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Art of Living



Nat Ward, left, was photographed in June 2000 by Jon Lowenstein as part of the CITY 2000 photodocumentary project. I interviewed him the following February in his loft apartment, which he shared with a roommate and a vast assortment of interesting objects, including three motorcycles and two partially disassembled pianos.

I'm Nathaniel Ward, and I've got my own company. I do decorative stone and terra-cotta restoration in the summertime. In the winter I bartend. I live in a loft in Pilsen, on the near southwest side, and I consider myself an artist but I don't really try to make money at it.

I'm 30 years old. I was born in Hyde Park, lived there till I was seven. My dad taught at the University of Chicago. Then we moved to the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. I lived there until I was 18, then went to Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa. It's a school of 1,200 in a town of 7,000. One hour from Iowa City and one hour from Des Moines, dead center of Bumblehill Nowhere, Iowa. It's a great school, a tiny liberal arts college. No core curriculum, it's entirely shaped by your adviser and your interests--but they do encourage you to diversify.

When I got there I knew I wanted to go study abroad, someplace where they had a language I didn't know. I kind of knew French, and I vaguely knew Spanish--high school Spanish--so I decided to go to Italy. In retrospect I wish I'd gone someplace where they speak Spanish, 'cause now I live in a Mexican-American neighborhood and I speak Italian. But I went to Italy and just loved it. I lived in Florence, and that's where I got into historic preservation, which is what one of my master's degrees is in. Before I went I started taking art history courses and studying Renaissance thought and culture. And while I was there I realized that there's a culture where they take for granted that they're going to have these heinously old things around them, and they take for granted that you're never going to knock down a building. They would never ever in a million years think, "Oh, the property this building's on is worth more than the building, I should tear it down and put up six condos for yuppies." They would never think of that.

I always jokingly say my pivotal moment came there. We used to go drinking, but the trains and buses stopped at midnight, so if we stayed out too late we had to walk home. Florence closes pretty early, so by 1 AM the streets are really dark and quiet. One night we were wandering down this street near the Palazzo Vecchio; it had been raining earlier in the day, so the streets were wet and the streetlights were reflecting off the stone, and we were pleasantly drunk, and I realized that Dante Alighieri had staggered down this street drunk with his buddies when he was 19! Cosimo de Medici and his friends had walked down this street! Or Machiavelli. The places where they walked and drank and pissed on street corners are still there! And that just blew my mind. When I came back to Grinnell I started doing more stuff about historic structures. I have no idea how, but I want to make people in the United States realize that everything that surrounds you influences how you feel about a city or place. And if you keep tearing it down just because it's old, which Americans tend to do, every place on earth is going to look like Burr Ridge. And it's going to suck, and everyone's going to be sad. People don't see. They go to Venice and Florence and they say, "Oh, it's so old, it's so beautiful." And then they come back here and they say, "Honey let's buy a house." "Well, this three-flat's nice but it's kind of old, let's have it torn down and build a six-flat." It just happens all the time, and it drives me nuts.

I ended up coming to Chicago and going to the School of the Art Institute, getting a master's of science in historic preservation. If the Art Institute weren't here I think I probably would have come anyway. We used to discuss this in college, that Chicago was the nearest big town: if you're from Iowa, your first stage is Chicago. And then a lot of people, like all my friends, go off to New York or LA. But I just like it here. It's nice and big and pretty forgiving. And my interest was historic architecture, and Chicago is one of the most important cities in the history of modern architecture.

At the Art Institute, a large portion of the master's program is policy making: how preservation works in the United States, how the National Trust and the Historic Register work and how you do the paperwork. And then another part of it is how to document structures, how to plan for restoration. And then a small part is actually hands-on: fixing stuff, mucking around with tools, paints, analysis. And that's how I got started with my company. A buddy of mine, a guy I was in the program with, worked one summer patching limestone on the Water Tower, using a product called Jahn. It's a proprietary stone-patching product invented in Holland or Belgium, I can't remember which--maybe it's Germany--and it's entirely natural, no polymers, just very finely ground sand, some volcanic sand, and a little bit of cement. You apply it in a special way, and you can shape it to match existing terra-cotta or stone. It works really well. It's formulated to be just a little softer than the stone but similar in porosity. So say your building has a column or stone on the facade and there's a big hole in it. When you patch it using this stuff, the water will come in and go out at the same rate. With other patching materials, if they have a lot of polymers in them, water will go through the stone, hit the polymer, and build up, and then freezing and thawing will blow the patch out. And Chicago is the most brutal environment on earth for stone, because it's rainy, cold, rainy, cold all winter. It just literally grinds the pieces away.

