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God Guided His Chain Saw

Milton Mizenburg's stunning totem poles have made him the patron saint of his south-side neighborhood.



By Jeff Huebner

Frank Duncan is a walking casualty. The bullets he took in Vietnam in the mid-60s smashed a kidney and some ribs, and he's lived off disability checks ever since. For a long time there wasn't much direction to Duncan's life, but for the last six years he's been writing poetry.

Three years ago his neighbor Milton Mizenburg Jr. began creating a sculpture garden for Oakland. "I was on my way to the house one day," Duncan recalls during a visit to the garden, "and he was out here working as usual. I was interested in the sculpture, and I said I could poetically put meaning to what I feel and see in this. I wrote a poem for one of the sculptures. He looked at it and he liked it. So we took it from there."

Mizenburg picks up the story. "He would come out and recite a poem right there. And that's when I would say, 'Man, you've got to write this. I want this right next to the art.'"

For two years Mizenburg chainsawed and chiseled 13 sculptures from tree trunks, some standing ten feet high, and Duncan wrote a poem for each one. The names Mizenburg gave them--The Cross of Life, Drums of Prosperity, Chains of Bondage--come from the poems, which have been typed up and encased in Plexiglas on sticks that jut from the ground. (Duncan also wrote a poem for the metal sculpture, Symbols of Justice, by Mizenburg's front door.)

The sculpture garden occupies five landscaped lots along 41st Place between Lake Park and Berkeley. The two lots due east of Mizenburg's house on the north side of 41st Place belong to him. The three lots across the street belong to the city.

"In essence, I be writing what I feel," says Duncan in his bluesy baritone. "At some point each and every day I find the time to write. I'm off into it fully, to write. I love to write things poetically--it's my love. And to hook up with Mr. Mizenburg has been one of the greatest things that ever happened for me. For a person with aspirations to kind of become, let's just say, 'all right'--you know what I'm saying?--I feel this is really great. And to be accepted, to be able to put what I feel in my heart to it, was a great feat. Since then I've been striving."

At 51, Mizenburg's a few years younger than his protege. But he beams like a proud papa.

Duncan strolls over to Loneliness. He gazes up at the sculpture--a tall African-esque head, crowned by wood in which a gaping cavity's been gouged--and recites from memory: "Nothing seems to matter much now / For this loneliness I can abide / I need someone I can speak honest with / Someone in which I can confide. / My nerves have gotten the best of me / It seems I've become neurotic / And with this anger flowing over its / Capacity in me / I am becoming psychotic. / Fate dealt me this crucial blow / And left me stranded in the mist / Here in time, but loneliness like / The heartbeat blows your mind."

Mizenburg claps, flashing a winsomely toothy smile. "Yeah!" he says. "That's great!"

Earlier, sitting at his kitchen table, he'd talked a little of Duncan. "He had problems. Then he got those problems straightened out when he got to be working with me. Then all his history was gone. He got a new life now. When he was having so much problems, I was the person that lifted him up and gave him a chance to be next to the sculptures with his poems. I'm scratching his back and he's scratching mine. I'm trying to help him."

"We love this," says Duncan now, sweeping his hand across the garden. "I love writing poetry. He loves sculpture. And since then we've been together. We've been together. It's gonna be all right. We really feel that this is gonna be all right, that this'll turn out to be something great. We believe so. And you know, people like it. Everyone has come to accept it in the neighborhood....There aren't too many places where you can go see a poem on a plaque."

"Only on the south side," says Mizenburg. And he adds, "The people of the city of Chicago need to know that this art is there. They still don't know the art is really there. There's art sitting out here! But the word is spreading out."

Mizenburg calls his garden the Oakland Museum of Contemporary Art, and there's a big sign that says so at Lake Park and 41st Place. He built the garden because he'd decided the south side needed outdoor sculpture by African-Americans. The garden has made his piece of Oakland unique. The field of totems is a visionary environment, a kind of "garden of revelation." Mizenburg, a self-taught artist, says God guided his chain saw.

