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Jin Soo Kim is thinking hard about Evanston. In her storefront studio, amid the junk that is her raw material–old railroad tracks, ten-watt lightbulbs, an abandoned bathroom sink–she’s been trying to distill the essence of her adopted hometown and put it into a form suitable to adorn the facade of a parking garage. Evanston has an ordinance that says a part of the cost of any new city building (usually about 1 percent) should be earmarked for art to decorate it. The city parking garage at Church Street Plaza, a multiuse complex under construction where Clark dead-ends at Maple, will cost $17 million; the city council approved $170,000 for its embellishment. A call went out last spring for submissions: 33 came in; five finalists were selected. Each of those five artists was given a thousand dollars to build a model of their proposed work. Kim, a sculptor who came to America from Korea in 1974 and has lived in Evanston since 1987, was among them.

She knew what her piece shouldn’t be. No neon, she said. “That’s not Evanston.” No big apples, like the one at Old Orchard–“too commercial.” Nothing too esoteric, nothing generic. Cruising the streets near her south Evanston studio and nearby home and downtown where the project would be built, it finally came to her–those streets are the town, the tree-lined green grid that holds everything Evanstonian. She proposed a rectangular steel grid wound with copper cable and studded with street signs from every avenue and byway in the city. It would embody Evanston’s past and present and be something everyone in town could relate to. The drawing that accompanied her original proposal was nearly elegant in its simplicity–a neat, coppery box, its geometric lines countered by the organic shape of a tree growing up one side of it. The model she built was another matter. When I saw it, a few days before she was to turn it in, I wondered if it was dead in the water.

Last week Kim and the other four artists delivered their models to the Evanston Parks and Recreation Department. The seven-member selection panel gathered there to listen as they presented their work. The sculptures looked like an assemblage of souped-up toys. There was Hubertus von der Goltz’s outsize version of a teeter-totter, three tiny men balancing on three huge beams–the kind of thing von der Goltz does all the time (as on LaSalle at the river). His model was killer slick and the presentation by his dealer, Ingrid Fassbender, was faultless. Then there was Chicagoan S. Thomas Scarff, in comic hard hat, offering a laid-back explanation of how his giant warped guitar was meant to herald the arts. Lincoln Schatz, another Chicagoan, informed the panel that his original idea of 80 to 100 Plexiglas disks had evolved to five larger Plexiglas footballs–uh, disks–that represent Evanston’s five institutions of higher learning. The disks hovered like spacecraft on the front of his perfectly fabricated blond wood model. John Henry trucked in from Kentucky just in the nick of time, hauling a two-part prop more reminiscent of Pick Up sticks than of Evanston: long sections of red metal that looked like they had been thrown against a wall and frozen at the moment of impact. Some of them would be outlined in orange neon–“You’ll see it almost to the lake,” he said. Finally there was Kim’s piece, titled Here We Are, a copper wire cage, irregular as handwoven fabric, with four street signs and part of a tree stuck to it.

Explaining that speaking in public makes her nervous, Kim passed out a written version of what she wanted to say. Then she began reading–about materials that will outlive the garage; about the myriad wires that will keep the birds off; about the democratic intention of including all 200 Evanston streets; about how the piece will work from both front and back, so it can be seen by people walking to the elevator after parking their cars; about her children–one already out of Evanston schools, one just about to enter. When she asked for questions, they came up tough. The panel found out she didn’t know how much the piece would weigh, hadn’t yet figured out the lighting, and hadn’t realized a tree couldn’t be planted where she’d shown one. When the developer’s rep wanted to know what precautions she’d planned for lightning, she seemed to be caught by surprise. “Copper’s a conductor,” he thundered. “A piece of that size will attract a major strike. My question is, can it be grounded? Otherwise it will fuse.” The image of an 80-foot hunk of hot melted copper loomed over the room, Kim’s chance of winning this beauty contest frizzling at its center.

The next morning the committee announced that they’d narrowed the field to two. They’ll make a decision after getting some further questions answered, probably in the next month. Meanwhile, all five models can be seen (and commented on) at the Parks and Recreation Department office in the Evanston Civic Center, 2100 Ridge. One of the two artists still in the running is Lincoln Schatz. The other is Jin Soo Kim. –Deanna Isaacs

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.