One of the most prominent pieces of Evanston public art is Stitch, at the intersection of Green Bay Road, Emerson Street and Ridge Avenue.
The intersection is a complicated one, revamped in 2016-2017 by the City of Evanston to smooth out the complex and confusing traffic pattern.
“The project cost $11 million and has proved highly successful with safe infrastructure improvements,” said Sat Nagar, senior city project manager for capital planning and engineering. “It included replacing the water main, sewers, updating traffic signals, parking, streetscaping, signage, street lights and lighting under the viaduct.”
When the construction work concluded in 2017, the Public Art Committee of the Evanston Arts Council was tasked with commissioning a piece of art for the triangular island under the intersection viaduct. A call for submissions was put out by the city’s Cultural Arts Coordinator at the time, Jennifer Lasik, but there were surprisingly few respondents.
The one proposal that was immediately favored was by an Australian artist, Warren Langley.
Langley has done many abstract, site-specific installations in cities around the world although it is his large-scale works, now in light and glass, for which he is best known. Beth Adler, chair of the Arts Council at the time, is credited with the complex communication arrangements required.
Langley’s public artworks “integrate and intervene with the built environment. Increasingly his work blurs the boundaries between sculpture, architecture and engineering,” according to his website.
In his proposal, he said he was interested in the role of public art to “re-invent otherwise alien and seemingly desolate locations.”
This intersection seemed to qualify.
For the Evanston sculpture, Langley proposed a steel structure with an “intriguing but subtle lighting phenomena.” Light strips are installed in the corners of steel I-beams, the latter polychromed yellow. The lights are on 24 hours, but only begin to show as dusk arrives, shining more brightly at night.
The Public Art Committee chose this artwork above the other entries and presented it to the Arts Council for approval. It qualified for the Percent for Art Program as an “eligible construction project” as defined in the public art Percent for Art ordinance, modified in 2015 to include such projects, not just new buildings.
The sculpture was paid for with general obligation bond funds. The price tag was $105,297.50, with structural analysis and installation running another $22,475.
It is an industrial-looking piece, like the underpass around and over it. The concept behind the sculpture is that it joins three different areas of Evanston – the west side, the north side and downtown, so the title refers to “stitching it all together.”
When affirmed and contracted, Langley made a trip to Evanston to see the site in person, whereas he had only before seen photographs, diagrams, and read a thorough description of the site. Chair Beth Adler and her husband, writer Tony Adler, graciously invited him to stay in their home during this visit and the following one.
The city provided the poured concrete base to the artist’s specifications. In 2018, Langley came back to Evanston to install the work, which was fabricated in the U.S. He brought a handpicked team of installers who worked three days to see that it was completed reliably and on time.
The entire sculpture is painted yellow although it appears yellow and orange. The light strips are white on the down-facing surfaces, red on the up-facing surfaces (red lights on yellow make it look orange). The upward facing surfaces are now quite dirty and need cleaning – probably just power washing.
The murals accompanying the sculpture on either side of the underpass were commissioned through EMAP, the Evanston Mural Arts Project, a program of Art Encounter. Designed and painted by James Marshall (aka “Dalek”) they were completed in 2018. “Dalek is an impressive and nationally well-known artist,” said Lea Pinsky, executive director of Art Encounter.
Apparently, the light bulbs were the wrong kind and had to be replaced within two years, to the great annoyance of city staff. But it is the responsibility of the city to maintain its collection of public art. Some of our artworks have their own donated maintenance fund (for example Duna, in Oldberg Park at Sherman Street and Elgin Road), but most don’t. The Arts Council, however, has a budget every year, part of it always going to repair and/or maintenance.
There were a few vocal citizen objections to the art – sculpture and murals – that the large commission went to a foreigner and that diagonal lines are ”known to be disconcerting” in a place that could use some calming. But the Arts Council has certainly learned over the years that it’s impossible to please everyone.
In general, Evanston has responded well to the work and the Public Art Committee, now called a “working group,” is proud of its choice.