It took 2-years+ and a village to get a 4-season cornfield behind a Chicago library


Socially distanced and with face masks on, "Illinois Landscape" a crowd gathered for the mural's dedication

Many wondered for more than two years if IT would ever happen. "Would the cornfield ever be installed with stalks high or higher than an elephant's eye, on the backside of the Bucktown-Wicker Park Library at 1701 N. Milwaukee Ave.?" Saturday, September 19, the cornfield was dedicated! "Oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day!"


Elements of the mural: corn, sky, moon, morning glories and a crow

The 90 foot wide, 10 foot high cornfield mural is no longer just a glimmer in architect and artist Sam Marts' eye. Illinois Landscape, an art deco design pattern of cornstalks, proudly standing adorned with morning glories, beneath a blue sky with many moons and under the watchful eye of a large stylized bluish crow, is a reality. 

Regardless of the weather or time of day, anyone who walks by, can pause along the public way on Hoyne Ave., or sit on the grass or a bench in the green space and take a moment to drink in the experience. Rays of sun appear to stream out from the cornstalks, which cover the printed vinyl panels, stitched together by hand, and mounted on a brown painted wooden frame by Chicago Signs. 

Why Corn?
"But Sam, why corn?" "If Illinois was not the Land of Lincoln, we would surely be in the Land of Corn. Corn is why railroads radiate from Chicago and why the Board of Trade came to be," he says. "The corn image is meant to refer to Bucktown's place in the world. 


Sam Marts points to the frame paint and secured to the wall before the panels were installed

A longtime Bucktown resident, Marts said that he originally designed a cornfield in the 1980s for a terra cotta competition. When the opportunity arose to impact his own neighborhood, he envisioned taking the concept, engaging the whole library building with a permanent structure covered with an impactful image, while not painting the brick. 

It's a first
Nathan Mason, Curator of Collections and Public Art with Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) agreed that the project's approach was the perfect methodology, though it had never been done like this before. 


With part of the wall up, its size is huge.

"We just did a mural in Little Village," said Mason, "but it was a city building being painted by the City. In this case, they would not have been able to afford the cost to paint it on the brick properly." 

The Bucktown project is an agreement with the City to have the frame structure with a design attached on a public building. If they decide to change out the design, they would be able to do that in the future. In the meantime the mural is easily maintained. And, as Marts says, "No brick was harmed during this project." 


Steve Jensen

Getting it done
With all the events that are currently occurring in the green space behind the library, it was time to have something more attractive to look at, according to BCO President, Steve Jensen. It was July of 2018 that a new member, Darien Hallagan, was tasked with identifying an arts project, then making it happen. 

Little did Hallagan realize that he would be on the "bleeding edge" of a new approach for communities to engage in enhancing the quality of life in their neighborhoods.


Humor was required for Sam Marts and Darien Hallagan to get the mural created and in place

His idea to do murals brought focus to the library. Hallagan opened a contest for a design. He chose Marts' design and was impressed with Marts' knowledge of working with the City. 

The bumpy bureaucratic road to reality entailed four branches of government with the longest hold up being waiting for three months for the signature from a City attorney after City Council approved the project in April 2020.


Nathan Mason speaking at the dedication

Behind the scene
Mason shared some behind-the-scene news about this community-based triumph. 

"I try to help people understand how to navigate a process and not take it personally when things go slowly or they are told 'No,'" he explained. "It can be difficult for community people but there are solid reasons why things have to be reviewed. 

"When something hasn't been done before or has been done infrequently, things have to be looked at closely and law is not one of our faster departments." 

The good news is that groups appear to want to do more to enrich their community. And, the City wants to work with the communities.

People having a goal then working toward that goal together is community! 


Garrett Karp spoke about SSA #33 funding art projects

Three area sectors made it possible to produce the Illinois Landscape. They are SSA #33, the BCO and community people 

"Commissioners of SSA #33 are excited to sponsor this mural," said Garrett Karp, SSA #33 Program Manager. "This has been a slow year for trying to steward the arts in the community. But despite the slowdown this is one of several installations we have coming up." 

What's Next?
Despite the challenges Hallagan faced and conquered, he is already looking to the next possible project. "Viaducts are next! Though, that will mean we have to deal with the State and Metra," he said with a bit of a grimace. 

“Make no little plans, they have no magic in them to stir men’s blood,” as Chicago's Daniel Burnham said. 


Scott Waguespack honored community involvement and reminded all that there should be a legacy of volunteerism passed on to children

In his comments about the project, Alderman Scott Waguespack, 32nd Ward, praised all the people who volunteered to convert the space over the years to make it a community space as well as those who made the current project happen.

He then encouraged all those who were not volunteers or members of the local community groups to join, pointing out that is how you can get things done that you want to see.

"It is going to be most important to the kids sitting here today. We want to leave them the legacy of art, architecture and landscaping but also the legacy of being part of the community and volunteering. I think that is what we all should be striving for," concluded Waguespack.

May this inspire you and other community groups. When you start your "magic" projects, let me know so we can honor you too!



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