City finds less-than-majestic spot for disputed statue

Scott Gordon

In Homer’s “Odyssey,” Odysseus recalls hewing the trunk of an olive tree and strips of cowhide into a majestic bed for his wife Penelope.

Last month, Evanston officials cleared away some trash and weeds at the southeast corner of Ridge Avenue and Emerson Street to lay a square concrete bed for another Penelope — a statue the city bought last year from Chicago artist Lincoln Schatz.

“The city was trying to bury the piece,” Schatz said Tuesday, insisting that “Penelope”‘s suitors — Evanston City Council and the public art committee — spurned her unfairly.

In 2000 Schatz was given a $170,000 contract to create a sculpture for the Church Street Plaza parking garage. He planned to affix “Nimbus,” an arrangement of five large, cloud-like ovals, to the Maple Avenue front of the garage. When that fell through — for reasons Schatz and the council dispute — Schatz and the city sued each other, each saying the other had dragged its feet and communicated poorly.

To settle the lawsuit, he instead sold the city “Penelope,” a $51,000 work composed of a stainless steel frame and several plexiglass panes.

But then the city had to decide where to put it, and aldermen seemed to enjoy finding new ways to call the statue ugly. Ald. Edmund Moran (6th) said at a November council meeting that he’d be willing to sell it on eBay.

“Maybe we can melt it down and make a ring out of it,” Ald. Steven Bernstein (4th) said in January.

Schatz said the insults are “unfortunate — it just makes everybody look bad.”

“The good news, I guess, is that it’s across from Hecky’s (Barbecue, 1902 Green Bay Road),” Schatz said.

Hecky’s Barbecue owner Hecky Powell, a former president of the Evanston/Skokie District 65 School Board, said the city could have spent its money better on social programs or at least bought the work of an Evanston artist.

“The city put that there? With taxpayers’ money? Shit, we could have done better than that,” he said Tuesday after looking at “Penelope.” “What is it supposed to mean?” he asked.

Schatz said he created the sculpture in the late ’90s to subvert the tradition of “monumental” sculpture. The translucent plexiglass helps the sculpture adapt to changing light and surroundings, rather than imposing itself on its environment like a bronze statue of a soldier or politician.

He named it “Penelope” because, “There’s always been a proclivity in sculpture-making by men to give sculptures names like ‘Prometheus’ and all these guy names,” he said.

“These pieces are resolutely un-monumental,” he said.

But he said he’d consider working with the city again.

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