Grace Lai was perched on a stool next to a fire hydrant near State and Grand the wintry afternoon when I first noticed her. Surround-ed by plastic bags, she looked plump and misshapen in her multiple layers of winter clothing. Strapped securely under her chin was a bright plastic hard hat. On her lap she balanced a sketch pad that boasted a watercolor of the new American Medical Association building under construction across the street from where she sat. She was talented, all right. But I still figured she was loony.
Grace Lai, it turns out, is actually a very nice middle-aged woman who lives in Sandburg Village, volunteers spare hours at social service organizations, and visits her grown son whenever she can. She just happens to enjoy dressing up in five shirts, a couple pairs of pants, three pairs of socks, rubberized boots, thick gloves, a scarf or two, and a hard hat so she can go out in subfreezing temperatures to paint pictures of construction sites and the (mostly) guys who work at them.
“Gracie? She’s a beautiful little lady,” said the elevator operator who took me up to meet her at work one recent morning. He hollered over the roaring motor as we clunked up the side of the new AMA building in jumpy fits and starts. You don’t want to look down when you’re riding in an elevator like that. Luckily, you don’t have to, because the interior is encased in plywood beaten and dirtied by the thousands of tons of steel, wire, plaster, insulation, and who knows what else that’s lugged up in it one load at a time.
Up on the 27th floor, I walk past a maze of stacked-up metal heating vents, around big pools of collected rainwater, and find her huddled near a bank of windows. She has been working here for several days on a panoramic view facing east. The windows–or more correctly, she explains after motioning me to sit on a wooden wire spool beside hers, the “curtain wall”–were just re-cently put up. A good thing, too. It’s awfully cold and “blowy” working on a floor without windows, she says.
Which is not to say that it’s not cold right now. It’s no more than 30 degrees in this vast unheated space of raw concrete. I’m wearing several layers of clothing topped with a plastic hard hat too. Now I too look like somebody who ought to be pushing
a beat-up grocery cart. My hands in ski gloves are already going numb, while Lai’s hands, tiny and bare, patiently apply lines of pale-green watercolor to a pen-and-ink sky-scape of tall buildings. It’s a beautiful day. The sky is bright blue, with clouds stretching lazily from the Tribune Tower to someplace over bungalows on the northwest side.
This is all pretty new to her, Lai says. Her first career was that of a cost accountant. Then she met her husband, who had been an artist. Together they ran a busy art studio on Hubbard Street. He was the art director. She did lettering, stencils, and silk-screening but couldn’t design worth a darn.
“Your whole life can change in an instant,” she says, applying a yellowish wash that brings up the light in the marble-sided building in her sketch. “One day five years ago my husband died. You can sit and cry all you want, but that ain’t it. You gotta pick yourself up.”
Lai wanted to be an artist, too. “But I always remember his telling me, ‘Honey, your perspective is terrible.'” She laughs, a frequent little laugh that sings. Two weeks after her husband’s death her son, a graphic artist, took steps to close the studio and start supporting her while she, then in her mid-50s, signed up for three years of study at the American Academy of Art, on South Michigan.
She took the bus to school every day. After classes, in order to beat the crowds at rush hour, she showed up extra early at the bus stop and waited. Nearby, at the corner of LaSalle and Adams, a building was going up. One day she pulled out a sketch pad.
“Everyone has a love affair with construction sites,” she says. “People are always gawking. But who ever stops to draw them? I started sketching. The guys working there looked and looked and looked. One day, I was leaning up right against the wire fence when one of the building engineers came by and kind of liked what he saw. Pretty soon another guy said, ‘Come on, the head honcho wants to see you. The field supervisor.’ And they let me into the building to draw whatever I liked.”
Lai has worked in three different buildings now. What she likes to draw are naked steel beams marked with mysterious number-and-letter codes like 6INS45 South and spray-painted “Happy Birthday Steve.” She likes to draw interlocking pieces of wooden scaffolding molded around a building’s top as it rises up floor by floor out of a big hole in the ground. She likes to draw construction equipment–earth movers and concrete pourers and cranes. She likes to draw laborers burrowing and hammering and drilling and gliding in perfect balance across a girder.
“These things are all so beautiful!” she says. “Have you ever seen how the welders sit, the way they patiently wait, the way they toss those hot bolts up and catch them in their buckets? I mean, if you really look, that’s fabulous. And if it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t have any buildings, you know.”
One of the foremen walks our way and calls out a friendly hello. You know he’s a foreman, Grace says, because he’s walking around; the laborers are always working furiously unless it’s break time. Or unless they’re modeling for her.
“How you be?” Lai greets him. He’s tall and solid, with a ruddy, weathered complexion. He peers at her painting over her shoulder. “Nice,” he says.
