Which city’s police department had the first motorized police wagon? Which city’s first synchronized traffic lights were paid for by a private citizen? Where did Route 66 begin (or end)?
Visitors and locals alike can discover the answer to these questions and more through Aug. 31 at the Chicago Cultural Center’s new exhibit, “Car Culture.”
Nathan Mason, curator of special projects for the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs’ Public Art Program, said the exhibit is a blend of history and art.
“It’s an exhibit that has something for the entire family,” he said.
Presented by Allstate in honor of the company’s 75th anniversary, the exhibit explores automobile culture in Chicago since the early 20th century. Located in the cultural center’s second-floor Chicago Rooms, the exhibit also provides information on Chicago’s rich automobile history from the portion of Michigan Avenue once known as “Motor Row” to the invention of the first high-rise parking garage, the formation of Hertz car rental and the creation of Simoniz car wash.
Even a few pros said they learned something from the exhibit. Mike Black and Bill Sartor, both former presidents of the International Car Wash Association, spent much of their visit examining the portion of the exhibit covering their area of expertise.
“I was under the impression the original car wash was in Detroit,” Sartor said as Black mulled over the photographs and plaques featured in the exhibit. “I didn’t know Simoniz started here either,” Black said. “I guess anyone can learn something new, though.”
The exhibit also features original pieces by more than 15 local artists, Mason said.
Plaques stationed around the exhibit accompany sculptures, photos and some more unusual pieces, such as a car cover made entirely of windshield leaflets.
The exhibit continues with “Artists and Automobiles,” with five additional pieces by five Chicago artists who were asked to create sculptures from recycled car parts. The end results are on display on South President’s Court in Grant Park through Oct. 15.
Artists Mary Brogger, Ted “Sitting Crow” Garner, Dessa Kirk, John Mason and Lucy Slivinski each chose from hundreds of available car parts to create works of art. Garner, who fashioned a bench from sheets of windshield safety glass, said the process was a little difficult.
“We got a tour and looked around and saw what they sort of had in stock. Surprisingly, there … aren’t that many big pieces in a car anymore,” he said.
Garner said that although the process was hurried, he enjoyed it.
“We didn’t find out the specifics of the project much more than a month before it happened,” he said. “Then, it was a matter of choosing the materials or having all the pieces of glass they had thrown at me, then just kind of locking yourself in the studio and making sure you did a good job.”
Kirk, who chose to fashion her piece “Three Lilies” from car hoods, trunks, quarter panels and steel, has worked with material from Cadillacs for most of her career.
“As soon as I saw all these red cars of all different shades in the lot, I thought ‘I’m making red lilies,’ ” she said. “I ran around writing my name on all the red cars.”
Slivinski created her piece, “Hedge Row,” from tail pipes and reflector lights. She has worked in salvage art for years.
“Whenever I work on these pieces, there are always surprises that I discover. All the funky bends in these pieces made the form very conceptual.”
The pieces already are drawing attention from Chicagoans.
Nancy Krumpolz took a walk during her lunch hour one recent afternoon and spotted the new sculptures.
“These are really neat!” she said as she walked the path around them. “They’re so unique.”
Another portion of the exhibit, a 9-foot-tall moose sculpture made of car bumpers by John Kearney, can be seen in Pioneer Court, 401 N. Michigan Ave., through Oct. 15.
If you go … WHAT: “Chicago Car Culture” WHERE: Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St. HOURS: 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fridays, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays. The center is closed on holidays. COST: Free.