Chicago’s hometown artists usually find themselves the proverbial beggars at the feast when it comes to local government funding or support. This tradition was upheld last month when 12 painters from all over the world–but none from Chicago–received the city’s red carpet treatment and a nice pot of cash as well. The dozen artists are involved in an elaborate program sponsored by the local branch of Sister Cities International to create 12 works of art, each measuring four by nine feet, that will eventually hang in the arrival halls of the new $618 million international terminal at O’Hare, which formally opened last week. The idea for the project came from cultural commissioner Lois Weisberg, who with this scheme has proven that when she really wants to organize something–no matter how little it helps Chicago’s own artists–she sure knows how to get the job done. Notes Weisberg: “The coordination involved in this project was unbelievable.”

It all began with a request to each of Chicago’s 12 sister cities to nominate three candidates to a standing committee of the Public Art Program of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs. The committee then reviewed slides and resumes from each artist before selecting one to represent each city. The first group, of seven artists, was flown here in mid-May (courtesy of the international carriers that will use the new terminal) to begin their two-week painting adventure. For the first week the artists stayed in the homes of local families; for the second week they moved to the ritzy confines of the Union League Club to be closer to their appointed studio away from home–the famed Rookery, at 209 S. LaSalle. Use of the space was arranged by the Baldwin Development Company, which made it available to the artists 24 hours a day.

But first the artists were taken to the Genesis Creative Oasis at 847 W. Jackson, where they were given the run of the store to acquire free of charge the supplies needed to complete their canvases. Genesis owner Richard Goldman says he consented to participate in the project as part of his own efforts to encourage a revival of art in the city. But at least a couple of the visiting foreign artists apparently saw the stop as an opportunity to load up on goodies. These two, sources say, initially tried to walk out with some 20 tubes of paint before it was suggested that they might have overanticipated their needs. Another artist, Olga Antonenko from Kiev, reportedly left the store in a fit of anger because no such outpost was available to her at home.

In an effort to inspire them with glorious images of Chicago, the artists were taken on extensive tours of the city during the first week. One of their principal escorts was New Trier High School art instructor Walter Chruscinski, who tried to give the artists a taste of the city’s varied ethnic communities with visits to neighborhoods like Ukrainian Village and Pilsen. Chruscinski said the excursions were intended to help ensure that the artists did not crowd their canvases with obvious architectural symbols like the Sears Tower or the Hancock.

Weisberg and the artists unveiled the first 7 of the 12 canvases (the other 5 will be completed this week) at a gala $250-a-plate black-tie dinner at the new terminal last week. The glitzy affair was thrown to show off the terminal and to raise more than $300,000 for various other Sister Cities projects. Last week Weisberg could not say exactly how much had been spent on the current project. Much was donated, she claims, but each artist was given a $1,500 commission as well as $500 for expenses. The cost of the project, says Weisberg, would be covered by funds raised at the gala.

What about the artworks unveiled thus far? Sources who saw the completed canvases at the gala indicated that many of them on first viewing seemed to have little or no specific reference to Chicago, the city the paintings were intended to reflect and celebrate. “A few of them could be about anywhere,” noted one observer. Part of the problem may have have been the tight two-week time frame in which the artists had to soak up their impressions of the city and then finish the large canvases. “It was a real quick and pressured assignment,” explains one source close to the project. But one artist, Jiri Sopko from Prague, apparently included an image of a gun in his painting–a detail that surely must not have pleased Mayor Daley, who has actively discouraged any references to Chicago’s Al Capone past in the city’s tourist-oriented PR.

Weisberg claims to be nothing less than elated with the results of the project and indicates it may not end with just the 12 canvases. She says, “We will keep adding.” As for the artists whose work soon Will grace the new terminal, one of them, John Abrams of Toronto, said he was thrilled with the commission for many reasons, among them the incredible exposure. More than three million people a year will pass by the work in the new terminal, and each of the paintings will be accompanied by a plaque bearing the artist’s name.

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