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Bess's Sunrise 

A Hanging at the Sun-Times

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7 AM, Wednesday, July 6: Textile artist Maya Romanoff and a few staff members meet outside the main entrance to the Sun-Times building on Wabash, ready to hang Romanoff's latest creation across most of the side of the building that faces the river.

Romanoff's colorful tie-dyed hanging, designed as part of Convergence 88 (a conference for textile artists that runs through tomorrow), will cover 48,000 square feet of the building. Romanoff calls the work "Bess's Sunrise" after his mother, who died before he finished it.

Romanoff and his staff started working on the hanging in March, choosing a fabric that would have the weight and flexibility necessary to stand the wind, drawing up blueprints, choosing 20 dyes, which include shades of teal, magenta, royal blue, dark green, salmon pink, black, orange, and yellow.

7:15 AM: Romanoff and his helpers make their way up to the seventh-floor roof entrance. Several people are already working, hoping to finish before it's too hot.

Some of these people have worked together before; Romanoff has done large hangings at the Public Library Cultural Center, in New York City's Central Park, and for the International Textile Fair in Kyoto, Japan. Old acquaintances greet each other, chat, and admire the richness of the panels' colors.

The hanging consists of 28 canvas panels, each 6 feet wide by 120 feet long. Plastic sheeting has been spread out to protect the panels, which lie in bundles every 15 feet along the roof's edge. The top ends of the panels are already fastened to the roof with thick elastic cords, which are strung through grommets in the panels and then through plastic braces that are wrapped around the building's balustrade. Romanoff pulls hard on each fastened cord, making sure it's secure.

7:45 AM: Almost all of the 20 or so workers, including volunteers from Convergence 88, have arrived. Romanoff introduces himself, Bhopa Ly, the woman in charge of the dyeing, and the three people in charge of the installation: Tibor Gyore and Vandana Srivastava, who have worked with Romanoff for nearly ten years, and John Uphock, who is the chief engineer for the Sun-Times.

Srivastava picks up the end of one panel, where four cords with loops on the end have been attached. Each end will be hooked onto a chain on the river dock. Demonstrating proper procedure, she stands facing the river, her toes tucked under the bulk of one panel, and grabs its sides. She explains that the panels will be gradually lowered down in groups, a third at a time. Each group of panels is attached together with more elastic cord, so that when the wind moves one, the rest will follow it in waves. Two people will unfurl each of the first nine panels; when the panels are secured, the workers will rotate to the next group. "It's real important that when somebody asks you to do something," Romanoff says, "you do it right away." He also warns the roof crew not to trip on the canvas bundles or elastic cords. But there's not much wind today, and there's a pretty high rail around the roof.

Uphock hands walkie-talkies to Romanoff, who will watch from across the river, and to Gyore, who will be on the dock.

:10 AM: Someone discovers that the walkie-talkies aren't working right. The workers abandon their bundles and head for soda and coffee, talking in small groups. "Today's my birthday, so this is my birthday present," says Mearl Gable, who teaches weaving, dyeing, quilting, and spinning.

Below, a Wendella tour boat goes by. Across the river, a handful of people watch the installation. From the west end of the roof, a Ravenswood train can be seen making its turn from Wabash to Lake; from the east end, Michigan Avenue rush-hour traffic and the hazy morning sun.

:30 AM: The walkie-talkies are working again, and the crews take their positions. "If anyone has any trouble, yell right away, please," Uphock shouts. Srivastava runs along the roof's edge, shouting last-minute instructions. "Ready?" she yells. "Go!"

People start rapidly lowering their panels. 'Easy, easy, let the first one down first, or they'll get tangled up," Uphock shouts. "Make sure your wires aren't crossed."

Some cords are getting caught on projections on the building's facade, even though all the sharp edges were taped over earlier.

Srivastava paces back and forth along the roof edge, watching for problems. Down on the river dock, Gyore and four other men grab the ends of the panels as they come down and attach the loops on the panel ends to a chain that runs the length of the building and is secured to the ground every few feet with large bolts. The groups of fastened cords look like giant webbed feet grasping the cement.

9:00 AM: Another Wendella boat goes by. The orange-and-yellow attached panels are glowing in the sun, but none of the passengers seem to notice them.

9:05 AM: Eight panels are secure. "Ready on the dock!" Gyore says into his walkie-talkie, and several purple-and-magenta panels start wriggling down like giant worms.

9:40 AM: The temperature has jumped about 15 degrees over the last two hours, and people are starting to get grouchy. Srivastava tells the guys on the dock to hurry up. "We can't wait too much longer," she says into the walkie-talkie. "This piece is going to rip."

A few minutes later they get the go-ahead from below, and the green-and-blue final section of the sunrise is lowered. In a few more minutes, they're done. The roof crew applauds. Another Wendella goes by; this time its passengers turn their heads.

10:05 AM: Most of the roof crew are across the river admiring the hanging. Uphock and his crew are starting to make the final connections between some of the panels; the rest of them hang calmly, occasionally stirred by a breeze. A few faces look out the Sun-Times building's windows. A Chicago police boat passes. "Looks good," a cop shouts through a megaphone.

A wavy white pattern runs through the colored fabric like beams of light, and as the sun hits the easternmost panels, they radiate color.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.

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