Nature where you least expect it

  • By LINDSAY THOMAS
  • Medill News Service
  • May 26, 2006 @ 12:47 AM
Chicago takes seriously its green Latin motto, "Urbs in Horto," or City in a Garden.

City Hall is topped with an energy-saving green roof. Urban gardens growing local produce are sprouting up throughout the city's neighborhoods. And a newly created city conservation corps is recruiting volunteers to perform environmental service projects.

While it's easy to look around Chicago and see green, the environment is much more than the parks and gardens that require human cultivation.

In fact, three local photographers would argue that nature and wilderness exist in city spaces where you would least expect to find it -- highways, scrap yards, even piles of dirty salt. Their exhibition, split into three parts and currently on view until July 3 at the City Gallery, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum and the Chicago Center for Green Technology, is aptly titled, "Unpaving Paradise."

Jin Lee, Chase Browder and Alexis Petroff offer three different windows into the environment, or nature, as it is both manipulated and untouched by humans. The photographic installation features portraits of unexpected, but flourishing, natural landscapes against an urban background.

Over a year and half ago, Lee discovered where Chicago stockpiles its supply of salt used to clear icy streets. The enormous mounds sit on the city's West Side near Lee's studio until the forces of nature require their use. Lee said she began to notice how the salt piles change as the seasons change and begin to look more like natural forms.

"Looking at these beautiful piles of salt reminded me of mountains," she said this week at a reception for the photographers. "I liked the ambiguity of scale. You don't know how large it is ... and I liked seeing how a mountain-like form is made over time from weather and human use."

Her other series at the exhibit, a study on weeds, looks up close at an ecosystem that often flowers in between concrete cracks and bits of trash without any help from the hands of a city gardener.

"They're these independent agents," Lee said. "They're elegant and beautiful in their own way. It's taking the ordinary and seeing something grand. ... I think there are many large and small 'wild' areas around Chicago and they make the city special."

Chase Browder took his camera just outside of the city to interstates mostly because of childhood memories.

"I grew up in a rural town in Texas, so I really grew up riding in cars and looking out the window," he said. Browder, who moved to Chicago three years ago, arrived in the city without a car. To find the highways that are the subject of his photographs, he used public transportation maps to see how far he could travel by bus or train.

Browder's photos are full of the trees, shrubs and sometimes quite lush greenery that line the area's major thoroughfares. But each image has the unmistakable mark of the human traffic that moves along side the vegetation -- an upside down, rusted traffic sign, a crisscrossing of power lines, a McDonald's "M" looming in the background, a set of railroad tracks nearly invisible beneath an overgrown patch of grass.

Alexis Petroff's environmental images come from an entirely different source and one not usually associated with nature.

"Ever since I moved to Chicago, I've seen people with carts, either recycling or moving their things," he said. Beginning in the late nineties, Petroff began photographing what he calls, "scrapper trucks," on his 5-mile commute from his home in Humboldt Park to work at the Art Institute's John M. Flaxman Library. His photos capture shopping carts and trucks filled with scrap metal on their way to the scrap yard on Kingsbury Street. Petroff said he always asks the owners of the vehicles to step aside.

"When you have a person you automatically focus on him rather than the material," he said. "To me they looked like sculptures. They're appealing, they're inviting."

Petroff said he was drawn to the scrapper trucks not only because they were visually interesting, but also because they reveal a recycling culture that is not given much notice in the city.

"These people play a very important part," he said. "You wouldn't believe how much tonnage these people bring everyday. ... If it wasn't for them, who would pick that up?"

The city's recently finished Nature and Wildlife Plan also appears with the photographic installation at the City Gallery and the Chicago Center for Green Technology. The plan, which took over two years to complete, outlines goals to help protect, restore and acquire more natural habitat space in and around Chicago. According to the plan, the city already has about 3,800 acres of existing habitat and has identified almost 100 additional sites.

Nathan Mason, curator of the exhibit and the Chicago Public Art Program, said including the city's plan was a logical addition to the nature-themed show. He said the plan helps "people see that illustration is also informative and it also helps contextualize the artwork in the greater social stratum."

Copies of the plan are available to the public in the city's Department of Planning and Development office by calling (312) 744-4190. Admission to all three photography exhibits is free.

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