Today there is no break from the week's Chicago postings; however, there is a break from the parade of restaurant reviews. Today, we're going to view some art ... and food-related art, no less.
But we're not going to the Art Institute. Nope. I've got something better planned for our tour!
I'm loathe to admit that, despite my being an avid non-smokers' rights advocate (and former volunteer and intern with the Lung Association, no less), Jeremy smokes. Where did I go wrong?!?!? Sigh .... And his latest fetish is cigars.
Now, it's a toss-up as to whether Tom or Jeremy is the hardest person on Earth to shop for. Me? I'm so easy -- food (prepared or ingredients, doesn't matter), chocolate, sweaters, dishes for photo ops, ancient cookbooks, jangly bracelets, dangly earrings, nail polish, lotions and oils, sparkles for my hair, coffee, scented candles, cocoa, books about languages and linguistics, Judaica, flowers, kitchen equipment, donations to good causes ... you'd have to buy me a lawn mower or something equally unnecessary and unromantic to disappoint me.
Tom, though, is very -- VERY -- particular about items, often spending months doing research, buying something and then still sending it back because it is somehow insufficient. And his material needs, thankfully, are minimal. Jeremy is a musician whose wish list is so sub-specialized that all he can do is give me catalogue numbers for items because there's no way to buy anything generic (other than the assortment of guitar picks Santa puts into his stocking every Christmas). He's a typical teenage male who will wear clothes off the floor, not caring if they're either new or clean. And he doesn't play video or computer games. What am I supposed to do when trying to buy gifts???
But sadly, Jeremy does smoke. And since there was no way to bring a deep-dish pizza home for him on the train, he didn't want any jewelry from the fancy shops along the Magnificent Mile (even if I could have afforded any!), and he didn't need a doll from the American Girls shop, we decided to try to buy him a cigar in that Midwestern bastion of male-ness where one would have presumed (wrongly, it turns out) that cigars are still in fashion.
We schlepped up and down streets to no avail, and finally gave in by asking a pair of policemen if they knew of a cigar shop. They directed us around the corner to the Cultural Center, which neither of us had ever been in before despite numerous trips to Chicago, in which we'd find a tourist help desk.
Inside, we found a coffee shop, a reading room, a writing workshop and a gift shop, and ultimately stumbled into the comparatively boring assistance area for lost travellers. The very helpful woman wearing a lovely many-stranded beaded necklace coupled with a vibrant purple gauzy scarf looked for the information and told us that a shop could be found just a few blocks away. (FYI: The information was out-of-date, and the shop has closed.) We thanked her and walked out, looking around as we did. And at that point we found some wonderful art galleries.
We saw sculptures like the one pictured above by Jason Peot, which was very delicate and beautiful despite appearing to be nondescript strings in the photo. We saw heartbreaking and inspiring photos taken in Nicaragua. We saw some truly ugly greyish-greenish paintings and ink drawings. And then, as we meandered through the corridors, we saw a sign that said something along the lines of "Artists at work." And so -- artist and girl who once considered graduate study in art history that we are -- we simply had to wander in.
And that's when we found Project Onward -- a studio for artists with mental and developmental disabilities: "Project Onward provides studio space, art supplies, and professional guidance to emerging artists in a communal workshop environment. With the program’s support, Project Onward artists develop a professional body of work that reflects both a devotion to their personal vision and a desire for artistic growth. We believe that artists with special needs deserve a voice in the world of art and ideas, and that their extraordinary work has a universal audience. Project Onward exhibits, promotes, and sells the artists’ works as a means to provide earned income and a sense of personal achievement, as well as to integrate the artists into the wider arts community."
Well, bleeding hearts and art aficionados that we are, how could we resist???
There was a wonderfully friendly retiree who greeted us and chatted all about the program. We explained to him that not only are we avid art fans and that Tom is an artist, but also that people with disabilities have special places in both of our hearts (as Tom works with the homeless and mentally ill, and several of our most precious loved ones have varying forms of mental illness). He welcomed us to look around the studio, talk to the artists (some of whom were more outgoing than others, of course), and to peruse the gift shop; not only do the artists create, but they get to sell their works as well and even keep 70% of the proceeds. Our host explained that to many of them, it's like a day job -- they come in each morning, do their work, sell their masterpieces, and get picked up by their family members in the afternoon and show off what they've accomplished that day. It's therapeutic on many levels, and a boon to both the artists and those who care for them.
So naturally, Tom and I weren't going to leave without supporting this amazing project. I saw shelves full of dolls with hand-made clothes and decoration ... a series of paintings of skulls, with lots of glitter sprinkled onto them ... a cane decorated with festive colored feathers ... pictures of an imagined world called Loudemar -- complete with moats and fortresses -- which a man with autism "escapes" to when the sensory onslaught overwhelms him ... complex and delicate pencil drawings reminiscent of Celtic knots ... brightly colored drawings of animals .... Oh, there was such an extraordinary variety!!!
But I kept hearing the call of some pictures drawn on pieces of cardboard which seemed to have been cut from boxes. There were small portraits of late performers (Janice Joplin, Lena Horne, Michael Jackson); medium-sized pictures of food items and restaurants; and still larger -- and very complex -- depictions of television shows such as "I Love Lucy," showing episodes and numerous characters, or of "American Idol" and its many contestants. In the tradition of Andy Warhol, these works celebrated pop culture.
And as I perused the extensive collection, hoping to find one for Jeremy -- now, who else but me would buy him this kind of gift??? -- Adam Hines, the artist who had created these many works, came into the shop. He has a radiant smile and is extraordinarily friendly; Adam could talk to absolutely anyone, and make them feel like his best friend within minutes!
I spoke with him about his work, telling him that Jeremy loves Hot Pockets when I found an image Adam had drawn of them; immediately, Adam started singing the theme song from the commercial. When I saw the McDonald's piece pictured at the top of the post, again there was a performance -- Adam instantly started singing "You deserve a break today, at McDonald's!" He is truly a proverbial "walking encyclopedia" of cultural trivia! And as you can see from the photo, he was inordinately proud (and practiced!) to pose with his work when I asked if he'd let me take his picture ... :)
So, McDonald's unfortunately being one of Jeremy's favorite places (I think he and his buddies should all get jobs there, for the employee discount), it was easy to pick Adam's tribute to that institution as a souvenir. Adam even signed the back of the artwork for Jeremy, and made sure that I promised to say "Hello" for him once I got home. He is such a sweetheart! And when I brought it home for him, Jeremy absolutely loved the piece! When he and I next go to Chicago, I will have to bring him to Project Onward and introduce him to our new-found friend, Adam. After all, how can you not love an artist who states in his bio: "I want to grab colored pencils and markers to start drawing whatever I want and make it into a masterpiece. Art making takes a lot of courage, especially to do such a fantastic job as I do!"
So, while I am a tremendous fan of the Art Institute and have immersed myself in its collection more times than I can count, I cannot enthuse and effuse enough about Project Onward and its unique offerings as well as its truly life-alteringly important mission. These two widely varying exhibition sites are just across the street from each other; if you go to one, be absolutely sure you don't miss the other ....
Now, before I go, let me take this opportunity to wish my sweetie a HAPPY, HAPPY BIRTHDAY today!!! Tom wants to go out to lunch to celebrate (we both have the day off -- he because he simply took a vacation day, me because it's yet another Jewish holiday -- Simchat Torah [sim-KAHT toh-RAH]). And then we'll go home and enjoy his chosen cake: chocolate layer cake with walnuts, slathered in a mocha-flavored whipped cream and drizzled with chocolate and caramel sauces. Photos, delicious details and recipe to come next week ....