Somebody stole the bottles from eight of Derek Webster’s “bottle trees” in Douglas Park. The bottles can be replaced, he says, but the new ones won’t be as nice. “They were some of the biggest bottles you’d want to see,” he says. “I feel so badly about those bottle trees over there. I never had nothing stolen before.”

The bottle trees were set up in flower beds as part of the Park District’s “Art in the Garden” series. The trunks are made of aluminum downspouts, the branches of metal conduit and wooden rods. It’s easy to see how the bottles were taken–the mouths are simply shoved over the ends of the branches, like big glass blossoms ripe for plucking.

Webster, who’s 70, says he rarely comes across such large bottles anymore. “When I was working as a janitor it was pretty easy,” he says. But he retired from his job at the Onterie Center five years ago, and he now finds most of his art supplies–bottle caps, soda cans, driftwood–when he goes fishing.

Back in the late 70s, when Webster first started creating sculptures for the garden at his house on the corner of 97th and Lowe, he knew nothing about art, nothing about sculpture. “I couldn’t even drive a nail,” he says. He did know about flowers–as a boy, he’d been taught by his mother to tend a garden, and he’s loved flowers ever since. After he moved into his house he planted petunias, marigolds, lilies, snapdragons, and bachelor’s buttons. “Now I want to put something in between the flowers, but I don’t know what to do,” he says. “I want to see statues somewhere, but I don’t know how to build no statues. So I think about it. Many times I have a headache, I can’t sleep.” The inspiration finally came in a dream that woke him up at three in the morning. “I come in the yard and say, ‘I got it now.'”

He created one big piece after another–whirligigs, painted figures, a post with wings–and stuck them in planters in the garden and on the side of the house. They drew the attention of art dealer Paul Waggoner, who stopped by with another collector one day and quizzed Webster about his work. “They asked me, ‘Do you know you’re an artist?’ I said no. They said, ‘Yeah, you’re an artist.'”

Webster was 48 years old at the time. He was born in Honduras in 1934, and his family moved to Belize when he was three. His earliest memory is of a drunk lying in the street there, money visible in his pocket. “And nobody bothers him,” he says. “It was a really nice country at that time.” When he was 23 he shipped out of Belize on a banana boat, and by the time he turned 30 he was working on a tanker as a quartermaster. “The captain used to like me to steer the ship when we’d go into port,” he recalls. In 1964 he came to Chicago to visit his sister. “She got me a visa,” he says. “Then I met a buddy of mine, and he tried to encourage me–he said, ‘Come on! Stay, man!'”

The buddy got him a job, and the downstairs neighbor at his second apartment anchored him in Chicago for good. They married and in 1978 bought the house at 97th and Lowe. They still live there with their daughter and two grandchildren. His daughter helps take care of his wife, who has Alzheimer’s. He has diabetes.

Webster’s art fills his home. In the garage are six chairs he found in the alley, all painted and decorated with buttons, beads, bottle caps, and flattened Coke and Budweiser cans. Inside the house is a dining-room table covered with bead-encrusted plates and teapots. At the entrance to the living room is a life-size wooden figure of a man wearing a cap made from a Play-Doh container, and several more figures stand over a coffee-table display of decorated coffee cans. In the basement are at least 50 brightly painted, four- to six-foot wooden sculptures, surrounded by shorter figures on shelves and cabinet tops. “Every day I come down the stairs and say good morning to them,” he says. His daughter tells him that’s crazy, but he says as long as they don’t start saying “good morning” back to him, he isn’t worried.

All these pieces are new, but Webster insists he’s slowed down. “Since I retired I say, ‘Oh, tomorrow I have time. Now I don’t feel like it today.’ But when I was working I would work on something every day.”

A few years ago a friend gave Webster a canvas to paint, but it sat in a corner of the basement. “It was down there by the refrigerator,” he says. “He made many trips over here, and I’d feel very embarrassed the canvas is still here. I think about it many times, and then it comes to me.” The canvas is still in the basement, but now it’s covered with animals “and funny-looking people,” his first painting on a flat surface.

Webster has long been popular with outsider-art collectors, and Marilyn Houlberg, an ardent fan who teaches at the Art Institute, recently put together a retrospective of his work. “I wanted to honor Derek while he was still very much with us,” she says. “Vibrant Spirits: The Art of Derek Webster,” a show of around 70 pieces, opened July 8 at Intuit. Including the bottle trees and an exhibit at the Lincoln Park Conservatory, well over 100 of his works are now on display around the city.

The Park District approached Webster last fall about creating an installation, then took him to Douglas Park to show him the flower beds he’d be adding to. “I was a little bit nervous,” he says. “I never do nothing for a park before. But I think about it. They like the idea of my bottle trees.” He never expected the trees would become easy pickings for recyclers, who’ve plucked what amounts to a couple of dollars’ worth of bottles off the trees. “Oh man,” he says, “did I love those bottles.”

“Vibrant Spirits: The Art of Derek Webster” runs through October 2 at Intuit, 756 N. Milwaukee, 312-243-9088. The artist will attend the opening, Thursday, July 8, from 5 to 8 PM. The gallery’s regular hours are noon to 5 Wednesday through Saturday.

The works at the Lincoln Park Conservatory will be there through September 26, the bottle trees at Douglas Park through October 31; 312-742-7529.

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