Suddenly, water pours down in sheets through a crack overhead that runs the length of the curtain wall. Someone on the 28th floor is sweeping puddles.
“Yaaaa! Quick! Get up! Move back!” Grace hollers to me, jumping up with her pad and pulling her spool several feet from the window. Another sheet of water splashes down. “Stop! Stop!” she is yelling. Both of us run back and forth, moving her plastic box of watercolors, her plastic garbage bag of extra clothes, her big black portfolios wrapped in plastic bags and strapped to a metal luggage cart.
The foreman moves to the curtain wall. “Hey!” he hollers up through the crack. “Don’t come any farther! Gracie’s working right here!”
“No, go ahead and finish!” Lai calls out. “Go ahead and get it over with!”
“No, you’re gonna get Gracie all wet!” the foreman hollers. “Don’t come any farther!”
Nobody answers from up there, but they must have heard, because the splashing stops.
“It’s like having an adopted family,” she says. “Somebody who doesn’t know me might see me and ask, ‘Hey, what’s she doing here?’ thinking I’m a spy or something. But somebody else will say, ‘Don’t worry, she’s OK.'”
We settle in again and she returns to her painting. She is mixing shades of black for the sides of the John Hancock Building.
“After you’ve done a couple of Hancocks you get more comfortable with it,” she says. “But it’s different every time. It gets quite complicated. It has lights and darks even in your dark area, and you have to show some reflection. But it’s a challenge. You make friends with the building, find out what’s going on. Like my instructor always used to say, ‘Grace, smile at it.'”
The things Lai is smiling at today are a far cry from scenes her instructor was referring to during watercolor classes. “We painted barns. And water streams. To tell you the truth, I just can’t get excited over the side of the barn. These buildings communicate with you. You have to walk around and look at them and see what it is, figure out what’s going on.
“Buildings are like people. They have little bits of personality, and if you miss it, you ain’t got the building. You gotta make friends with them.”
Speaking of friends, she says, some of hers think she’s a little bit crazy. They think she should retire. “But, God, on what?” she asks. “I’m not old enough for widow’s benefits. So I’ve just had to figure out what I could do.”
What she does is photographically reproduce her completed paintings in assorted sizes. Then, with the blessings of the construction company and the developer, she sells them to the construction workers. Her work goes for $14 to $40 per photograph, depending on the size. With that price comes a personalized pen-and-ink-and-watercolor wash of the purchaser’s portrait in the corner, labeled with his name and trade. The workers save their coffee breaks for coffee, so she and the foremen have an agreement: the workers can model for her if and only if she can capture their heads in no more than two and a half minutes. She has learned to work very fast, and to satisfy special requests. Once in a while she will “shave” a guy who’s showing the stubble of an unshaven beard. Or she will give a guy with long hair a “haircut.” And then there are the elevator operators. “Every elevator operator has a picture of his dog,” she says. “‘Here’s my dog,’ they’ll say. ‘Put my dog in the picture.’ So I do.”
Sometimes a group of workers will pool their money to commission a portrait of their particular trade: steelworkers, plumbers, tile setters. For the right price, she’ll sell the original piece of artwork. The construction company itself has asked her to do a painting, though they haven’t yet decided on precisely what view.
At her last site, the Leo Burnett building, the managers gave Lai a plywood-and-Plexiglas display case along a hallway. Later this month, she’ll be showing one of her watercolors at a group show at the Palette & Chisel Academy, an organization of her artist peers. But for the most part, when it comes to marketing her work, she’s on her own.
Around some corner here on the 27th floor, a couple of the guys are yelping playfully. It’s their way of talking to each other, she explains. “They’re really like a bunch of little kids.” Now they are whistling. You will notice, she says, that once a woman is on site, they will never whistle at her. It’s an unwritten rule. They only whistle at women walking by outside. Once, she recalls, a few guys asked her to make cards numbered six through ten. “They’d whistle at a girl and hold up a number. No girl is ever less than a six, they said.”
Grace is still painting away, but I’m getting cold and starting to shiver. She takes a momentary break to offer me a vitamin-C-and-zinc pill. She pops one into her mouth. She’s still healthy as ever, she says, thanks to vitamins, petroleum jelly, and bundling up. In the summer, she covers herself with sunscreen and carries an umbrella that she ties to the nearest beam.
She is mixing shades of brown now to fill in colors on the arched crown of the new Michigan Avenue Hyatt. Pointing toward the window, she shows me a crane atop another building under construction, its loaded jaw smoothly descending along a skeleton of new beams and concrete.
“What beautiful machines, cranes,” she says. “They have a life all their own. Did you know that a crane takes itself apart? You should see it. You should just see it.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.