Thursday, August 21, 2014

Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows

I recently spent a few days in Chicago, Illinois.  This is the sixth post in a series about the museums, architecture, public gardens, and art I visited while there.  The first post can be viewed here.

Photo credit:
While exploring the waterfront on our first day in Chicago we ended up at Navy Pier.  The flashiness, cheesy feel, and crowded nature of the Pier didn't appeal to me all that much.  But, there is a quiet hidden gem amongst all the children running around.

Autumn landscape, Tiffany Studio. Credit:
The Smith Museum of Stained Glass features over 180 stained glass windows in the lower level of Festival Hall.  The Museum opened in 2000 and is the first museum in the US dedicated to stained glass windows.  Many of the windows in the collection were originally installed in residential, commercial, and religious buildings in the Chicago area.  The windows range in age from 1870 to present and highlight a range of artistic styles. Some of the more modern pieces include a window created from pop bottles and a portrait of Michael Jordan. A PDF catalogue of the stained glass window collection can be found here

The Richard H. Driehaus Gallery of Stained Glass features prominently within the larger Smith Museum.  The Driehaus Gallery features 13 windows by Louis Comfort Tiffany.  The Tiffany windows are showcased in a dark portion of the Museum and are lit with artificial light.  The visual effect is well done and makes these windows standout amongst the rest of the of the Smith Museum collection.

The Smith Museum was an interesting surprise.  Typically stained class is preserved in religious building or privately owned homes.  Having the collection in such a public tourism place where visitors can walk right up to the glass is unique. I've never seen so much stained glass in one place.  The Museum has done a good job of contextualizing each window and preserving the windows in a way that is accessible.   

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Ethel Stein Master Weaver Exhibit

Ethel Stein. Portrait, 1999. Art Institute of Chicago.
I recently spent a few days in Chicago, Illinois.  This is the fifth post in a series about the museums, architecture, public gardens, and art I visited while there.  The first post can be viewed here.

One of my favourite exhibits during my visit to the Art Institute of Chicago was Ethel Stein, Master Weaver.  Located down in the basement of the Institute the exhibit included drawloom weavings created by Stein from 1982 through 2008.  This retrospective exhibition includes over 40 works that have either been donated to the Art Institute or have been promised as future gifts.


I was blown away by the detail in Stein's work, the complexity of the weaving, and the thought behind each piece.  Weaving at the most fundamental level seems like a very simple artisan craft.  But the drawloom technique that allows for each warp thread to be controlled separately has tremendous potential for creativity, complexity, and skill.  Some of Stein's work does at first glance appear uncomplicated but works like Portrait and Circus and Slapstick by Stein illustrate the artistic process and elaborate nature of her work.

In addition to the textile works by Stein the exhibit space includes a video installation.  The video shows Stein working in her studio and provides insight into the labour intensive, detail orientated nature of her work. For me the video also highlighted the vision, math, accuracy, and planning required to execute textile works on the scale the Stein has.  A copy of the short video can be viewed here.

The exhibition is located on the Lower Level of the Art Institute and is a bit out of the way.  But it is definitely worth the effort to find the one elevator that gets you down there.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Technology and Highlights of the Art Institute of Chicago

I recently spent a few days in Chicago, Illinois.  This is the fourth post in a series about the museums, architecture, public gardens, and art I visited while there.  The first post can be viewed here.

When people say you could spend hours at the Art Institute of Chicago they aren't kidding.  I spent a full day there as part of my trip to Chicago.   Overall I enjoyed the day exploring the galleries. There is a huge range of artwork and themes in the Institute and everyone should be able to find something that interests them.

There are ipad and other technology stations throughout the Art Institute.  However I saw very few of them being used during our visit.  It made me wonder about what type of media and digital interaction is most effective in museums and galleries.  In addition to the technology stations the Art Institute has a free app and open wifi.

