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Indiana native comes home to create art for Wilson CTA station

Ryan Szanyi dreams of making a piece of art that will cause busy L riders to pause and reflect — and, he hopes, walk away from the Wilson Station on the CTA Red Line a bit inspired.

Szanyi, 28, who grew up in Munster, Indiana, and studied architecture in Chicago before moving to England to hone his craft, is part of a London-based team hired to create the piece. With a $204,000 price tag, it’s one of the most expensive pieces of art commissioned by the CTA.

Munster, Ind., native Ryan Szanyi, now living in London, is part of a team working on a new public art installation for a renovated Wilson CTA station, scheduled to open in 2017. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times
Munster, Ind., native Ryan Szanyi, now living in London, is part of a team working on a new public art installation for a renovated Wilson CTA station, scheduled to open in 2017. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

It will be a momentous project for Szanyi — “an architectural homecoming in a sense,” he mused recently while stroking his carnival barker mustache.

Szanyi has been learning the strange world where architecture meets art from Cecil Balmond, who is his boss — and who’s also an internationally renowned designer who builds on a grand scale.

Balmond designed the ArcelorMittal Orbit in London, a giant observation tower resembling a roller coaster that served as the centerpiece of the 2012 Summer Olympics. He collaborated on that project with Anish Kapoor, who is known to Chicagoans as the man behind Millennium Park’s Cloud Gate, more commonly known as “The Bean.”

Artist Cecil Balmond, selected to design an art installation for the CTA, worked with “Bean” designer Anish Kapoor on the tower that served as the centerpiece of the 2012 London Olympics. | Provided
Artist Cecil Balmond, selected to design an art installation for the CTA, worked with “Bean” designer Anish Kapoor on the tower that served as the centerpiece of the 2012 London Olympics. | Provided

“I’m beyond excited,” Szanyi said of the Wilson Station installation. “I never would have thought that I’d pick up a project back in Chicago.”

The artwork, intended to enhance the main entrance to the station, is still in the conceptual phase. There’s plenty of time to spitball. The piece won’t be installed until fall 2017 at the earliest, when a $203 million facelift of the station is slated for completion.

Szanyi, who’s home for Christmas, visited the station last week , pointing out the easy-to-overlook beauty of the worn-down 1923 art deco building that, after restoration, will house the most important accomplishment of his nascent career.

“It’s going to be the first major built piece for me as an architect and designer,” he said. “It’s huge to be coming back, and so quickly after finishing my education. And it’s such an important institution like the CTA. I know a lot of people, like friends and colleagues, who will be seeing this piece.”

Szanyi rode the L all over Chicago from his apartment near U.S. Cellular Field and can offer his boss a bit of Midwestern perspective as their team brainstorms ideas for the project. Community meetings in Uptown to gather input from neighbors will be held in the spring.

“My role on this project is half and half between architecture and art,” Szanyi said.

Federal grant money is paying for the artwork.

“It will definitely be something interesting and kind of visually challenging, something that makes you think and take a bit of time to look at it ideally, whether that’s a lighting element or the geometry of the piece itself,” he said.

Ald. James Cappleman (46th) hopes the artwork incorporates the neighborhood’s character and provides another boost to a once-depressed Uptown neighborhood that has made significant strides in recent years.

“What makes this particular area rather unique is that we have more than 72 different languages spoken. We’re incredibly diverse ethnically and economically, and we want to pay homage to that,” Cappleman said.

The area’s rich history as center to a thriving movie industry in the early 1900s — film stars Charlie Chaplin and Gloria Swanson knew it well — also will hopefully be an inspiration for whatever shape the artwork takes, Cappleman said.

Szanyi is looking forward to the challenge. His work constantly ruminates in his mind.

“I definitely feel that the pressure’s on to do my city proud,” Szanyi said. “And that’s what’s going to really give me the drive to make something special with Cecil.”

But it’s also the holidays, so this week, Szanyi is focusing on family, friends and the craft beers he can’t get in England.

Rendering of the Star of Caledonia, a sculpture designed in part by Cecil Balmond to be located near the England-Scotland border. It’s scheduled to be finished in 2015.
Rendering of the Star of Caledonia, a sculpture designed in part by Cecil Balmond to be located near the England-Scotland border. It’s scheduled to be finished in 2015.