Notes from Chicago

Chicago. There is something so appealing about that word, how the letters curve on the page and how they roll in your mouth when you say it out loud. Chicago. It's almost as if the Art Deco skyline can materialize if you just say the word.

We were visiting Chicago for a long weekend as a birthday celebration for McCrae's father. We flew out on Friday afternoon, crossing over the southern Appalachians - those laugh lines of the continent, ridged and wrinkled and merrily displaying its age. We flew over the Mississippi River and around a thunderstorm, and it was beautiful, so beautiful, that broad stretch of muddy meandering water and the thick cloud vapor above that refracted the sunset so the whole horizon was a rainbow, split by the occasional flash of lightning.

The land is so square out there - city blocks and farm blocks spread out geometrically, so well-laid out and planned. And then, suddenly, I saw it - the great lake. From my small airplane window it looked like the world just stopped. The shoreline and the water were indiscernible from the sky so that it looked like we were flying into a great blue abyss, far beyond the edges of what is known.

And then, suddenly, there were boats in the harbor, and city lights. Chicago at night.

And then, suddenly, there were boats in the harbor, and city lights. Chicago at night.

Chicago O'Hare. Families with brightly colored beach buckets waited to board at the Orlando gate. Good ol' Midwesterners warmly greeted their returning son. At the baggage claim two backpacks came through the baggage carousel with sleeping pads and trekking poles, and I wondered if they had come to the Chicago area to hike, or if they had just come from a hike. Is there good hiking outside of Chicago? I made a note to find out.

We took a shuttle from the airport to our hotel and my first impression of Chicago up close was traffic lights through a window streaming with rain - an Impressionistic impression. Looking up I saw twinkling lights, but they weren't the stars; they were just lights from buildings that reached higher and higher out of sight, fading into darkness and rain clouds.

When we arrived at the InterContinental Hotel the clerk seemed concerned about what to do with us, and was particularly worried that we should all have rooms on the same floor, but eventually, with the hotel almost full, he split us up: McCrae's father went to the 9th floor and McCrae and went to the 39th.

"It's a really unique suite!" the clerk exclaimed as he handed McCrae our room keys. "People either hate it or they love it, but I think you will love it. It's in the historic tower, and there are only two rooms on that floor, and there's only one room on the floor above you so it's very private." It sounded great to me.

From the 39th floor all you can hear of the city is the occasional sound of sirens. Police. Fire. The noise pierces in all directions and alights on my window where no pigeon would dare to perch.

From the 39th floor all you can hear of the city is the occasional sound of sirens. Police. Fire. The noise pierces in all directions and alights on my window where no pigeon would dare to perch.

In the morning my first priority was to see Sue, the biggest, most complete, and most expensive Tyrannosaurus rex at the Field Museum. I remember when Sue was excavated, and then when she was auctioned off for $7.6 million in 1997. I was of an age when dinosaurs were the most exciting thing in the world, and Sue made a big impression. So when it came time to plan the Chicago trip, I thought for a moment and wondered, "Where is Sue?" Sure enough, one quick Google search later and that nugget of information that the dinosaur-obsessed kid version of me had stored was right: Sue was in Chicago. And I was going to Chicago. Finally.

You can see Sue from the entrance of the Field Museum. You don't even have to buy a ticket to see her, she's just right there. But I wanted to see her up close and paid the $30 per person for admission.

"So, which movie would you like with your ticket?" the museum ticket seller asked. I looked at her as if she were crazy. Did I look like the type of person who came to a museum to watch a movie?

"We'll do the dinosaur movie. 'Waking Sue' or whatever it's called," McCrae offered helpfully.

"Alright, which showtime would you like? 10:45 or 11:30?"

I rolled my eyes. There was no way we were going to see the movie, so what did it matter?

"10:45," McCrae said. I could tell he was just picking a time at random. We only had 48 hours in Chicago. I wasn't spending 30 minutes of that on some movie when I could get just as much information from reading a book (if I hadn't read the book already), and told McCrae as much.

“Liz, did you just try to pull a ‘well, the book was better’ on a museum movie?”

"Liz, did you just try to pull a 'well, the book was better' on a museum movie?" McCrae asked me as we slipped past the ticket counter.

"Yes. Yes I did," I said and laughed delightedly as I rushed up to Sue.

