Artful Dodge | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

Artful Dodge 

Sculptors Jeffrey and Anna Koh Varilla have won the commission to create a veterans memorial for Soldier Field. Was their appointment the result of a "soviet process?"

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On July 25 the Chicago Park District faxed a memo to Michael Lash, director of the city's Public Art Program, notifying him that his agency's services would no longer be needed. Beginning last August, Lash, PAP project coordinator Lee Kelley, and an 18-member advisory panel had spent eight months trying to choose an artist to create an outdoor sculpture for the proposed Soldier Field Veterans Memorial. But the fax only confirmed what Lash and Kelley had long suspected. The process had been stalled since the spring, when the advisory panel voted to suspend activities because it couldn't identify an acceptable artist or style of work. "They thought the best thing to do was not have us do it," says Lash. "They decided not to use a tried-and-true public art process. It's been a great spinning of wheels in the mud."

The Park District sent Lash the fax after the Reader began inquiring about the status of the project. That same day, the Lakefront Redevelopment Project--the public-private partnership among the Chicago Bears, the Park District, and the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority that's overseeing the creation of the new Soldier Field complex--announced that it had a solution. The $200,000 commission would be awarded to Chicago-based husband-and-wife sculptors Jeffrey Varilla and Anna Koh Varilla, who have made "classic realist" sculptures for public and private institutions all over the country, including the life-size bronze bust of Richard J. Daley that sits in the current mayor's office. The Varillas say they weren't aware of the original competition. But that's because they were never invited to make a proposal.

The whole thing started in June 2001, when the Park District hired the Public Art Program, agreeing to pay it a consulting fee of $30,000. Among other things, the $632-million Soldier Field renovation (with $432 million coming from public money) calls for a "major work of public art" honoring members of the armed forces to be incorporated into a 300-foot-long granite water wall at the north end of the stadium. The memorial wall and sculpture will sit on a landscaped 3,600-square-foot plot of land. Total cost: $3.8 million. The finished artwork, according to the project description, could include "inscriptions, insets, relief materials, sculptural elements, lighting and sound effects." Lash says his committee had hoped to see a "progressive design that can speak through the ages."

By August, Lash and Kelley had put together an advisory panel of war veterans, artists, and architects, as well as officials from Soldier Field, the Park District, and the city. PAP staffers began sifting through a 3,000-artist slide registry, identifying 75 or 80 Illinois sculptors. Unbeknownst to the Varillas, they were in that initial group. But the committee, which Kelley says was "leaning toward a conceptual project," rejected most of the potential competitors, including the Varillas. Ten artists were notified of the project in early October, and on October 11 Lash announced that the competition was still open. When a story ran in the October 12 Tribune, some artists complained that they'd been left out of the loop.

Five more artists submitted portfolios over the next month, and in mid-November the committee narrowed the field to ten semifinalists, who were asked to submit proposals; nine did. Four of those were eliminated in December, leaving Ned Broderick, Michael Helbing, B.J. Krivanek, Jason Salavon, and Kris Yokoo, who presented models in February. None included figurative sculpture, though most planned to incorporate sculptural elements on the wall (like Helbing's stainless steel EKG graph), along with inscriptions or reliefs memorializing the branches of the armed forces or significant events in American military history.

"We wanted to find something that was transcendent," says Ellen Sandor, one of three artists on the panel. "But nothing absolutely touched our hearts and souls like [Maya Lin's] Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall." On March 25 the committee voted to "suspend all finalists," as Lash puts it. Semifinalists received $1,000, finalists $2,500, all paid by the Park District in addition to PAP's administrative fee. Most everyone expected the process to start up again at a later date.

The project was kicked back to the Park District, and a group was formed that included the mayor's deputy chief of staff Lee Bey, 11th Ward alderman James Balcer (both of whom were on the original committee), and Park District officials. Balcer, a Vietnam vet and former director of veterans' affairs for the Chicago Commission on Human Relations, recently helped catalog the city's public war memorials for a Web site and led the campaign to make a memorial part of the renovation plan. "We were closing in on time," he says. "Soldier Field is moving along, and [we had] to make a decision."

The Varillas say that Bey--who'd written about their work when he was the Sun-Times architecture critic--called them in April and invited them to make a maquette in three weeks' time. They got it done in two. Their proposal for Soldier Field consists of a 10-by-15-foot bas-relief bronze sculpture depicting men and women of the armed forces along with family members on Chicago's lakefront; they also designed nine large medallions, representing the eight branches of the military as well as POW-MIAs, to be installed on the water wall. Says Anna Koh Varilla, "We're glad we had a chance to give Chicago this gift."

Artist and designer B.J. Krivanek would have been happy to do the same. He says he was told months ago that artists would be allowed to submit new designs when the committee reconvened. But Friday, July 26, he got a fax from Lash's office giving him the news. If he had any questions, it said, he should call the Park District. "We're supposed to respond to this violation? I'd like to ask Mike Lash, isn't it your responsibility to respond to a violation of the public process? But I'm not surprised," Krivanek says. "It was a very soviet process."

On Monday notification that the project was over finally went out to the selection committee. "It was a real, sincere effort," says Sandor, "and veterans and people from all walks of life on our committee truly tried to do the right thing. But in the end, something was done behind our backs. That's so disgusting--such a shame."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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