By Ted Shen

The 70 or so sculptures that dot the north channel of the Chicago River between Touhy and Dempster look forlorn next to the whizzing traffic on McCormick Boulevard. Some motorists might gawk, but not many pull into one of two small parking lots for a closer look. Most are probably unaware that the Skokie Northshore Sculpture Park is the largest municipal space for outdoor art in the state–it’s two miles long–or that it’s one of only a few such spaces in the nation.

Fifteen years ago this stretch by the river looked “terrible, torn up by the Deep Tunnel project. It was an eyesore,” says Sheila Oettinger, a Skokie sculptor who sits on the park’s board of directors. It was then that Joe Folise–another sculptor and an administrator in the engineering department of the village of Skokie–came up with the idea of the park. He recalls thinking, “Why not landscape this barren piece of property and put sculptures on it, like what Fel-Pro did with the parcel across McCormick from its headquarters?”

A manufacturer of automotive parts, Fel-Pro was then celebrated as one of the most progressive companies in the country: it had day care and fitness centers and offered unusual perks, such as an extra day’s pay and free lunch on an employee’s birthday and a check for a wedding, retirement, or death in the family. Even more unusual, the company put a sculptor, Ted Gall, on the payroll in the mid-60s. Oettinger explains that Lewis Weinberg–then head of the company and now a major influence on the park’s expansion–was an art collector with a special interest in sculpture.

Weinberg joined Fel-Pro in 1938, when the family-owned firm was called Felt Products Manufacturing Company. It had been started 20 years earlier by Hugo Herz and his son-in-law Albert Mecklenburger to make gaskets and washers for Model T Fords. A graduate of Northwestern’s business school, Weinberg married one of Mecklenburger’s daughters; after a period of apprenticeship, he ran Fel-Pro with the other son-in-law, Elliot Lehman, for decades. He hired Gall to create sculptural works using Fel-Pro materials and parts. One steel piece about 15 feet tall depicts people holding gaskets; another, ensconced in the company cafeteria, represents the history of Fel-Pro. The Gall piece that inspired Folise (now part of the park’s collection) was Groundbreaker, a squiggly, graceful form in steel that suggests portions of a gasket morphed, welded together, and half buried in the ground.

When Folise approached Skokie village manager Al Rigoni with his park proposal, Rigoni recalls that he was only too glad for the opportunity “to do something with that mess.” The village quickly worked out a deal with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, which owns the property. “Basically we offered to be responsible for the upkeep, and they didn’t have any objections to that,” he says. As for putting sculptures on the grass, he thought it’d be “a painless way to expose people to art.” But finding the money for maintenance and working out the logistics of selection took time. “There were a lot of political dealings between the village and a cadre of about 15 Skokie residents,” Oettinger says. Folise–who served as a liaison between the village and that group–burned out after a while, though he stayed on the board until last year.

When Oettinger found out about the park, shortly after it was incorporated in 1988, there were only a handful of sculptures on the grounds, whose boundary has gradually moved north as more land has been cleared and seeded with grass. Oettinger, wanting to contribute a sculpture, approached Folise. “Joe did the lion’s share of the nuts and bolts, and he dealt with the artists,” she remembers. “But he didn’t get back to me for a long time. Finally I got a call from him.” She made a piece tailored to the curve of the lawn, a large stoneware statue of a voluptuous standing woman ennobled by her proud, serene demeanor. Reverie was installed in the fall of 1994, and when Oettinger joined the park’s board a year later, she donated it–there are about 20 pieces in the park’s permanent collection. Being a board member, she says, doesn’t take a lot. “Dedication to the arts, a sincere desire to improve the environment, a willingness to participate in outreach programs.” There are now 11 board members, 3 of whom are artists; each has a work on display.

The board’s agenda has always been straightforward. “First of all we want to encourage Chicago-area sculptors, but we also want an international cast,” Oettinger says. The current collection includes 26 pieces by Illinois artists, 29 by U.S. artists outside Illinois, and 13 by international artists. “Next we look for those with a track record of creating large-scale public works.” Some of the selection criteria are practical. “Obviously a piece needs to be outdoors and able to be secured down. It should stand up to the elements.” The park’s selection committee, which consists of all three sculptors plus one additional board member, “considers factors such as compatibility with other pieces already there–and taste,” says Oettinger. “We’re fairly open-minded, but we wouldn’t accept something that resembles a swastika. It sort of boils down to ‘I don’t know what’s good but I know what I like.'”

Trained at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the School of the Art Institute, where she received an MFA, Oettinger describes herself as a figurative sculptor. She’s been working for over two decades and has pieces at the University of Wisconsin’s Whitewater campus and in Highland Park and Normal. In fact she’s gotten commissions throughout the midwest–“a statue here, a bust there, all representational,” she says. Large public art projects have been few and far between, however. It took a long time to put up Reverie–she did a series of maquettes–and she appreciates the fact that it’s now on permanent display. Other artists began to donate pieces too, and the park board picked up the tab for moving and installation. “Nowadays we pay a stipend in some cases,” she says.

By 1995 the number of sculptures on display was about 20, most owned by the park. It was then that village manager Rigoni wrote to Weinberg. “He asked me if I’d be involved with the park,” says Weinberg. “How could I refuse?” He’d retired from Fel-Pro by then and moved back to Chicago after having lived outside San Diego, where he’d gotten bored. He was immediately appointed president. Rigoni sought out Weinberg partly for his business acumen, partly for his love of art. But Weinberg’s well-known collection of outdoor sculpture by the likes of Gall and Robert Mangold was also a factor. “The northern two blocks of the park looked rather empty,” Rigoni says. “We needed more pieces.”

