In the arts, bricolage is the construction or creation of a work from a diverse range of things available, or a work constructed using mixed media. Bricolage is often seen as a characteristic of postmodern art practice. It has been likened to the concept of curating and has also been described as the remixture, reconstruction and reuse of separate materials or artifacts to produce new meanings and insights.
Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss coined this word in French in 1960, deriving it from the verb “bricoler” which means “to tinker.“ It then came into English unchanged when his 1962 book, “The Savage Mind” was translated in 1966. Someone who engages in bricolage is, consequently, a bricoleur.
I suspect it’s related somehow to the term bric-à-brac, first used in the Victorian era, referring to lesser objets d’art forming collections of curios, such as elaborately decorated teacups and small vases, etc. That term, to go even farther back, comes again from French, from the obsolete mid-19th century term “à bric et à brac,” meaning “at random.”
In the 1980s, Julian Schnabel, the American painter and filmmaker, received international media attention for his “plate paintings” using broken ceramic plates set onto his large-scale canvases. Yet they were not referred to as bricolage and they were definitely not a joke although some thought so at the time. (The exploration of different kinds of surfaces is primary to Schnabel’s work.)
The bricolage technique has been used successfully in wall murals for centuries, as tile and pieces of other ceramic material can make for an indestructible surface. The City of Evanston boasts three murals of bricolage. The first, and earliest, is on the west wall of the Main Street Metra embankment. There, bricolage is combined with paint and paper in the form of poster-like paintings.
Main Street Metra
This mural dates from 2009 and has a rather ungainly title: “Art Opens Horizons: Nature, Culture, Diversity.” The artist/bricoleur in charge of this project was Sonata Kazimieraitiene, a Lithuanian-born Chicago artist and professional muralist who was commissioned by Evanston’s Open Studio Project to design and install this mural.
The mission of Open Studio Project (OSP), a non-profit since 1993 (and in Evanston since 2000) is to provide a welcoming environment to create art for personal growth, social emotional learning and community well-being. OSP is located at 903 Sherman Ave., where it offers classes and a gallery space, Gallery 901. OSP also recently began classes in a new, modern studio space at the city’s new Robert Crown Center.
Kazimieraitieine came to the Main Street mural through the Chicago Public Art Group (CPAG), a non-profit bringing “artists and communities together to produce high-quality public art,” an organization with a record of many successes around Chicago and suburbs.
The subject matter of the tile portion of the Main Street mural is a map of Evanston, beautifully described with handmade square tiles suggesting individual blocks of buildings. Blue tiles represent Lake Michigan and mirror fragments form the water of the sanitary canal along McCormick Boulevard.
The project was funded by Evanston’s Public Art Program at a time when it was much more active and better financed than it is now. OSP and CPAG were the lead organizations on the project, providing project managers, Sarah Laing, also an artist, and Brenda Vega of CPAG.
Participants who worked on the ceramic tiles were from Connections for the Homeless, District 65’s 21st Century Program, the Main Street Merchants Association, Open Studio, PEER Services, Willpower and Youth Organizations Umbrella (Y.O.U.). At least 30 other individuals were involved in the mural preparation, the paintings and the installation.
The painted portion of the mural has been repaired once, at the city’s expense, as efflorescence is a continuing problem on retaining walls. Note that it is the responsibility of the Evanston Arts Council to maintain the city’s public art, particularly artworks commissioned by the city. And note that the efflorescence is already a problem again on this mural.
Upon completion of the Main Street mural, Kazimieraitiene and Laing partnered to create a piece in Laing’s former Bowmanville neighborhood in Chicago. There they created a mural on a pedestrian underpass beneath the Metra near Andersonville.
The two larger, and very impressive, Evanston murals do not belong to the City of Evanston but, instead, to School District 65 and Lincoln School, as they adorn two exterior walls of the school at 910 Forest Ave.
The two large triptychs were planned along with a major architectural renovation of the school in 2011. Laing, who is an artist-activist, art therapist and parent of a Lincoln School student, suggested filling the old, round window spaces on the exterior with bricolage murals.
Eduardo Blanc of TMP Architecture, the firm chosen for the renovation, supported Laing’s idea and, when contacted, Kazimieraitiene was enthusiastic as well. Laing campaigned for the project and won the combined financial support of the Lincoln School PTA, Foundation 65 and the Illinois Arts Council through grants.
Laing and Kazimieraitiene also designed and led the creation of the tiled amphitheater bench at Lincoln School. The construction crew on the renovation had accidentally taken out the Warren Cherry Memorial tree, so the district needed to rethink the garden area. Laing advocated for the bench as part of the redesign. The tiles for it were created at various festivals at Lincoln School from 2013 to 2015. Sales from the tiles at the festivals helped raise funds for the larger projects.
On the east wall of Lincoln School, facing Forest Avenue and to the left of the main entrance is the first mural, “Lakescape,” a stunning bricolage triptych (a mural in three panels) that tells the story of Lake Michigan, from its origins to today, and in all kinds of weather.
On the south side of Lincoln School there is another beautiful triptych titled “Biodiversity” and done in a mandala format. This mural celebrates (from left to right) Flora & Fauna, Human Diversity, Outer & Ocean Space. (There is a tree-like bush growing in front of the center of the mural. I hope it is removed before it grows larger and obscures even more of the mural.)
Again, artist Kazimieraitiene was the lead bricoleur on these two projects. Well-known Chicago artist Corinne Peterson was called in to help when the former was sidelined with a wrist injury.
According to Laing, after-school mural clubs were very productive at the time. One can certainly see that from the two triptychs, the amphitheater and the smaller concrete benches outside, all dating from the same period.
Laing and Peterson worked on the layout of the murals in Laing’s basement. ETHS students helped there and at the school as part of their senior studies class. The murals were even housed in Laing’s in-laws’ nearby garage for a while. And with the help of Lincoln School art teacher Amanda Taggart, Lincoln students and their families were also drawn into the creation and assembly of the murals.
Each grade in Lincoln School contributed a different part of each section of “Biodiversity” during the 2014-15 school year. A close examination reveals stone, stained glass and porcelain pieces besides the mosaic tile and mirror.
“The murals took a long time, three years actually, due to various weather issues, Sonata‘s injury and raising the necessary funds,” said Laing. The time and thought involved is obvious to a viewer standing in front of these works of art.
A dedication and celebration was held Oct.1, 2015, once all the murals were complete.
There was drum music with audience participation by Soul Creations. Members of the Lincoln School community attended, along with all the artists and administrators. (I would hope the Evanston Arts Council and particularly the Public Art Committee were invited too.)
“My favorite part of the murals was working with the kids in the art classes and those in our after-school mural club, who really did the most work on it,” acknowledges Laing, who is now the Executive Director of OSP.
“We had a great time integrating the cultures at Lincoln. One mom gave the kids a lecture on Diwali, another mom, an archeologist, gave a talk on the history of murals and the kids learned all about international architecture, the local ecosystem. It was quite an arts integration experience.”
The bricolage murals at Lincoln School are well worth visiting. They are not just beautiful from a distance but up close too. They are both fascinating and rewarding to study.
It can be hoped that more outstanding and participatory artwork like this can be planned and consolidated into Evanston buildings and sites. Lincoln School and its leaders have set a high bar for the rest of us to follow.