How a dirt artist is defining The 606

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Frances Whitehead is a dirt artist.

In the past that’s meant teaching sculpture and ecology to School of the Art Institute of Chicago students, designing plant-based sculpturesintegrating artists into urban planning and speaking about soil.

Today it means helping to redefine the West Side as lead artist for The 606, Chicago’s long-anticipated elevated park.

This won’t be the first time she’s shaped the city with her art. Whitehead’s Embedded Artists project partnered with the city and initiated the SLOW Cleanup project to revitalize abandoned gas stations in communities through restorative landscaping, with several test sites around the city such as the empty lot on South Cottage Grove Avenue and 98th Place.

“When I began this type of work, the idea of how cities can become ecologically and in every other way sustainable captured my imagination,” Whitehead says passionately. “I had to start working on a larger scale.”

The 606 will be one of her largest canvases yet — 2.7 miles of the old Canadian Pacific rail line along Bloomingdale Avenue connecting six parks to the tune of $95 million, set to open in June 2015.

A mounded solar observatory will also provide views of a live train yard. Photo courtesy The Trust for Public Land

It also may be one of her more controversial, with community members already worried that building the trail will further gentrify the four neighborhoods that link it. Humboldt Park, where the trail runs along parallel, has seen its home prices surge 62% in the past year, according to real estate brokerage Redfin, with speculators citing the trail as one of the main reasons.

Whitehead says the design team is very sensitive about how they approach the revitalization of the grounds.

“We are not restoring [the park], we are stabilizing it,” Whitehead explains. “We are not romanticizing this. A lot of people are concerned about ‘Disneyfication’ so to speak — we’re not going to have any of that.”

What she does want is the mantra she repeats to her design team, the structural engineers, the landscape architects and project managers working on every aspect of the park: “Make it living, make it work, make it artful.”

Whitehead considers the park “a living work of art,” a vision she interpreted from meetings with the surrounding neighborhoods, and she’s working with the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events to pack it with rotating artwork of all types. Larger-scale projects such as murals or light shows will reflect the community by inviting neighbors, schools and local institutions to co-create pieces. “[We will] bring artists and communities together to have conversations about what we should make and how we should do it, and that participation becomes part of the artwork, part of the living work of art.”

More than 450 serviceberry trees will track climate change over the years. Photo courtesy The Trust for Public Land

Whitehead isn’t leaving all the art up to others though. The park will be defined by three major pieces of her own — one at each end and one continuing linearly throughout the trail that fit her mission of combining art, culture and science. As she explains the layout of the park, it sounds as if she is the Willy Wonka of greenery, speaking in abstractions and bubbling with excitement to release her newest creation.

At one end, Whitehead used the leftover soil from construction to create a mound to view the train yard, which accidentally became a solar observatory. “The community was very interested that we honor the rail heritage but there’s not really room for a rail car because the project is so skinny. So we thought we have live trains at the end, let’s just celebrate those instead,” Whitehead says. She called up Adler Planetarium Astronomer Larry Ciupik to see the possibility of implementing a lunar viewing device. “Once we started drawing that, we realized the angle of it was perfect for what you need to observe the equinox and the solstices.”

Whitehead inverted the mound at the other end, digging into the dirt to build a sunken plaza skate park with verts along the ends. The multiuse space is meant to house a market or serve as a performance space when not being used for ollies or tailwhips.

More than 450 serviceberry trees will track climate change over the years. Photo courtesy The Trust for Public Land

But her third piece, the one that runs along the trail, is truly the ambitious one. Inspired by Japan’s 1,200-year-old blossom festival, Whitehead worked with Chicago Wilderness, the USA National Phenology Network and DePaul University Environmental Science and Studies Professor Liam Heneghan to plant 453 serviceberry trees from one end of the trail to the other. Each tree has a scannable tag to measure their phenology — how their blooming cycles change over the seasons — and visitors will be able to compare on their phones how the lake effect alters when the trees flower from one end of the trail to the other, and how the flowering changes year-to-year. Consider it the canary in the coalmine for Chicago’s environment. “We kept calling the project an ‘environmental sentinel.’”

The three pieces may seem disparate, but to Whitehead, everything is in service of connection. “One of the things we say about the whole project is that it needs to be a connector,” she says. “Connecting neighborhoods, connecting dots, connecting people, connecting artists, connecting content performers, connecting to the natural rhythms of the climates, to the solar system — it’s a connector.”

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