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Public Displays of Inspiration

Phil Schuster leaves his mark on West Town



By Jeff Huebner

Phil Schuster brakes hard and points to a series of stenciled black metal reliefs hanging from lampposts along Division Street that depict a carnival figure, a Taino Indian pictograph, congas, maracas. "Those are really cool," he says. "I wonder who did them."

Schuster, a sculptor, says most people don't pay much attention to public art. His own outdoor sculptures--including freestanding and wall reliefs, mosaic benches, planters, and archways--are scattered throughout the city, though many of them are concentrated in his Bucktown neighborhood. That's his planter on the sidewalk near the Note on Milwaukee showing a reclining woman gazing into a hand mirror; called Odalisque for Modalisque, it was created for Salon of the Modalisque, a vintage-clothing store that once occupied the storefront. That's also his two-piece Angel and Dog sitting at the entrance of the Workhouse, on the corner of Division and Halsted. He and members of the Chicago Public Art Group created a wall relief on the east side of the national guard armory at North and Kedzie, Calling Forth the Spirit of Peace. And he did the flock of fiberglass pigeons that soars across the side of the Silver Cloud restaurant at Damen and Wabansia. Schuster, who raised pigeons as a kid, does lots of pigeons, calling them a neglected part of the urban scenery. "They're a humble kind of bird, and for such a common species, they come in a wild variety of colors."

Most of Schuster's sculptures are of fauna, foliage, faces, and gardening scenes. He doesn't mind being labeled a "decorative" artist. "I'm a simple kind of guy--I just want to do art for the public. The phenomenon of putting something outdoors for the community is of interest to me. I'm glad to have the opportunity to establish a relationship with people who enjoy what I do and to have the chance to explore and develop techniques that interest me and others. For me, to try to make social and political art would be unnatural."

Schuster, who grew up in Philadelphia, began working with clay while majoring in art education at Pennsylvania State University, and once he learned how to sculpt with it he never made another pot. He went on to graduate school at the University of Kentucky, where he became interested in horticulture and garden design. A summer job in a greenhouse led him to California State University, where he received a master's in ceramics in 1977.

For the next eight years Schuster lived outside Sacramento in a former chicken coop that he'd converted to a studio and greenhouse, where he grew cactus and succulents to supplement the occasional grant. The greenhouse also became a display area for his garden sculptures and ceramic murals, which visitors could buy. In May 1984 Ceramics Monthly did a color spread on the place.

Schuster headed east again in 1985 after receiving an art-in-industry residency at the Kohler Company in Wisconsin. A year later he was living in Chicago and teaching at Lill Street Studios, the largest ceramic center in the midwest. The wall reliefs that adorn the entrance to the studios are his.

In 1987 the art curator of the McDonald's Corporation saw Schuster's work at Lill Street and commissioned him to make ceramic reliefs based on the design of the old golden arches restaurants. Working from molds, Schuster also produced several limited-edition series of fiberglass sculptures showing old and new stores; they're now on display in the chain's corporate offices and restaurants around the world. "The 'McMoney' was fabulous," he says, noting that it enabled him and his wife, fashion designer Janet Jaffke, to buy their house. He doesn't think the three years he spent working for the food chain compromised his art; he says the company let him pursue his interest in creating increasingly elaborate reliefs.

Schuster changed his medium in the early 90s, while serving as an artist in residence at the Lakeside Art Center in Michigan. Having worked almost exclusively in clay, which cracks and breaks easily, he developed a method for making reliefs in concrete--a labor-intensive process using foam, metal laths, and a mixture of acrylic, fiberglass, stucco cement, and powdered clay. The new medium is much stronger and allows him to create more intricate pieces. "The thing that's always intrigued me about relief sculpture is to see how many planes of depth I could come up with."

Since developing this technique, Schuster has worked as a part-time instructor for a variety of arts education organizations, creating outdoor reliefs and decorative benches for schools, youth centers, housing projects, homeless shelters, and other institutions. In most of these projects, local kids have helped adorn the sculptures with ceramic pieces, mosaic tiles, and stones. Last summer Schuster worked with Openlands Project and neighborhood children to help transform an overgrown lot next to the ABC Youth Center, near Roosevelt and Homan, into a play area with concrete sculptures. The kids decorated the works--a snake, a triangular planter, a bench--with mosaic and ceramic pieces they'd made in class. "Flowers flowers in the ground / Leaves growing all around / Make Chicago a better town," reads the text on the planter. He's now working with Archi-treasures to build a sculpture garden in front of Pulaski elementary school.

Over the years Schuster deposited small concrete sculptures, ceramic pieces by a friend, and found stone works in a vacant lot next to his house that Jaffke had converted into a garden. The sculpture garden, located at the end of a dead-end street, became a quirky neighborhood landmark, but a lot of the art was stolen several years ago during Around the Coyote. "If you put something out on the street, what do you expect?" says Schuster. "A lot of people feel they can't afford to put their things outside, but I guess I undermine my life pretty well. It was a lot of work--but it was getting old anyway."

Some of the works were later retrieved from an antique shop. When Schuster heard that a housing developer planned to bulldoze part of the garden, he moved the remaining sculptures across the street to another vacant lot. "It wasn't our property anyway," he says. "These are the chances you take."

Schuster says he's "not comfortable doing business or asking for money," so he doesn't often show his work at galleries. But the garden at InsideArt, 1651 W. North, is now the backdrop for two new series, one a set of reliefs with a horticultural theme, the other faces on cinder blocks, which he calls "blockheads." (The works will be on display through September 30.) "The exhibit is important to me because it's several years of works," he says. "I often wonder what my own art's about. It's nice to have the chance to put my own work all together and see how it relates." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Schuster photo/ Silver Cloud, Damenand Wabansia photos by Eugene Zakusilo.

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