Street Life: rats and sharks battle in Bucktown | Calendar | Chicago Reader

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Street Life: rats and sharks battle in Bucktown

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Large yellow signs that say Rat-o-Rama '95 adorn the fence in front of Diane Wheat's Bucktown bungalow. A lifelike shark protrudes from the second-floor window. More yellow signs scream "Read This!" and direct your attention to large white boards containing poems and facts about rats and sharks. In back of the coach house, facing the alley, an even larger sign proclaims "Better Rats Than Sharks!"

The display is not part of the city's antirat campaign. The rats painted on the signs are circled in red, not crossed out, and are, well, cute. Part commentary on class divisions, part installation, the Rat-o-Rama display is the brainchild of Wheat and her neighbor Anne Hedin.

"Ideas just pop into my head," says Wheat. She sits in her coach house work space, where she restores art and refinishes furniture, gesturing as she speaks. She's just as likely to cite Noam Chomsky as the movie Jaws. Across from her is Hedin, a soft-spoken freelance writer.

For the past few years Wheat has staged ghoulish yard displays during Halloween; last year a lifesize witch and a Day of the Dead bride and groom greeted passersby.

A longtime admirer of outsider art, Wheat has decided that she doesn't need a holiday to decorate. At the start of the summer Wheat posted the first yellow signs for Rat-o-Rama, and since then there have been weekly additions to her yard, including symbols, poems, and pamphlets. But what's the point?

"Rats are small and weigh a few ounces," says Wheat. "They can be you or your neighbors and friends. They are people who are trying to make a living and not get run over in the rat race or get eaten by sharks." On a sign called "Rat Facts" Wheat likens the rodents to "tricksters, survivors, dodge'm artists."

The shark came later. Wheat says conflict was needed to keep her interested in staying with the display all summer. Both sharks and rats are human archetypes, she says, noting that "you're either predator or prey."

Wheat says sharks can be "property owners, the developers, the city, the companies that are buying out other companies and letting people go." According to her "Shark Facts" (compiled from research at the library), they are "ill-tempered ass-kickers . . . so greedy that they have been known to eat their own guts when they smell them in the water."

"There are a lot of predatory practices going on and a lot of people suffering," Hedin interjects. "With the rats and sharks, it becomes sort of a modern morality play, with different animals representing different forces and the way people live." Still, they have refrained from being overly political or attacking specific targets.

Hedin says that the two would sit for hours, thinking of ideas until they got wilder and wilder. "At one point Diane wanted me to drive around with a six-foot rat on the top of my car," says Hedin, laughing. Wheat says, "If we'd put all the ideas into practice, we'd be into it for another five years."

Every week there's a new poem or set of facts on display. Information is reproduced in pamphlets that visitors can take out of two mailboxes. Wheat restocks them regularly. "Whatever I put out here, people take," says Wheat, who includes on the pamphlets a plea for contributions in the form of ideas, suggestions, and displays. "But nobody has responded. It's rather pathetic, actually."

While she's inspired by art, Wheat insists she's not an artist. She also says that despite her witty shark and rat poems, she has no pretensions of being a writer. "If I don't get anything else out of this, Anne and I have established a really nice, lasting friendship," she says. "It's really hard to find someone who's on your wavelength."

Rat-o-Rama culminates this Saturday in a free "Rat-Stravaganza" from 11 AM to 4 PM. The event will include "fun, games, and entertainment," as well as an alley sale offering baked stuff and original rat art. Wheat and Hedin also promise a "special surprise." It's at 2119 N. Hoyne (at Shakespeare). Call 276-1191 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Nathan Mandell.

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