Some people sit on the spiral park bench not realizing it’s an artwork about one of Chicago’s most remarkable heroines. They may not be aware of it, but the bench is talking to them, asking them questions. Other people passing through Wicker Park stop to read the words pressed into hundreds of ceramic tiles, in English, Polish, and Spanish; interested readers start at one end of the bench and follow the words to the middle of the spiral, then double back along the outer edge leading the other way.
The words going into the spiral tell the story of Lucy Parsons, the radical labor activist and onetime near northwest side resident; the words leading out form a series of questions about issues that still face us today–unemployment, hunger, police brutality, censorship, the rights of workers and women. You end up where you started, wiser about the role Lucy Parsons played in local and national history. You may be outraged that Chicago, cradle of the American labor movement, has never formally recognized someone of Lucy’s stature.
Then there are people like Herb, a 58-year-old retired cabdriver who lives on a meager pension in the CHA senior citizens’ home across the street on Damen. Herb, known as the “mayor” of Wicker Park, is one of a group of regulars who congregate at the park’s northwest corner, where neighborhood artist Marjorie Woodruff has installed Spiral: Lucy E. Parsons’ Life in Chicago 1873-1942. Herb says he and his friends now use the bench as a meeting place; they were there when Woodruff and a construction crew began installing the temporary artwork on May 1, May Day. Herb says Woodruff befriended them and still visits with the regulars when she checks the nearby “conversation box,” in which people are urged to drop their written opinions of the work. Woodruff says she plans to periodically post these notes close to the bench during the next two years, “in order to develop a dialogue with community members.” She inaugurated the project with a picnic in the park on May 7 that fed at least 200 people.
Herb says he knows the artwork is about the neighborhood, but confesses he’s still not sure what it’s all about since he can barely read or write. He’s told that Lucy, widow of Haymarket martyr Albert Parsons, was a woman of black, Spanish, and Indian descent who dedicated her life to improving the lot of the working class. She was a fearless speaker, writer, and organizer who was continually persecuted by the police. Herb’s visibly moved and begins relating his own story: When his father died in the late 1930s, his mother moved the family north from Alabama and supported them by working as a seamstress in Gary, Indiana . . . just like Lucy, who toiled as a dressmaker to feed her family and eventually went on to organize other sewing women.
After talking to Herb, the questions on the bench are particularly poignant: Have you ever heard of Lucy Parsons? Why have most of us never heard of Lucy Parsons? Why are people who are poverty stricken blamed for their situation? Why don’t we know much about our labor history? Who are the powerful women you know? What would cause you to fight injustice?
Ceramic tiles on the conversation box form an image of Lucy Parsons and contain excerpts from her speeches. Woodruff has also left her own message: “I welcome you to sit on this uncomfortable bench and to think of these uncomfortable issues in the hope that we may have an uncomfortable conversation. . . . It is my hope that through these conversations we may begin . . . to build a community where we are all equal, free, and prosperous.”
Lucy Eldine Gathings, whose career as a labor activist spanned more than 60 years, was born into slavery in 1853 in El Paso, Texas. Not much is known about her personal history. She refused to talk about herself, always maintaining that her fight for economic rights–the emancipation of workers from “wage slavery,” as she called it–was more important than the intimate details of her life.
At the age of 17 she met Albert Parsons, a Confederate soldier who became a radical Republican and vocal advocate of civil rights for black people after the war. He published an unsuccessful political newspaper in Waco and then traveled throughout the state registering blacks to vote. The pair claimed to have been married in 1871, though there’s no legal document. It’s doubtful they could find someone to marry a white man and a black woman in their Klan-controlled county.
When they came to Chicago in the winter of 1873, the nation was in the midst of a depression, and the city was still reeling from the Great Fire two years before. The rising tide of industrialism helped Chicago’s factory owners, but it granted them tremendous power over the pool of labor, which was swelling daily as immigrants and rural farmers flocked into the city looking for work. Competition for jobs was tough. New arrivals were often penniless and completely dependent on their employers. Their only asset was their labor, but the actions of industrialists sent a clear message that it wasn’t valued. The boom times of the Civil War had lowered wages because factories started to employ large numbers of women and children; “women’s wages,” about half of what men had earned, became the going rate for everyone. The same month Albert and Lucy Parsons came to Chicago, 10,000 gathered at City Hall to protest the actions of the Relief and Aid Society, an agency set up to distribute several million dollars among the homeless and needy after the fire. A few members of its board, including Marshall Field and George Pullman, saw fit to siphon off relief cash to loan to their companies at low interest rates.
