Bruce Mutard: The Brucey Blather

Dear virtual travellers, fellow spirits and other ethereal sprites who I hope, have ridden with me on this trip,

This will be the last of the blathers, so you can rest easy knowing your email box will return to the more important business and pleasure it is supposed to be clogged with and are more deserving of your attention. However, I write also as a journal of my travels. This is being typed on the plane from Chicago to LA, which will be my second last stop; after that is Sydney for Supanova this coming weekend and then home at last. Thankfully this airport check-in and screening was not too onerous and quick. I was late as I thought it would be quicker to get a cab out and instead we were in gridlock for more than 2/3rds the journey. Aggh. I wanted to take the public train in, but I didn’t think I could get my very heavy 3 pieces of luggage through the many flights of steps and gates to get on the train. Be warned: US based airlines do NOT give you any checked luggage – you have to pay for it: $25 for the first piece, $200 for the second.

Chicago, Chicago. Yes, it’s a wunnerful town to be sure. Hugeness is pretty much how you think of it on first impressions and it only gets bigger thereafter. There’s more than 9 million people in it, but oddly, downtown where I was staying, you don’t feel the weight of so many people on the sidewalks. Sure, there are plenty of people around, but nothing you would describe as oppressive. I suppose one might describe the scale of the buildings as oppressive, being so densely packed and tall. This city is the birthplace of the skyscraper and is home to hundreds of them, including some of the worlds tallest. I think there are 4 buildings at more than 1000ft and dozens that would be 60-80 floors high. And all this built on a swampy lakeshore that was nothing but a frontier outpost of one log fort until less than 200 years ago. It grew quickly on the back of the fur trade and when the railway came, the meat packing industry, where all the ranchers of the mid-west drove their steers north to Chicago, where they would be chopped up and frozen or tinned for carnivores east (see Howard hawks’ Red River, or Lonesome Dove, for an idea. Read Upton Sinclair’s The jungle for a description of the meat industry in that era. Dark Satanic abattoirs, anyone?) Chicago also grew on shipping through the great lakes, trade with Canada and the north. But in 1871 there was a huge fire that burnt down 18,000 buildings started, as legend has it, by Mrs O’Leary’s cow kicking over a lantern in a barn whilst being milked. No one knows for sure, but she was not depicted in the literature and stereograms with much favour thereafter. Norman Rockwell characteristically changed that.

Spent the the evening of the first day wandering around town a bit just to see what was nearby. I was staying at the Hotel Majestic, which was above the Bank Of America theatre in Chicago’s theatre district. It isn’t broadway of London’s West End with seemingly 100 theatres all packed together. In fact, there are only about 5-6, so there was not a lot on. I was game for a show if there was one on I really wanted to see. The hotel was somewhat less than majestic, being a doorway next to the theatre lobby; it’s own lobby was on level 4 and hardly grand, though in no way shabby. It was nothing like the famous Palmer Hotel over the road, which was as plush and grand looking an entry as you could hope for; gilded and marbled. Okay, so I’m spoilt. The rooms were good though – tall ceilings, big bed, lounge and desk, TV, good and free wifi for once. I know it’s built into the price, but it’s nice not to have to pay on top of $200 room rates for these things. The also chucked in a free breakfast, but this was nothing grand also – usual salty scrambled eggs, bacon, fired potatoes, sugary cereals, breads, a waffle maker, juice, coffee etc. I ended up mostly getting my own.

Next day, I visited the Chicago cultural centre – recommended to me by a few Ragdale people. It’s a multi-use venue with many rooms, but you had to be impressed by the tiffany glass domed hall on the top level which is a tourist destination in its own right. Then Center had some weddings going on and an exhibition by an African American artist from the depression era who was well known for his depictions of the black experience of that time. Pretty good actually. Can’t remember the name off-hand. I also went there because the Chicago tourist into office was there. I got a few brochures but there didn’t seem to be a welter of info. I visited the Graham Crackers Comic shop, a franchise that has many stores all over the city, trying to chase down Wendi Freeman, who runs the podcast Double Page Spread, as I was supposed to appear on it as a perk of my having supported the Indiegogo campaign for the Graham Crackers Ladies Night – a women’s comic creators support and drawing night. No luck there.

After lunch,  I headed to Millennium park to check out the Chicago Blues Festival. Millennium park was designed and constructed to celebrate the arrival of the 21st century and refashion the waterfront (it’s still not complete). Apparently it cost a fortune, perhaps partly due to the typically adventurous, sinuous Frank Gehry designed auditorium that is their Myer Music bowl. There is also a curious sculpture called The Bean, that is encased in a mirrored substance that is like the funny mirrors of sideshow alley, only from all angles. It’s certainly a hit with huge numbers of people walking around laughing at their elongated heads and bodies. You an actually go under it and in the domed centre start feeling like you’re in a *scope – it is actually a bit disorientating.

