Catherine Schwalbe-Bouzide and her husband, Paul, were drawn to their Lakeview house by the leafy park across the street, called Gross Park by residents though it wasn’t really a city park in the traditional sense. The greenway on the 1700 block of West Henderson had been created in the late 19th century as part of a subdivision built by housing developer Samuel E. Gross. “It was a nice unique place,” says Schwalbe-Bouzide, a recreational therapist and artist. “And there was a wide variety of income and class levels on the block.”

But the green space, which was dominated by 30-foot maples, wasn’t always well maintained. So in 1991 the Bouzides and other residents formed the Gross Park Neighbors and began organizing volunteers to care for the park and to raise funds for its enhancement. Then, four years ago, the group got some bad news: many of the trees were infested with Asian long-horned beetles.

Buddhist monks arrived to offer prayers on the February morning in 1999 when city workers destroyed 22 trees on the east end of the green. A lone cottonwood escaped the scourge. “It was devastating,” recalls Schwalbe-Bouzide. “Half the block was just mowed flat.” (Miraculously, trees on the west end weren’t affected.)

But the group didn’t take the bug lying down. George Otto, then head of the GPN, got the ear of the mayor, and soon residents were working with a Streets and Sanitation landscape architect to rehabilitate the afflicted block. By summer it was flourishing again, full of flower beds, fancy shrubs, ornamental grasses, blossoming trees, and oaks. The Buddhist monks returned in the fall to bless the park, which had also been upgraded with signs, winding paths, and, of course, wrought-iron gates.

“It never looked lovelier,” says Schwalbe-Bouzide, whose group maintains the paths and the plantings with monthly workdays and an adopt-a-bed program; the city’s Bureau of Forestry cuts the grass. Yet Schwalbe-Bouzide still felt something was missing. “I’d always thought we needed art in the area–it seemed like a natural space for such a thing. So when the park was rehabbed, I said, ‘Now’s the time.'”

She and her friend Regina Maniaci, a sculptor, invited artists they knew to participate in an outdoor art show. In 2000, the GPN sponsored its first two-month sculpture exhibit, featuring a half dozen artworks, many of which played on the beetle theme. Last year it added a couple more pieces. The group raised funds for park upkeep through entry fees and, on opening nights, through the sale of artist-made tiles, T-shirts, and poetry booklets.

This year the organizers decided to introduce an element of unpredictability. Along with other sculptures, 20-odd artists have also created collaborative pieces based on Exquisite Corpse, the parlor game made popular by surrealist artists of the 1920s that results in collective collages of words or images. The Gross Park artists were invited to carry the game into three dimensions by creating a head, a torso, or a set of legs in any medium–clay, concrete, metal, found objects–without knowing what the other artists were making.

Last Friday the show’s curators–Keith Downie, co-owner of Lakeview Art Supply, Ted Frankel, owner of the novelty shop Uncle Fun, and Nicole Hollander, creator of the comic Sylvia–convened in the park to help assemble the various body parts into eight completed figures. “They took it seriously, but had fun at the same time,” says Schwalbe-Bouzide, who contributed three parts in ceramic and wood.

She says that the annual exhibits have helped reinvigorate the neighborhood. “I’ve gotten thank-you notes from my neighbors in the mailbox,” she explains, “saying, ‘This is such a gift.'” Has anyone on the block ever complained about the sculptures? Schwalbe-Bouzide thinks for a moment. “Someone made a comment about the Port-a-Potty once. I said, ‘Well, if you’d put some effort into the park, then you can have a voice.'”

The Third Annual Gross Park Sculpture Invitational kicks off Saturday, May 18 (rain or shine), on the 1700 block of West Henderson and continues through July 14. The free opening event, which runs from 4 to 8 PM, features performances based on the Exquisite Corpse idea: poetry by David and Victoria Rubin and Caroline Aguilla of Cafe Aloha Poets, along with Jennifer Dotson; dance improvisation by Perceptual Motion, Inc.; and a video installation by Mark Siska. Many of the sculptures, as well as other artist-made items, are for sale; proceeds support park maintenance.

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