Austin Community Sculpture Garden

Title:  Austin Community Sculpture Garden

Site:  5225 W. Huron, Chicago

Artists: Carolyn Elaine and Tracy VanDuinen with John Pitman Weber

Assisting artist: Roosevelt Nunn and Catina Robinson

Community Participants:  Students from Austin Community Academy and volunteers from Austin Green Team and the 600 N. Latrobe Block Club

Year: 2001

Sponsors:  Chicago Public Art Group, Oppenheimer Family Foundation, and Northwest Austin Council

Scale:  Variable. Totems, mosaic game table, and pavers set in a garden

Materials:  Concrete with mosaic elements

Information: As an art teacher at Austin Community Academy from 1998 to 2002, Tracy Van Duinen incorporated contemporary-art practices into his classroom, helped organize an autonomous arts-based “small school” as part of school reform efforts, and led his students in the painting of many indoor murals.

In the summer of 2001, Van Duinen fostered students’ involvement with the neighborhood at large by helping to create the Austin Community Sculpture Garden, located at the corner of Latrobe and Huron a few blocks north of the high school. The team, which included co-lead artist Carolyn Elaine and assistants Roosevelt Nunn and Catina Robinson, built three concrete relief “guardian totems” as well as a cement game table and a hopscotch pad adorned with broken tile mosaic.

Longtime gardening activist Mary Peery along with her Austin Green Team transformed the vacant lot into a community greenspace three years ago—one of 18 lots the group has spruced up since the 1970s. It was Peery’s idea to enhance the space with art created by area youths and she remained an active presence and guiding inspiration throughout the program.

The 15 or so students were initially asked what issues and images were most important to them and to their culture and community. The team discussed the neighborhood site, went to look at garden totems at the Creative Reuse Warehouse and the Senn Park Unity Garden, and developed designs and symbolic imagery relating to the themes. Youths benefited from working with Peery and other local residents, says Van Duinen. “It added a new, important, and different element to the pieces.”

To build their technical skills, students did low-relief papier-mâché pieces based on their drawings, and then made three maquettes in clay. John Pitman Weber served as structural consultant. The Prairie Group donated concrete for the artworks’ foundations and footings. Cement-bonded cinderblocks and fiberglass-reinforced stucco were used to build the five-foot-high totems which feature the words Nature, Family, and Peace, corresponding images, and the cast faces of Peery and student participants.

The three-week installation process became a neighborhood affair as local residents developed a sense of ownership. Children tripped over themselves to do cleanup chores. At the end of each work day, members of the 600 N. Latrobe Block Club camped out in the garden until dark to make sure the art was protected as the cement dried. Notes Van Duinen, who’s now an art teacher at Clemente High School, “Poetically speaking, the ‘family’ that this work was meant to guard came out to return the favor.”