Not that this tight-knit working-class community wasn't special to begin with. It's set apart by its architectural unity: the brick two-flats and three-flats, and the 20-some "Berkeley cottages" that sit back-to-back in the 4100 blocks of Berkeley and Lake Park and survive from a subdivision built in the 1880s. The neighborhood's going places. To the northwest is the Gap and to the south is North Kenwood, two areas whose fortunes have been rising with reinvestment and an influx of middle-class blacks. And on the east side of Lake Park is land cleared when four CHA high-rises were dynamited late last year. A developer plans to build a complex of single-family homes and high-rise apartments.

When Mizenburg and his wife Gloriadeen, who's a program planner with the Department of Children and Family Services, bought their 41st Place town house more than a decade ago, the area was a "junkyard," he says. But Mizenburg was told that until the three city-controlled lots across the street were developed he could do what he wanted with them. While gut-rehabbing the home with his own hands--and working construction jobs and putting his two oldest kids through college--Mizenburg cleared the five lots, planted flowers, and began making totems. His house was full of art the neighbors couldn't enjoy, he reasoned, "so I decided to bring sculpture outside where people can see it publicly."

Anthony Easton, who lives on Berkeley, recalls how Mizenburg transformed their neighborhood. "This was the key focal point right here," he says, surveying the garden. "I remember when it was all trash and bottles and bricks and everything. He would come out and clean up. We'd see him put motivation in young guys' hearts. Then he met Frank, they put it together, and it's been beautiful ever since. And it seems like the community followed their lead, you see. Now it's real nice. The guys around here, they have a lot of respect for Mr. Mizenburg, and also for Frank Duncan. And [the garden] still stands, it still stands. Mr. Mizenburg has been the heartbeat on this side of town, in my eyesight. He offers hope in this community, and I pray to God that it'll stand for these other little kids that are coming up in the neighborhood. It shows that if you work hard you can succeed.

"But we still got a lot of work to do," Easton continues. "This is a start right here. I want to see it grow. My prayers is for it to grow."

There are other sculpture gardens on the south side stocked with African-American-themed public art. Two of them, at the Donnelley Youth Center, 40th and Michigan, and the Boulevard Arts Center, 60th and Justine, display tree totems chainsawed by Mizenburg and by David Philpot, an artist better known for his carved staffs. Philpot credits Mizenburg as an inspiration. "He's been a major help to me in terms of my confidence, growth factor, and willingness to try new things," Philpot says. "It makes me sad that a person and artist of that magnitude and talent hasn't got the recognition he deserves."

But except for what's displayed along the street, the sculpture gardens at Boulevard and Donnelley are accessible only during regular hours. The Oakland Museum of Contemporary Art is "open" all the time--and the sculpture is one man's vision and work.

"I told people in the community I was doing it for them," says Mizenburg. "I said, 'I don't own it. The community owns it.' I'm giving it to them. And they said, 'Nobody's gonna touch this art.'"

Mizenburg and Duncan are in the garden, showing off the work they've done. The sculptor is talking about his sculptures and the poet is reciting his poems. Mizenburg comes to The Flame of Life Must Never Cease to Be, a piece topped off by a carved ball of fire, and sees that the plaque has come unstuck and is lying on its side in a bed of flowers.

"Frank," he says, "put that stick back in." Mizenburg has a bad back and can't bend over without pain. For the past year he hasn't been able to lift a chain saw or put chisel to wood. He's not sure he'll ever carve again.

"OK, Mr. Mizenburg," says Duncan. Standing back up, he says, "You must do something with your time--that's what this flame here shows. Just to be alive. You can wake up and everything is gone." Then Duncan reads: "Let the flame of daily striving / Each day continually roar / Knowing too many seconds of idleness / Success from your life could soar."

Mizenburg always wanted to be an artist. Born and raised on the west side, he's a high school dropout with no formal art training--though he did enroll in a sculpture class at the School of the Art Institute in the early 80s. "I thought it would be exciting," he says. "But it wasn't. I was doing things I'd done before. I didn't enjoy it at all. So I quit."

