In the summer of 1998, Angela Dahl came up with an idea that she thought might help both her brother and her cause. Dahl had been a volunteer on the junior board of Ronald McDonald House in Hyde Park for two years, and she was helping plan the organization's fall benefit. When she suggested at a meeting that a collage by her younger brother Adam would make a good silent auction item, she got an enthusiastic response.
Convincing her brother to donate a piece was another story. Adam Dahl, who lived in Denver, was "absolutely passionate about his artwork," his sister recalls. "He worked part-time doing framing--he didn't care about money. He didn't sell his pieces--he would give them as gifts." But although he'd shown his work in a few group shows in Colorado, he wasn't sure why anyone in Chicago would want to bid on one of his collages at a charity event. "He said, 'Who's going to buy a piece from an unknown artist?'"
Then there was the matter of timing. Adam used found images, which he attached by the hundreds to different objects. "He'd done collages on mini-blinds, he did one that was a ship in a bottle, there was a huge five-foot-tall Jesus out of plywood," says Angela. The painstaking process often took months, and the auction was coming up fast.
Nevertheless he agreed, and to meet the deadline he submitted a photograph of a finished work and promised the highest bidder a similar collage, to be titled Cityscape. It would feature hundreds of photographs of different faces juxtaposed with images of Chicago landmarks. The sample photo and description were displayed at the event, held at Cafe Brauer in the Lincoln Park Zoo. There were almost 300 people in attendance. "It was the kind of event where you were expected to get ten of your friends to attend," says Angela. "So everyone knew everyone else." Even so, she didn't know the purchaser of Cityscape.
Interested, perhaps for the first time ever, in how much money his work had brought in, Adam called his sister the next morning to hear what the winning bid had been. "I was a little embarrassed to tell him," she says. "I'd guessed that it would go for much higher--but it was from a photo, after all, and it wasn't the actual piece." Cityscape sold for about $150. If Adam was disappointed he got over it, and about two months later the piece arrived from Denver. Angela, who recognized the handwriting on the package, didn't even bother to unwrap it. "I remember phoning the winner and telling the person that it would be left with my doorman." The collage was picked up, and Dahl didn't think about it again.
At least not until August 2000, when Adam was killed while on a group hike in the mountains. "He had a glass bottle in his front pocket, and he fell and tore a major artery," says Angela quietly. "The group was an hour outside of Denver." Although a helicopter raced him to the hospital, he was dead before he got to the operating room. He was 28.
Dahl, who works in sales, slowly moved on with her life, but memories of the collage she'd never seen began to haunt her. She thought about how she had coaxed her brother into donating the piece. She thought she might feel better if she could see it. But by this time, almost two years after the auction, she couldn't even remember if it had been a man or a woman who bought it, even though she'd talked to the winner on the phone.
So she called the woman who'd been in charge of the auction. "She was sure to have a list of all the high bidders from the evening," says Dahl. But just days before Dahl contacted her, "she'd gotten rid of all her files for the event."
Dahl started talking to other people who'd worked on Ronald McDonald House events, trying to track down somebody who might remember something. "There's lots of turnover on the junior board, and I was talking to people who used to be on the junior board, sending E-mails to people who used to be on the junior board." She did that for more than a year.
"At one point we were trying to figure out how to get the mailing list for the event, and I remembered that Sherri had been in charge of the mailing list that year," says Dahl. Finally this spring her friend Sherri McGinnis, a Ronald McDonald House board member, supplied Dahl with the names and addresses of people who attended the event. She also gave her another reason for hope. "She said, 'I think I know who purchased it,' and she left her a message asking her to call me."
But Dahl heard nothing. In mid-June she sat down at her computer and typed up a form letter telling recipients about her brother's death and asking for information leading to the recovery of Cityscape. She offered to purchase the collage from its current owner and ended with a hopeful "Thank you so much for your help!" Using McGinnis's list, she sent the letter to all the city residents who had attended the benefit--she seemed to remember that the buyer had lived in Chicago. She hand-addressed 150 envelopes, hoping that "seeing the person's name and address would help me to remember something." It didn't.
Dahl got about "10 to 15 responses, either through phone calls or handwritten notes--people saying they hadn't bought the collage but wished me well." About a month after Dahl sent the letters, McGinnis got a call from the woman she'd left the message for. "She'd been on vacation," Dahl says, "and she said, 'No, it wasn't me, it was a friend of mine, but she gave it away as a gift.'" The woman offered to call the friend, whose name was Joan, and leave her Dahl's number.
When more time went by with no call back, Dahl tracked down a phone number for Joan, the person who'd given the collage away. "I called her, and Joan said the same thing: 'Let me call her and I'll call you back.'" Another week went by. On a Monday night, the phone finally rang. "It was this person who basically said, 'Hi, this is the woman who has Cityscape. I have it for you. I'll leave it with my doorman and you can pick it up.' I offered to pay her for it, but she refused."
The following night Dahl stopped by the woman's building, and sitting there was the long-lost collage, unwrapped and waiting. "My husband and I have four of Adam's other works in our hallway--we've given him his own gallery--and Cityscape will be added to the collection here," Dahl says. She looks at the black-and-white collage, with the hundreds of faces peering back at her, and adds softly, "I feel like I've got a little closure now. Every time I look at it I'm reminded of Adam. His picture is in there--I know it's in there. I haven't found it yet, but I know I will."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.