The raw bronze head of Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable watches over the studio of sculptor Erik Blome prior to coloration work. The 9-foot-tall bust by Blome, a former Evanston resident, is set to be displayed in Evanston. Credit: Courtesy Erik Blome

The 9-foot bronze bust of Chicago founder Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable, created by sculptor Erik Blome, is finally scheduled to arrive in Evanston on Oct. 7, a year behind schedule.

It should arrive midmorning by truck and, with the help of a forklift, be lifted into its yearlong temporary home at the northeast corner of Church Street and Orrington Avenue.

The installation date and site have been changed so many times, it is possible that some snafu could cause another postponement – but everyone involved sure hopes not.

Larger version of Michigan Avenue bust

The du Sable sculpture is called a bust though it’s really only the head. “Bust” is the common term, as most such sculptures include the shoulders and chest for practical, balance reasons. The Romans were the first to popularize busts, which were symbols of wealth and status.

An assistant “chasing” (grinding & sanding) welds that hold cast sections of the du Sable bust together. Credit: Erik Blome

Sculptor Blome, now of Woodstock, Illinois, is the creator of the bronze bust of du Sable on the Michigan Avenue bridge (Du Sable Bridge) above the Chicago River in downtown Chicago. The work was commissioned by an Evanston resident, Haitian American Lesli Bonodin, and gifted to Chicago.

It was the artist’s idea to create a much larger version, at his own expense, and have it travel throughout the Chicago area.

Evanston was chosen by the artist as the first visit on the bust’s tour. Early in Blome’s career, he maintained a studio in Evanston, a brick warehouse he shared with Indira Freitas Johnson. The bust will visit Loyola University Chicago after Evanston.

The bust’s arrival in Evanston has been in the works for more than three years. The sculptor first contacted then-Mayor Steve Hagerty in 2019.

Erik Blome and his bust in January 2021, when the preliminary clay version of the sculpture was almost complete. Credit: Lemar Wilson

Where to put du Sable?

Arrival was anticipated for fall of 2022. The Public Art Committee wanted to put the artwork in Fountain Square – the logical place in downtown Evanston.

But where in Fountain Square? On the bed of the nonfunctioning fountain? It would be highly visible there and allow walk-around viewing.

The 9-foot bust was cast in pieces and then welded together. Credit: Courtesy Erik Blome

Then the date moved to spring of 2023 and, for better viewing, the Chase Bank Plaza at the northeast corner of Orrington Avenue and Davis Street was sought as a possible installation site.

The plaza, however, is private property and city liability insurance would not apply there, so the very wide sidewalk adjacent was next considered.

But it turns out that is a “vaulted” sidewalk, with underground parking beneath it, so there was some question about whether it would be strong enough to support the weight of the finished bronze, said Edgar Cano, Public Works director.

Further, Chase has just begun work on the parking garage ramps and the entire east side of that block of Orrington Avenue is cordoned off.

The bust is large enough that finishing work can be done from within the hollow head.

Next, the proposed site moved to the south end of the square, to the triangle where the Christmas tree is at holiday time. But then the city would have to pour a base, as the sculpture needs to be fastened to cement, so that it doesn’t move.

And there was the worry that the sight of this huge 9-foot head would be a serious traffic hazard at Fountain Square, with vehicles approaching it at the spot where Sherman Avenue forks to the left and Orrington Avenue to the right. There are many buried utilities there and that caused concern too, but the main issue was that the location would not be ADA accessible. So that site was nixed by the Parks and Recreation Department.

Finally, the street corner by the main library was chosen. The library site is city property, so insurance would cover. The plaza and sidewalk are wide enough to allow total accessibility, 360 degree viewing. Both Church and Orrington avenues are one-way streets so traffic shouldn’t be a problem. The head would look out and would be “3D viewable from every direction of travel,” Blome said.

The assembled head rests on its side in the studio to provide access to the inside. Credit: Erik Blome

But the location of the site hasn’t been the only problem.

Sculptor in demand

Blome is a busy man. He has received several large, multifigure commissions over the past two years, most recently one of Dale Hawerchuk of the National Hockey League’s Winnipeg Jets and, before that, multiple figures for the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs.

Assistant Lemar Wilson welds a section of cast bronze onto the “puzzle” that is the du Sable bust. Credit: Erik Blome

Canadians are proud of their hockey players and since these were paying commissions, unlike the du Sable bust, that kind of work always comes first. A life-size figure commission also came in this past summer from The Grove in Glenview, for its 50th anniversary. Work on du Sable had to be put aside.

Blome has several assistants in his studio, but one was in a near-fatal car accident in the spring that left him paralyzed and unable to work. Another is a full-time middle school art teacher in Grayslake and only available to work on weekends.

And in recent years, Blome has gone to Egypt, Uganda and Ghana annually to teach bronze casting. He is a four-time recipient of a Fulbright grant given through the Fulbright Specialist Program, determined by the State Department.

On these teaching trips the sculptor is often gone for several months. This year Blome was in Ghana in January and is there again this month, so the bust couldn’t possibly be delivered and installed in September.

City staffing issues

Staffing issues and headaches at the City of Evanston have played a role in the delays too.

The city was without a cultural arts coordinator for four years after Jennifer Lasik left in December 2018, and the position was left vacant.

The assistant to the city manager – first Paulina Martinez, then Tasheik Kerr – stepped in to act as liaison connecting the city (Public Works), the Arts Council (the Public Art Working Group) and Blome, but both had many other responsibilities to tend to. Then the Arts Council officers turned over, with a new chair chosen for Public Art.

In 2022, the city again hired a cultural arts coordinator, but only as a part-time position, 15 hours a week, and the new employee lasted only four months before leaving for a full-time position elsewhere. In April of this year, Joyy Norris was hired and has helped with the tail end of this project.

Delayed from August to October

The installation date was most recently set for Aug. 19, with the dedication to be Aug. 23. Confirmed. However there was a downtown event on the 19th, the Art & Big Fork Festival. A forklift would be needed. (No pun intended.) Big traffic issues. Questions about insurance on artwork.

Blome sent the following emails to the Arts Council on Aug. 13, “Are we still on?” followed on Aug. 14 by, “Can we get a 1-page loan agreement and dates?” and “I know it takes time for cities to go through motions, I just do not want to get caught late Fall without a place for him!”

Then later on Aug. 14 came the final approval of the library site and installation date, Oct. 7. At last! The unveiling and dedication of the bust is tentatively set for Sunday, Oct. 8, with more details to come.

Gay Riseborough is an artist, has served the City of Evanston for 11 years on arts committees, and is now an arts writer at the Evanston RoundTable.

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  1. Excellent article. Very thorough. Thanks for sharing. Mr. Blome who I met at the unveiling of the Chicago rendition of Dusable is undoubtedly a highly talented sculptor who can tame a harsh medium like bronze. Even raindrops appear as tears on his work. Amazing personality. Amazing work.