Besides, he couldn't afford to keep going. "Any art I did, I self-taught myself."

Mizenburg's creative abilities were shaped by his family. His mother, Elaine, a musician, cultivated his artistic side. His father, who was in the refrigeration business, passed along a talent for building. "My father was the only American Negro in the city of Chicago in the early 50s who had a company--Mizenburg Refrigeration," he says. Milton Jr. idolized his older brother Nelson, who painted. "Man, he was like Picasso to me. He was a sharp painter. 'I wanna be like this guy!' I says. My older brother was a person I looked up at. He was a sharp dresser too. He [hung out] down on Rush Street back in the time of clubs, back when jazz was going good."

Mizenburg's folks moved around a lot in the 50s and 60s, and he attended several schools in Garfield Park and Lawndale. At Mason Elementary, he recalls making his first sculptures in the fourth grade and excelling at art by the sixth. "But I couldn't learn anything--I was having problems keeping up with reading and writing because I was always in the room they called the 'undergrade room.' If you couldn't read or write they put you in this room. Still, I learned how to be very good at being artistic--I was always at the top of the class when it came to painting, putting things together. So when I got into the seventh and eighth grade they put me in wood shop and metal shop classes, and I learned how to make rings and things."

When Mizenburg dropped out of Marshall High in the 11th grade he was already working for his father. In 1967, at the age of 19, he married Gloriadeen and moved to South Shore. She was majoring in social work at the University of Illinois' Circle campus and eventually landed a job with the Department of Public Aid. In 1968 Mizenburg's father suddenly died, and it was up to him to run the business. "I'd been in it, but I couldn't run it," he says. "My father wasn't around long enough to teach me. Besides, I didn't want to do what my dad did. I wanted to do what my mama did. I wanted to play music, look good, all that stuff. I wanted to be an artist."

The company collapsed after a couple of years, and Mizenburg "went off into working for other people." He worked at a box company in South Chicago during the 70s, and bought a house in Harvey where he and his wife could raise their three kids, David, Milton, and Laura. Though his job taught him "how to put things together," Mizenburg says, "it was the same thing over and over. I was sick and tired of it." He needed a creative outlet.

Mizenburg's brother gave him a book about lapidary art and urged him to give it a shot. He couldn't read very well but he could follow the pictures. "I'd gotten a little sum of money," he says, "and I took that money and bought a whole set of jewelry-making equipment. That's all I did for about ten years. I was just carving, making rings, selling them at malls, art fairs, to my friends, hustling them downtown. I did very well at it."

Leafing through art books and magazines, Mizenburg discovered wood carving. He recalled the pieces he used to make in school. "I knew I could do it, but then I didn't know what kind of tools I needed. I had a problem with reading and writing, but I saw the pictures. When I see the pictures I go out and buy the tools they're showing. I couldn't read it, but I could see it."

Cutting back on his jewelry, Mizenburg started out by chiseling small sculptures, and by the late 70s he'd graduated to large ones. "I was with a friend of mine," he recalls. "We went out and saw a guy cutting down a tree, and I got the tree. I had a little-bitty backyard--I was still in Harvey, working for the box company--and I was carving wood right out there in the backyard."

Mizenburg scavenged alleys and vacant lots for wood and tree sections. "Growing up, I learned how to make beautiful stuff out of garbage," he says. "But then when people got to know my work, they gave me good wood."

The Mizenburgs bought the house they live in today in 1988. "It was a mess, a hellhole," Mizenburg says of the brick three-flat from the 1880s. The family even had to eject a squatter. Gloriadeen was reluctant, but Mizenburg says he convinced her of the possibilities.

He speaks of his wife with proud affection. "It wasn't easy with three kids in college and putting this house together. If she didn't work, it couldn't happen." Their kids went to Tuskegee, Southern University, and Columbia College; Gloriadeen received a graduate degree from Northwestern University and went to work for DCFS in 1980. "After 33 years, it's not like Gloria and Milton--we is like one now," he says.

