Abstract Thinking

After 12 years of planning, the city is about to construct a park honoring Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, the black trader and explorer considered the father of Chicago. DuSable Park, a joint project of the Chicago Park District and the B.F. Ferguson Monument Fund, will occupy a 3.5-acre site east of Lake Shore Drive between the Ogden Slip and the north bank of the Chicago River. But you won’t find the park by looking for a statue of its namesake: DuSable will be memorialized with a sculpture by Martin Puryear, a well-known African-American artist and former Chicago resident whose body of work is decidedly abstract. For some guardians of DuSable’s legacy, that doesn’t seem right. “There’s no representational piece of a black person in all of our parks,” says Ramon Price, a curator at the DuSable Museum of African American History. “If we’re going to honor a black individual, I think we should have an image of a man as opposed to an obelisk.”

Actually Puryear’s conception of the monument is a carefully guarded secret. Robert Mars, the Art Institute official who oversees the Ferguson Fund, has yet to see any renderings, and the Park District isn’t talking. “There’s been a political mandate to keep a lid on this,” says one source familiar with the history of the memorial. Puryear couldn’t be reached for comment, and local gallery owner Donald Young, who represents the sculptor, claims he doesn’t know what the work will look like. But Puryear’s work, he says, is “never representational. He works within a certain vocabulary, and that vocabulary is abstract, with some references to human forms.” Young says that the Park District has approved the basic design, that Puryear has met several times with the landscape architect, and that the sculptor is now working full-time on a maquette of the memorial. “In the next few months he’ll bring something to Chicago to present.”

DuSable’s origins are even more mysterious than his memorial. Some historians claim he was born in Haiti around 1745, while others trace his ancestry to a slave mother and a French father living in what is now Quebec. After journeying to the Native American territory of “Chigagou” in the 1770s, DuSable built a trading post on the river, south of where the Tribune Tower now stands. His trading post was a sizable piece of property consisting of farmland and many buildings, and he grew wealthy trading with trappers and Native Americans. In 1800 he, his Potawatomi wife, and their two children moved to Saint Charles, Missouri, where he died in 1818. His land was acquired by John Kinzie, the city’s first white settler, in 1804.

According to Virginia Julien, a historian with the Chicago DuSable League, the citizens’ group has been trying to establish a memorial since it was founded in 1962. Around 1969 she was part of a committee formed to select a “proper monument”; league members wanted a traditional statue in Grant Park that would depict DuSable and his family, but that idea was shot down by the city. Instead the city awarded a grant to the DuSable Museum in 1977, enabling it to create a commemorative sculpture garden in Washington Park. Six pieces were installed, two of them representational, but one of them, a six-foot bronze figure by Price, was stolen in 1983 shortly after his half-brother Harold Washington was elected mayor, and the other, a bust of DuSable, was later moved indoors to the museum’s lobby. Julien says that Washington backed a proposal by league members and others to reconstruct DuSable’s settlement on the lakefront at 26th Street, but that plan died with the mayor in 1987.

The next year officials of the Art Institute approached Puryear to create a DuSable monument courtesy of the Ferguson Fund, which was established in 1905 to place commemorative statuary around the city. A native of Washington, D.C., Puryear had earned an international reputation since moving to Chicago to teach at the University of Illinois in 1978. His highly crafted work utilized a wide range of materials, from wood to copper and steel mesh. Puryear was excited about the DuSable project, which was to be completed in time for a major retrospective of his work at the Art Institute in 1991. In late 1988, Ferguson Fund trustees approved in principle a disbursement of $300,000 to pay for Puryear’s materials, and the area of Grant Park just north of the museum was chosen as a site for the sculpture, but when the Art Institute learned of the Park District’s plans for DuSable Park, it proposed a partnership, and by 1996 the two organizations had agreed to place Puryear’s work in the park. (Puryear moved to Accord, New York, in 1990.)

Park District commissioner Margaret Burroughs is one official who’s not willing to keep quiet about the proposed sculpture: in 1961 she founded the DuSable Museum to preserve the memory of Chicago’s first non-Native American resident. A few years ago she and Price sat in on meetings at which the park was being planned, and both of them objected when Puryear’s name came up. “I didn’t think his work was suitable,” says Burroughs. “We’ve always wanted something realistic, not abstract.” She sought more information from the Park District but hasn’t gotten anywhere, and at this point it looks like Puryear’s commission is carved in stone. “It’s a shame that when we come to dealing with the memory of a black historical figure, we go to someone who does interpretive things,” says Price. “I’m not attacking [Puryear] as an artist, but I think he’s the wrong sculptor to do it.”

Daily’s News

Rumors have been flying that the Daily Bar & Grill at Wilson and Lincoln could become a sports bar by Valentine’s Day. Restaurant employees, having seen newspaper ads soliciting applicants for all positions, approached management and were told they would have to reapply for their jobs. Nothing’s official yet, but owners Joe Prino and Joe Shanahan are negotiating to bring in local entrepreneur Steve Soble as a partner in the seven-year-old restaurant. Soble, whose Spare Time, Inc., runs the Hudson Club, Southport Lanes & Billiards, Trocadero, Lucky Strike, and the Corner Pocket, said Tuesday he plans to take over restaurant operations. Then he called back to say the attention the deal was generating was giving him second thoughts. “Under no circumstances,” he said, would the Daily become a sports bar. “I hate sports bars. You want to write something, write that.”

Lewis Lazare is on vacation.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.