The flowering tile inserts in the Levy Senior Center courtyard are an interesting example of public art, because they were privately, rather than publicly, financed, with initial help from the Evanston Community Foundation.
One might expect the 31 glass mosaics gracing the raised garden beds in the interior court to have been funded by Evanston’s Percent for Art program, in which up to 1% of the budget for the construction of a public building can be spent on art. But they weren’t.
When the Levy Center, at 300 Dodge Ave., was designed by Ross Barney Architects, a landscaping company was hired to design the courtyard separately. Ted Wolff, of Wolff Landscape Architecture, formerly of Chicago, had previously worked with artist Ginny Sykes on a large mosaic sculpture she did by the Chicago River. Wolff wanted Sykes to do something equally beautiful on the sides of the raised beds at Levy.
The Levy garden is named the Hulda B. and Maurice L. Rothschild Enabling Garden after the Rothschilds, who raised money for it. Their name is embedded in the center panel. The garden enables seniors, even in a wheelchair, to plant and tend the above-ground beds.
All the plants depicted in the mosaic tile have healing properties, either scientifically documented or researched informally, and all are native to Illinois. Members of the Levy Center wanted the plants to be in bright colors so the garden would be colorful year-round, even in the winter months, when it would only be seen from inside the building.
The mosaics were created in Sykes’ studios – she had two studios at the time, both in Chicago. Her assistant, Julia Sowles, also a tile artist, helped with the panels. They were not created at the same time, however, because they were not funded at the same time. The first panels were installed in 2004 and the last in 2016.
Christina Ferraro, then-manager of the Levy Center, and Leslie Wilson, former program coordinator, facilitated the fundraising and Sue Roberts financed the final 10 panels as her legacy. None of this information is posted in the center, although a wall plaque was promised at the time.
Sykes lives in Chicago and holds a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Washington University in St. Louis, where she sits on the advisory council for the Sam Fox School of Art. She also has a master’s degree from Loyola University in women and gender studies.
Sykes said that study gave her the theory and the language to back up her ideas, as feminist ideas were driving her work at the time in cross-disciplinary performance.
Sykes has an impressive resume of exhibits, lectures, public art projects, performances and residencies.
An artist who works in several mediums, she paints, draws, sculpts, works in ceramics, installation and video performance. She has taught at the Evanston Art Center and the School of the Art Institute and the Lill Street Art Center, both in Chicago.
Sykes also studied painting and art history at the Cecil Graves Studio in Florence, where she said she became an Italophile. She speaks fluent Italian and travels often to Italy. She also has been teaching yoga the last five years.
Sykes is responsible for the beautiful Rora at Erie Terraces, a park on the Chicago River. Erie Street dead ends into the terrace on the east side of the river. The park is bi-level; the horizontal mosaic panels are on street level and one walks down the stairs to see the nine-foot diameter tondo (a circular piece) on the river landing. It can also be seen from the river on various boat and kayak tours.
Sykes also completed a large piece in Terminal 3 in O’Hare International Airport, as well as a group of three tiled columns in Uptown. In both these Chicago projects, Sykes worked with teen apprentices through arts programming, city agencies and other partners.
For all their beauty, the Levy Center mosaics need attention. The walkways and raised garden walls are dirty and could use a power washing. The mosaics themselves are experiencing efflorescence and need the attention of the artist or someone experienced in the cleaning of mosaic tile.
Nevertheless, these art works are still stunning – they and the garden are a joy.