Like many of the city’s new arrivals, the Parsonses moved frequently, mostly in a poor German area around Larrabee and North. Living conditions in many working-class neighborhoods were wretched, with one-room dwellings shared by multiple families that would sleep in shifts. Exposed to socialist ideas, Albert Parsons soon became a tireless promoter of unionism, joining the Social Democratic Party, the Knights of Labor, and the Workingmen’s Party. He was named secretary of the Chicago Eight Hour League, which championed a shorter workday as the first step toward improving the quality of life.
Lucy Parsons was an early female member of the Knights of Labor and recruited women garment workers and housewives to join the union, no small feat for a black woman in a group dominated by white males, especially considering that women were often used as strikebreakers. Less successfully, she fought for the adoption of measures insuring equal pay for equal work and the abolition of the practice of arbitrarily fining or docking workers. The Chicago Times reported that many working women toiled for at least 16 hours a day and still lost the lion’s share of their $3 to $4 weekly pay due to fines.
In 1877 Albert Parsons received 400 votes as the socialist candidate for alderman of the 15th Ward. That summer brought a national wave of strikes, affecting textiles, coal mining, and railroads. Some claimed that revolution was imminent, and the rich began to fear the working poor. Yet Albert Parsons still advocated law and order and believed voting was the solution. But his wife’s views were far more militant, and she would eventually win him over. Lucy Parsons thought all social evils were caused by economic inequity. She regarded the eight-hour day and wage concessions as slight recompense: “I say to the wage class, strike not for a few cents more an hour, because the price of living will be raised faster still, but strike for all you [make], be content with nothing else.” She realized such an economic transformation would take a revolution. While Albert advocated peaceful tactics, Lucy commended workers who carried guns, promoting the use of force as a justified reaction to police bullying and violence.
By the early 1880s, Albert Parsons had become one of America’s foremost labor leaders, working as printer and editor of both the Socialist and the Alarm, an influential newspaper. Lucy’s fiery words found their way into a variety of radical publications; she took up the cause of the disenfranchised worker in angry articles on the plight of locked-out strikers, essays extolling various theories of class struggle, and bitter denunciations of police riots in parodies of Byronic verse.
Known for her dramatic delivery, she regularly made speeches that attracted large crowds. Even in the midst of all the hysterical rhetoric coming from both the affluent and the anarchists, Lucy Parsons could not be outdone. The Tribune quoted one of her speeches: “Let every dirty, lousy tramp arm himself with a revolver or knife and lay in wait on the steps of the palaces of the rich and stab or shoot the owners as they come out. Let us kill them without mercy, and let it be a war of extermination without pity. Let us devastate the avenues where the wealthy live as Sheridan devastated the beautiful valley of the Shenandoah.”
In the fall of 1885, while Albert was organizing coal miners in Ohio and Pennsylvania, Lucy Parsons led a Thanksgiving Day “Poor People’s March.” The newly formed Illinois National Guard was training a few miles away. “Why is the militia drilling, doing riot drill in time of peace?” Lucy asked. “Are the money mongers so frightened over their evil deeds that they fear they will soon reap the fire of social revolution? Do they propose to shoot working people down in cold blood for no more crime than that they are hungry–their children sick?” The marchers headed south to Prairie Avenue, where they rang doorbells and insulted the wealthy industrialists.
Mother Jones said Lucy was a reckless firebrand: “I thought the parade an insane move on the part of the anarchists, as it only served to make feelings more bitter. . . . It only served to increase the employers’ fear, to make the police more savage, and the public less sympathetic to the real distress of the workers.” Lucy’s intemperate talk undoubtedly generated hostility, but others felt that her notoriety helped to popularize ideas that would come to fruition 20 years later during the Progressive Era. At a time when seven-year-olds were commonly employed in sweatshops, Lucy alone said the industrialists “grind little children’s bones into gold. . . . Phil Armour is a slaughterer of children as well as hogs. . . . ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me, for of such is the contents of my factory.'”
Six months after the Prairie Avenue march, Albert and Lucy Parsons and their two children led 80,000 singing workers up Michigan Avenue in the first May Day parade, held in support of the eight-hour workday. Two days later striking workers were attacked by police and Pinkerton detectives outside the McCormick reaper plant. Four strikers were killed, and the ill-fated protest at Haymarket Square was organized to take place the next evening.
