Chapman Kelley hates grass–the clipped kind that grows on everybody’s lawn. As he puts it, it speaks of an unhealthy society where conformity reigns and individuals are enslaved to the lawn mower.
Kelley paints wildflowers, and he thinks that real wildflowers could save the world. Or at least supplant grass, save energy, and serve as a telling metaphor for a whole lot of other things that need rethinking, like nuclear-waste dumps, education, transportation, government systems. Things like that.
Chapman Kelley is a revolutionary in the tradition of Buckminster Fuller (with whom he studied), and since 1957 he’s been one of those rare artists who support themselves by selling their paintings.
Several years ago, after two successful wildflower garden exhibits in Dallas, the native Texan came to Chicago at the behest of his patrons Bonnie and John Swearingen. Kelley received a permit from the Chicago Park District to plant a wildflower garden on one and a half acres of land atop the Grant Park parking garage.
Everything was rosy in the beginning. “Ed Kelly and Mayor Washington were in the columns every day arguing about who would dedicate the garden to which veterans on Memorial Day,” the artist recalls. “The state of Illinois passed a bill commending it; Mayor Washington carried a photo essay on it to the mayor of Osaka, and when Washington was reinaugurated they handed out packets of wildflower seeds along with information on his programs. The New York Times did a big article. It was in Le Figaro, Reader’s Digest; Reuters had a story; so did Cable Network News . . .”
But 1988 was the year of the big wilt for Kelley and his flowers, and it had nothing to do with the drought. “It was politics, pure politics,” as Kelley interprets it. Park District Commissioner Walter Netsch, once as big a devotee of his blooms as the next guy, was suddenly ordering Kelley to change the garden to fit his specifications.
Kelley, however, views his garden as art, pure art, and nobody’s going to tell him how to alter a painting, even if he is using city land for a canvas.
When Kelley refused to comply, Netsch ordered him to remove the garden, and when Kelley didn’t do that, Netsch had the garden condemned,
“The poor thing sat up there in a condemned state all summer,” Kelley says.
Kelley doesn’t think the battle was really about flowers.
Netsch’s complaints were too varied and numerous to amount to much more than excuses, says Kelley. “First he said the foundation formed to support the project wasn’t supporting it. Which wasn’t true. Then he said the garden wasn’t being properly maintained. That had been a problem in 1986, when I was busy with a major exhibition, but I’d corrected it to the satisfaction of the chief horticulturist. Then he said the flowers couldn’t possibly grow above the garage, but of course they were growing there. Then he wanted me to change the configuration and put something in the center that would look like a symbol he designed at the University of Illinois Circle campus.
Telephoned at his office for his side of the story, Netsch declined to comment.
“The garden got so much publicity around the world, some people decided they would take it over . . . and they persuaded Netsch to support them, that’s what was really going on,” says the outspoken artist. “Once princes and popes exploited artists; now it’s businessmen, socialites, and politicians.”
The people and the media rallied behind the artist. Somebody formed a support group that collected 5,000 signatures in a few weeks. The Chicago Artists Coalition came forward; so did the Sierra Club. There were demonstrations, public hearings, and Kelley filed a First Amendment lawsuit in federal court. The Tribune and the Sun-Times editorialized in Kelley’s favor, and Walter Jacobson did two irate Perspectives on the subject in one week, even giving Netsch’s phone number out over the air.
When the dust settled Kelley had his garden back, and a contract for another one in 1989, on the condition he drop his federal suit. Which he did.
But you can look for Kelley to be at the center of another crusade in 1989. He’s currently at work on a collection of paintings depicting a series of islands off the shore of Lake Michigan–an archipelago, if you will. He hopes the paintings will eventually serve as a blueprint for the real thing.
“Instead of building higher and higher cement walls, and paying higher and higher sums to maintain them, we can construct an archipelago that will add something of beauty to the city, provide additional recreation land, and at the same time serve as a natural solution to lakefront erosion.”
Kelley estimates the cost of building the islands to be a third of the $850 million now needed to repair concrete retaining walls along the lakefront. And he thinks the project could attract corporate support. “Just imagine,” he says, dreaming of an archipelago Christmas, “Amoco Island, Pritzker Peninsula . . .”
An exhibit of Kelley’s watercolor archipelago is scheduled for June at the Jan Cicero Gallery.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Carol Kyros Walker.