed.

Ruth Sherwood, a student and longtime friend of Polásek who married him in the later years of his life, described the scene in a biography, “Carving His Own Destiny: The Story of Albin Polásek,” based on interviews with the artist.

“By nightfall, he had what he sought,” Sherwood wrote. “The figure was all there, tense with life, sparkling with the spirit he wanted to express.”

Model search

But to capture all of the details, Polásek needed a model — “a man of heroic proportions.” He found his hunk at another artist’s studio. Sherwood’s book identifies the Italian model by one name only: Zochi.

Knowing that Zochi was in for a gruelingly long modeling session, Polásek promised to pay him double the normal rate for the first two weeks of work.

Everything went well until the third week, when Zochi didn’t like going back to lower wages.

“I will not accept such a contemptible sum,” he said, tearing up the lira notes and throwing them onto the floor.

Polásek clenched his fists and yelled, “Get out of my studio!”

The episode upset Polásek so much that he felt he never wanted to see the statue again. He wandered Rome despondently for the next two days.

As he was walking, he noticed Zochi lurking behind a tree. He thought Zochi was going to attack him, but instead the model apologized.

They soon resumed work on “The Sower.” In her book, Sherwood notes that Polásek and Zochi would “relax” during breaks by exercising and wrestling with each other.

After finishing the body of “The Sower,” Polásek struggled with the head.

At first, he wanted it to look like Christ, but the contrast between a “highly spiritualized” face and a “heroic torso” seemed too strange.

“Still,” Sherwood wrote, “he must make a head dominated by intellect and spiritual fire or he should have failed to deliver the message he intended to convey. Head followed head — he must have modeled at least 30 before he developed the strong yet spiritual head that dominates ‘The Sower.’”

Polásek’s was stunned when “The Sower” won an honorable mention at the Paris Spring Salon, the first of many honors it would receive.

Later, Lake Forest resident Arthur Aldis was impressed when he saw “The Sower” in an exhibit in Buffalo, N.Y.

In 1916, Aldis — a trustee with the Art Institute of Chicago — asked Polásek to become the head of the Art Institute’s sculpture department.

Polásek, a native of Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic) who had previously lived in the Midwest, accepted the job.

And on Nov. 2, 1916, “The Sower” went on display on the front steps of the Art Institute, part of a large exhibition of American painting and sculpture.

The bare facts

Although this realistic depiction of a bare man had not caused controversy anywhere else, it immediately prompted protests in Chicago.

“There’s a statue in front of the Art Institute that is awful,” a woman told the Chicago Journal. “The directors should be compelled to remove it.”

Chicago had its own official censor at the time — a police major named Metellus Lucullus Cicero Funkhouser, who lived in Evanston (at least at the time of his death in 1926).

Funkhouser took up the crusade to shield the naked “Sower” from the eyes of pedestrians and motorists on Michigan Avenue.

The controversy came at a time when Funkhouser oversaw the censoring of the cinema.

That same month, records show that the Film Review Board ordered certain scenes sliced out of the movie “Night Owls.” The offending scenes showed Charlie Chaplin “bumping a woman’s back.” Other movies that fall were banned altogether because they contained “exploits of bandits,” “details of a swindle,” “evil effects of sexual dissipation” and a bullfight.

Meanwhile, letter writers in the newspapers debated whether women’s skirt lines should be more than an inch above the ankle. So one can imagine the reaction to a statue of a man with exposed genitals standing along a busy street.

Some critics asked why a man sowing seeds in a field would be naked. Farmers wore clothes, didn’t they?

Chicago Tribune columnist Edward Goldbeck sarcastically replied, “The only answer to this question is a mass suicide of the sculptors if they don’t prefer to go into real estate.”

Goldbeck himself questioned Polásek’s artistic decision to depict the universal figure of the Biblical sower as nude, muscular man, but he dismissed the idea that the artwork was immoral.

“To the sculptor, the legs are the fact which is underlying the trousers,” he wrote. “If he is not allowed to examine, study and reproduce the human body, he will not be able to create even a dressed sower.”

“The Sower” was moved indoors for an exhibit of Polásek’s work in January 1917, then it reappeared in front of the Art Institute in 1918 for an exhibit with on the theme of food and gardens.

Controversy returns

Funkhouser raised a fuss once again, demanding on April 15, 1918, that the sculpture be moved indoors.

