Thursday, February 27, 2020

"The kindly genius of the spot"—The Garfield Park Conservatory

Ava Carney's sculptures, inspired by a Lorado Taft quote referring to "the kindly genius of the spot" will be on display at the Garfield Park Conservatory until March 8.
      So here's a riddle.
      When I woke up Wednesday morning, I had a full day scheduled, and no intention whatsoever of going to Garfield Park Conservatory.
      I walked the dog, drank a cup of coffee, ate half a bagel, read the paper, hopped on the Metra downtown, never once thinking of the 113-year-old West Side treasure, hidden from too many Chicagoans on the Near West Side, never mind planning to visit. I went to Northwestern Memorial Hospital to talk to a patient undergoing chemo, had lunch with my brother at the always-excellent Dearborn, then got on the Green line and headed to a Chicago Public High School to look at a mural for a future story, never once thinking: ferns, cacti, flowers.
      Yet I ended up at Garfield Park Conservatory, walking gloriously through its changing environments, from desert to rainforest. Any idea how? There is a clue in the previous description.
      That's right, the high school was the Al Raby High School, directly across the street from Garfield Park Conservatory. I finished my business there about 2:15 p.m. It had been over six years—since I did a story on repairs to the greenhouse after a hailstorm broke out 70 percent of the glass. And before that, I think I'd gone once: to see the installation of Dale Chihuly glassworks in 2002. Given that dismal track record, what kind of monster would not go in? It's free (Well, they ask for a donation, recommending $10 for adults, $5 for children. I didn't have $10, but I had $5, so gave them that, thinking they'd get at least five bucks worth of publicity here.
    I spent about an hour, slowly wandering the place. They had five sculptures from Ava Carney, who held the Chicago's Park District's 2019 Athletic Field Ceramics Residency. Though so subtly placed that I only noticed two, which is a good thing. 
    Ancient ferns strained toward the iron and glass ceiling, delicately-patterned ground cover spread before my feet, spiky cacti stood guard. 
    Then there was this pair of jiggly eyes that someone—I can't decide if it was another resident artist, or a passing wag with a pocket full of jiggly eyes—anthropomorphized this out-of-the-way bloom. I paused to admire it. Normally I would be opposed to decorating plants like that, on aesthetic, almost moral grounds—it's like putting clothing on animals. But in this case, it worked, so who am I to argue? It isn't as if the plant minds. Examining it, I wondered if the culprit—prankster? artist?—responsible was thorough enough to have put an eye on the other side of the plant, to complete the pair, but where none but the most vigorously inquisitive would see it. They had! I admired the thoroughness of that.
     The place was not crowded. Not deserted either. A mother and child. An older couple. A smattering of students. The Golden Hour Spring Flower Show is also going on, until May 10, with banks of colorful azalea, hydrangea, and calibrachoa, and some interesting string art displays.
    So quite the thing to stumble upon. It was a great place to sit on a bench, and just gaze. The Garfield Park Conservatory is very conveniently located to downtown: the Green line stops a few steps away. My next visit will be intentional. 


  1. Wish I had thought of the guerrilla eyes, I bet he would/does enjoy EGD.

  2. My grandmother, mother, and aunt moved into a third-floor apartment near Garfield Park in the late Thirties. My parents lived there from 1941 to 1954. You could see the greenery of the park itself from the north-facing windows, although the Conservatory was just a bit too far away.

    But it was only a few minutes' drive in our '49 Plymouth, and my folks took me and my baby sister there on many a Sunday afternoon when I was five or six. It's one of my favorite memories of East Garfield Park. We left for the suburbs when I was still in first grade, but I still recall the smells and the humidity of what I used to call "The Jungle Room"...which probably reminded my father of his Army service in the Philippines.

    I've been to other conservatories in other cities, including the one in a Cleveland park which was once a part of the Rockefeller estate, but none of them even come close to the magnificent one in Garfield Park.

    My last visit was in 1997, with my wife. It was still a bit rundown and shabby, but the same experience I remembered from the Fifties. I have yet to find anything like it elsewhere. By car, the safest approach is probably from the north, but the Conservatory stop on the Green Line might be the best way to go. Such a treasure. Many Chicagoans may not even realize what a jewel they have, literally in their own back yard.


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