Albert Parsons wasn’t even in Haymarket Square when the bomb–thrown by an unknown assailant–exploded on May 4, killing one policeman (seven more died later, mostly from bullets fired by fellow officers). After addressing the crowd, Albert retired with Lucy to a union hall several blocks away, where the pair were planning strategy for organizing women sewing workers. Police raided the Alarm office the day after the riot, arresting four of the Haymarket Eight–August Spies, Michael Schwab, Adolph Fischer, and Oscar Neebe. Lucy was arrested, released, and taken into custody twice more that day. The police dug up the grounds of Wicker Park in search of bombs (many of Chicago’s German-born anarchists and labor leaders lived near the park). They hoped Lucy would lead them to Albert, but he had fled to Geneva, Illinois, and then to Wisconsin. He turned himself in on June 21, 1886, the opening day of the trial.
Two months later, all eight men were found guilty of murder; five were eventually sentenced to death–Parsons, Spies, Fischer, George Engel, and Louis Lingg (who allegedly committed suicide in his cell). Poverty forced Lucy and her two children to move from an Indiana Street apartment to a third-floor flat at 1129 N. Milwaukee Ave. She supported her family by sewing and by selling Haymarket-related pamphlets on street corners for a nickel apiece. She traveled throughout the U.S. speaking in defense of the workers’ movement and the condemned men, raising money for their appeals.
When Lucy and her children went to Cook County Jail on November 11, 1887, the morning of the executions, they were thrown into a nearby police station, stripped, and searched for bombs. They were held in separate cells while the men were hung. The execution of her husband and her comrades hardened Lucy even more to the American government and capitalism; she remained a revolutionary for the rest of her life. She did more than any other person to keep the memory of the martyrs and their movement alive, lecturing in scores of cities both here and abroad. At her husband’s sentencing Lucy told Albert, “I give you to the cause of liberty. I now go forth to take your place.”
The Chicago police apparently took Parsons at her word. For 30 years they kept her under constant surveillance, and she was arrested many times for the crime of public speaking.
Marjorie Woodruff, a 40-year-old artist and educator who lives in West Town’s East Village neighborhood, admits to not knowing much about Chicago’s labor history as a teenager in the affluent suburb of Glenview. Then while living in Austria and Switzerland in the 1970s, she began to view herself as a somewhat privileged, materialistic American. “People challenged me about my beliefs,” she says. “They made me start asking myself questions, and I had to come up with reasonable answers. All of a sudden I was taking a crash course in what I believed in and started reading about politics and social concerns. Before it was just what kind of skis to buy and what kind of dress I had on. I started becoming more actively involved in things, and I realized that by making certain decisions at the grassroots level maybe I could help change things, too.”
Woodruff earned an MFA in ceramics from Northern Illinois University in 1986, and she remained in De Kalb for two more years, teaching English as a second language. She moved to Chicago in 1989 under an Illinois Arts Council artist-residency program and began working with community organizations through the city’s Neighborhood Arts Assistance Program. In May 1991 the Chicago Commons Association hired Woodruff to lead ceramics workshops for kids in the Miles Square Head Start and day-care programs at the Henry Horner Homes. Woodruff tells how classroom activity was often interrupted by the sound of gunfire outside.
Today she continues to teach ceramics to adults at Lill Street Studios, and to kids at Lill Street, Gallery 37, LaRabida Children’s Hospital, and the School of the Art Institute. But Woodruff says that teaching art to economically disadvantaged children at Horner Homes–a mere mile south of her apartment, yet a world away–had a profound impact on her. Believing strongly in the artist’s mission of “crossing ethnocentric and class boundaries,” she started thinking of ways in which public art installations could develop “new avenues of communication” between various community groups usually isolated from one another.
“I felt just like Lucy must have when she first came to Chicago,” Woodruff says. “The extreme poverty at Henry Horner Homes–in the USA–was upsetting to me. If people could be more connected and compassionate to these communities of poverty, something positive might come. But because the way the system is set up, they’re neglected. That’s why I wrote on the bench, ‘Do you believe your vote counts?’ If we could just engage poor communities to vote more, if more white people, wealthy people, could interact with and know more people in poverty, maybe we could change things.”
Woodruff’s first public artwork was titled Installation on Division. “It was a pun on economic and cultural divisions, about crossing barriers,” she says. The project–situated on two vacant lots on West Division adjacent to the Gold Star Lounge and across the street from Friendship House, a homeless shelter–was up from October 1991 to August 1992. It consisted of seven rectangular wood-and-metal sculptures with fractured mirrors. Tables, each representing one of the seven continents, had been set up in front of the sculptures. Each table had world maps, four chairs, four notebooks, and four pens. Passersby were invited to write down their thoughts about class divisions and race relations in their neighborhood, but it was Woodruff who ended up learning about her community.
“I just wanted to get interaction going,” Woodruff says. “I wanted it to be a platform for people who don’t normally have the opportunity to have their opinions expressed.
