In his new book, William Swislow writes, “Hidden in plain sight on Chicago’s Lake Michigan shoreline is one of the world’s great public art treasures.”
He is not referring to the Navy Pier Ferris wheel, which does offer, I guess, some modest pleasures, but rather to a new book, compiled with his friend Aron Packer, the former gallery owner and artist who currently represents artists and holds events.
“Lakefront Anonymous: Chicago’s Unknown Art Gallery” is a remarkable and important book, a gathering of more than 100 photos of such lakeshore attractions as faces, animals, bathing beauties, signs and symbols, names, and so many other things carved into the limestone blocks that once lined the entire lakeshore.
These carvings, much like some of the graffiti and paintings that are an ever-increasing public presence across the city, are things we often take for granted. But, Swislow writes, “All of this art, the new and the old, is there to enjoy just for the looking. The final lesson here applies well beyond the Chicago lakefront. There are interesting things to see everywhere, since art can be found anywhere: in museums and mental hospitals, on signs in auto repair shops and tacos stands, in front yards and on fences. And, of course, on rocks along the lake.”
Packer began to notice and photograph the vast number of stone carvings that peppered the lakefront in the late 1980s. A North Side native, he writes, “At the time I discovered these carvings I could not contain my excitement. I felt I had found something great and unknown.” He gathered some of his photos for a 1992 show at the Chicago Cultural Center. It was a success, but Packer became busy starting his own art gallery.
He and Swislow, a writer, art collector and internet wiz who once worked for the Chicago Tribune many years ago, have long shared an interest in “self-taught artists and vernacular art.” They would often talk about the lakeshore carvings and when they both began to notice that many of them were fading away — due to weather and erosion but also because of the work of the city and the Army Corps of Engineers — they decided to move ahead with this book.
But for all of the aesthetic joys it provides — and there are plenty, even from those carvings made by people without any formal artistic training — the book is a warning too. As Swislow writes, “‘Preservation’ of Chicago’s lakefront in recent years has actually meant wholesale destruction of its historic shoreline.”
Long ago, in August of 2001, that fateful, life-altering year, I wandered the lakefront with my trusty camera-toting colleague, photographer Charles Osgood. We found poems and drawings on the rocks on the lakefront near Belmont Avenue. No one we talked to was able to tell us how long this has been going on, and in the many times Osgood and I have visited this stretch of craggy shoreline we have not seen anyone writing poems on the rocks or met anyone who has seen anyone else writing poems on the rocks.
Some of the poems are original and some are those of famous poets; some are not poems at all but words from the Bible or private messages. I wrote this: “But all of this rock-writing, it seems to me, represents a collective and gentle cry in the urban wilderness, a sort of grown-up version of putting your handprint in wet cement or scratching your initials and those of a lover (or crush) inside a heart on the bark of a tree. They represent the various ways in which some people say, in a world increasingly email icy, ‘I was here!’”
I had not been there in many years and so was sad to read in this book that this section of the lakeshore has all but vanished with, as Swislow writes, “Most of the old blocks were lost, as was all the atmosphere.”
This book does a marvelous job of detailing the history of the lakefront, calling it “arguably Chicago’s greatest achievement,” and tracking down some, understandably just a few, of the artists who left their marks.
Swislow writes, “The hypnotic appeal of the lake has undoubtedly inspired artistic urges in non-artists. It is as if the rock spoke to the passerby and said, ‘carve me, paint me.’ Human figures, religious icons, ‘tattoos,’ animals, and more, are all symbols we all recognize and are abundant among the rocks … This work ties Chicago together as part of a greater whole; the images are for everyone: past, present and future.”
The lakefront has worked this sort of magic on another man. He is John Soss, who works as the vice president of marketing and advertising for Jam Productions, the venerable concert and special events producer. Except for a short interlude, Soss has worked at Jam since starting as an intern while at Columbia College. I wrote about him in 2020, when he had the first exhibition of his photography at Tony Fitzpatrick’s Dime Gallery.
This photography consisted of things he found on Lake Michigan beaches. As I wrote, “What he is seeking are remnants of this world, specifically things that have been lost or tossed or otherwise found their way into the waters of Lake Michigan. Thousands of these things eventually wash up along the shore and Soss grabs some, looks them over and takes a few home, there to arrange together in patterns and takes a photo.”
He told me this: “I don’t go out every single day but when I go out there has not been one day that I didn’t find a number of things to bring home and photograph. Each beach has its own personality.”
I have no idea if Soss has met Swislow or Packer, but he has a new show opening at the Dime Gallery, through the end of that month.
“Lakefront Anonymous: Chicago’s Unknown Art Gallery” is published by interestingideas.com
“John Soss: On the Beach” opens Dec. 3 at the Dime Gallery, 1513 N. Western Ave.; thedimechicago.godaddysites.com