Despite loving the possibilities of technology integrated into heritage sites I've rarely downloaded apps for the sites I've visited.  But while waiting in line for tickets to gain entry to the Art Institute I downloaded their app.  As much as I wanted to love the app I found it a bit awkward to use.  The app offers 50 tours categorized by collections, themes, or time limits.  The apps location feature that showed where you were inside the gallery was well done.  However including more than just the gallery numbers on the maps might have made it more useful.  The app does support some basic searching of the collections.  However this feature is fairly basic and not fully developed.  The app has potential but I still found myself relying more on the paper map and traditional text panels.

The floor plan and layout of the galleries in the Art Institute can be confusing at times.  This is mainly due to the how the Institute developed.  The first permanent building of the Art Institute opened in 1893 and since then eight expansions for gallery and administration space have been undertaken.  The nature of adding additions onto older buildings has resulted in parts of the Institute being disconnected and only accessible by one or two routes.  For example, not all of the galleries on the second floor are accessible from the same stairwell or elevator.  Even with good planning this can add some additional walking to a visit as you often have to loop back to access a gallery that is only accessible from one spot.

Some of my favourite exhibitions from my visit included: Ethel Stein, Master WeaverMargritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938, and the public art section that includes Chagall's America Windows. An interesting video about the conversation and installation of the Chagall windows can be seen here.

I also found the Indian Art of the Americas gallery interesting. I had assumed that this gallery would focus mainly on First Nation artwork from the United States.  The collection is much more broad in its scope and includes works from both South and North American with a large percentage of the collection being made up of Mesoamerican and Andean ceramics, sculptures, and textiles.

The gallery had more of a museum feel to it focusing on the history of the numerous Indigenous peoples and their traditional practices.  The gallery contained very little from the 1900s and didn't address current trends in Indigenous artwork.  That being said, the Institute is well known for its Amerindian art and the items on display were well contextualized and highlights a number of cultures.  Though I did wonder how involved (if at all) Indigenous communities have been in collection, display choices,  and interpretation. 

The Art Institute is definitely worth a visit if you're in Chicago.  If you have a limited amount of time I would recommend doing some research beforehand to map out what you want to see and planning your visit around must sees.  Looking at everything in the Institute in great detail during a single visit simply isn't possible.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Lurie Garden Walking Tour

I recently spent a few days in Chicago, Illinois.  This is the third post in a series about the museums, architecture, public gardens, and art I visited while there.  The first post can be viewed here.

The less formal gardens in Millennium Park are complemented by the Lurie Garden.  The five acre garden that makes up the Lurie was designed by  Gustafson Guthrie Nichol Ltd, Piet Oudolf and Robert Israel.  The design of the garden reflects Chicago's history and combines landscape design with ecological preservation.  

While wondering through Millennium Park I happened to notice that free guided tours of the Lurie are offered weekly throughout the summer.  The 20 minute volunteer led tour focuses on the design, history, and plants that make up the Lurie Garden. 

When walking through the garden on my own I had a number of questions about which plants were used, the number of native plants incorporated, and the rational behind plant selection.  The tour guide did an excellent job of explaining the reasoning behind the plants and answering questions about specific plants.  The volunteer guide seemed to know what almost every plant was, why it was planted, and the history of the plant in the Lurie Garden. Considering the wide variety of plants found in the garden this knowledge was pretty impressive.

Our guide also spent some time explaining the elements of the garden that reflect the history of Chicago.  For example, the large hedges that surround the north and west portion of the garden were included to represent 'big shoulders.'  The shoulder hedge appears to support the Pritzker Pavilion that is to the north of the garden and is a representation of idea that Chicago is a city with big shoulders.

The garden itself is divided into a dark and light plate.  The dark plate was designed to represent the early landscape of the site and city -- a rugged shoreline and challenging land.  The light plate focuses on the future and the plants in this section are much more warm and controlled.  Had I not participated in the tour I would have had no idea of the historical connotations of the design.

If you're interested in learning more about specific plants in the Lurie the garden's website has information on all the flowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees planted in the garden. The information provided about each plant is fairly basic/encyclopedia styled but is useful if during a visit you saw a plant that you wanted to know the name of. 

I would definitely recommend the free walking tour to anyone who is interested in learning more details about the garden itself.  If you don't have time for a tour or aren't interested in learning that much about a garden - the Lurie is still worth a visit and is a beautiful place to take a walk.