“But it worked out that people weren’t interacting with it. I found out that a vacant lot wasn’t a place where people could come and feel comfortable. How the chairs and tables were rearranged in the lot became the focal point of the piece. It became interesting to see what would happen. It took two months for everything to get stolen. It’s OK they stole the tables and chairs because it was starting to look like another coffee shop anyway. Even the pens were stolen. A homeless guy from the Friendship House brought me some coffee one day while I was working and very gently explained that street people couldn’t resist stealing pens. He was really sweet and told me not to take it personally.”
The conversation box included in Spiral: Lucy E. Parsons’ Life in Chicago 1873-1942 was originally supposed to have pens and paper. Woodruff is still thinking of a way to provide them in the piece so they won’t be taken so quickly. She’s apologetic, saying she may just have to replenish writing materials regularly. “I should have somebody read the script out loud, too,” she says. “I have to be mindful that some people can’t read or write. Some senior citizens can’t read that well either because of their eyesight.”
After Haymarket “anarchism” became a dirty word in the press, but Lucy Parsons still embraced the term. She told one reporter, “That is my religion.” She toured the country preaching revolution to more than 200,000 people in 16 states; she was often jailed and barred from speaking. For Parsons, anarchism meant the end of exploitation and the birth of a just society. Addressing a group of Yale students, she said Albert’s execution “will only help the cause . . . as it is a necessary thing in the early stages of any great reform that there are martyrs.”
She traveled to London, where Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw had supported the Haymarket Eight. English newspapers wrote that audiences were enthralled by her speeches. “I have been treated with the greatest indignities in American prisons, but I do not complain. I have thrown myself in the path of established order, and we who do so must expect to take the consequences. . . . Let none of us say, ‘I have suffered this; I have done this.’ The cause is above you and me . . .
“What is the revolution? Why, it is the very breath of life, that stupendous struggle for relief. I hear that voice in the cold dank mines of Siberia; I hear it in the sunny clime of Italy; I hear it across the mighty Atlantic’s waves; I hear it in the prison of Joliet, in the state of Illinois–wherever there is a man or woman beneath the sun who wants better homes, better clothes, better food. . . . The world and its wealth and its treasures and its happiness should, like the air and the sunshine, belong to all mankind, and not to the few.”
In the U.S. the Haymarket riot was used as an excuse to crack down on organized labor. At the time state’s attorney Julius S. Grinnell counseled the police to “make the raids first and look up the laws afterwards.” Yet Lucy remained undeterred, despite the constant attacks on her right to free speech. In quick succession she published Albert’s compilation Anarchism: Its Principles and Scientific Basis (1887); her biography The Life of Albert R. Parsons, With Brief History of the Labor Movement in America (published first in 1889, then again in 1903 with a foreword by Clarence Darrow); and several editions of The Famous Speeches of the Haymarket Martyrs. She sold her books and pamphlets at labor demonstrations, meetings, and street corners, always keeping one step ahead of the police, who considered her “more dangerous than a thousand rioters.”
Marjorie Woodruff says she first learned about Parsons in the summer of 1991 through labor historian Carol Ashbaugh’s book Lucy Parsons: An American Revolutionary. The book led Woodruff to other sources on Lucy and Albert Parsons and the Haymarket era; she estimates that during the next year she read about 30 books on the 19th-century labor movement, including many biographies. She hadn’t realized the important role residents of the Wicker Park area played in labor history.
“It was amazing to me how powerful and active women were back in those days,” Woodruff says. “There were so many women who deserve honor and credit. You’d think that women only started coming of age since the 1960s, but powerful, committed, articulate women have been speaking out all along.”
She found many women “have been effective but just haven’t been included in history. They didn’t have the economic and political power. And Lucy was part African-American, though she publicly denied it early in her life. While often written off as the wife of one of the Haymarket martyrs, she mostly doesn’t get the credit or notoriety she deserves for her own work. . . . Certainly Haymarket was the pivotal event in her life. I believe Albert was unjustly hung, and her daughter died a couple years later due to poverty. I wanted to do a piece on a woman, her accomplishments, and to provide the community with information concerning how her life’s work surrounds important events both locally and nationally.”
Woodruff’s Spiral is the city’s only public artwork to commemorate a woman (that is, if you don’t count Suzanne Lacy’s temporary 1993 work, Full Circle, which consisted of 100 large rocks deposited around downtown; each rock identified a socially significant Chicago woman). It’s also among the few monuments in the area to honor the city’s richly contentious battles for the rights of workers and immigrants. But given Chicago’s refusal to acknowledge its labor history, it’s somewhat surprising Woodruff was able to do anything at all. The Park District never publicly expressed concern about the work’s potentially controversial content, but it nevertheless made it extremely difficult for Woodruff to erect her monument. A less determined person might have folded early in the game, but she played her cards right and finally won her tiny plot of Park District ground. Lucy Parsons would have admired Woodruff’s perseverance.
