Musician Herb Alpert’s ‘Spirit Totems’ greet Field Museum visitors

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Musician Herb Alpert just delivered his love letter to the city of Chicago.

It arrived today in the form of eight massive bronze Spirit Totems, installed on the south steps of the Field Museum, where they will beckon one and all through September of 2016. (One additional totem resides inside the museum’s main hall.)

“I’ve just grown to love the city,” Alpert said, while in Chicago to officially open the installation. “My wife Lani [Hall] is from Chicago. It’s one of the most beautiful cities in the United States. There’s New York, New Orleans, San Francisco and Chicago. … And this museum is right up there with the Smithsonian as far as I’m concerned. To be here is quite an honor.”

Beautiful, too, are the black totems, each individually designed and sculpted by the legendary trumpeter, who skyrocketed to fame in the 1960s and ’70s with his band the Tijuana Brass,fueled byhits such as “Rise,” “A Taste of Honey” and “This Guy’s in Love With You.” Like music, art has been an Alpert passion for as long as he can remember. An accomplished painter, Alpert began sculpting in various media 35 years ago. The totems became part of his visual arts repertoire in the past12 years.

“I’m not a ‘Sunday’ painter,” Albert said with a chuckle. “I paint or sculpt every day because I love to do it. It makes me happy. I get a pretty similar jolt out of painting and sculpting as I do from music. Music gives me energy. I practice the trumpet every day of my life because I loveto do it, and frankly you never get to where you want to go as a musician, so you just [keep at it]. My good friend [iconic jazz trumpeter] Dizzy Gillespie used to say, ‘The closer I get, the further it looks.'”

Herb Alpert’s Spirit Totems, installed on the south steps of the Field Museum, will be on display through September 2016.| Ashlee Rezin/For the Sun-Times

Herb Alpert’s Spirit Totems, installed on the south steps of the Field Museum, will be on display through September 2016.| Ashlee Rezin/For the Sun-Times

It’s clear a musical sensibility greatly influences his artwork, especially the totems. “There’s a rhythm to all art,” Alpert continues. “I try to express myself in the most lyrical way possible. I like to make positive art. I’m not crazy about a lot of contemporary sculptures where you look like you’ll get impaled if you touch it. I’m from the [English sculptor] Henry Moore school: I want you to touch them.”

And touch them you can. The figures are towering works, from 13 to 17-and-a-half feet in height. They can weigh anywhere from 1,300 to 1,600 pounds, and each takes roughly six months to complete (from clay cast to foundry/finishing). They’ve been compared to billowy puffs of smoke heading upward into the sky and they carry equally ethereal monikers such as “Gratitude,” “Freedom,” “Grace” and “The Worrier.” Their black patina was intentionally chosen, to symbolize beauty from simplicity.

“I started doing various patinas on various pieces, and honestly it seemed like once you do that you are hiding behind all these extraordinary colors,” Alpert said. “When we started making them in black, it seemed they just survived on their shape. You couldn’t get distracted by color, by anything.”

As for the “perfect fit” between his work and the Field Museum, Alpert praised the institution’s massive totem collection.

“It really made sense for us to bring the totems here. The whole idea of the spirit totem as an art form started with the wood carvings for the homes or monuments of indigenous cultures as you see on display in the museum. … There’s a direct connection between my abstract totems and traditional totems, and that connection is important. It’s like a music connection. It’s like the difference between Bach, Beethoven and Mozart — we’re all dealing with the same 12 notes. It’s what we do with them. I saw these great carved totems from the Upper Northwest years ago and I got inspired. But I thought, who wants to see more animals and birds? So I started riffing on a totem theme from a more jazz, abstract approach. They’re fun to look at. They’re fun to make. It’s the same for me with music. If it’s fun for me to play, it’s fun for someone to listen to. [Laughing] At least I hope so.”

NOTE: Herb Alpert’s latest CD, “Come Fly With Me,” debuts Sept. 25. He and his wife, singer Lani Hall, headline City Winery on Oct. 1. For information, visit citywinery.com/chicago

Herb Alpert’s Spirit Totems are on display on the south steps of the Field Museum, Sept. 17, 2015. | Ashlee Rezin/For the Sun-Times

Herb Alpert’s Spirit Totems are on display on the south steps of the Field Museum, Sept. 17, 2015. | Ashlee Rezin/For the Sun-Times

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