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Sculptures Bring Beauty, Peace to Ronan Park

The notion of a multinational sculpture garden in Albany Park seemed like a fanciful brainstorm when Kompha Seth first raised it during the Building Community Through the Arts (BCA) visioning process—one of those ideas that everyone agrees would be great but can’t imagine the practical steps toward reality.

But the Multicultural Sculpture Park and Healing Garden in Ronan Park took its first visible step to becoming reality May 19 when more than 200 Albany Park residents and other stakeholders gathered to celebrate its groundbreaking, at the northwest corner of Lawrence Avenue at the Chicago River’s north branch.

Kompha Seth (center), the founder of the Cambodian Association of Illinois and idea man behind the sculpture park, talks with attendees at the May 19 groundbreaking event during a reception afterward.

Gordon Walek

Based on a belief in “the power of art and gardens to heal, renew and inspire,” partners to the effort—The North River Commission (NRC), the Cambodian Association of Illinois, Northeastern Illinois University, and Lawrence Hall Youth Services—envision residents of and visitors to Albany Park finding beauty and peace.

“People will come to share their pain and share their pride,” said Seth, founder of the Cambodian Association, beaming with delight after the ceremony. “This project will be a linkage among communities,” he said. “Political solutions are not deep enough—we need to connect spiritually and culturally.”

Eileen Figel, vice president of arts & culture for NRC, the Albany Park community’s lead agency for both LISC/Chicago’s Great Neighborhoods Program as well as BCA, reminded everyone there is plenty of distance yet to travel.

“We are here to celebrate this park and honor the visionaries and supporters who helped make it possible, and to remind you that this groundbreaking doesn’t mark the completion of the park—it’s just the beginning,” she said. “We have many steps ahead of us to fully bring to life our community’s dream of a park with lush gardens, walking path and sculptures; of a park where you can take refuge and find a safe have for quiet meditation.”

A small taste of the vision

The five-year, $1.5 million construction effort, which has arisen out of dozens of community meetings stretching back more than a year, will begin in earnest with the first phase of construction in 2012.

Architect Tannys Langdon and her students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago built a to-scale model of the sculpture garden once it's finished.

Gordon Walek

As funding becomes available, the build-out will continue with not only the sculpture park and healing gardens but also a children’s garden, lotus garden, labyrinth, a new bike path that joins the North River Branch path, and a walking path shaped like the infinity symbol (see depiction). The sculpture park will include land outside of existing Ronan Park deeded by a developer who had difficulty building on the parcel.

Professionals will guide volunteer residents and agencies in developing the design of the gardens, and volunteers will handle planting, weeding and cleaning. The juried sculptures—which will reflect the healing, peace and unity theme of the gardens—will rotate in and out for the most part, although a few might be permanent. In addition to the sculptures themselves, visitors will be able to participate in events like yoga classes and music programming.

Those in attendance at the groundbreaking got just a small taste of the eventual project, with four new installations in place for public viewing (see photos below):

  • “Happy Family,” by Shenchen Xu, which focuses on linkages between the human and natural worlds.
  • “Come Unity,” by Nnenna Okore, which recalls the traditional yam festival at the end of the harvest.
  • “Skin,” by Stephanie Stachura, assisted by Ken Mitchell, which depicts rebirth and self-renewal after a difficult past.
  • “Neang Kung-King,” by Chhoueth Tuy, which portrays the Cambodian Earth Deity, worshipped as the mother of the Khmer people.

“This will be a hot spot for tourists from the train, from the bus, from the river,” Seth said. “We’re working closely with the [Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture] to bring people from around the world. I’m so pleased. We’ll be pulling in so many ethnic groups from across the nation.”

A circuitous path

The process of securing land for the garden took a circuitous path after original plans to build on Metropolitan Water Reclamation District land, also on Lawrence Avenue west of the Chicago River, fell through when the MWRD decided it might need the land—and environmental issues turned up.

"Happy Family" by Shencheng Xu is one of four installations already in place at the park, located north of Lawrence Avenue and west of the Chicago River's north branch.

Gordon Walek

“Physical projects are always the most difficult to realize,” said Melissa McDaniel, program director for NRC. “Persistence, patience and perseverance are always needed—whether it’s affordable housing, transit-oriented development, or a sculpture park.”

After that experience, NRC and its partners made sure to “jump on the opportunity” when it arose at Ronan Park, said project coordinator Rebecca Rico.

New partnerships began—and existing ones were bolstered—due to the sculpture garden and other projects developed during BCA, led by NRC and sponsored by LISC/Chicago and The Joyce Foundation from 2006-08, which has brought in more than 200 people from 28 organizations.

“It was an opportunity to expand relationships and re-establish relationships,” McDaniel said, “which is great for us and for the community.” For the sculpture garden and other projects, NRC relied on partners for “all phases of the process,” she says—input, planning and implementation.

Along the way, NRC and its partners secured a plethora of pro bono help: an estimated $50,000 from architect Tannys Langdon, for two site designs for the sculpture garden; $10,000 from Northeastern Illinois, for the sculptures’ bases and installation; $10,000 from the Chicago Botanic Garden, for plants for the ornamental gardens as well as the time of a plantsman; and $5,000 to $10,000 apiece for the sculptures themselves, McDaniel figured.

“That [sculpture garden] is going to be the major initiative that we hang our hat on,” she predicted. “It will benefit multiple stakeholders, showcase our artistic [talent] and cultural diversity, and provide an opportunity for healing.”

Political and financial support

During the groundbreaking ceremony, Figel recognized the financial support from Joyce, LISC, Albany Bank & Trust, and Charter One Bank. In addition to Mell and the Chicago Park District, political support has come from Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th) and U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), who previously served as the area’s Cook County Commissioner. Figel also recognized Rico for shepherding the effort day to day.

"Skin," by Stephanie Stachura with help from Ken Mitchell, shows a figure escaping his old body and spirit to be reborn.

Gordon Walek

Lastly, Figel called out Langdon, who teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and also has worked with her students to develop a to-scale replica of the plan for the garden—which attendees viewed during a reception after the ceremony at the Cambodian Association’s Cultural Museum.

Keri Blackwell, LISC senior program officer, congratulated the partners and thanked the key political supporters. “We salute your vision, your partnership and your perseverance,” she said. Referring to the political leaders, she added, “Without your support, we wouldn’t be here.

O’Connor joked about redrawing the aldermanic map to shift Ronan Park into his ward, which begins on the east side of the river, and then expressed more serious support for expanding the sculpture park across the river. “Projects that reflect the community and [contain] public art are always encouraged,” he said. “This is a great thing for our community.”

The Cambodian Association looks forward to "cultivating the aesthetics," added Dary Mien, executive director. "We are so fortunate to have the healing garden here," she said. "This will impact not only the Cambodian community and the Albany Park community but beyond."

Michelle Boone, the city's commissioner for cultural affairs and a former Joyce Foundation senior program office, thanked Seth, NRC, LISC, the MacArthur Foundation, and "all the people who worked so hard to make it happen. I can’t wait to come back with a blanket and a picnic basket and enjoy this sculpture garden."

For more pictures of the sculpture park and groundbreaking ceremony, please see Flickr.

Posted in Placemaking, Albany Park

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