Living in a fabulous art city like Chicago, it’s easy to become urban-centric when it comes to contemporary art. But there’s a place just on the border of Chicago that will make you forget the frenzy of the city, where you can immerse yourself in a forest of contemporary sculpture. The Skokie Northshore Sculpture Park is situated in an unlikely place, a narrow strip of land between the North Channel of the Chicago River and the super busy, five-lane McCormick Boulevard. Technically, the park runs two miles and is the westerly dividing line between the City of Chicago and the Village of Skokie, but a less official sculpture park continues on southward back into the city limits, and to the north into Evanston, though there are many fewer sculptures on the northerly end.
This charming park hugs the North Channel and winds alongside like its own little verdant river. Most of the park contains two bike paths—one on the McCormick Boulevard side that runs straight and will get you where you need to go, and the second on the river side that is much quieter and farther away from the traffic. Because the park is so linear, it is from this serpentine tributary of the path that the sculpture is most enjoyable. There are benches and big stretches of grass, conducive to a fun afternoon outing.
If you start your visit to the sculpture park on the Chicago end, one of the first works you will encounter is Inclination by Gail Simpson. A tipsy three-tier birthday cake in cotton candy colors, each tier edged in a swath of white frosting, the whole thing is topped with stripy candles. But upon closer inspection, this child’s cake begins to reveal itself as something else, something less sweet. The first impression of frivolity is belied by the steel from which it is constructed. The fluffy white frosting is cold and hard to the touch. (Don’t worry, you’re allowed to touch the work, just not to climb upon it.) The striped candles become chimneys or smoke stacks. Windows are cut into the top two tiers transforming the cake into a building or perhaps a ship. This must be where the title Inclination comes from. The destabilization of the structure indicates something, if not sinister, then at least less assuring than what we see on the surface.
Inside Plant by Andy Zimmermann, conjures images of pointy aloe vera. Like Simpson’s piece, Inside Plant relies on the tension between materials and that which is being represented. Inside Plant should be off-putting, with its sharp, jagged leaves, yet somehow it’s not. The overall impression is that of life and whimsy. The sculpture invites the viewer inside to experience the work from beneath the metal fronds.
Rising from the earth like a fossilized spine of a prehistoric dinosaur, Groundbreaker by Ted Gall is actually a representation of a highly stylized gasket. Depicting both the gasket and the negative scrap from the die, this piece constructed of Corten steel the work appears embedded in the soil, as if it has always been there. This might be one of the sculpture park’s most successful pieces. The work feels as if it intrinsic to the land. Many of the other works have little relationship to their location, simply “plop art.” This is not necessarily a bad thing, but the sculptures that reject this stand out.
In parts, the park becomes quite narrow, the two bike paths winnowing down to one, and the traffic on the west-most edge of the park is considerable. However, The Skokie Northshore Sculpture Park is an impressive example of turning a sow’s ear into a silk purse. It is obvious while biking the length of the park that this was at one time scrap land. Their official website says the land was owned by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago and it isn’t hard to imagine what it looked like then. Their website also offers a downloadable PDF of a self-guided tour that lists the title of the work and the artist (though sadly not the date or an artist’s statement) for all of the more than sixty sculptures collected in the park. Though little-known, The Skokie Northshore Sculpture Park is a refreshing alternative to indoor galleries, and delightful way to view contemporary sculpture.