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His Own Backyard

Artist Sean Culver finds simple beauty in the city

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By Adam Langer

"Oh, my goodness gracious," sighs the soft-spoken, bespectacled Sean Culver as the glass he dropped shatters into dozens of jagged polyhedrons. But moments later he's crouching over the shards, picking them up one at a time and studying them in the light. He puts a couple on a shelf. "These could be something," he mutters. In Culver's world, art happens by accident.

Culver, a graduate of the School of the Art Institute who supports himself by photographing the work of other artists and by helping to restore churches, has exhibited only a time or two in highly unpublicized venues. You could have come across his work only by accident, unless you happened to see his stunning scenic and sound design or cinematography in Joe Ramirez's acclaimed low-budget feature films Descent and Viridian.

Culver inhabits a small, dingy studio in the Ravenswood area that's spare and messy at the same time. Beautiful black-and-white photographs of cathedrals and cloisters are piled on a long wooden table. On a nearby card table are stacks of sketches of ships and sailors that he drew for a film based on Joseph Conrad's "The Secret Sharer" he hopes to make someday. All around is beautiful junk that he's collected from thrift shops and alleys--old children's encyclopedias, bits of cloth, ancient record albums. He wanders the city, camera in hand, hoping to stumble upon some discarded object, lost family photograph, or neglected building that will inspire him to create a work of art he could never have foreseen when he woke up that morning. "It's like a magnetic compass. You gravitate toward objects, and they suggest themselves to you."

Most of his works have been photographs, beautifully composed black-and-white images of whatever he's been able to capture in his meandering pilgrimages through Chicago, Brooklyn, and Turkey. A couple of years ago he forayed into model making, fashioning three-dimensional, almost photographic facsimiles of loading docks and other architectural structures out of cardboard. But lately he's been staking out new territory, using the objects he finds to assemble boxes and collages that are essentially cunning and sophisticated dioramas, rather similar structurally to the ones everyone made in grade school.

One of these boxes is less than a foot high. In it are small slices of wood, cotton, wire mesh, a photograph of a child, and sky blue paint that together create a gripping image of a tornado ripping through the screen door of a modest midwestern home--a perverse cross between an homage to Joseph Cornell's boxes and a set for a Sam Shepard play. Beside this box is another of the same size in which miniature train trestles frame crisscrossed twigs and an ominous black red sky--a nightmarish image of progress, where forests have been cut to make room for railroads. This box, he explains, "is about being alone in the woods and being alone in the city. It's about the transparency and interchangeability of both of those worlds. I was very, very lonely when I came to this city. But the more I get connected with myself and the more I get to manifest the similarities between the world where I came from and the world where I live now, the more I see the beauty and connections that exist everywhere."

Culver grew up in Galesburg, Illinois, and spent summers playing in the woods around Lake Bracken, where his grandfather, a maintenance worker for a railroad company, fashioned a home out of an abandoned boxcar. His grandfather was an artist, gradually painting and adding on to his boxcar home. "Everything he used was surplus and scrap from the railroad. All the paint he used was stuff they were just gonna toss out, like this drab gray green paint or this mint green paint that he used to paint everything. He never had any formal education--never even finished grade school--but he would make things for me, like stilts and games."

Culver's father, who's now retired, worked in an ice-manufacturing plant and was a metalworker for John Deere. Art school would probably never have been an option for Culver had it not been for a couple of high school teachers who recognized his talent and pushed him toward the Art Institute. He graduated in 1986.

Culver's photographs and three-dimensional models evoke a remarkable sense of timelessness. They may all have been created after he arrived in Chicago, but most are imbued with a small-town, western Illinois innocence. He sees simple beauties in urban life that a lifelong city dweller might overlook. "It's about being able to see what is there. It's about seeing the beauty of your own backyard in everything. Chicago is the epitome of my own backyard where I grew up. It's trees, it's trains, it's rust, it's broken cement. I'm attracted by the inner beauty of objects. I look out the window at the lampposts, and I remember when they were painted deep, deep green or India yellow. You look at the el, and it's like a cathedral--it's all lace. You feel the solid sense of the weight of history. If you've ever stood below the el you can hardly conceive how heavy this big thing is and how many men it took to make it.

"As I walk around the city to photograph objects I see that everything here has a creative consciousness behind it. It was a thought or an idea or a feeling before it was a physical thing. And when I photograph it I'm completing a process--I am bringing back the inner sense whoever created it must have had, I am bringing out a thought, a feeling, maybe an inner motivation.

"Everybody's always chasing around after things that are right in their own backyard. When you look at a bridge you can see the light that's coming through the bridge and how it's reflecting. That's all about awareness. It's about being in the moment. What you're searching for is all right there, right in the ordinary and the everyday. I'm not trying to impose myself on the world. All I'm doing is building on what's already here."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.

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