Mizenburg put the carving on hold to create his home. He says, "Somewhere in my heart the Lord was telling me, 'Now Milton, I got you this house. You can't have both--there's something you've gotta give up.' So I stopped doing art, period, to do rehab and build this house because I always had a dream, all of those years of growing up, of having a three-story town house done the way I want it done."

The timing was fortuitous. Mizenburg was working for a construction firm that specialized in converting industrial buildings to office lofts. He knew plumbers, electricians, and carpenters, and they "helped me a whole lot and I learned how to do everything--something my father probably would've taught me in an earlier day but didn't get a chance to show it to me." The carpenters pointed him to the newest materials and showed him how to use them.

With help from his sons, Mizenburg worked on the house for about five years, the first two while the family lived in the basement. "I was working a job 12 hours a day because I had to pay for this house," he says. "I got home at six or seven in the evening, and I would put on my apron and work all the way till two or three in the morning and still get up and go to work all day for the company. The boss--Walter Lind was his name--liked me so well he'd say, 'Milton, we don't need this lumber. Take it home.'"

"Milton is totally talented," says Gloria-deen. "The best thing I can say about him is that he's a go-getter. When he sets his mind to a project he won't stop until the job's done. He believes in using old things and making them look new."

The house's plain exterior belies the riches inside: it's a renovated marvel, a funky showcase of Mizenburg's sculpture and paintings, handcrafted furniture, and quirky decorative flourishes. Tearing out the house's innards, he built spiraling stairways, curving hallways, and mosaic-tile floors, and painted the walls bright blue, lime green, and gold. An audiophile, he created a music room where he could relax with jazz and gospel. There's also a lapidary room, though he doesn't make much jewelry anymore. The Tribune honored his handiwork with a picture story on the house in its real estate section.

Mizenburg shows me his last woodworking project--a desk and chair made in 1998 from sections of a tree trunk. He learned how to build, repair, and refinish furniture in the 80s while working for O'Hara's Gallery, a Wells Street antiques dealer. He says Richard O'Hara taught him "how to be creative, how to survive in art. He gave me confidence that I could be successful--'You can do it.' We were close. If I had a problem he would help me. He gave me a lot of things."

Mizenburg's carved wood sculptures dominate the rooms. There are dozens, some as high as eight feet. Most are representational--elongated, stylized heads; conjoined male and female figures; huge grasping hands; shackles and elephants and a torso with an exposed heart. With a chain saw and chisels, Mizenburg created the pieces out of stumps and trunks of ash, oak, and mahogany. He sanded and stained them and colored them with wax. Or he lacquered or painted them.

Though many of Mizenburg's sculptures resemble African tribal art, he says, "I try not to be African. I try to be Milton. I'm not trying to be American Negro, African, Indian--whatever blood is in me. I'm not trying to be none of these. I'm trying to be an artist--Milton--just an artist." Mizenburg frequently uses the term "Negro." He explains, "That's what it says on my birth certificate, and I'm proud of that name."

Mizenburg has never been represented by an art gallery. "I got tired of galleries not giving me equal opportunity. I haven't met a gallery owner who'd make my life easier--I'd always have to stoop down to do these things. But I've proved to them I made it without having to put up with them." He's sold his bigger pieces for thousands of dollars, and some are on display in the Merchandise Mart showroom of Birger Juell Ltd.

Birger Juell, 83, one of the nation's preeminent designers of custom wood floors, has been among Mizenburg's most ardent supporters. Juell met him in the late 80s through Walter Lind, who owned the building at 1000 N. Halsted where Juell had a workshop. When Juell moved his shop to 847 N. Larrabee, he provided studio space for Mizenburg.

"He's a very unusual and great man," says Juell. "He has this tremendous gift of taking a piece of wood and making it into what he sees. His achievement outside of carving is amazing too. He's helped me with many, many things--plumbing work, painting, electrical problems--any kind of thing you could want. I've enjoyed him as a friend and we've had great conversations about life."

