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There Goes One Over the Mural!/False Alarm/Nobody Wins

Former graffiti artist Casper goes legal with a massive mural in the outfield at Comiskey

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There Goes One Over the Mural!

"I'm a huuuge White Sox fan," says Casper, the artist formerly known for his graffiti. "Ever since I was little, I always wanted to paint something in Comiskey Park. It got to a point where I was saying to myself, if you don't make some sort of attempt at this, it's just going to be a dream for the rest of your life." Casper, aka James Jankowiak, used to hang with Dzine. Now, at 31, he says the graffiti thing has gotten old; he's moved on. In the fall of 1999 he gave himself a pep talk and then dialed up the White Sox.

"They answered the phone and I said, 'I'm a muralist. I'm interested in doing a mural at the park.' I'll never forget that the lady said, 'What's a mural?'" After four months of calls every other week to people who weren't sure who he should talk to, he finally got a call back. "They said, 'Are you the artist that's been calling here?' I'm like, 'Yeah, I am.' 'Well, what kind of idea did you have?'"

Working four months last year and six months this year, Casper produced a 256-foot mural--32 panels of acrylic on wood, each eight feet long--recounting the history of the White Sox from 1900 to 2000. The paintings are based on photographs--action shots and portraits that he projected onto the panels ("to get my proportions straight") before picking up his brush. He says the White Sox wanted original art in the park because "it had been so maligned for being sterile" and were "ultrahappy it ended up being [by] a die-hard White Sox fan." The panels were recently installed along the outfield concourse. "Every time they hit a home run you can see them on TV."

Casper finished painting the last baseball player three weeks ago. Two weeks ago he tossed off the graffiti-laden set for Bomb-itty of Errors, playing at the Royal George. This week he's opening "Snap," a show of new paintings based on photographic images, at the Century 900 gallery in the decrepit building at 202 S. State where he rents a studio. He's also teaching in the Urban Gateways program, something he says brings him full circle: growing up on the south side, he honed his skills at Casa Aztlan, the community center in Pilsen. The White Sox project was a great gig, he says, but now that it's over he's been thinking "a little more highbrow--I'd love to jump out of a limo with a tuxedo on, go to the Lyric Opera, and see my painting as a backdrop."

False Alarm

The letter from the Illinois Arts Alliance Foundation was a grabber: "Several local foundations have shifted their giving in a way that leaves the Arts Alliance at a loss, literally," it said. "Just as we are effecting change in Illinois, enabling an exciting new integration of arts into our everyday lives, the underwriting for our work is slipping." It was signed by board president (and Columbia College vice president) Woodie White. But when we called White to ask about the "funding crisis" referred to in the letter, he was surprised. "There's no financial crisis," he says. "It's the annual solicitation letter. The fiscal year ends on June 30, and we will end it with a balanced budget."

The letter was written in the Illinois Arts Alliance office, where executive director Alene Valkanas says foundation money comes and goes. "This kind of letter is not unusual when we've lost a funder," or when funders reduce their giving levels, she says. So IAA isn't running out of money? "We thought we might, but it looks like we're going to be OK," Valkanas says. "We got a response we had not fully anticipated." She declines to say which foundations are slipping and which are picking up the slack: "It's not in our or their best interest."

IAA is the most political of arts organizations. It was founded 19 years ago in response to another crisis: unlikely as it would seem now, it looked like Governor James Thompson might dismantle the Illinois Arts Council to cut costs. Arts organizations realized they were lacking clout and organized. "Patrons, educators, and arts professionals came together to wage a campaign that would reach out to the public and urge the state legislature and the governor to reconsider," Valkanas says. As a result, "the Arts Council survived, with an even larger budget."

For tax reasons, the group split into two separate organizations. The alliance maintains a lobbyist in Springfield and is supported by members; the foundation does training, research, and public relations and is supported by tax-deductible donations. "IAA is the primary professional organization for not-for-profit arts groups in Illinois, and the only professional association that cuts across disciplines," White says. It has 178 member organizations, from biggies like the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to tiny theater companies; 452 individual members; and an annual budget of about $600,000. The day we talked with Valkanas, the U.S. House had just approved an increase in NEA funding, something IAA had been pushing with local representatives. IAA members, in Chicago this week for their annual meeting, must have been pleased to learn that all is well with their advocate.

Nobody Wins

Twenty-year-old Juilliard student Sara Cortinas was awarded second prize in Holland-America Music Society's recent second annual cello competition at Northwestern University, coming in right behind--no one. No first prize was awarded. Society founder and CSO cellist Katinka Kleijn says this is not a reflection on the talent, just an indication that "none of the performers were able to do their best that night." Kristin Figard, a student of Roland Vamos at the Music Institute of Chicago, took first prize in the viola competition.

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

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