By 1890 Chicago was the nation’s second largest city, and almost 80 percent of its population had been in America for less than one generation. While the Tribune had started to refer to Lucy Parsons as “wildly ludicrous,” many came to see some truth in her pronouncements. The mainstream Times finally attacked “the arbitrary conduct of the Chicago police,” calling it a “more real danger to the republic than either the mouthings or the acts of a handful of anarchists who may be considered revolutionary in their designs. People who uphold lawlessness upon the part of public officials must expect that it will be combatted sooner or later in an equally lawless manner. The Chicago police department is not preventing, it is creating anarchy. This is a free country, and even Mrs. Parsons is entitled to her full rights.” Meanwhile, the city’s settlement house movement was started when Jane Addams opened Hull-House in 1889, an overdue acknowledgment that something had to be done to rectify the injustice of slum life.
In addition to her periodic speaking tours, Lucy Parsons went on to edit two short-lived newspapers: Freedom (1891-’92) and the Liberator (1905-’06). She opposed the Spanish-American war, and had her son, Albert Jr., committed to an insane asylum after he enlisted in the army. It must have been difficult to be the son of the famed anarchists; at the age of six, Albert Jr. was already the victim of a police beating. After graduating from high school, he became an office clerk and joined a spiritualist church, much to the horror of his mother. Although doctors found him to be mentally fit, the court allowed Albert Jr. to be confined to the Illinois Northern Hospital for the Insane, where he died 20 years later of tuberculosis. For Lucy Parsons, politics took precedence over personal affairs.
In 1905 she helped found the Industrial Workers of the World, along with Bill Haywood, Eugene Debs, and Mother Jones. Speaking at the group’s first convention in Chicago, Parsons championed the rights of children and prostitutes. “We, the women of this country, have no ballot even if we wished to use it,” she complained. She advocated free access to birth control and the right of women to seek divorce. During World War I, she organized the unemployed for the IWW in San Francisco and led hunger marches in Chicago.
Yet as socialist ideas gained ground in mainstream politics, Parsons realized she had become a marginal figure. Even during the Great Depression–when communist arguments were commonplace and the CIO undertook the sit-down strikes she advocated 30 years before–she wrote to an old ally, “The Roosevelt wind has blown the radical movement to hell! . . . Anarchism is a dead issue in American life today.” She would later wonder, “Have things gotten better or worse since you and I, 50 years ago, began to watch the human procession. . . . Have they become more humane, more Christlike, or are they a bunch of cold, brutal, heartless, cruel, money-mad maniacs?”
In 1942, at the age of 90, Parsons died in a house fire at 3130 N. Troy. The fire was modest, but she was blind and couldn’t escape the building. Her immense library of letters, manuscripts, and 3,000 books was barely damaged by the fire, but her executors found it missing when they came to claim it. Ben Reitman appealed to the head of the Police Department’s Red Squad, who claimed everything had been handed over to the FBI. No one knows what happened to her papers, denying history a better understanding of Lucy Parsons.
Her ashes were buried in a grave at Forest Park’s Waldheim Cemetery (now called Forest Home), next to the Haymarket Martyrs Monument, which she worked for six years to establish.
Woodruff’s efforts to get Spiral in Wicker Park took only about half that time. In 1991 Greg Chrobak, then supervisor of the park, said Woodruff could install a community art piece, but she didn’t decide to make it about Lucy Parsons until September 1992. After two neighborhood groups approved the project, Chrobak set up a meeting between Woodruff and Park District planning supervisor Julia Sniderman. She told Woodruff to bring a drawing and a written proposal to the next Public Art Advisory Committee (PAAC) meeting in November. Woodruff had also been told that she might need liability insurance, but that this stipulation might be waived because Spiral was a small community project by a local artist.
“We feel it’s important for local artists to work in neighborhood parks,” says Sniderman. “We don’t want to see a system develop where only rich people with clout and money get art in the parks. And art just shouldn’t be in Lincoln or Grant parks either.”
By November, Woodruff had received a Community Arts Assistance Program grant for Spiral, and she was shooting for a March 1993 installation date. “Greg thought it would be a piece of cake, but little did we know,” says Woodruff. “He thought it would take a couple weeks to get approval. I didn’t know I’d have to wait one-and-a-half years.”
