By Dianna Douglas
Photo by Jason Smith

I wanted to break up the normal experience of walking down a street, to present people with something surprising.”
—Jessica Stockholder
chair, Department of Visual Arts

One morning this spring, renowned artist Jessica Stockholder watched as the downtown Chicago intersection of State and Adams was bathed in color.

Her plan was to transform the gray and steel of the city with enormous swaths of bright red, green, and blue. The colors would climb up lampposts, cover the sidewalks, spill into the crosswalks, and even blanket the buildings.

Stockholder’s playful and imaginative “Color Jam” installation is the largest public art project in Chicago’s history, and is here only for the summer. The test of its success, she says, is how city-dwellers and visitors incorporate this serious artwork into their daily lives.

“I wanted to break up the normal experience of walking down a street, to present people with something surprising,” says Stockholder, chair of the Department of Visual Arts at UChicago at UChicago.

Judging from people’s reactions to the art on a recent sunny afternoon, Stockholder has more than achieved her goal. Many pedestrians moved in and out of this three-dimensional painting without a fuss, while others stopped to look around in surprise and wonder.

“The color really catches the eye,” says Kathy Sommers, visiting with her husband from Coal Valley, Ill. “I love the public art in Chicago—in all its different forms—and this piece really adds to the artistic feel of the city.”

Emer Ducduc, on a lunch break from his nearby office, says he walks through the installation almost every day. “It’s impressive, and I really enjoy it,” he says, calling the installation a welcome from break from his urban routine.

City provides unique opportunity

Stockholder created this exhibition-within-a-city-block at the invitation of the Chicago Loop Alliance, a group of businesses and advocates that tries to enrich the downtown experience. The Alliance got all the permits from the city, building owners, and businesses in the area to paint and cover the many surfaces that the installation touches.

In all, it took about eight months to line up all the permits and materials. When everything was approved, the sidewalks and street were heated with blowtorches, covered with adhesive foil, and painted. Volunteers and workers wrapped buildings and traffic poles in bright vinyl.

“There are always compromises when I move from envisioning a piece to making it work in the world,” Stockholder says. She initially wanted to paint the entire intersection, but the city allowed her to color only the crosswalks and sidewalks. She also made room in the vinyl for people to see the signs for Starbucks, Bank of America, and CVS, among others. “All of these details of the intersection contribute to its richness,” she says.

Even the artist was amazed at the city’s willingness to accommodate her vision. “The circumstances that allowed this to happen are unique to Chicago. There is already a certain bravery to the architecture and landscape in the city,” Stockholder said. “I was surprised and happy that this very simple idea was possible.”

Beyond the walls and canvases

Stockholder has created public art on a grand scale before, including an installation in Madison Square Park in New York City, where her swaths of color ran through planter boxes, playground equipment and mulch to the delight of park visitors. She is currently working on pieces for San Francisco and Washington, D.C., which are also designed for public spaces.

“I don’t teach students how to do my work,” she says. “Rather, I help them do their own best work.”

As an artist whose work has been challenging boundaries for many years—pushing off the canvas onto the walls and floors of galleries and sometimes even beyond the windows and doors—she is well-suited for helping young people see their own art in new ways.

While the challenges of making a career in art can seem daunting to young people, Stockholder tries to help each of her students find the right path. “When things go well for a student and you can watch their work blossom, it’s a privilege to have been a part of it.”