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Bird Book

A rendering of the artwork Richard Hunt will produce for the Obama Presidential Center. The golden sculpture will be installed in the reading garden outside of a Chicago Public Library branch that’s part of the presidential center, which is currently under construction in Jackson Park.

Chicago sculptor to produce the Obama center’s first commissioned artwork

Richard Hunt, one of the nation’s foremost African American sculptors, is the first artist commissioned by the Obama Foundation to create a piece for the presidential center on Chicago’s South Side.

The piece is called “Book Bird” in which a bird emerges with upright wings out of a book. The golden sculpture will be installed in the reading garden outside of a Chicago Public Library branch that’s part of the presidential center, which is currently under construction in Jackson Park.

“The bird coming out of the book was a symbol of things expanding, rising up,” Hunt said.

Hunt, 86, was raised on the city’s South Side where his mother was a librarian. Inspired as a child by visits to local museums — including the Field Museum and the Art Institute — and arts classes he attended on the South Side, Hunt decided to become a sculptor. He studied at the School of the Art Institute and honed his skills working on pieces in a studio in his parents’ basement.

He would go on to become the first African American sculptor to be honored with a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. His work is featured in museums, and his sculptures have been publicly commissioned. Last year, he unveiled the monument “Light of Truth” in honor of Ida B. Wells on the site of a former public housing development named after her in the Bronzeville neighborhood.

Hunt said the Obama commission is “a highlight of my career.”

Barack Obama says it was important to him and Michelle to have Hunt’s work on the presidential campus.

“To have one of the greatest artists Chicago ever produced, participate in what we hope is an important cultural institution for the city in the South Side — it feels like a pretty good fit to me,” Obama said in a video released on Monday.

A spokesperson said this is the first of many signature art commissions to come, but it was important to the Obamas to announce Hunt as the first artist “as his personal story embodies what is hoped to be the experience at the center.”

The works of Hunt and other artists will play a major role in the Obamas’ wish to establish the presidential center as one of the city’s notable cultural and artistic institutions.

“I think all of us are shaped and changed by art as we grow up. It starts with our earliest memories. As time goes on, there are obviously iconic images that become part of your understanding of the world,” Obama said in the video released Monday. “And I think that’s something that we want to make sure that we are honoring in the process of designing and building the presidential center because we want kids on the South Side of Chicago or the West Side of Chicago to have access to art, and to understand that they, too, are art makers and that they can create amazing work.”

Construction of the presidential center began last summer. In addition to the library branch, the center will house a presidential museum, forum with community space, and an athletic center. The site will also feature a vegetable garden, sledding area and open space. Construction is expected to be completed in 2025.

Natalie Moore is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. You can follow her on Twitter at @natalieymoore.

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