At first it did appear to be a fairly simple task. Woodruff’s proposal was approved by PAAC with the condition that a legal contract would be drawn up later. During the meeting, however, Woodruff obtained a copy of a legal department memo regarding potential liability issues associated with temporary art on Park District property. Among other things, the “preliminary memorandum” stated that the Park District is “potentially liable for the actions of artists who do such work as designing, constructing, maintaining, supervising, and removing art projects on Park District property.” It advised PAAC to “require that the artist not only obtain insurance for herself but . . . that the Park District be a ‘named insured’ so that the insurance company would also defend any claim against the Park District.”
The memo said PAAC “should work to structure the Park District’s relationship with individual artists and projects so as to minimize the Park District’s legal liability and to protect its rights, just in case something goes wrong with the project.” Since a “volunteer artist” could be considered a Park District “employee,” the artist would have to be named an “independent contractor”; the Park District can’t be held liable for the actions of independent contractors.
The Park District’s lawyers wrote they were primarily concerned with the work’s “structural soundness, with its maintenance during its life, and with arrangements for its removal at the end of the agreement.” The project had to “be inspected by Park District personnel on a regular basis in order to detect and to correct any problems in the structure before possible injury.”
“My only concern was that the project got addressed in a timely way,” Woodruff says. “It seemed like they kept stalling and nobody wanted to make decisions. I was constantly told I was a small priority, that there were lots of other more important things happening.”
Sniderman, the planning department staffer who helped guide Woodruff through the Park District’s maze, concedes that the approval process for Spiral was bogged down by legal technicalities as well as by the fact that the Park District was still forming installation guidelines for temporary art; up until the creation of PAAC in August 1990, she says, no one department at the Park District had been assigned to deal with public art.
Woodruff hired a lawyer to help expedite the process, and on May 7, 1993, she received her first contract. But then unforeseen circumstances intervened. In late July Forrest Claypool was appointed the new Park District superintendent, and in August the Park District Board of Commissioners voted to deny an application to erect a statue in Humboldt Park honoring Puerto Rican nationalist Pedro Albizu Campos–even though the project had been supported by commissioner and PAAC chair Margaret Burroughs at the same meeting that granted Woodruff’s request. The controversy over the proposed statue occurred because Campos had been imprisoned twice in the 1950s for his alleged role in attacks on the U.S. government. Some members of the Puerto Rican community, however, pointed out the charges that Campos was a Marxist revolutionary were false and that he was never directly tied to acts of anti-American violence by Puerto Rican nationalists.
Lawsuits are still pending over the Campos statue flap, according to Sniderman; PAAC was disbanded soon after the August vote. “Lots of balls were left up in the air,” she says. This meant that the committee that had originally approved Woodruff’s project ten months earlier no longer existed. Sniderman told Woodruff that her project now had to go before the full Park District Board. It would’ve required their approval anyway, but the board was now involved in budget hearings and couldn’t tell Woodruff when Spiral would be on the agenda again. Woodruff was also told that the board had been cagey since the Campos incident and might not approve any new projects.
“It was totally frustrating,” says Woodruff. “I felt there should’ve been a system in place, that the project should’ve been addressed in some fashion after all of this. I didn’t even know when it would be on the agenda again–in two months, six months, whatever. It was like the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing. It seemed like the rules kept changing so often–they kept changing their mind for so many things–and I was always afraid something was going to happen, that it might never happen at all.”
In the meantime, Woodruff received a 1993 Regional Artists’ Projects grant from Randolph Street Gallery. The grant would enable her to purchase liability insurance and to hire an architect to make the required construction drawings; it would also cover some material and documentation costs. She had hoped to have it installed by September 1993, but now she had pushed the date back again to May 1, 1994.
In the fall of 1993, Woodruff sent letters to Edward Uhlir, assistant superintendent for research and planning (and Sniderman’s boss), requesting a meeting to discuss the Spiral project. In a November letter, she stated that she and her architect wanted to meet with Uhlir and the director of engineering to look over and approve the certified drawings. She also enclosed a summary of her insurance policy, which would name the Park District as an additional insured. “The installation’s projection date is for May 1, 1994, which is one year later than its original projection date,” she wrote. In December Woodruff once again appealed to Uhlir “to clarify and confirm a time schedule of the final procedures for the project’s approval or rejection. I am under a time restraints [sic] and need to plan for its installation in a Chicago Park Districts’ [sic] Park or I need to make other arrangements.”