“I would like to know what would happen if a statue like this one appeared in front of a saloon,” Funkhouser told the Chicago Journal. “There are only about 5 percent of the inhabitants of this city who really know what art is. The statue itself is supposed to depict a man sowing seeds, but it seems to me that its only object is to show what is a perfect man.”

While arguing that Funkhouser had no authority over “The Sower,” Art Institute Director George W. Eggers caved in to pressure from the censor.

In a letter, he acknowledged Funkhouser’s “earnest and efficient efforts … in behalf of the morality of the city.” And even if nothing about “The Sower” was immoral, Eggers conceded that some people might misinterpret the statue’s meaning.

“Such misinterpretations in themselves … constitute a serious menace to morality and injure the cause of great art,” Eggers wrote. “We, therefore, in a genuine desire to cooperate with your department, will withdraw the statue if you still request us to do so.”

Polásek himself seemed amused, if wearied, by the controversy. A Chicago Daily News reporter interviewed the sculptor in the Art Institute’s basement. As Polásek took a break from sculpting to speak with the journalist, his fingers were stained with clay.

“(It) may be a good thing if they back up a wagon and take ‘The Sower’ away,” Polásek said. “If they take it away, that will be picturesque. People will talk. Then they will think. And at last they may realize fully the meaning I intended the statue to have.

“The meaning I had is this — I wanted people to see a perfect man going forward, striding ahead, progressing, and all the while sowing good seeds. That is how other cities that do not cry for trousered art interpreted my statue.

“But here, there are those who see only bad in it. That depends on their own minds. Such people can often go to an immoral theatrical show and do not object at all to things they see there. Funny, isn’t it?”

An enterprising reporter for the Chicago American — a little too enterprising — claimed to have interviewed the statue itself.

“I guess I’m Art, and this is the Chicago headquarters of art, and I should worry about a movie censor,” the sculpture supposedly said, adding, “My head’s made of a comparatively resilient material.”

Over the most of the decades since then, “The Sower” has been in storage at the Art Institute.

“It’s less due to the sensational aspect of it being a male nude, than the fact that it’s 7 feet tall,” Art Institute spokesman John Hindman says, noting that only 3 to 5 percent of the museum’s 260,000 objects are on display at any given time.

The sculpture was displayed from time to time, including 1927, when a Chicago Herald & Examiner essay described it as standing in the museum.

The last notable appearance of “The Sower” was the Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago in 1934. Another naked individual, Sally Rand, probably attracted more attention with her notorious fan dance.

After retiring and moving to Winter Park, Fla., Polásek had another bronze of “The Sower” made from the original plaster cast in 1961. That duplicate is on display at the Albin Polásek Museum & Sculpture Gardens, the site of the artist’s estate.

Garden home

Now, the Art Institute has donated the original “Sower” to the Chicago Botanic Garden, which is unveiling it this weekend as part of its new Esplanade area. After being cleaned up by a restorer, it was moved into place last week.

The powerful figure of “The Sower,” its bronze skin darkened with an almost black patina, appears to be staring out at an expanse of green lawn. His legs are poised midstride. His left hand is extended forward with its palm up. His right hand, filled with seeds, is at his side.

The anatomically correct bronze towers larger than life — and yet it’s not gigantic, so that it seems plausible such a superman might actually exist. The contours of his muscular body look as realistic as any classic Greek and Roman sculpture. They are rendered with smooth surfaces rather than rough details like hairs and veins.

Roger Vandiver, the Chicago Botanic Garden’s sculpture curator, says the concept of a sower fits perfectly with the setting of the garden. The garden’s public-relations manager, Sue Markgraf, also noted that an exhibition hall near the statue will be converted into an educational center next year — a place where the seeds of learning will be sowed.

The controversies of 1916 may seem distant, but Vandiver acknowledges some people will still probably joke about the exposed body of “The Sower.”

Debbie Komanski, executive director of the Polásek Museum, says, “If you put it out on Michigan Avenue today, I imagine some people wouldn’t like it. Things haven’t changed that much.”

Such nudity is hardly anything new, of course. “How many centuries has Michelangelo’s ‘David’ stood?” Vandiver asks.

Vandiver believes visitors will be struck by the beauty of Polásek’s artwork once they get over any initial giggles.

“It’s a pure, unadulterated expression of the human form,” he says, “a robust expression of life.”

Top photo by Ninniane/Flickr