When Mizenburg was fixing up his home in the early 90s, he also took it upon himself to improve the neighborhood. "It was terrible over here at the time," he recalls. "When I first got here, for the first five years, I'd sweep from Berkeley to Lake Park every morning, picking up trash, paper, whatever. On the fifth year I was about to give up. Man, I said, I ain't cleaning up for nobody no more. And then all of a sudden I saw people coming out with brooms sweeping in front of their houses!"

The one-man crusade turned into a community beautification project. The three lots on the south side of 41st Place had long been tangled eyesores. "There were cars all piled up on them, and garbage and everything piled sky-high," says Mizenburg. He cleared brush, pulled weeds, cut the grass, planted flowers, and became the lots' self-anointed caretaker.

With the house finally renovated after five years' work--though Mizenburg still views it as a work in progress--he resumed sculpting in his studio. Just ahead was the collaborative work with David Philpot that would give him a higher profile. They'd met and become friends in 1981 at an arts and crafts fair; Mizenburg was selling his tree-trunk tables and jewelry, and Philpot was just beginning to show the intricately carved and embellished walking staffs he made out of ailanthus tree limbs.

"David Philpot was the main key of it all--he had all the connections," Mizenburg says. "David Philpot pulled me out of being a little artist and gave me a chance. When he got a project he would say, 'I want Milton Mizenburg to be a part of it.' David Philpot is the one that brought me out of the hole and put me on top of it. After that, everything exploded."

Philpot had long been a resident artist at Englewood's Boulevard Arts Center. "We wanted to do some larger sculptures," says director Pat Devine Reed. "David introduced us to Milton, and it's been wonderful ever since." Working through Gallery 37, the city's youth-training program in the arts, Mizenburg and Philpot teamed for four summers--from 1995 through '98--to teach wood carving. (They also staged an exhibit at 1000 N. Halsted in 1997; it was one of few Mizenburg has ever done.)

The totems--some completed with the help of kids--that are displayed outside BAC and the Donnelley Youth Center are associated primarily with Philpot because he's the better-known artist. Mizenburg can understand. But he says, "I helped David because he's not a sculptor of large wood. He is a cane maker--it's completely different. His name's up front but I'm the one who really did the work. I really taught David, showed him what to do--how to use the tools, how to create in a big form." He adds, laughing, "You gotta put glasses on to see his stuff--magnifying glasses."

Philpot says the same thing. "I had Milton Mizenburg in mind all along. I knew if I brought him in, the job would get done. He showed me from beginning to end. I'd never picked up a chain saw in my life. He saws like he's cutting butter. I thought it'd be easier, but he gave me encouragement and showed me how to handle it, the safety procedures--how to stay with it. I was terrified, but he'd say, 'Dave, you can do it!'...I can't see the depth of creativity he has. I can only see things one step along the way. But he has the insight, the mind, and the creativity to see things far ahead, all the way through."

Mizenburg enjoyed working with Philpot and mentoring--he'd never had artist role models himself. "I grew up with all kinds of art in school and I didn't know anything about black sculptors at all. People need to relate to their own culture. I didn't know anything about famous black artists until here I was a grown man. The only reason it was thrown on me was because I was around painters and sculptors and they was black and they was telling me about these artists. I didn't know anything about Richard Hunt. He was doing work when I was a child! I didn't know anything about him. And he was no little guy. He was a big guy doing a lot of big stuff--he's all over the world!"

When Mizenburg transformed the interior of his house the neighbors noticed. "I had a lot of people looking through my windows and seeing all that wood and asking me about it," he says. "So I decided, 'Well, Gloria, I want to do something for the community.'"