Back to the festival: it was very good with 5 stages simultaneously playing blues music, but they were spaced far enough apart so their sounds didn’t interfere with one another. Spent a few hours there wandering from one stage to the other. Highlights were the Peterson brothers – one 17 the other 14 – played with a maturity way beyond their years. Another was the Groove Shakers, who were a lot of fun; their music veered more towards funk and soul, which was fine by me. After that, I was intending to try the sky deck in the Wills tower – about 1450ft up chicago’s tallest building, but the queue was too long. I walked around more, towards the south where the landscape changed quite a bit and became industrial, shabbier, heavily concreted and ugly. I was seeking a Wholefoods to stock up on food and drink as I had a fridge and microwave in my room (one reason for my picking the Majestic aside from the central location). It was further than it looked. There were very few people around and very few cars despite the enormously wide roads. Downtown Chicago isn’t actually a major place for shopping on weekends. I had been warned that the ‘South Side’ of Chicago is the no-go area, quite dangerous and indeed checking on the homicide maps, they lit up red with the highest rates in the city. There was one moment where I was standing at an intersection and a beaten up sedan turned into the street I was crossing, then did a u-turn to pull up to the kerb about 20m from me. There were two black guys in it, doing nothing. Now, okay, shame on me to be profiling like this, but the thought ran in my head about whether they were eyeing off my bag for a snatch. They started moving and I stepped well back off the curb and they passed me by. Well, one has to be cautious. They could have been white guys too; I just didn’t like the way they pulled up for no reason on the curb after doing u-turn.

Anyhow, after shopping, I caught the ‘L’ train back, which was good actually, for it allowed me to ride the very distinctive elevated rail loop above the street through the middle of downtown. We’ve seen it a lot in movies (in fact you can do a tour that takes you to all the sites where famous movies set here were shot). It was built in early part of the 20th C, made mostly of steel and timber buildings. Took me a little while to work out the vagaries of the ticketing system (which is a paper stored value card that you just slip in a slot and pass through a gate. More efficient and better than ours in Melbourne. The loop functions a bit like the city loop in Melbourne, where the various radial lines come in and loop around to go back. The only difference is that there are no big Flinders St or Southern Cross stations to pass through.

Next day I spent 6 hours at the Art Institute of Chicago. This is one of the major American art museums with a very big collection, especially in Impressionist and post-impressionist European modernism. There were some very key works here, like Seurat La Grande Jatte, and Lautrec, I de moulin Rouge. There were probably about 30 Monets, including a nice row of his haystack paintings. Also a very good collection of late 19thC and early 20th C American art, including the very famous, much imitated and parodied American Gothic by Grant Wood. I was disappointed that Hopper’s Nighthawks was on loan to another gallery. 20th C art had a good room full of Giacometti and Balthus, Klee, de Chirico, but oddly, not a lot of post war American art. Yes, Older art was a bit middling, but contemporary art was not too shabby. Probably my favourite was the Thorne miniature room collection. This rich heiress commissioned a project to make miniature models of rooms from Europe and America through the ages. The detail in these were staggering, right down to getting the textures of all the textiles, timber and tiling right. They also include doors opening to rooms off the kitchen, bedroom, parlour, hallway etc and even detailed backdrops out the windows. Moreover, they are lit so it looked like daylight, but more importantly, the sort of daylight that was typical of the place. Even the seasons are represented: some summer, fall, winter… and a couple of night time settings. Hard to describe, but basically, this was my last stop and I’d been on my feet more than 5 hours and it really perked me up. I would have bought the book on it, except I was overloaded as it is.

Spent Monday morning walking what they call the Magnificent Mile – a strip of shopping to the north on Michigan Avenue that is very upmarket, surrounded by ritzy hotels and apartment blocks. I think a bit further north is the Golden Mile which is also for very rich residents. My main aim was less the shopping than to see the Museum of Contemporary Art  which was up that way (closed Mondays) and to go up the John Hancock tower to their observation deck – 94 floors up. When I got there though, a huge fog bank had drifted in off lake Michigan and it was pointless going up. So, I wandered further north to the famous Oak St Beach (the lake is much much bigger than Port Philip Bay), which itself was enveloped in fog, so it was actually bleak, but in a beautiful way. I then visited Bloomingdales – the famous department store – just to see what it was like (DJ only more up-market), which was in a mall that was as huge as it was up-market. Ate lunch at a place called Potbelly sandwiches which seemed very popular with mall workers and patrons, but it turned out to be a chain – walked past a couple of others later in the day. Hardly any cafe or restaurant in Chicago is not a chain of some sort, albeit often local or regional. Yes, yes, bloody Starbucks was everywhere as usual.