Uhlir finally presented Spiral to a Park District Board of Commissioners meeting on December 20, 1993. Sniderman had urged Woodruff to attend the meeting too. During a half-hour debate, Woodruff says a new board member was “rude”; he “mocked” and “cut to shreds” the contract that the legal department had “fiddled with” for six months before sending it to her. “He said [the contract] was absolutely ridiculous,” Woodruff says. Sniderman–who wasn’t directly involved in the proceedings–says the board member’s reservations about the contract stemmed from “some points of legal stuff, liability stuff about the Park District being held harmless.”
Sniderman then ushered Woodruff in front of the board to defend her piece. “I was livid,” Woodruff says. “I was angry enough not to worry about speaking in a format that is intimidating to me. I just said I wanted to have a legal contract in place, that I needed a yes or no answer. I told them I was a local artist with a small grant, that it was a free art project promoting community involvement, that it wasn’t costing them anything, and to be held on a string was infuriating to me. I said I knew they were trying to give me a contract that was reasonable to them and to me, but it was your legal department that wrote this contract, and after waiting all this time you’re saying it’s unacceptable? I said that even though your contract only requires insurance for the construction period, I’m planning to insure the piece for the duration. The issue of the Campos statue was brought up, but I said I was only asking for a temporary piece, not a permanent one. I told them I wouldn’t wait much longer and that I was losing my patience. I just said I needed to know.”
“She gave an impassioned speech,” says Sniderman. “She was amazing. I told her I was really proud of her. We made her jump through every single hoop, and they would’ve voted it down.” After the Campos controversy, “their attitude was ‘We don’t want any more public art–that’s enough.’ But she had the whole thing turned around in ten minutes. Then they considered it a priority.”
“I actually amazed myself too,” says Woodruff.
The board voted to approve Spiral: Lucy E. Parsons’ Life in Chicago 1873-1942 with the condition that the contract be rewritten to provide insurance coverage for the duration. “It was never an issue of who Lucy Parsons was,” says Woodruff. “[Commissioner Margaret] Burroughs requested that I describe Lucy. I did, and said that nothing is very simple or easy about her.”
In January 1994 Woodruff received a new contract that called on her to provide a $1 million general liability insurance policy. As in the earlier contract, the Park District had to be named as “additional insured.”
“But then it became a controversy over the difference between ‘named insured’ and ‘additionally named,'” says Woodruff. “Someone in their legal department said it was unacceptable for them to be additionally named. They needed to be named insured. I didn’t understand, because I’d been told at the very beginning that the Park District had to be additionally named. I was dealing with all this jargonism, and I wondered, am I getting screwed? I was nervous because it might give me less coverage. This was stressful. I spent all this time being frantic.”
Then Woodruff discovered that the insurance company had stopped offering the kind of small policy she needed. She found a new insurer, which, she says, spent two months working out the policy terms with the Park District. “The insurance company told me that if I was paying for it, the Park District would have to be additionally named. Looking back, it was a problem that turned out not to be a problem.”
The more Woodruff thought about it, the more she resented having to buy insurance for the Park District. “The huge Park District is telling me I’d have to provide liability insurance that covers them, even though I’d be paying for it all,” she says. “I didn’t feel like they were working in my favor at all, that they were only trying to protect themselves. I’m not wealthy, I’m just trying to do community art.
“I understand why they’re making me buy insurance: If there was a lawsuit, nobody could get money from me–they’d go after the Park District because they have deep pockets. But I just thought they’d assume responsibility because I was doing it on their property. From my perspective, it seems like if they endorse a project they should have to pay something as well.” Woodruff’s lawyer James Snyder advised her to incorporate for legal protection.
“There’s a certain amount of risk involved in anything that the Park District does,” explains Snyder. “The Park District is a huge open wound of risk all the time. Zero risk would be to close all the parks. It was an issue of who’s going to take responsibility for the risks created by the sculpture. They wanted Marge to take those risks which, in the grand spectrum of their operation, are little things. But they’re huge, significant risks for Marge to assume. My point of view is that they could’ve assumed some additional risks–it should be part of their mission in providing park services.
“What it comes down to is, do they want art in the parks or don’t they?”
By January 1994 Woodruff finally felt confident enough to begin working on the spiral bench and the conversation box. In May, however, she realized, “I underestimated the amount of work involved on the project. I thought I could’ve gotten it done sooner. Every part of the process became more complicated. I kept adding more details. It was a struggle–a hard but valuable process.”
She constructed Spiral at a variety of locations: her apartment, her basement studio, the Emerson House, and at Lill Street Studios, where she glazed and fired the hand-lettered clay tiles. The piece presented many challenges: she had to teach herself how to press typefaces into clay, figure out how the text would fit on each of the 200-plus tiles, and make sure that the text and ceramic tiles would fit evenly on the spiral bench. “It was a technical nightmare because of the shrinkage of the clay, the length of the text, the amount of physical space available,” she says. Pressing the words in English was daunting enough; Woodruff opted to add script in Polish and Spanish, the other two languages commonly spoken in the neighborhood.
