Aretha, Lady Day and great art that brings us together


The commentary below represents the ideas, observations and opinions of the author.

   ’Yes! For Lady Day’ by Mark Di Suvero.
  (Photo by Tom Houlihan/H-F Chronicle)
In time, I expect a great American artist will create a great work of art.
It will be called “For Aretha” and it will capture the spirit and emotion of the most astonishing American singer of my lifetime. Anyone who was touched by Aretha Franklin’s voice — and that includes just about all of us — knows that a great artist can reach right inside us and shake our souls. We are so fortunate to have that experience. It brings us together and gives us a better sense of who we are as fellow human beings.
  Tom Houlihan
We in the South Suburbs already have a great piece of art dedicated to another important American singer, the legendary jazz vocalist Billie Holiday. “Yes! For Lady Day” is now in its 50th year, and remains the seminal work at the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park on the Governors State University campus.
Sculptor Mark Di Suvero started work on the sculpture in the summer of 1968, one year before GSU opened. Lewis Manilow, an avid art collector, had gone to the New York City area and persuaded Di Suvero to come to his expansive property south of Chicago, a fitting site for a very large sculpture. It took about a year to complete.
GSU will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year. Jeff Stevenson, a Flossmoor resident and curator of the  sculpture park — named for Lewis Manilow’s father — said the university will also commemorate 50 years of fine art on the campus during that celebration. 
“Yes! For Lady Day” consists of various pieces of black steel that are woven together into an installation that is beautiful, powerful and thought-provoking.
Anyone seeing interactive kinetic sculpture for the first time is bound to be surprised. Di Suvero cut a railroad tank car into pieces and, with steel cables, suspended them from I-beams. Using a crane, and shaking his fist at the laws of physics, Di Suvero built a sculpture that moves with the wind. Over the years, many people have climbed inside one of the lower tank car pieces, including my sons when they were much younger.
As the parts of the sculpture dance through the air, they make moaning noises, musical notes born from the industrial process. This is several tons of steel as you have never witnessed them before and they contribute to an unforgettable experience.
I worked at GSU for five years and made numerous trips into the Manilow Sculpture Park. It is, I believe, a public space unlike any other in the Chicago area. There are nearly 30 sculptures by some of America’s most prominent artists during the last half-century. The 100-acre park is open every day of the year. There is no admission charge. Parking is free.
 Like “Yes! For Lady Day,” nearly all the sculptures are non-representational. That means they don’t show everyday objects as they appear in our real world, but as collections of forms, curves and angles that let you decide what they are about.
 It would be silly for me to tell you what I think the artwork means. I see the sculptures as a visual treat that can be whatever you wish. The Manilow Sculpture Park is wonderfully landscaped and filled with trees and shrubs. I have always liked going out there and looking at how the artwork fits in with so much vegetation and the surrounding prairie.
The sculpture park is an important outdoor art museum. Pieces like “Yes! For Lady Day” are seen as masterpieces that have been a major influence on public art across the country.
Still, it’s likely that some of you have never heard of “Yes! For Lady Day” or the rest of the Manilow sculptures, much less visited the collection. Stevenson, the park’s curator, told me that he has had conversations with prominent members of the Chicago art scene who know about the sculpture park and its impressive collection.
“Then they tell me they’ve never been down here,” he said.
That’s probably due, in part, to the fact that some people are reluctant to travel 30 miles south of downtown Chicago. Also, GSU only has a minimal budget for the promotion of the sculpture park.
But there’s no excuse for us not going down there. It’s really worth the short trip.
But getting back to Aretha ...
When I first decided to write about “Yes! For Lady Day” this was going to be about our great artwork dedicated to an African-American singer vis-à-vis the conflict over memorials to Confederate generals in some southern states. It would have been about art that brings us together as opposed to representational sculpture that can drive us apart.
Then Aretha Franklin died and I started thinking about how lucky I am to have heard her great songs — “Respect,” Think,” “Chain of Fools,” “A Natural Woman” and many more — when I was a teenager. For much of my lifetime she was wonderful to listen to, and to watch. I think she made us all better Americans, and brought us closer together.
I am a local newspaper guy and don’t write much about events in the larger world. But this is a time that we need to get closer together — not further apart — and that is something Aretha always wanted to happen.
Someday, she’ll get a great memorial like “Yes! For Lady Day.”
Until then, we should just be grateful that we had her for a while.

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