Seeing Double

It looks like plagiarism on a giant scale. Or maybe it’s a serious case of deja vu. If you noticed a beetlelike, concrete-and-metal sculpture called Spar at Pier Walk, then saw the same gigantic beetle, this time titled Flight, at the Lincoln Park sculpture exhibit that kicked off last Friday, not to worry. “I entered the same design in both shows,” says Oak Park sculptor Pat McDonald. “And I got in both of ’em. And I thought, you know what? I’m just gonna do it.” McDonald built the 12-ton pieces in the barn of the Minnesota farm he grew up on, had a high school friend truck them here on a 40-foot flatbed, and installed them on a single weekend at the end of April. Look carefully to distinguish between them, he says: “The wings are in a little different position.”

McDonald says Pier Walk juror David Pagel was OK with the cloning, and no one at the Lincoln Park show objected either. So the clunky twins are a visual link between the pier’s international event, which wound up with 34 pieces this year, and the ten-piece neighborhood exhibit that started as its antidote. Launched by Alderman Vi Daley on the suggestion of General Iron president Marilyn Labkon and run out of Daley’s office, mostly by her assistant, Barbara Guttmann, the clumsily named Lincoln Park Community Art Initiative is a nonprofit organization that exists solely to produce the 43rd Ward’s annual show of Chicago-area artists. Coincidentally or not, it cropped up last year on the heels of a change in Pier Walk policy that shut many local artists out of that show. While Pier Walk art is now selected by a single celebrity juror (this year that’s LA Times art critic Pagel), the Lincoln Park show is juried by–horrors–a group of neighborhood business owners, with help from Chicago public art chief Mike Lash and Millennium Park project director Ed Uhlir. Each business donates $2,500 for a sponsorship and gets one jury seat; this year there are ten sponsors, up from eight the first season. With the $25,000 plus in-kind donations, LPCAI put ten sizable sculptures on scattered sites throughout the ward this year and published a poster that maps them. Artists each got a $1,000 honorarium, which McDonald says won’t begin to cover the cost of producing, insuring, and transporting a piece like Flight. “There’s no money in this,” he says. “We’re like those lawn mower brigade guys. But I’m building stuff that’s gonna stick around.” His sculpture and the others in the show will stick around–for a year. LPCAI took its first exhibit down after six months; then, says Guttmann, “We figured out that it’s cheaper to bring the crane around once.”

Seeing Ghosts?

Was there ever a full-size, freestanding statue of Milton L. Olive in the city park named for him? Olive Park, ten acres of grass, sidewalk, and concrete pools on the site of a water filtration plant just north of Navy Pier, was dedicated to the Congressional Medal of Honor winner on a scorching day in 1966, eight months after he died in Vietnam. The paratrooper from the south side of Chicago had covered an enemy grenade with his own body and saved the lives of four other men in his unit. There’s a monument to him in the park, a concrete slab with a bronze plaque that bears a bas relief image of “Skipper,” as his family called him. Made from a photograph, it shows the young soldier from the waist up, wearing a helmet and holding a reserve parachute, as if ready to jump. But the family remembers something different–a lifelike, three-dimensional bronze statue. It was there, they say, and then suddenly it wasn’t.

Chicago Defender reporter Chinta Strausberg is Olive’s cousin. She remembers looking up at that statue sometime in the 70s, running her hands over its surface, and writing about the park for the family reunion newsletter. Another cousin, Charles Milton Carter, says the family posed around the statue for a photograph, which he’s trying to locate. Olive’s stepmother, Antoinette, says the statue was broken by vandals and had to be removed. People unrelated to the family remember it too: Rochelle Crump, director of the city’s Advisory Council on Veterans Affairs, is “almost positive” the statue was there when she went to a reopening ceremony for the park, perhaps after some construction. And Douglas Schimmel, who’s never met the Olive family but worked in the area in the 70s and 80s and walked in the park during his lunch hour, sent the Reader a letter noting that a Tribune article about Olive last year missed this part of the story. Schimmel says he recalls the statue, missed it when it disappeared, and was told by someone it had been the object of so much vandalism–racially motivated, he speculates, because Olive was black–that the city finally gave up and took it away. He wonders if it could be found, fixed, and reinstalled.

But Benito Garcia Jr., a paratrooper who served with Olive, says his group of veterans from the 173rd Airborne has gone to Olive Park for a ceremony every year for 20 years or more, and the only monument they remember is the one that’s still there. And as far as the city’s concerned, the statue never existed. “There’s a plaque there,” says water department spokesman Tom LaPorte, but “we have no record of a statue.” The water department doesn’t have any record of vandalism either, though newspaper accounts show that on June 28, 1970, the slab was smashed to pieces, some of which were dumped in the lake. It was replaced by another slab and rededicated in a July 3 ceremony by the first Mayor Daley and other officials. So could it be the first slab and plaque that the family’s thinking of? Strausberg says absolutely not. “I’m talking about a statue–a full body, not a bust. It was really beautiful. It looked just like Skipper. He had his helmet on. And the park was so beautiful. It had these circular pools of water, representing the Great Lakes, with water jets shooting up. I remember staying there late, and even looking at it at night. It was just gorgeous.”

From Lakefront to Screening Room

Theatre on the Lake’s managing director, Jean de St. Aubin, says renovations including air-conditioning and better sound are still planned for next year, but she won’t be around to see it happen. Starting June 9, de St. Aubin will be the new executive director of the Gene Siskel Film Center, a position that’s been open since Randy Adamsick left last year. The Film Center was reportedly looking for a good fund-raiser. After nine years with the Park District overseeing a dozen cultural centers and the steamy old theater, it’s hard to fault de St. Aubin for going someplace that’s cool and shows movies.

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