After that, it looked like the fog was clearing enough for me to go up the Hancock, which I did. Lift took one up in 24 sec, though you don’t feel it. It was certainly an impressive sight from above. Whilst fog still covered the lake in a blanket (literally – it looked like one), it had cleared over land. It was amazing to see buildings that I had just walked under that seemed so huge, now look so small. Truly, we have nothing at home to compare with this city of skyscrapers (and the birthplace of them). Vista after vista from above or from the ground is of these impressive architectural monoliths. I took heaps of photos, but none of them really do it justice. The observation deck was enclosed except for one part where you could hear the streets below – the traffic and the near constant wail of sirens (perhaps even more than Toronto). One thing I should mention is that unlike Toronto, a great number of buildings in Chicago are still old. Plenty of more recent buildings of course, but there were a lot of vistas where you felt you  go back in time and imagine you were in the 1930s if it were not for the advertising hoardings and modern cars. Good for movies except I think it’s cheaper to use CGI than location shooting nowadays.

I headed back to the hotel for some rest after 5 hours on my feet, only to head out again an hour later to do the Sky deck. This observation deck in Chicago’ tallest building, the Wills Tower, at 103 levels, or 1,450 feet up. It’s west of the loop, whereas the Hancock is some way north and closer to the lake. Again, very impressive views where everything looked so small. Even the areas I walked around the previous few days were easily visible and looked nothing like the distances they actually were. I think one can see about 130km in all directions from up here – on a really clear day – but the fog was still on the lake and there was haze around. The grooviest part were the sky-ledges with glass bottoms projecting 4 feet out of the side of the building so you can look down at the street below through your feet. It’s a tad unnerving at first, but hardly scary. I attach photos as proof and also some of the skyline. [No, he didn’t attach photos – Editor]

Spent the next day at the Shedd Aquarium and the Field Museum, two of the city’s most popular tourist destinations. The aquarium wasn’t bad, though very popular – a long, long queue to get in, but with my Citypass, I could by-pass it and wait about 5 minutes versus probably 45-60 minutes. The queue was still as long after I came out 3 hours later. Having not been to the Melbourne one, I can’t compare. They had themed exhibits: Amazon (yes, with piranhas), oceans, lakes, reefs, caribbean etc. I discovered they had an Australian lungfish that was brought over in 1933 and is still alive! They also had an extensive lower level with something more akin to a water-world style exhibit, with a stadium seating and huge pool where Beluga whales were giving a show with their trainers. You could also go lower and see these tanks through glass, where they had dolphins swimming in it. In another tank was a sea otter looking a bit wanting for things to do other than lapping his tiny tank. My favourite exhibit was the Jellyfish in its own section. Fascinating creatures, although they appear to be pests and something akin to the cockroach of the sea: able to live in almost any kind of water including polluted, and eat everything.

The Field Museum is the city’s main natural history site, with science and Technology having its own campus elsewhere. It’s a hybrid of the old glass cases and dioramas with curated, interactive exhibits set up to entertain and inform. Some of the latter were okay: the reproduction of the caves of Lascaux with the cave art right down to the details and colours of the rocks, let alone the drawings and paintings is impressive, although there were only a few sections of it (far too big to hold in one museum except the purpose built reproduction near the original in Lascaux itself). It’s the only way you can enjoy them nowadays, as one cannot go into the real thing due to concerns about moisture, body heat and breathing all deteriorating the original. Apparently the people who made these pictures – Cro-Magnon man – look just like us. They had models reconstructed from the skeletons (you know, like in crime or forensics) and these were blue-eyed caucasian. Given it’s France, perhaps true. At least they had the women with hairy legs, but maybe it was characteristically French to have the women with what looked like much older men. Given that men die on average much younger, I’d of thought a ‘cougar’ would be more appropriate.

The other good exhibit was one called the Universe of the Soil. It got off to a very tacky start where they ‘shrank’ you down (using lights and optical illusion passageways) to about the size of an ant, so that you were walking in their tunnels in the soil. Thing is, all tunnels were scattered, the creatures normally not visible to the eye: mites, nematodes, soil fungi and so on. The exhibit took you right through the scientific facts of the soil, complete with huge roots coming down from the roof, water streams etc. I overcame my slight distaste for the tackiness (though entertaining for kids and school-groups – none of these around – they’d knocked off for the summer) and thought it did make you appreciate what was at that scale by having blown it up. What else could you show anyway – buckets of dirt? Of course, one passes through a restorative process to get back to normal size. I should add that all special exhibits had their own shop to spend at before you exited.

