When sculptor Carolyn Ottmers moved here from Austin, Texas, in 1986 to attend grad school at the School of the Art Institute, she was initially impressed by the lake, the architecture, and the industry–particularly the many light manufacturing businesses, a potential resource for sculptors. But by late autumn the skies were gray and her surroundings slushy. She began to miss the gardening and hiking she’d done back home and started looking for “signs of life” in Chicago. What she found were weeds. “Chicago’s density had a pretty big effect on me,” she says. She began making “these little plant sculptures on the side as a way of surrounding myself with nature in my studio. I made a flower corolla out of layers and layers of newsprint.” Soon she decided she wanted to focus on plants, and by the end of grad school she’d made 500 leaves from beer and wine bottles gathered from a vacant lot, crushing them and then partially melting and molding the fragments into leaf form. These works expressed both her love of nature and her love of the city.

An environmentalist, Ottmers has mostly used recycled materials to create her plants, including those cast in metal. The strength of her large sculptures at Carrie Secrist is their simulaneous “realism” and mechanized, overgrown appearance, which makes them rather creepy, like overfertilized plants. Though the 17 scattered cast-iron leaves that make up Intersection look overgrown–they range in size from 14 to 24 inches across–in fact they were cast from actual burdock leaves. Ottmers says the burdock is “a survivalist plant that grows in vacant lots whether PCBs have been dumped there or not.” She’s inscribed the city’s street grid on the underside of some of the leaves, while the decision to cast them in iron reflects Chicago’s history as an industrial center.

The three other large sculptures of plants, together called “Equilibrium,” were exhibited in Grant Park last summer as part of a city-sponsored project that placed “artist-designed gardens” in outdoor spaces. Individually titled Parsnip, Allium, and Shepherd’s Purse, they’re all modeled on plants that grow in Chicago and that actually clean up the soil–Ottmers says the theme of her garden was “phytoremediation.” Though in nature these weeds range from less than a foot to 3 feet tall, the sculptures vary in height from more than 6 feet to 11 feet. Their smoothness gives them a strangely abstracted and manufactured look that’s underlined by their materials: bronze, aluminum, and iron, respectively. Ottmers says, “For nature to compete with the Sears Tower, it has to be larger than it is in real life.”

When Ottmers was 11, her parents divorced and her mother, who’d been a painter, stopped making art. In college, Ottmers began creating what she calls typical student work, “angst-ridden” pieces that reflected her own depression, such as a dartboard with her face as the target and darts shaped like bombs. Though her present work is much less self-expressive, she believes a psychological element remains. “I think about these big plants in terms of their stance toward each other–there’s a clumsy awkwardness in their modeling.” She adds that part of the reason she’s fascinated by weeds is that she likes “their spirit, their determination to grow. As a child of divorce you feel disregarded and sort of left behind. You start to notice or empathize with disregarded things, whether it’s someone sitting alone in a corner at a party or weeds growing in through the cracks.”

Carolyn Ottmers

Where: Carrie Secrist, 835 W. Washington

When: Through April 9

Info: 312-491-0917

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Stephen J. Serio.