Sue really was an impressive specimen, and I felt a pang of envy that the Field Museum had managed to outbid the NC Museum of Natural History at that Sotheby's auction in 1997, those jerks. Sue could have been in Raleigh, in my hometown! But instead here she was in Chicago, tall and magnificent and on a pedestal in the 3-story central hall with some stuffed African elephants and Alaskan totems. Hello, Sue! You're one expensive dinosaur, but you're gorgeous.

We wandered through other parts of the museum, past countless glass enclosures of taxidermy endangered species, collected and preserved before anyone even knew what an endangered species was. Gnus, elands, tapirs, rhinoceroses, leopards (including snow leopard!) and even the infamous man-eating Tsavo lions.

"Apparently these lions developed a taste for human flesh, so they were hunted. People claimed the lions killed hundreds of men, but really it was probably 30 or so. They just ate men though. They were man-eaters, they never ate a woman," I joked and McCrae nudged his elbow at my ribs and rolled his eyes.

We rushed through the evolution exhibit in the hopes of seeing more dinosaurs. McCrae ushered me past most of the Pre-Cambrian and Cambrian Eras, though I still stopped in delight of the trilobites. There's just something delightful about that name and the fact that these were the first creatures that didn't look like some extra-terrestrial worm or something. An animal recognizable to Earth! The trilobite is a joyous thing.

The trilobite is a joyous thing.

Cambrian, K-T extinction, Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous, a muddle of fossils and their adaptations, and a room full of dinosaur fossils.

Stegosaur. Hadrosaur. Dimetrodon (eek! Oh early-appearing beauty!) Triceratops. So many favorites in carefully-stacked bones, like anatomical and evolutionary art.

After we'd seen all the piles of bones one can see at the Field Museum we headed out in search of lunch and landed at a place across from the Art Institute of Chicago, but with less than three hours before we had to start getting ready for dinner and the theatre (we saw Hamilton!) there was no way we'd be setting foot in that museum that day. I wouldn't make it past the first room in three hours! So instead we wandered down to Millennium Park to see Cloudgate (commonly called "the Bean") and watch hundreds of hands clamor over the reflective sculpture. People. Photos. People. Photos. I snapped an obligatory pic just to record the insanity of it, and checked the sky to figure out where east might be, already planning for the next day's dawn.

I snapped an obligatory pic just to record the insanity of it, and checked the sky to figure out where east might be, already planning for the next day’s dawn.
Chicago is under attack by an evil giant gull!

Chicago is under attack by an evil giant gull!

Chicago's "Theatre Goodman" - well duh I had to take the photo.

Sunrise the next morning was at 5:36am and by 6am the Bean was busy. There was a professional photographer with two blonde girls that might have been modeling or might have been clients. I arrived around 5:45 and they had just rushed in, umbrella and camera at the ready. Model here, pose, pose, next model here, pose, pose. Flash, flash, and done. You only get a good fifteen minutes of shooting before the first few groups arrive.

My top priority for the day was the Art Institute of Chicago. I'd heard it was a world-class art museum, and for me it was a major appeal of the city, and so we waited in line for the museum to open.

It really was magnificent.

Oh my. Oh my goodness. It really was magnificent. I walked into the Pritzker Gallerie and I was nearly overwhelmed with tears at all the Impressionist color. Monet. Pisarro. Caillebotte. Watery portals to the rest of the world. The way Monet can capture light through color - I could just close my eyes and feel the breeze against my face as it rushed through the dark and lime green leaves of The Artist's Home at Argenteuil (1873). Berthe Morisot's mark is so linear - shards of brushstrokes instead of her fellow Impressionists' curlicues. It looked almost aggressive, but still contained within a pattern. I adored Caillebotte's Calf's Head and Ox Tongue (1882) - the softness of Impressionism with the harshness of a butcher's shop. Well done. From the softest brushstrokes and pastels, it was still an image that can cut you.

It was still an image that can cut you.

I spent an hour in the first room alone. More than that probably, because after an hour I hadn't even gotten to the Degas statue - Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (c. 1880) - another of the 28 copies sprinkled at different museums, such as the one I'd seen at Richmond last year.

But still, the proportions were off, and it bothered me.

Caillebotte's Paris Street; Rainy Day (1877) dominated the room with its monumental size, and upon closer inspection I was surprised to find it was off ever so slightly. Seeing it in person I noticed details that I never saw of images of the work in books or online: the man's hand that's holding the umbrella is too small, the perspective on the umbrella handle is off, and the tip of the umbrella isn't straight with the rest of the rod. Even the two-point perspective on the city street isn't quite right: the line of the curb isn't straight, the buildings are just a bit askance, and the figures in the background get too small too quickly. The details of the painting are lovely with colors, but it's more subtle than Monet or Renoir, and not quite as skilled. It's the composition really that makes the painting, just like the composition of Caillebotte's other work Calf's Head and Ox Tongue that I admired. But still, the proportions were off, and it bothered me.