Weinberg long ago toyed with the idea of becoming a sculptor himself. His mother was drawn to the arts and took him to the opera and the Art Institute when he was a child. He played the trumpet at Senn High School in the early 30s. But he didn’t really pursue music or art back then and now declares he’s glad he went into business. “My life has been rewarding. I helped grow a company from $400,000 in revenues in 1938 to over $1 billion when I became chairman emeritus. And I’ve taught [a management course] at the University of Chicago.”

With the help of his wife, Sylvia, an art reference librarian, Weinberg began collecting sculpture almost four decades ago, putting some of the pieces in the ample yard of his Winnetka home. Gall taught him how to cast in metal–Weinberg even enrolled at the School of the Art Institute in the early 80s, when he was in his 60s. But he admits he’s “a half-assed sculptor.” And his small works are not represented in the park.

In 1985, when he turned 70, Weinberg began to spend more time in his winter home in Ramona, on the outskirts of San Diego. Over the next decade he bought more sculpture–advised by Gall, who’d quit Fel-Pro and also moved to California–and placed it on his 50 acres, essentially creating his own sculpture garden dotted with curved pines and bonsai. Eventually, Weinberg says, he “owned and had on consignment about 100 major pieces, half of them by artists with international reputations like Robert Mangold, Jim Gallucci, and Mike Baur. I didn’t chase after any Calders or Moores because I didn’t have that kind of money and I felt I should support sculptors on their way up.”

At the time Weinberg was approached by the park board, he was about to disperse his collection. He’d sold his San Diego home–the Winnetka home was long gone–and moved into Lake Point Tower, so he no longer had space for the outdoor pieces. “I gave nine more to the park”–he’d donated three already–“and a couple more to the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie,” he says, adding that some sculptures remain in the Ramona garden. In one fell swoop the Skokie Northshore Sculpture Park collection increased by 50 percent, with “most of the cutting-edge installations, from the sublime to the ridiculous, plunked down in its north half,” Weinberg says, chuckling.

About a dozen pieces have been added each year since 1996, including a bunch from Navy Pier–part of the Pier Walk exhibit, which changes each summer–that were not retrieved by the sculptors who made them. “We offered a deal to the artists–most of them from countries like Mexico, Germany, Australia–as we’ve done with local artists,” says Oettinger. “They can put their works in the park on loan, and we pay for the expenses. In return we get a percentage when a work is sold. We plow that money back into our budget.” Adds Weinberg: “We almost function as dealers–except we’re low-key salesmen.” Oettinger says that the selection committee is likely to take in more work from Navy Pier at the end of this summer. “It’s not easy for these artists to transport their sculptures back home, you know.”

Weinberg and Rigoni both say they’re pleased with the expansion to the current 68 pieces but dismayed by the lack of public awareness. “By all rights it should be classified as one of the principal cultural attractions in the state,” says Weinberg. “We’ve even put up a Web site [] that has photographs of all the individual pieces.”

Michael Lash, director of public art for the city of Chicago, has visited the park and has a slightly different point of view. While respectful of what Skokie has done, he says, “I feel the space is a little awkward, meandering along the river.” The parking lots are small and difficult to get to, he says. And “in terms of quality, it’s hit-and-miss–like any assortment of public art. There are probably about 30 good pieces, but nothing like the Ellsworth Kelly we have in Lincoln Park, at Fullerton and Cannon Drive.”

Another complaint about the Skokie pieces, voiced by Lash and others, is their aesthetic conservatism–though the park certainly has its share of abstract works. “Yes, there’s always a need for monuments, for generals on horseback,” says Lash. “And we have a lot of those in Chicago. But around the turn of the 20th century, we moved toward art for art’s sake. Look at the Picasso at the Daley Center. What is it but womanhood in its pure form? And it’s memorable. Or look at Maya Lin’s Vietnam memorial. Those reflecting granite slabs are so simple yet say so much. Or the Holocaust memorial in Boston, which envelops you in heat rising from the ground. Or the Anish Kapoor commission for Chicago’s Millennium Park, in which you can see yourself and the city behind you distorted as if in a fun house mirror.”

Lash thinks a sculpture park would be a “great thing for Chicago to have,” but in his mind it ought to be more than just “sculptures, shrubs, and trees. It should be daring and have some sort of organizing principle.” The Skokie Northshore Sculpture Park has a ways to go, he says, yet he likes the idea of people walking leisurely through miles of art without having to pay for the privilege or bear the scrutiny of security guards.

On a recent gorgeous Sunday the Skokie sculpture park had several visitors. Joggers wound through its paths, surprising strollers here and there. Some kids ran around Gall’s pair of red steel stallions, and a man looked perplexedly at Bruce Johnson’s Walking Stone, which might be some creature’s foot in sandals. A young woman seemed entranced by Yoshitada Ihara’s Japanese Garden, four arrangements of stones on raked sand.

On a previous tour of the park I’d asked Weinberg–who goes there regularly, often bringing friends–how he’d come to love sculpture, especially the outdoor variety. “Many, many years ago, I was intrigued by the shapes of the scraps of metal Fel-Pro used to make gaskets,” he said. “So I learned how to weld, how to put these pieces together for the pure aesthetic pleasure. When I started assembling the collection in my Winnetka backyard, I realized that there’s tremendous beauty in the way sculptures blend with nature, with the trees and bushes. It’s a revelation I want to share with people.”

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