“I didn’t realize how much longer [the translated sections] were,” she says. “With direct translations, they took five or six inches longer per tile section, and some of the story had to be edited to fit the bench without changing the content.” Just working with the text alone required the help of graphic designers, historians, translators, and editors.
“There was so much information, and I had to keep limiting it,” she says. “It was impossible, a real battle. I wanted to put things on the bench that didn’t sound great about her–she did have character flaws–but I didn’t have enough room. True heroes are human beings too, and Lucy wasn’t perfect. The idea was to give people a taste of history, to tickle people’s interest, so that they’d maybe start reading about it themselves, just as I did.”
Woodruff was coincidentally connected to her subject when she purchased typeface at the Acme Type Foundry. The foundry’s owner put her in touch with a friend of his, a retired labor lawyer, who had made a home movie of Lucy Parsons speaking at a May Day rally in 1941. Woodruff got a chance to see it. The short clip showed Lucy in one of her last public appearances, addressing strikers at the International Harvester plant, successor to the old McCormick reaper factory. On May 3, 1886, police attacked locked-out workers at the south-side plant, an action that resulted in the fateful Haymarket Square rally the following evening.
But Woodruff’s efforts to get Spiral in Wicker Park–“I couldn’t imagine it in a different place,” she says–hadn’t cleared all the Park District hurdles yet. In July 1994 she met with Park District architects and engineers for a final approval of the certified architectural drawings. But the engineers didn’t want the conversation box anchored by boulders (it might fall over), and they wanted a series of metal rods connecting the two layers of the bench (the top layer might buckle). She had already started making payments on a $650-a-year insurance policy.
Woodruff made changes to comply with the engineers’ requests, but she didn’t submit the final revised drawings until early December of last year. “Part of that was my fault,” she says. “I just finished the final translations at the end of August. I was overwhelmed by technical problems, and I can’t blame them for that. I really didn’t complete the piece right up to the very end.” Woodruff received her installation permit in December and a third and final contract in March 1995. All the paperwork was completed by the end of the month. “It was the first time I signed anything,” she says.
“I realize that they had legitimate legal concerns and I understand that you have to go through all this stuff,” Woodruff says. “But it was just a mailbox and a bench. What could go wrong? If they valued the project, it baffled me that they didn’t make a commitment to it . . . . As a community artist, I don’t have access to the same resources that a large organization like Sculpture Chicago or a corporation would have to commission large pieces.”
Sniderman says she sympathized with Woodruff’s frustration. “It must’ve been an interesting process for her to learn that we just can’t stick a piece of public art in a place. But it was kind of a timing thing too. If she would’ve come to us six months before, she could’ve been told to go forward.”
In one of her grant proposals, Woodruff stressed that Spiral would not be a corporately funded public art piece. The final irony, she says, is that she had to become a corporation (“M.J.W. Installations”) for legal protection. “If I’d known I had all this time, I would’ve become a not-for-profit,” she says.
One of the upshots of Woodruff’s ordeal is that the Park District Board recently voted to approve a new set of public-art policy guidelines, limiting the approval process to 120 days.
While installing the bench, Woodruff discovered that it promoted conversation; the spiral shape encourages people to sit across from, rather than beside, each other. “I’ve seen people read it and then sit on it,” she says. “It’s amazing that people are talking to each other and to me about it. The park people tell me who’s coming by, how many people are reading it. It’s been wonderful building relationships with the park people, because otherwise I may not have met them or had a reason to talk to them.”
Woodruff says she hasn’t received many notes in the conversation box. But she has one carefully handwritten note left recently by “Corinne.” It reads: “I’ve been very moved by this work of art telling me Lucy Parsons’ story in her own neighborhood. I also want to register that at least 8 individuals or groups read her story, most in detail, while I sat nearby. None of us ever heard of Lucy Parsons before this! It surely jolts me to search within for where my own fire for justice lies and how I can fan it into flame.”
Woodruff reflects, “If she’s inspired to do something, that’s how history gets changed. It makes me feel like I was effective in communicating to another person–I touched a person’s life, and they took the energy to respond. Lucy and this piece certainly enriched my life, and I feel the struggle has been worth it. Now it’s affecting others. I want to effect change too, take my passion and resources to make a better life for people in poverty, and this is the only way I know how to do it. Maybe they’ll find a way with their resources to make an impact for change as well. What more could I expect? That would be the greatest compliment I could get. I think Lucy would be proud.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yael Routtenberg.