Artists find inspiration, but Prospect Heights city hall finds infringement
A gallery of sunflower artwork that sprouted on the shore of Hillcrest Lake in Prospect Heights was meant to inspire happiness for a community living through a pandemic.
But city hall is casting a cloud on the project.
Because the display was set up partially on Prospect Heights Park District land, the city is asking the artists responsible for the bright art to take it down unless they can get proper permits.
"I don't want to rile people up, really," said Kate Tully, a professional mural artist who lives near the city slough. "We just were trying to give people some joy."
Mayor Nick Helmer said he appreciates the intent, but insists the artists adhere to city rules.
"If you're putting signs on other people's property, I don't care if it's the park district's or your mother-in-law's, you have to get permission," Helmer said during Monday's city council meeting, when the artists sought belated permission for their installation.
The idea for the pop-up art came when Mara Lovisetto, an elementary school teacher in Northbrook, was trying to find a way to virtually teach art to students from her Prospect Heights home. The students by that point had been attending classes online for several weeks because of the pandemic.
"My job is to empower them with art," Lovisetto said. "That's not easy in a virtual world."
Having recently had her own driveway painted with giant sunflowers by artist and Prospect Heights native Olivia Menzia, Lovisetto decided on a smaller scale sunflower project for her students. She would teach them, virtually, to make a standing desktop sunflower from cardboard.
"I just felt like the kids needed something to cheer them up," she said.
Lovisetto's artist friends noticed the colorful sunflower work around her Hillcrest Drive home and that's all the motivation they needed to begin creating again after having no work during the stay-at-home orders.
Tully created her sunflower sculpture using a recycled bicycle, sheets of metal and colorful mosaic glass. More friends soon joined in.
"Artists just find each other," Lovisetto said.
As the group of artists grew they decided to display their work in a pop-up exhibition on the western shore of Hillcrest Lake, across the street from Lovisetto's home. There it could be seen by people who regularly walk, bike and enjoy the natural surroundings just north of Willow Road and Isaak Walton Park.
Lovisetto's husband, Lou, created a giant tin sunflower in their yard and she added a painted window frame to the growing collection across the street. Menzia joined in by wrapping trees with yarn and adding silk sunflowers, calling it "yarn bombs."
Jenna Kolcz hung a sunflower wreath. June Nichols added a mosaic made from crushed pots and pieces of glass. And Tully's husband, Andy, added a sculpture made from an old lawn mower, a discarded bicycle and lots of wire.
Other artists contributed hanging medallions made from slices of wood and colorful birdhouses with encouraging messages written on them.
Tully named the collection "The Sunflower Project 2020" and added a couple of personal renderings of Vincent Van Gogh paintings.
The pop-up display began to attract attention. Even the Prospect Heights Natural Resources Commission, who were in the area clearing buckthorn and restoring natural plants, donated several native plants to the group, who used them in a piece on the lakeshore.
"I think it's a wonderful addition to the neighborhood," said Agnes Wojnarski, chairwoman of the PHNRC. "It builds community engagement and it is beautiful to look at."
However, the few feet of turf between the lake and Hillcrest Drive is park district property, and by rule no signs or artwork can be installed there without permission from the city. And the city let that be known.
"Someone from the city came knocking on Mara's door and told her it had to come down or be moved across the street to her yard," Tully said. "I guess someone complained. It has been nothing but positive comments that I've gotten from people. Mara even gets nice notes in the mailbox. It's become a destination. I saw graduation pictures being taken there."
"We were happy and having fun and then the bubble burst," Lovisetto added. "We were hoping we could do this all summer."
On Monday, Tully and Lovisetto attended the city council meeting via Zoom to seek permission to continue the display.
"We thought we could send some joy during this time with some artwork," Tully told Helmer. "Allow us to keep this positive energy going for the duration of the summer."
City officials offered praise and support for the artwork, but also stressed the need for the artists to comply with regulations.
"It's incredibly beautiful," Ward 2 Alderman Kathleen Quinn said. "Right now when people can't get out, this is one of the most inspirational things I saw."
Helmer ended the discussion by telling the artists to speak with the city's attorney.
"Until we get some clarification and you have permission, a lawyer will tell you what you need, we can go from there," he said.
Tully said the group plans to follow the mayor's suggestion.
In the meantime, artwork continues to collect on Hillcrest Drive, drawing a steady stream of viewers. There are almost 20 pieces on display, some more than 10 feet tall.
"It mostly just began with that little sunflower project," Lovisetto said. "It brought out all of our creativity."