I took eleven pages of notes in that art museum and spent six hours there.

Seurat. Toulouse-Lautrec. Van Gogh. O'Keeffe. Dali. Picasso. I took eleven pages of notes in that art museum and spent six hours there. Six hours without food or water. Six hours of what felt like not blinking, just absorbing everything. Six hours of grumbling that paintings in art galleries are hung entirely too high so that the faces are too far above eye level and make it difficult to see if there's glare on the glass. Six hours of a room full of Monet, so that I could close my eyes and everyone in the crowded room disappeared but in my mind's eye I could still see Monet's colors in all the gold-gilt frames. Six hours of seeing an O'Keeffe for the first time in person, with landscapes and skulls and a giant 8x24 foot painting of color and clouds that was in the stairwell of the grand staircase because that's the only place it would fit. Six hours of following an artist's mark on the canvas, and of finding that mark in Jackson Pollack's traditional painting and drip paintings. Bold, twisting, frenetic, it was all there, jumping out at me in spirals and texture even as I listened to two older ladies griping amongst themselves on what "art" is and that they could just grab a paintbrush and do just as good a job.

Bold, twisting, frenetic, it was all there, jumping out at me in spirals and texture even as I listened to two older ladies griping amongst themselves on what “art” is and that they could just grab a paintbrush and do just as good a job.

Yes dears, and I can draw straighter lines and better proportions than that masterpiece of Seurat that you were so ga-ga over. It's all the same. 

Buckingham Fountain in Chicago. "Liz, do you have your camera on some crazy non-automatic setting again?" "Yes, but it should be fine, just press the button." "Which button?" "That big one." "This one?" "No, the other one." "Okay." ::snap:: "How does it look?" "You didn't focus it!" "Well, Liz..." ...10 minutes later we got this shot...

These shoes were made for walking six hours through an art museum.

This is how happy I am about going to world-class art museums.

I had a headache by the time I left the Art Institute of Chicago, and I hadn't even seen everything or gotten through decent thought themes on "the New Contemporary" galleries. I rallied for a delicious dinner and then crashed for an hour. I was dead tired from getting up early for dawn photos and from wandering through the Art Institute of Chicago obsessing over brushstrokes and taking notes and criticizing Caillebotte for his inability to paint a decent umbrella, and so what I really needed was to stay in bed, to sleep because I was so tired I hadn't even taken my clothes off when I slumped on the bed. I needed to just lay there until morning, but I was bound and determined to get some night photos of Chicago, so I dragged myself out of bed, organized my camera gear, guilted McCrae into putting a shirt on and joining me, and we headed out into the bright city night.

What I really needed was to stay in bed, to sleep because I was so tired I hadn’t even taken my clothes off when I slumped on the bed, but I was bound and determined to get some night photos of Chicago, so I dragged myself out of bed, organized my camera gear, guilted McCrae into putting a shirt on and joining me, and we headed out into the bright city night.

"Come on! The sun is setting! It's time to go!"

Roads, a bit of skyline and the riverwalk, lots of funny looks from cars and passersby who thought it was strange I was in the median of a busy road with a tripod and a giant of a man looming behind me. We watched a Ferrari gun it off the line at a red light, a blur of fire engine red and a roar. On the riverwalk a young woman in sweatpants twirled joyously, or sarcastically, but most definitely exuberantly, and when she finished her 360 she started with surprise at the sight of us with the tripod and said "sorry" and smiled sheepishly while the two men with her just laughed. The bridge shook under our feet when buses rushed past, and when we were turned away at Millennium Park where workers were sweeping, we finally returned home and I crashed into bed.

Homeward. The sky looked just like that 8x24 foot painting by Georgia O'Keeffe that I saw at the Art Institute of Chicago - puffy clouds like misshapen white clots against a hazy blue that breaks to a touch of lavender, pink, and turquoise, and deepening into the belligerent blue of the sky. We were passing over the Mississippi - brown, but not an inviting brown, more like an oily, lazy brown.

And there was the sky: blurred and deeper than I'd ever seen, deeper and clearer than the ocean without its shifting watery surface and chop. It was an ad infinitum blue, the type that hurts to look at because it so easily excites and terrifies you with its endlessness.

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