I liked the rooms full of all the taxidermist animals from all over. They really gave a sense of how big they are/were. Bison are enormous – much bigger than cattle (and yes, I ate one in a burger). A lot of the varieties of African antelopes are also huge. They had lots of monkeys, apes, birds, big cats, giraffe and elephants. They had one dinosaur, being a near full skeleton of a tyrannosaurus Rex called Sue. She is big to be sure at 40ft long and 16 high at the hip. I didn’t see any other dinosaur exhibits, so maybe I just didn’t get that far. I was there until the place shut at 5.

Wednesday was to be my Frank LLoyd Wright day. Old Frank was born in rural Wisconsin and raised on the Prairie. but he dreamt of being an architect and in the day when you didn’t need tertiary education to do a great many professions, he just went to Chicago to work in an architectural office of * and Sullivan – the famous Louis Sullivan – first muse and mentor to FLW, though Frank was far too much of an egotist to admit that. First stop was the Rookery, in a building not far from where I was staying, which was one of Chicago’ earliest skyscrapers and designed by the firm of Durham and Root. It was 11 stories high at the time it was built in 1888 on the site of the old city hall that was burnt in the great Chicago fire. FLW didn’t design it, but he was commissioned by the building’s tenants to refit the atrium in 1905. It was quite impressive, using mostly gilded marble to cover the previous cast iron and timber lining. This building was the first in the city to borrow from the European model of having internal light shaft so that the interior offices had windows and light. Apparently they were even better than the outside ones for they didn’t get hit with the summer stench of horseshit.

After lunch, I took the blue ‘L’ to Oak Park to see the Frank Lloyd Wright’s first home and studio and also a lot of other houses that he designed in the area. Riding the train out there (and they are elevated for the whole line, not partially, so there are no need for boom gates) one could see the changing socio-economic status of the suburbs. Just east of the city appears scungy but gentrifying. Then there is a few miles of very run down neighbourhoods (yes, mostly full of black people) before suddenly shooting upscale with the posh Oak park with it’s big houses, lush gardens, oak and maple lined streets, etc. Reckon there couldn’t have been more than a block between them despite the change.

There is a federally designated Frank Lloyd Wright national area out there; his first house & studio (and family home) where he raised 6 kids, and quite a few of his signature prairie houses. These were so designated because they were built to emphasise the horizontal and also bring nature into the house with their curtain windows full of FLW beautiful lead-lighting and stained glass windows, the timber panelling, built-in furniture etc. His own house was not built in that style because it was before he developed it, or rather, he developed his signature style in the studio there. Around the neighbourhood though, and I mean the nearby streets, were about 12 other houses he designed. These actually are residences now, so I’d hate to think of the restrictions on how to modify them! No two places looked alike. FLW always kept developing his ideas so his clients would be talked into getting Frank’s way. He was egotistical enough to believe he knew best. Okay Frank, lucky for you, but in your case you can get away with it. None of FLW commercial buildings are in Chicago, but there was the Unity Temple that he designed and is in Oak Park. It’s a lovely looking church, but it does not look at all church-like being flatter and horizontal rather than tall and vertical. But his houses do engender a sense of peace that come with aesthetic beauty and it’s clear he was fascinated with Japanese architecture and art, but he never admitted it.

I visited the FLW designed Robie House on Thursday, which is to the south of downtown in Hyde Park, but a nicer area near the lake. This place was recently voted among the 10 most important buildings in American Architecture – key buildings that changed architecture thereafter. If you google it up, you’ll soon recognise it. It was impressive, but it’s still under restoration. FLW was a great designer but less of an engineer and the building was almost condemned by the time the FLW Preservation Trust got hold of it. It’s nestled in the University of Chicago area to the south of the city. Apparently Barack Obama’s house was right nearby and I didn’t know it, though I’ve been told that it’s not much to see and surrounded by security on 24/7 alert even though BO is there barely once a month. I did get to see the Museum of Contemporary Art later that day, which was pretty good, but I’m spewing that a huge Dan Clowes retrospective is going to be held there, but won’t open until June 29! Arrgh. So close. Even if I had known, I wouldn’t have stayed an extra two weeks just to catch that.

