The exhibit “Messages of Hope” features 60 decorated wooden boxes, each by a different Chicago-area artist.
But it’s the location of the exhibit that’s a little different: The boxes are strapped to trees along more than a mile of the Black Oak Trail at the Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center in southwest suburban Willow Springs.
The idea came from Frank Maugeri of the Chicago performance collective Cabinet of Curiosities.
“The show aims to feed that hole that all of us are really suffering with,” he said of the unusual outdoor display.
Designer Sydney Lynne Thomas created boxes that measure about 18 inches tall and 12 inches wide. Two holes in the back of each box make it easy to strap them to trees. She played with the form by making boxes that have one, two or no shelves. Some boxes serve as a frame for big designs, while others can hold small objects on shelves.
Artists have used the boxes to create small displays that range from the political to the playful. Some have social justice references to George Floyd or the killing of young Native American women. One is filled with action figures painted white.
There’s a box that focuses on ethics, another on interracial childhood friendships. One that’s packed with architectural renderings and modern buildings includes the message “design a better future.” There are boxes with poetry, prose and nature themes.
Maugeri said the inspiration for the exhibit came to him in March when the coronavirus pandemic and divisive politics were creating widespread anxiety and anger. He remembered seeing artistic boxes on poles 25 years earlier while he was studying in Mexico City. The boxes were full of “detritus, junk and image,” he recalled, and he found them “phenomenal, beautiful and strange.”
Maugeri said a local told him: “Oh, the artists make those so the businessmen remember to look up and have hope.” That comment stuck with him.
“I thought, that is incredible that the artists would take time to assist these other people with the responsibility of having hope in their life,” he said.
For “Messages of Hope,” Maugeri found artists here who were enthusiastic about providing hope, too. After a modest callout for artists on social media, he got so many responses that he had to turn some away.
He had only two parameters for artists: use the provided box and recognize it’s going to be outside. The artists were free to take “hope” any direction they wanted.
Evanston sculptor and community artist Indira Johnson lept at the chance to make a box.
“When I looked through his philosophy, it was great,” she said of Maugeri. “I really related to it and thought, this is something I need to do. As an artist, I’ve been struggling to do work in the community. And it’s very hard to do that with COVID.”
Johnson called her box “Inside Out”. It features an image of Buddha and objects like a rusty bike chain, a computer motherboard and several walnuts she found.
“I feel like if there’s hope inside of you, then that becomes the lens through which you look at everything else. And even though it’s been really difficult, this time of political upheaval, you still have to have hope,” Johnson said.
Chicago textile designer and fiber artist Eseosa Edebiri was one of the 70 artists who got a box and she took the project seriously
“I was taking a lot of time to think about it,” she said. “I mean, you’re aware of everything that’s going on. The notion of providing hope, right now is a pretty tough question.”
Edebiri’s box is painted bright white with shades of blue and green fabric winding in a psychedelic manner. There are white picket fences — symbolic of her immigrant parents’ aspirations for prosperity and comfort in the U.S. — and a gold chain hammock. She distilled her thinking into bright blue letters that say ”breaking intergenerational trauma.”
“So with my box, I’m thinking about how in the year 2020 we’re overreaching in these topics of social justice — everything is overlapping, everything is colliding,” Edebiri added. “And we’re breaking these patterns that have kept marginalized groups from moving forward in life — or at least we’re trying to”.
Yet for such heavy thinking, her box is deliberately light and pretty.
“I love a pastel aesthetic and my recent work has been focusing on ways to have these conversations without being absolutely jarring,” she said.
Maugeri said his original plan was to put the “Messages of Hope” boxes on The 606 trail in Chicago. That idea was deemed unworkable for safety reasons, but the Chicago Park District suggested Maugeri talk to the Cook County Forest Preserves.
Forest preserves officials embraced the idea and turned the project over to Maritza Rocha at the Little Red Schoolhouse. She became an enthusiastic collaborator. and even added a suggestion box half-way through the trail where visitors can write their own messages of hope.
Rocha and Maugeri will give a virtual tour at 9 a.m. on September 16th where he’ll talk about the boxes and she’ll discuss the preserve’s stunning natural exhibits of compass plant, cardinal flower and swamp mallow.
Meantime, nature and the art boxes are beginning to meld. Spiders are making webs in the boxes. A tiny mirrored ball is missing from one box, and squirrels are suspected of swiping it (for a squirrel disco perhaps?)
Maugeri loves having the exhibit in a forest preserve, where it will be on display until Sept. 30.
“The nature itself is such a great medicine,” he said. “And so many of us have been locked in our offices or studios and absent from the natural environment, and absent from art that people have made with their hands that expresses something about themselves. So we’re hoping that all of those components feed peoples’ spirits.”
Jerome McDonnell covers the environment and climate for WBEZ. Follow him @jeromemcdonnell.
Correction: A photo caption previously misspelled the name of Angela Golata.