Mizenburg wanted the art garden done right. For access to the lots across the street, he turned to the North Kenwood-Oakland Community Conservation Council; he'd gotten to know some of its members through block cleanups. They thought his proposal was a great idea. Chairman Shirley Newsome recalls, "He wanted to do something to encourage young people in the area to appreciate where they lived and what the community was trying to do in terms of revitalization and redevelopment. The artwork would give kids a sense of their history, and it would also be a conversation piece." Newsome and Mizenburg met with Fourth Ward alderman Toni Preckwinkle and officials of the Department of Planning and Development. They told him to go ahead.

Mizenburg began the work in the spring of 1996, when he and several helpers dug a series of four-foot holes. Then Streets and Sanitation crews delivered freshly cut tree trunks--most of them hickory or ash, weighing better than half a ton--to the site and lowered them into the holes. Mizenburg's forces packed them down with dirt and wood chips. In all there were five trunks on the two lots beside his house and eight more on the three lots across the street. (One blew down in a storm last winter.) "Dead trunks with bark but no branches, just sticking up like long poles--just trunks sitting there," he says.

Brandishing his 16-inch chain saw, Mizenburg had no idea what to sculpt with it. But inspiration always came. "First," he says, "I pray. I believe in Christ as my savior, and I speak to him and say, 'I need guidance with this chain saw.' I always say, 'Lord, which way am I going?' I'm not doing it all on my own. I don't know what this thing is gonna be or what it's gonna look like. I never know what it's gonna look like until I'm carving on it. That's the way any artist should be doing anything. Don't sit there and look at it too long 'cause you ain't gonna do it. But if you go and do it, you'll be surprised what's gonna come out. But it doesn't work for everybody.

"I'll be looking at it and cutting on it and all of a sudden, Milton"--in the voice of God--"and I'll see something in the tree. Then I go cutting on that one"--he imitates the sound of a chain saw--"and then I see a curve, and then I get the shape, and then the next thing I see is a man with a head....Then when I'm tired of it I go to another one--that's how my pieces get to be finished."

Some neighbors were wary. "People in the community--the gangbangers, the drug dealers, everybody--was out here wanting to know what I was doing with this big chain saw. I was out there cutting all this wood--wood was flying everywhere. They didn't speak to me for a couple weeks, but then they started seeing shapes--'Man, what is this?'--and they started talking to me. I told them who I was and they started calling me Mr. Mizenburg. Now I was getting a lot of respect."

Particularly from Frank Duncan. As Mizenburg completed each totem Duncan wrote a poem. He came up with such titles as "She's Your Support in Times of Need," "Oppression," and "Inner Feelings"--titles of poems that became titles of sculptures. Philpot came by occasionally and lent a hand. "He had me up chainsawing six to eight feet high," Philpot recalls. "I was terrified." Mizenburg hired a local sign painter to create the billboard. Portraying emblematic neighborhood residents--a nurse, a construction worker, children--flanked by the totems, it's a piece of folk art in itself.

Despite the help, "it's really a one-man show," Mizenburg says. "I dedicated my whole life for two years with no money putting stuff out there for people to see. Nobody paid me. I went in my own pocket and paid for my time and effort of carving and chopping, eight hours a day of doing this work, spending my money on material in order to paint the colors, do the lawn work and flowers and cutting the grass and all that kind of stuff."

Soon the sculpture garden was drawing tour buses, school groups, and craning motorists. The loiterers from the old days still came around, Mizenburg says, but now they viewed themselves as guardians and saw to it no one littered. "Now my community knows me--they really know me," Mizenburg says. "But when I first got here, when I had art inside, they didn't know who I was. They knew I was an artist, but nobody knew who I was."

It pleases Mizenburg that kids look up to him. "Now they know there is a black artist that put that work out there. For Negro children to hear that you've done something like this and you're black, maybe it lifts them up and makes them feel a lot better. They can look at something and be happy in their life. Now kids see me and they'll tell you, 'I know a sculptor. I see him all around. His name is Milton Mizenburg.' Kids say, 'That man is rich--he's a millionaire!' They say, 'I wanna be like that man there.'"