I spent most of Friday out with my new friend Lisa and her kids visiting the Chicago History Museum, which is more education aimed than documenting, though it did have the first US built steam locomotive in it, and a model of the the city’s first commuter train station, complete with an actual car from the period. With kids, you tend to get pulled around to the fun stuff more than the historical, which was fine. Later, we went to the nearby Chicago zoo which is actually free to enter. There were some surprisingly old-school exhibits with large cats pacing in small indoor cages. I didn’t see much of it as with kids, you’re going more for the fun stuff. I did notice a lot of rabbits roaming around freely, even in the lions den – literally.

Afterwards, I visited Intuit, the institute for Intuitive and outsider art, which was very good. I like outsider art for the very fact it is not couched in influences beyond pop-culture. It’s certainly not free from any influence as the artists frequently recycle images they see all over, but there’s no attempt to articulate it and place it in the fine arts tradition, post modern or otherwise. They had a composite reconstruction of the now famous Henry Darger room, complete with a lot of his artefacts, his collection of tin watercolours, the magazines and picture books he copied his drawings of the Vivian Girls out of. For those of you who aren’t aware of this bloke, he was an asocial, harmless man who spent most of his life working menial jobs in hospitals and then the rest of it working on one huge epic artwork that has a long name, but basically think of it as the Adventures of the Vivian Girls, 7 sisters who try to save other children from abuse. The novel ran to more than 15,000 pages, accompanied by thousands of drawings including many 12 foot long scroll illustrations. Oddly, he often drew the girls naked and they had penises – it’s quite possible Henry never saw a naked woman in his life. anyhow, he died in this apartment surrounded by this epic that no one knew about. There’s art for therapy, for arts sake, for the service of no one. Since he died (at 82), there’s been a lot of retrospective art shows, plenty of thesis papers, glossy hardcover books on him, though no-one’s attempted to publish the novel except in excerpts. There were times in my darker unknown years when I looked up to this guy – I’ll make art whether anyone wants to see it or not. Well, not to be, thankfully.

After that, I visited Quimbys, a bookstore that is a bit like a mix of Polyester Books and The Sticky Institute. I was happy to see my books in there, but less so when I discovered they had been placed there on consignment from the last Caravan and had been sitting on the shelves since May 2012! In fact, hardly any of the books had been sold since then. Bit sad really, although the competition in that place was pretty strong.

I went to CAKE on the Saturday and it was great.  I had a blast and bought far too many comics, but how could I not? I definitely did not intend on buying them, but thing is, there was so much stuff that we never see down under, so I figured, stuff it, I’ll get it and worry about the baggage limits later. I’ll be sharing it with you (by recent) when I get home. I did run into a number of people that I’d already met on my travels, like Alec Longstreth, MK Czierwic, Mitha, Georgia Webber, Lilli Carre and also Lucy Knisley who will be down under at the Melbourne Writers Festival. it was great to reacquaint with them and cement bonds. It was really nice to be on the other side of the table at this sort of event for once and just be able to chat to the huge number of talented artists there. So many. Anyhow, I am bursting with ideas about how to put together a similar festival/conference, to put together anthologies of American, Canadian, Australian and NZ comics that can build bridges in ways the internet can’t. However, all in time and in moderation. I am also a bit worn out, have another small cold and even started losing my voice. I had a joke about this with Georgia, a Canadian cartoonist I met first at TCAF, then in Montreal, now here, who has spent the last 6 months trying to live without speaking as she badly strained her voice-box last year.

Sunday was my last day in Chicago and I worked all morning on the long, long delayed Alice in Nomansland (now aiming for 2014) before heading to Evanston in the north of the city to catch up with Jazz composer Kelly Brand and her husband who is also named Kelly (fancy that). The suburb was playing host to the Piccolo Street Fair, which was very large and very good. It’s basically a street market with all sorts of food, arts and crafts, clothes and all that, with musos, buskers, performers everywhere. The Kellys also took me to their house to be welcomed by their 3 dogs and so on, then out to Comics Revolution, which is a good comics shop actually, and this quite amazing used bookstore called Bookman’s (that’s the proprietors name – how appropriate), that is a warren of rooms, antiques, bric-a-brac and framed letters and things from people like Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and Henry Miller. The place is shutting its doors for good by then end of July.

Actually, there may be another small blather about LA after all – crazy place – as in crazy wonderful. You’d expect that. You’d be disappointed if it wasn’t trashy, glitzy, ritzy, sleazy, sunny, superficial and wonderful for being all that.

Let me know what’s going down and I’ll try to see you all soon down under,

Until then, toodles,

Bruce Mutard
http://www.brucemutard.com