Reflections on the rise and fall of the Wicker Statue and other public art

Jeff Huebner

Wicker Statue lies where it was toppled.

On the morning of August 21, 2009, the statue of Charles G. Wicker was found toppled over in his namesake park, lying in the grass in front of the base, his boots intact. The life-size bronze sculpture was created by Wicker's great-granddaughter Nancy Wicker, of Harvard, Il., and was dedicated September 2006. It depicted a businessman, politician, and developer-donned in a Lincoln-like stovepipe hat and bulky overcoat holding a straw broom, a reference to sweeping out a dusty polling place and illustrating the idea of "If there is something to be done, then do it."

It was almost certainly an act of vandalism, according to park stakeholders and those involved in the funding, making, and repairing of the sculpture. It is uncertain how many people did the toppling, but consensus favors a large group, possibly between ten and two dozen. Nancy Wicker herself believes this. "It had to have had something wrapped around it, tied to a car, or at least 20 to 25 people," she told me, adding that rope or chain marks "wouldn't necessarily show on bronze."

However, given that the hulking statue was inadequately attached to the base, as sculpture conservator Andrzej Dajnowski has maintained, it is possible that fewer people could've brought it down. (Some persist in thinking that the wind blew it down, or that it fell over on its own.) Wicker Park supervisor John Davidson wouldn't speculate, only saying the statue "toppled over," and referred me to the Park District's marketing department.) Says Wicker, "Who can explain vandalism?"

In any event, Charles Wicker incurred some dents and bruises, and there were holes in the bottom of his boots where bolts snapped.

"For 3 weeks before the incident," Wicker Park Garden Club (WPGC) coordinator and Wicker Park Advisory Council (WPAC) member Doug Wood wrote me, "the park lights were out every night-all night. No police patrolled the dark park and beer parties and endless graffiti were a daily occurrence." Members kept asking Park District officials and then-1st Ward alderman Manny Flores to fix the lights, but nothing was done until after the statue was damaged, according to Wood. (The WPGC and the WPAC were among the artwork's sponsors.) During this time, the field house was also broken into.

Wicker's vandals have not been apprehended.

The sculpture was moved to Dajnowski's Conservation of Sculpture and Objects Studio in Forest Park.

I'm not thrilled with the statue of Charles Gustavus Wicker (1820-1889), for whom along with his brother Joel the Park was named in 1870. Along with others here, I believe that artwork in public places should reflect a more complete history of the area.  That would include more contentious labor, working-class, and alternative-culture histories-a continuum that stretches back to the1880s Haymarket era. I think that Wicker cuts a grim, forbidding figure. I wonder, is his broom meant to be sweeping away all that's undesirable in the park-and neighborhood?

Regardless, I headed to Dajnowki's shop on Des Plaines Avenue several weeks ago, during his annual open house, to take a look at the fallen Wicker. Dajnowski used to work as a sculpture conservator for the Park District, but now contracts with groups and agencies across the country and the Chicago area to restore historic statuary and other public artworks. Wicker himself lay stiffly, forlornly, on his side, atop blankets, in a corner of the hangar-sized studio, awaiting treatment.


In restorer's studio, Wicker awaits return to Wicker Park.

The conservator showed digital images of the damaged artwork on a big screen. As some may recall, the sheet of bronze that tops the foot-high concrete base resembles a wooden floor; that's because Wicker-a state legislator and alleged advisor to Abraham Lincoln-is depicted sweeping a polling place. Dajnowksi pointed out that each of the figure's boots was attached to the base with two bracketed, 4½-inch-long bolts-four in all--and then welded into place. "It was not anchored properly-the supports were insufficient," he declared, adding that the sculpture weighed some 2,000 pounds. "It was a miracle nobody got killed or hurt."


View of the statue from the feet.

But Karly Spell, co-owner with her husband Harry of Art Casting of Illinois, Inc. of Oregon, Illinois, which cast the Wicker bronze, disputes Dajnowski's assertions. She says it is "very common" to have only several bolts holding a statue to a base. "Most of our sculptures, depending on the complexity, have four to six bolts attaching the feet to the base." In addition, Nancy Wicker says that iron rods ran from the concrete up through the statue's legs to his knees. Some who saw the bronze after its fall don't recall any rods.

Also, Spell says the sculpture weighed "300 to 400 pounds"-not a ton, as Dajnowski claims. Nancy Wicker says the Spells told her it weighed 1.200 pounds.

"If it was a group of people who really wanted to pull it down, it'd be possible," contends Spell. She adds, in an e-mail, "There has been a lot of vandalism of sculpture in general lately by people who think they can get a significant amount of money from the metal...But, the scrap value is rather meager."

No one I've talked to believes any scrapper would've tried to grapple with such a conspicuous hunk of bronze. Where could you unload it?

Earlier this year, the Wicker Park Advisory Council received a $5,333.34 grant from the Wicker Park-Bucktown Special Service Area #33 to help refurbish and reinstall the statue. That represents one-third of the estimated total cost of $16,000; the Park District will pay the remaining two-thirds. Dajnowksi's crew has to reinforce the figure's legs, add stronger bolts, and fix nicks and dents as well as pour new concrete. Wicker should be back on his feet soon, though no firm date has been set.

According to the WPAC's Doug Wood, the Park District and the community are working on a plaque that will list original and restoration funders as well as information about Wicker-his life, his land, his broom. It is also hoped that the plaque will include wording urging the community to "pick up the broom" and help to improve the park. Verbiage, however, is subject to approval by the Park Enhancement Committee. (It took that Park District group two years to sign off on the fountain enhancement donors plaque.)

Nancy Wicker, a Lincoln Park native, first had the idea for a sculpture in 1982 while living in Connecticut--she'd been invited by the Wicker Park Committee to speak at a Greening Festival event. In 1992 she purchased a house on Pierce Street where she lived until 1999. She secured $40,000 in grants and donations and got Park District approval several years later. Wicker says she'd always imagined the statue on a platform and not a pedestal:

"I wanted people, children especially, to touch it and feel it and get used to it...The more accessible it is, the more people will say, I could grow up and do that. I think statues get too high, far from the people they're supposed to represent."

I hope we could commission neighborhood artists to create a representation of Wicker Park's other living pasts and histories, not just those represented by politicians and developers.


Photos courtesy of: Susan Fontana (toppled statue); Jeff Heubner (2 in storage)

Special thanks to: Dustin Stine for technical assistance.



Wicker Sculpture

Thanks for the article. I'd suggest that other sculptors do as Nancy Wicker did - Pick up the broom and 'do it.' Nancy fund raised the entire sum required to cast the sculpture and to install it a few years ago; she did the design for free - obtaining no artists stipend. In our economically depressed times, Other sculptors could work to obtain funding, donate their time, and then work with the Chicago Park District's - Park Enhancements committee to obtain permission to create and install their versions of our neighborhood's history. That is what the parents did who helped get the playground in the park, the gardeners did for creating and maintain the gardens, the dog park committee to maintain the dog park, and what we did to obtain a music series (2006 and 2008) and benches and urns for the fountain court. Marion Smith, an early pioneer worked for years to get the sculpture returned to the park and to obtain fences to border the park. I'd say - pick up the broom and do it. That is why Charles Wicker's Sculpture is important to our park - to constantly remind others to do it.

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