The pain Mizenburg began feeling in his back three years ago, especially along the spine, wasn't constant, and he tried to pay no attention--after all, many people nearing 50 experience back pain. It could've come from lugging a chain saw all those years; it could have been rheumatoid arthritis.

But the pain spread to other parts of his body and became too severe to ignore. He felt exhausted. "I just barely made it through doing the art outside," Mizenburg says. "My back and arms were worn and tired. It got so bad I couldn't lift up my chain saw no more, couldn't chisel anymore. I'd go to do work in my studio all day and I couldn't work. My back bones had completely worn out. I couldn't do anything."

In the spring of last year lab tests and a biopsy revealed the problem: he had multiple myeloma (also called myelomatosis), a cancer that attacks bone marrow. Every year it strikes 13,000 people--that's about 1 percent of the cancers diagnosed in the U.S. It usually occurs in middle age, is slightly more common in men, and affects African-Americans twice as often as whites. The cause is unknown. Mizenburg believes he brought the illness on with years of "excessive living"--bad eating and drinking. An encyclopedia says multiple myeloma is more common among atom bomb survivors and radiologists than the general population.

Multiple myeloma affects plasma cells, the cells in bone marrow that produce antibodies. These cells become malignant and proliferate, producing excessive amounts of a single type of antibody that pours into the bloodstream. As the other antibodies dry up, the body loses its ability to fight infection. As the abnormal cells expand within the bone, they destroy bone tissue. "If your back pain don't go away," says Mizenburg, "check it out."

He quit his job, quit working in his studio, and started chemotherapy. Mizenburg says he had "95 percent cancer in my blood" when the myeloma was diagnosed. This spring--a year later--it was 75 percent and dropping.

According to the American Medical Association Encyclopedia of Medicine, only about a fifth of the patients with multiple myeloma survive four years or more from the time of diagnosis.

Mizenburg doesn't look like a man whose life hangs in the balance. Though weak and sometimes sick from treatment, he's been upbeat and spirited, well fed and rested. He's kept active--looking after the sculpture garden and doing small pieces of art when he can. "I thank God I got two legs and I'm walking," he'll say. "Just the fact I woke up this morning and I'm talking to you and not six feet underground is a blessing."

Though Mizenburg looks forward to sculpting again, he doesn't pretend to himself it will be the same. "There's a lot of work involved in the large pieces," he allows. He knows he'll never use a chain saw again, and if he sorks at all in wood he'll hire assistants. "I'll have to have people who want to learn the craftsmanship of being an artist. I'll have to teach them, and they'll have to do the work for me." In the meantime he's "having fun playing around with clay."

In late October, Mizenburg began an intensive series of tests and treatments at the University of Illinois at Chicago Medical Center. For several days he went through chemotherapy, blood transfusions, and stem-cell support surgery, a procedure that involves drawing healthy cells out of the bone marrow and banking them. After ten days at home he was readmitted for another dose of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant last Thursday.

"I gotta go through with it," he said as his latest round of treatment began. "If I don't go through with it, it's good-bye Milton--that's the bottom line. But I have faith in God I'll be fine. With faith in Jesus Christ, things'll be OK."

"I'll be glad when it's all over," said Gloriadeen. "I hope he doesn't have to go through with anything else like this again. It's been up and down since last October."

"Be sure and write that Jesus Christ gave me a chance to do all these things in life," Mizenburg instructed. "God's gonna keep me alive too....Here's the story of an artist who's at the high point of his life--here's a man who's gone to the top doing all these things, and then his feet get swept out from under him. Now it's time for a comeback."

Despite his health, Mizenburg has been planning long-term projects. He's wanted to finish renovating the top floor of his house, where the master bedroom is. He's wanted to build a wooden deck in back. In September cement was poured in an adjacent lot as the foundation for a workshop and studio. "When I get well, I'll need a place to work," he says. "I want to invite people to see works of art--to see artists at work and how artists live." What's more, "I want to make a movie about an artist's life. I think it'd be autobiographical."