To buy this product you have to go through the company's training. A lot of the smaller masonry companies don't do that; they hire us instead. Actually it's just me now. My partner got a real job, moved to Louisiana. But we found a good niche. I haven't really done anything to further my goal of saving old buildings--mostly what I do is repair rich people's houses--but it has supported me pretty well, and I haven't had to work for anyone else. Well, except for bartending. In the summer I work pretty hard, and in the winter I don't work so hard. Long ago I came to the conclusion, which I think some people disagree with, that if I can make $100,000 working 60 hours a week, I'd rather make $10,000 and just slack. I feel limited sometimes. My friends will go on trips with their girlfriends to Costa Rica, and sometimes I wish I could do that. On the other hand, I haven't had to wake up before ten in a month. So it's OK, it's a trade-off. I can accept it.

I guess I call myself an artist because there's nothing else to term it. You could call me a slacker, but I don't really like that term. My grandfather was a significant sculptor in New York in the 40s and 50s--Jose de Creeft. He did the Alice in Wonderland in Central Park. And my mom's an artist, my grandmother's an artist, my brothers were artists. My dad's a physicist, and I don't think he would ever consider himself an artist, but when I was in junior high he went to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they were developing interfaces for Apple computers to read sensor packages, like distance sensors and timers and temperature sensors, which would then allow students to use the computers for physics data collection and stuff like that. And to me, that's art. Tinkering with objects, what a lot of people would call goofing off or mucking about with stuff, I consider art. Like I make these little Polaroid prints. You take the picture, but before it's dry you put the negative on a piece of paper and you squeegee the color dyes onto the paper. Most people would consider these prints "art." But I also

consider it art when I work on microcontrollers, making little robotic devices. Or it's art when I take apart a player piano. Or when I bring home a strange object. I think art is doing what you want. Artists are people who have something in their head that makes them want to create. And if they don't create physically manifest objects, or write, or paint or take pictures, if somehow they aren't getting something out of their heads, they're just very unhappy. It drives them crazy. That's why I like these people called outside artists. They've got this drive to make stuff, and they don't know why. Ham radio operators are artists, you know? They spend long hours sitting in little rooms surrounded by electronic equipment, attempting to talk with people far far away. Is that in any way different from an electronic musician who sits in a little room with a studio?

Pilsen, I believe, is what people in Wicker Park wish Wicker Park were. It's an authentic neighborhood, and at the same time there's a bunch of artists here who hang out and talk and have interaction. After I was here for a couple years I fell in with these people: overeducated slackers, like me. The group is called the Ever-So-Secret Order of the Lamprey, because we're feeding on the soft underbelly of society. It's an artists' group, using artist as a very liberal term. We meet every Sunday over at Kenneth Morrison's, which is the place in the photo, and someone cooks and we all eat and drink beer and hang out and bring a piece of art based on a word that was determined the week before. It's a concept that's--what's it called, objet gratuit? You do a piece as a throwaway piece. You take it to the meeting and you talk about it and then they put it in a vault someplace, and they've been doing this for years and years and they have thousands of objects. It's sort of our salon. Where's the place where all those guys hung out in Barcelona, Els Quatre Gats or something like that?

Every spring and fall Kenneth throws a pig roast, which brings a lot of other people in, and we get really drunk and cook pigs and burn things. There's usually a band, and then one of the stupider things we do is belt-sander races. Belt sanders are like tanks; the belt acts like a tread, and they go really fast. In this picture I'm looking down the belt-sander track and wagering money. The reason I love this picture is that it makes me look like an incredible redneck, which I find really funny, and it could be the 1971 Indiana State Fair and I'm betting on a tractor race or something.

In light of what you've been saying, it's interesting that the real focus of the picture is money.

I pull 20 crumpled dollars out of my pocket and I'm betting it on a belt-sander race. I think that sums up my opinion of money.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Lowenstein.

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