Anonymous Art Gallery
Chicago is home to what might be the greatest collection of outdoor stone carving in urban America. Few know it exists. And now the government is wiping much of it out.
The carvings, cut into giant limestone blocks that line the city's lakefront, span decades, styles and themes. Some amount to traditional graffiti initials or lover's hearts, though occasionally on the complex side. Early initials can serve as points of attraction for later memorialists, with dozens of letters and names sometimes accumulating on a single stone.
Remarkably, this kind of graffiti is not as common as fully realized images, which range in size from inches to several square feet. The most visible of these art works are paintings and drawings. Numerous cartoon characters are depicted, along with landscapes, abstracts and other subjects. But these have a life span sharply limited by the elements, however, and even the more recent examples exist in various degrees of fade.
Most of the art that survives along the lake is carved into the stone. There are numerous faces, profile and frontal; several bathing beauty miniatures; abstracts; and architectural renderings. A menagerie of animals includes fish and birds, a sphinx, lions and horses. Their style and weather-smoothed edges indicate that many were executed toward the middle of the last century or earlier.
Some carvings are thematic, at times cryptic. One shows a TV set, a dollar sign on its screen and NIX$ON (sic) engraved underneath. Just to the right someone has chiseled "Dead Ha-Ha" under the three crosses of Calvary, and to the right of that is a fish -- all on the same stone block.
Some material is more recent than the Nixon commentary. The relatively sharp edges and stylization of a graffiti-obscured crucifixion are signs of recent creation, and one carver who makes elaborate images in an Mayan style was seen producing in the 1990s.
It's ironic that these artistic treasures are part of the city's best-known amenity, the lakefront, yet remain almost invisible. Aron Packer has exhibited his photos of the work, written about it, and given walking tours, but his efforts amount to the only apparent public recognition. Hundreds of thousands of people picnic, sun and stroll by the lake, but it's doubtful that more than a few have noticed what they sit or step on.
Not counting, of course, the many unknown artists who left their marks along the miles of limestone. At one hot spot, Foster Avenue Beach, well over 50 carvings, plus paintings, line a mile-long stretch. Dozens more can still be found just south of Montrose and north of Diversey. Some are clearly the result of casual scratching at the stone. Others reflect sustained efforts. Either way, the dozens of individuals who created this art did it to no particular effect, of necessity just leaving it exposed for whoever might bother to pay attention. And exposed to the hazards of fortune. Some of their work has been marred by spay-painted graffiti, some damaged by the erection of signs or other shoreline accouterments, and some lost to natural erosion. Much of the rest is destined to soon disappear.
A massive anti-erosion project under the direction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is transforming the lakefront. The limestone, installed between 1910 and 1931, is being removed and replaced with concrete.
Construction plans have run into strenuous opposition in Hyde Park, where critics have claimed that the new concrete revetments will be forbidding and unfriendly to recreation. Project supporters point to the necessity of replacing the limestone, which is badly deteriorated in many places. Preservation would make the project much more expensive, they say, and the city, not the federal government, would have to pay the extra cost. The Army Corps is required by law to take the most economical approach, according to the Chicago Tribune, not necessarily the approach that is most sympathetic to the cultural treasures that might be affected.
The art has not figured into the controversy, and work has proceeded on the North Side. The project is not currently scheduled to reach the Foster Avenue area, so those pieces appear safe for now. But one nearby segment of shoreline has been refinished in concrete (and is quite sterile compared with the tumbledown but inviting limestone nearby). The stones have been torn out in another stretch bordering Montrose harbor, and more await the arrival of the cranes and power shovels. This means many of the hundreds of carvings and paintings are already gone, and more soon will be.
Chicago's lakefront art represents an important, beautiful body of work. While uniquely urban, it resonates with petroglyphs more typically associated with antiquity or back-country settings. It is as valuable a cultural legacy in its way as any in the city, and if there are no changes in plans, most of it will survive only in photos like those posted on this Web site.
A version of this article originally appeared in The Outsider, magazine of Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art.
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