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BIGart returns to Navy Pier

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Gajin Fujita and his team work under the Grand Avenue, Lake Shore Drive viaduct. (WBEZ/Elliott Ramos)

Graffiti artists are doing a number under Lake Shore Drive this week.

Under the Grand Avenue viaduct, a team of artists are working on a mural as part of Navy Pier's annual BIGart exhibition this summer, which will display public and outdoor installations by several notable artists off one of Chicago's primary lakefront venues. The exhibition includes the mural, a massive Lichtenstein sculpture and a suspension of several aluminum canoes titled Monochrome II on the Pier's Gateway Park.

Gajin Fujita, a native of Los Angeles, likes to fuse Japanese imagery with his work. (WBEZ/Elliott Ramos)

“It's an opportunity to display public art and expand the whole idea of what you can put outdoors,” said BIGart curator Dave Hickey.

Before this show, the Grand Avenue viaduct displayed a massive mural called Revolutions. The work by Shepard Fairey depicted advertisements for a fictional OBEY record company, and it  was recently cleared to make way for the new installation.

The mural going up this week is the work of graffiti artist Gajin Fujita. A native of Los Angeles, Fujita mixes traditional Japanese imagery with contemporary graffiti, fusing pop culture images of dragons with that of cartoons and graffiti lettering.

“I've never worked on anything that long of a scale,” Fujita said. “I'd like to conquer that, be mindful to make the people of Chicago interested and happy about art.”

This week, passers-by and Lake Shore Drive commuters can see Fujita and two others spray-painting depictions of a woman, dragon and letters that when completed, will form a tribute to Chicago sports teams.

“I like to reference things from my heritage and fuse it together,” Fujita said referencing his Japanese-American  background.

When asked what the finished project would look like, he said he has a rough idea, and he conceptualizes while working on the piece. He quickly added: “You can't forget the Bulls.”

A little farther down Grand, a team of workers are using cranes and cherry pickers to suspend and bind used aluminum canoes on the lawn of Gateway Park.

Nancy Rubins radios instructions to her work crew. (WBEZ/Elliott Ramos)
Below them, a woman clad head-to-toe in black and a large sun hat gives orders on a two-way radio: “Can you tweak it clockwise?”

The woman is Nancy Rubins, a renowned artist from Los Angeles, who has developed a specialty out of using discarded materials and objects to form massive sculptures. She darts from one side of the lawn to another, radioing instructions to crew members who have worked with her on previous installations.

Rubins hopes that when it's complete, her Monochrome II will catch the attention of the tourists and families that frequent the pier. “I hope that every work of art inspires kids who see it.”

“I came across these aluminum canoes and they're so gorgeous, they have a beautiful patina, they're really used," she said. "On the surfaces, you can see every ding from the rocks and the surfaces of everything these boats have experienced.

“In a funny way it's made for the figure, but everything we make is figurative. I just love working with them. I'm building this large organic shape that's evolving in an organic way.”

Workers were drilling holes into the canoes and running strands of steel cords through them, tying them together to create a shape resembling a steel lotus.

Lichtenstein sculpture Brushstroke Group was courtesy of a partnership with Gagosian Gallery (WBEZ/Elliott Ramos)

“It's all held together with tension and compression, it's something Buckminster Fuller called 'tensegrity' when he was working with Kenneth Snelsen.”

Rubins was referring to artist Kenneth Snelson, an artist whose public sculptures were inspired by his former professor Buckminister Fuller, an American architect and engineer who was responsible for introducing geodesic domes to architecture.

Adjacent to the installation, Navy Pier visitors can walk under a sculptured gateway that looks like an edifice jutting out of a comic strip. The Lichtenstein sculpture, Brushstroke Group, utilizes bright, vibrantly colored swoops, accented with bold, black outlines. The sculpture was courtesy of a partnership with Gagosian Gallery.

“There are very few comparable venues in the world like Navy Pier that lend themselves to public sculptures so that everyone may simultaneously view great outdoor art and picturesque city lakefront,” BIGart curator Hickey said in a statement.

BIGart is free to the public and is expected to run through October.

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