“Great art picks up where nature ends.” – Marc Chagall
Among the tall grasses, windswept prairies and lines of spindly Osage orange trees on the campus of Governors State University rise giant works of steel, wood and fiberglass art.
Twenty-nine permanent sculptures, as well as some temporary pieces, comprise Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park, recently named one of the “25 Most Amazing Sculpture Gardens in the World” by the education website Best Value Schools.
“It’s a wonderful marriage of art and nature,” said Geoffrey Bates, director and curator of the park, as he leads a group of ninth-graders on the mile-plus tour that circles the academic buildings. Though many of the works are gigantic, most are hidden among the clusters of trees and rolling grasslands that blanket the University Park campus.
“That’s what’s so special about Nathan Manilow,” Bates said. “It’s like a game of peekaboo. You come around a corner and there’s a giant sculpture.”
The pieces provoke thought, evoke emotion and inspire wonder. In addition, Bates said, they cause us to ask that age-old question, “What does it mean?”
Each piece has its own story to tell. There is “Illinois Landscape No. 5,” by John Henry. It is large and angular, its bright yellow beams jutting out in all directions. The painted steel structure, commissioned in 1976 by Nathan Manilow with support from the National Endowment for the Arts, is an example of geometric abstraction, Bates said.
“Everybody on campus calls it ‘French Fries,’ ” Bates said to the teens, many of whom nod in understanding. “It drives me crazy.”
It is very different from the white, organic piece that sits across the road. “Windwaves,” by Yvonne Domenge, one of the newest pieces in the collection, is as much about reflecting nature as it is complementing it. “On a bright sunny day, with clouds rolling by, it definitely looks like waves of wind,” Bates said. At that point, he pauses to remind these budding artists, all students from the Chicago High School for the Arts, “there are only so many shapes. There are only so many materials. As an artist you have to figure out how to bend things to your will and make it do what you want it to do,” he said. Some of the pieces are immersive, some can be entered or climbed on, all are designed to do what art does best: encourage onlookers to look within.
In American folklore, Paul Bunyan symbolizes strength, vitality, resilience. In other words, America. Yet, even a giant can bow under pressure, as we see when we come upon the slumping giant lumberjack along the west end of campus. His head bowed, his axe down, Bunyan is bearing the burden of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Bates said. The steel-reinforced fiberglass piece was commissioned in 2002 and crafted by Tony Tasset. It went on display in 2006.
“He is looking tired because the responsibility of war is weighing on him,” Bates said. There are other points to be extracted from this piece. Bunyan’s face looks like the biblical Moses; the polychromatic piece also harks back to the art of ancient Greece, Bates said.
The students, cameras at the ready, gaze and wonder at the works. But, as 15-year-olds are prone to do, they can’t help but soak up the surroundings. At “Bodark Arc,” they can’t resist the temptation to walk the narrow footbridge across a pond. “We live in the city,” Natalie Ayala said. “This is a very calm place. It’s a great place for inspiration.” They’re not used to studying outdoors. They’re not used to grass as far as the eye can see.
“The landscape is beautiful,” Deborah Pozo said. “The sculptures, because they’re plain, tend to blend in. I like how they’re very simple.”
“It’s wonderful to see their reactions,” teacher Rebecca Green said. “These kids are very bright, very curious, very attentive.” This was the second year in a row that the school, in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, has visited the sculpture park. Teacher Kayce Bayer said, “This is a great opportunity to see art in real life. The real value is Mr. Bates passionately sharing knowledge and asking good questions.” There aren’t a lot of places where kids can experience large-scale sculpture, especially in such a serene setting, she said. “You can appreciate how difficult it is to make, to install and to transport,” she said.
Devin Mawdsley teaches drawing at the school. “It is so different to see art out in this living environment,” he said. “I’m seeing a different kind of energy in these kids today.”
Gregory Buckner, a student who is interested in animation art, said, “This exhibit is very big and amazing. It’s also very creative. It makes you think about how to look at things differently.”
Bates said it is the duty of every artist to “listen to that voice inside you that says, ‘Eh, nope, gotta change.’ That’s what going to deliver you to the artwork that not only speaks to you but speaks to your audience.”
Established in 1978 by the GSU Board of Trustees, the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park was named for a visionary developer who helped form American Community Builders at the end of World War II. The group planned and built the neighboring village of Park Forest for returning soldiers. Sculptor Mark diSuvero spent the summers of 1968 and 1969 living and building sculptures on land that was to become the university. His presence attracted other artists, including John Chamberlain, Richard Hunt and Henry.
By 1971, GSU had become chartered and occupied. That same year, Manilow died, and Lewis Manilow donated diSuvero’s “Yes! For Lady Day,” a tribute to Billie Holiday, to the university. In 1976, the university presented the exhibit “The Sculptor, the Campus, and the Prairie,” which included works by seven sculptors. Two years later, GSU formally named the growing collection of artworks on campus Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park.
Among the artists whose work is displayed are Hunt, considered the dean of Chicago sculpture; and Jene Highstein, Dan Yarbrough and Dan Peterman, whose “The Granary Project” is made of recycled plastic. In addition to public and school tours, the park hosts events, such as “Kids, Colors, and Kites” on June 1 and “Carts and Cocktails” on Sept. 13.