Is Gardening an Art?

If you take what has become Chicago’s most celebrated stroll, from Millennium Park across Frank Gehry’s flashy boat of a bridge, you’ll land smack in front of the remnants of Chicago’s most contested garden, Chapman Kelley’s Wildflower Works I. Since 1984 Daley Bicentennial Plaza had been home to the garden, a pair of ovals the size of football fields, surrounded by gravel borders and planted with a mix of wildflowers intended to go from white at the edges to intense shades at the center. Kelley says it was a tribute to nature’s glory, a pilot study in ecologically sound, low-maintenance public landscaping, and his most important work of art. But two years ago the Park District abruptly changed things. What now lies at the end of the Gehry bridge, beyond a carpet of clipped grass and a zillion new red roses, are two narrow rectangles of rangy green wildflower remains, hemmed in on all sides by an incongruous manicured hedge.

According to Kelley, the Park District, at the direction of naturalist Shirley McMayon (who last year pleaded guilty to pocketing kickbacks for Park District contracts), ripped up his artwork without notice. In the fall of 2004 he filed a lawsuit seeking $10 million in damages plus legal expenses and restoration of the garden. He says Wildflower Works, planted at no cost to the city, maintained by volunteers, and requiring almost no watering, made Millennium Park’s multimillion-dollar Lurie Garden, with its caged trees and automatic sprinklers, look bad. He’s charging the Park District with breach of contract, unlawfully taking his property (the plants), and violating the federal Visual Artists Rights Act, which protects artwork from mutilation. Slated for trial next month, his suit will test whether a garden can qualify for protection under VARA, which defines an artwork as a painting, drawing, print, sculpture, or photograph.

When Kelley moved here 22 years ago to establish the garden, he left behind what he says was a stellar career as an artist and dealer in Dallas. A painter of nudes, landscapes, and flowers, Kelley took his art from the canvas to the field in the late 70s, planting a four-mile-long wildflower strip at the Dallas airport and three acres around the Dallas Museum of Natural History. He says he was inspired by the idea that this was not only art on a grand scale, but a sound way to prepare for a future in which water wouldn’t be available to irrigate endless miles of grass along public streets and highways. But both gardens were destroyed after just a couple years, about the same time that Standard Oil president John Swearingen and his socialite wife Bonnie, who’d once taken a class from Kelley, invited him to bring his green thumb to Chicago.

In 1983 Kelley presented his plan to Park District head Edmund Kelly, and a permit to proceed was issued the following year. The project was greeted with much hoopla. Kelley planted more than 200,000 wildflower plugs in 47 varieties on 1.5 acres at a cost estimated in his lawsuit of about $100,000. (The nursery owner who supplied the plugs, a supporter of the project from its earliest stage, was paid in paintings.) The design echoed Kelley’s work on canvas, with twin ellipses that promised an ever-changing palette as different plants came into bloom. The Park District issued documents repeatedly touting the garden as a “living piece of art” that was “cost-effective and low maintenance,” and prominent Chicagoans Marian Ogden and Joanne Alter launched Chicago Wildflower Works, Inc., a volunteer organization that would tend to it. In 1985, after it had begun to flower, the state senate issued a proclamation congratulating Kelley and the Park District on their work. Chicago’s garden-as-art generated national press, including a spread in the New York Times.

But by 1987 there was a glitch. Kelley says that while he was busy preparing an exhibition of his paintings at the Chicago Botanic Garden, volunteers overwatered the plantings. Some overgrew as a result, and the garden began to look ragged. At the same time some embarrassing news surfaced: it turned out not all the varieties that had been planted were native. According to a 1989 Chicago magazine story by Grant Pick, a Park District report issued in 1988 described the garden as an eyesore and recommended reducing it to one oval or moving it. When the district’s board moved to deny Kelley’s permit that year he took the matter to court, and there was an outpouring of public sentiment in his favor. The issue was eventually settled with Kelley being given control over the garden’s content and design, with a reconstituted volunteer organization handling the upkeep.

Kelley’s permit was periodically renewed until 1994, at which time he says board officials told him renewal was no longer necessary. He continued working in the garden for another decade and in June 2004 was getting ready to celebrate its 20th anniversary when, according to his lawsuit, he learned of “plans by the Park District to significantly reduce the size of the Wildflower Works I, to alter its shape and to destroy the artistic nature of the site.” Kelley claims that workers started to remove plantings and erect a fence without notifying him, violating his rights by “destroying, mutilating, and modifying the Wildflower Works.” Kelley’s lawyer, Richard Balough, says he plans to show that his client’s work on the garden falls under VARA and is “no different than an artist who paints on canvas.”

DePaul University law professor Roberta Kwall, an expert on intellectual property law, says VARA defines works of art very narrowly, and she’ll be surprised if the court accepts that argument. A spokesperson for the Chicago Park District, citing policy on pending lawsuits, declined to comment for this story. The trial is set for July 10.


The city’s attempt to mount an offense in its ongoing battle with arts attorney Scott Hodes over the public art program was dealt a blow last week when countercharges it had brought against him were dismissed. The city requested another crack at it and was given 28 days to get its case together. . . . The League of Chicago Theatres is shedding the publishing business it jumped into two years ago after dropping $400,000 on the effort; it’s also losing executive director Deanna Shoss, who’s resigning after less than a year on the job. Board member Dennis Culloton says an examination of LCT finances instituted shortly after Shoss’s arrival revealed that the organization was in “pretty dire shape,” and its program book, ChicagoPlays, was the “main source of pain.” Members will get an update at the annual meeting June 29. . . . This weekend is the swan song for the Brandeis Book Sale, but Little City Foundation says it’ll continue the tradition and hopes to pitch the big tent at the same time in the same Old Orchard (now Westfield mall) location next year.

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