Art People: sewing up the past | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Art People: sewing up the past 

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Before she moved to New York in September, artist Michele Brody left her mark on the Chicago landscape. She went to four locations and sewed fabric around trees, poles, and posts, a project she called Presencing. Each of the sites held strong memories for her.

"The whole idea of the piece was to leave a memory of myself behind, whether it was a place where I lived or where I'd done another piece or gone to school," says Brody. "I was questioning the notion of public sculpture--that man-on-a-horse thing. I liked the idea of quietness, of a subtle way to make a change in the environment."

Brody worked surreptitiously, either early in the morning or at night. Using dull red pongee, a delicate Indian silk, she encased 15 fence posts by the Art Institute, 3 streetlight poles in a north-side alleyway, 10 young trees in Grant Park, and 3 tall trees by Automatic Art Gallery, which sponsored the artistic "intervention."

She didn't just slip the fabric around the objects and leave. She sewed the cloth on the spot, a process that took about 45 minutes for each of the trees, less for the posts and poles. She also gave the wrappings a figural quality: they came up to her height--five feet three inches--and their heavy spinal seams suggested backbones or sewn-up autopsied corpses. "It wasn't outright vandalism," she says. "It was my self-portrait, a human presence--but like a 'tag.'"

A Brooklyn native, Brody received an MFA from the School of the Art Institute in 1994 and later enrolled in a gardening program through the University of Illinois. For the last four years, she has combined her interests in public art and urban horticulture by doing temporary and permanent installations at various Chicago-area locations.

Brody says that only a few people questioned her while she was working on Presencing. "A policeman--he was directing traffic--did come up to me while I was at the Art Institute," she says. "I was wary, but he was interested in what I was doing. When I was in Grant Park, a lot of people asked me if what I was doing was good for the trees." She reassured them that the light, porous fabric wouldn't harm the bark.

One of the reasons Brody did Presencing was to see how long her "personal gestures" would last. "Part of the work was done on city property and institutional landscapes," she says. "I was interested in seeing how these institutions responded to this kind of behavior. First, I wanted to see whether they'd notice, and second, will they take it down?" More than three months later, all the wrappings are still in place.

This may be because the fabric encasements are rather unobtrusive--if you didn't know this was art, you might not look twice--and Brody admits that had she done them "in neon or with something decorative," they might've attracted too much attention and vanished in days. But like memories, her work remains even though she's gone.

Presencing can be seen at these locations: posts at the northwest corner of Jackson and Columbus by the Art Institute; trees near the northwest corner of Monroe and Columbus in Grant Park; poles in the alleyway just north of Addison between Hoyne and Seeley; and trees at the southeast corner of Hermitage and Haddon by Automatic Art Gallery. For more information, call the gallery at 773-395-3958.

--Jeff Huebner

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): wrapped tree photo.

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