John McQueen is one of the best-represented artists at this year’s SOFA Chicago, a three-day exposition of “sculpture, objects, and functional art”: seven of his nature-based sculptures can be seen at three different galleries.

McQueen, who was born in Oakland, Illinois, in 1943 and taught at the School of the Art Institute for two years in the 90s, often begins lectures by describing how, at his home in upstate New York, he chops firewood, works in his garden, and boils water on a wood stove. He used to tell of his icehouse, in which he would keep his food cool all summer with blocks of ice sawed over the winter from a pond on his property. “Art cannot come from art,” he told an interviewer in 1991. “Art must come from life.”

Today McQueen still uses mostly natural materials, growing willow sticks for his sculptures in his front yard. “Steel is natural,” he says, “because it comes from an iron ore in the ground. But when you look at steel, you don’t connect it with the ground because it’s been processed so many times, whereas there’s a direct visual connection between looking at my work and seeing the world.”

A few years ago, McQueen “had that moment when you have had one more show in a white gallery where you put things on stands–and wanted to scream, because the world is not isolated like that. I tried to find other things to make besides pick-uppable objects stuck on stands. And I was curious to see if I could draw with sticks.”

He’s currently on a hiking trip with his wife–artist Margo Mensing–and two others in Australia. Just before going there, he spent six weeks in Florence, his first visit, where the most famous artworks were perpetually blocked by tour groups. In his Florence Draw (at Elliott Brown), as in other recent pieces, he arranges willow sticks to make representational images, but he also shows that he is not immune to cultural influences. Willow-stick “drawings” of famous works by Michelangelo, Botticelli, and Piero della Francesca are arrayed on the outside of a cylinder–a wonderfully perverse way of rendering paintings and sculptures noted for their fine detail.

The Law of Averages, another group of willow-stick images, is one of four pieces at Perimeter (a seventh, Step Into It, is at Mobilia). “It’s four objects,” says McQueen. “A house, a chair, a coffee cup, and a set of teeth. I came from making baskets, and all four are containers. Each piece is on its own stand, and they’re arranged in a line, like words. I’m trying to tell a story using what seem to be unrelated objects. I hope the viewer will say, ‘Why are these next to each other?’ and try to figure out a relationship.”

SOFA Chicago 2001, including 83 galleries from nine countries, is at Navy Pier, 600 E. Grand, October 5 through 7. Hours are 11 AM to 8 PM Friday and Saturday and noon to 6 PM on Sunday. Tickets are $12, with discounts available for multiday passes and for students, seniors, and groups. Visit or call 800-563-7632 for more information.

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