But Mizenburg's big dream has been to establish a museum of African-American art, perhaps in his own neighborhood. He's been passionate about this; when he's talked about it his voice has taken on the cadences of a revival preacher.

"The end of the story is, I'm not stopping right out there." He points through his window toward the sculpture garden. "That museum out there is beautiful, but it's not where I'm gonna stop it. It's gonna end in a big house, a big house where people can come from all over the world and see American Negro art, sculptures--our own museum that people can come and see, like the Art Institute. There's nothing in the city of Chicago. They got museums all over the city of Chicago of every ethnic group..." What about the DuSable Museum of African American History? "But that's a history museum. I'm talking about contemporary art. I did a survey and went all over the United States and I was very disappointed. I said, Why don't we have a museum that houses American Negro contemporary paintings and sculpture? We don't have a big house, a piece of ground, a building..."

It could happen. This summer Mizenburg and Shirley Newsome met with a group of city officials to nail down a preliminary plan. One of them, Cheryl Hughes, the former director of Gallery 37 who's now with the Mayor's Office of Special Events, has been among Mizenburg's strongest supporters.

"Basically, we met to give Milton some technical assistance, and we started on mapping out a strategy of making the museum a reality," says Matt Nielson, deputy commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs. "I think he has assembled some critical elements by having community-based support, and the museum would be in an area where they need to have organizations like that."

"So that's the beautiful dream," says Mizenburg. "That's what I'm striving for. That's what I'm working on now. It's gonna work. I want to go all the way to the highest. I want a piece of the cake. I want a piece of the pie. And I don't want nobody to give it to me. I want to work myself up there to get it. I can do it."

But what about the future of the Oakland Museum of Contemporary Art?

There's been talk of Mizenburg and some neighbors buying the city parcels, but he can't say it'll happen. "People want the work there, and it's gonna be there for quite a while," he says. "People from all over the world can come and see the work of an American Negro who poured his heart into trying to better his community. I had a purpose. I had a dream and I made it happen. I did it to help my community. I did it from my heart. I did my best. But whatever happens, it's out of my hands."

He worries. "I was the caretaker--I am the caretaker," he says. "But where's it going from there?" He knows his neighbors will guard the park and pick up the trash, but he's sorry he didn't get more of them involved in building the garden. If he had, they'd know how to take care of the art and the plants.

"The art's not gonna last--it still has to be maintained," says Mizenburg, tears rimming his eyes. "The weather beats it up. It'd be a shame if I got sick and died. Who's gonna take care of it? Are kids gonna tear it down? Who's gonna keep the art there if Milton died this week? Where is the community? Who's gonna cut the grass and fix the flowers and clean the streets? Where is the people?"

One day I visit the Oakland Museum and study Mizenburg's craftsmanship. I see how his working methods rhyme with the themes of despair and hope that run through the poems. Despite the sculptures' commanding solidity, nearly every one of them features a large empty area where the trunk has been cut through. He's left a series of cavities--or, as David Philpot calls them, windows. These windows don't just look into the totems' souls; they are metaphors for unattained dreams.

I'm looking at A Chance Is All I Needed--a series of windows crowned by a head--when Duncan wanders over from across the street. He'd been sitting outside, keeping an eye on the garden as usual. "That's about a chance," he says. "All that anyone ever needs in life is a chance, know what I'm saying?" Then he reads: "I've been tortured and abused / And my pride has been taken / Because of my color, all my dreams seem forsaken. / Yet I have never succumb, I've stood strong / In my stance, knowing man can conquer / All, if given a mere chance."

Working on the museum gave Duncan a chance. He says the sculptures will stand--they must stand. "I just wish to be known poetically," he says. "I strive. I haven't been published, but I'm hopeful. I'm confident that from my efforts, and from the efforts of Mr. Mizenburg, that one day I'll succeed. Things are going slow, but you take it one day at a time, hoping that one day all this shall come to be.

"I love this," says Duncan, walking through the garden. "This is the love of my life."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.

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