Photo Credit: Andrew MacKay

Friday, August 15, 2014

Parks, Public Art, and Community Gardens

I recently spent a few days in Chicago, Illinois.  This is the second post in a series about the museums, architecture, public gardens, and art I visited while there.  The first post can be viewed here.

One of my favourite mornings in Chicago was spent wondering around Millennium Park and the numerous public gardens in the area. Millennium Park contains a number of great public art pieces, examples of great architecture, and regularly hosts free music events.


Vegetables in Millennium Park flower bed
 I loved the fact that so much of the downtown area had been preserved as green space. The space the Millennium Park occupies was  maintained by the Illinois Central Railroad and prior to 1997 the area was filled with railroad tracks and parking lots. Through a public and private partnership the now 24.5 acre park was turned into a public space built on top of the 'unsightly' parking lots. Photographs of the transformation of the land can be seen in the Chicago Public Library Millennium Park Digital Collection

The park is perhaps most well known for its inclusion of the work of architect Frank Gehry in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion and BP Bridge.  Both are beautiful structures and during my visit we took in a bit of the Grant Park Music Festival in the Pavilion.

The park also has a number of public art installations including Cloud Gate (aka the bean), Crown Fountain, and currently 1004 Portraits by Jaume Plensa is on by the Crown Fountain.

Art In The Farm Garden
I was also enthralled by the integration of vegetables into the gardens of Millennium and Grant Park.  A number of the main gardens and flower beds in Millennium Park contain corn, tomatoes, herbs and other veggies.  When harvested the vegetables are being donated to local non-profits. 

Youth working in the Art In The Farm Garden
There were also a number of vegetable only gardens in other sections of the park.  The community driven nature of these initiatives is inspiring.  The Grant Park "Art in the Farm" urban agriculture project is managed by Growing Power which trains and employs at-risk youth in urban agriculture and community food system development.  The gardens were both beautiful and practical.  It was great to see people working in the gardens and actually engaging with the green space. 

The prevalence of community gardens reminded me a lot of wartime community gardens that were started during WWII.  In Chicago over 1,500 victory gardens were started in the city mostly by people who had never gardened before.  An interesting comparison between the 1940s victory gardens and contemporary urban gardening can be seen here.

You can easily spend hours wondering around the parks in Chicago taking in the public art, gardens, and examples of community building.  I also spent considerable time in the Lurie Garden, which I'll talk about in a separate post.

Photo Credit: Andrew MacKay.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Chicago Architecture From the River

I recently spent a few days in Chicago, Illinois.  This is the first in a series of posts about the museums, architecture, public gardens, and art I visited while there. 

During my fist full day in Chicago I spent part of the afternoon enjoying the Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise.  The 90 minute boat tour featured a journey down the Chicago river and focused on the history and architecture of over 50 buildings in the area.  Some of my favourite buildings on the tour were the Marina City building, 35 East Wacker, and the Civic Opera House.

The Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF) which operates the tours is an organization dedicated to celebrating and promoting the architecture of the city.  The organization was founded in 1966 in an effort to save the Glessner House from demolition.  This initial initiative brought together Chicago residents from all walks of life and resulted in the founding of the CAF.  Today the organization has over 450 volunteer docents who run tours such as the river cruise. Last year 319,661 people participated in tours put on by CAF.

Marina City Building
The CAF volunteer docents undergo a comprehensive training program and it shows.  Volunteer docents are required to complete a five week class on the fundamentals of Chicago architecture and a four week class specific to the tour they will be running.  More details about the training can be seen here.  The docent of my particular tour was enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and conducted the tour with great professionalism.

Overall the tour was a great mixture of history, architecture, and local anecdotes.  The docent covered the basics of architectural style, talked about influential architects in the city, provided detailed accounts of numerous buildings, and filled in the tour with the history of Chicago. I came away from the tour feeling as though I learned a lot but also had an opportunity to simply enjoy the sights.  Even if you don't know a ton about built heritage or architecture the tour is engaging and designed to be accessible to the general public. 

Photo credit: Andrew MacKay