Brush strokes of support for the Chicago River

By Alexis Shanes
Medill Reports

Chicago artist Barbara Kay Herring spiked her canvas with vaulting spires and their shimmering reflections emerge from a flurry of sweeping, feathery paint strokes.

The Chicago River has long been a source of creative inspiration and community debate, and a partnership this weekend between local painters and long-standing non-profit Friends of the Chicago River benefitted both artists and advocates.

For the nearly 30 artists who set up their easels at 8 a.m. Saturday along the Chicago River, the art form of plein air painting is a unique opportunity to give back. Plein air painting means working at the scene, in the open air.

​“Plein Air Painters are really happy to help the Friends of the [Chicago] River” and the McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum,” said Mary Longe, PAPC organizer and a Chicago painter. “That’s part of what we do.”

Plein air painting, sidelined to some degree  due to demand for abstract modern art, has experienced a nationwide resurgence during the past 20 years, said Bruce Bondy, Friends of the Chicago River fundraising volunteer.

“It’s quite different from painting in the studio,” said artist Stephanie Weidner, a member of Plein Air Painters of Chicago. “You have to work with the light changing and the people talking to you, and the bugs and the rain and the wind.”

Much like impressionism, the form represents an immediate response to a visual situation and is most popular in rural areas, Bondy said. Chicago, with its river juxtaposed among sky-high architectural works and chaotic city traffic, is an exception.

Nearly 30 painters gathered at the Chicago Riverwalk Saturday to support local non-profit Friends of the Chicago River. (Alexis Shanes/MEDILL)

Friends of the Chicago River has a hand in nearly everything involving the now-beloved waterway, from launching educational programs in schools and sponsoring river cleanups to promoting wildlife research and opposing a plan for a Navy Pier aerial tram, which critics say would crowd the Chicago Riverwalk and detract from the aesthetic experience.

“It’s such an important cause to continue to improve the water quality, which helps ecologically and economically,” said Josh Coles, McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum director. “It’s a very important thing to continue doing because the river is the heart of the city.”

As with any non-profit, those activities require funding. Friends of the Chicago River in 2017 generated $1.4 million in revenue from individual, corporation, foundation and in-kind contributions, but incurred expenses totaling almost $1.3 million, according to the organization’s annual report. More than $1 million — 80 percent of the costs — went toward its various programs.

That’s where PAPC members saw an opportunity to help, Bondy said. After a few hours of work, the artists framed their paintings for display and sale outside the McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum, located on the Riverwalk below the Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive intersection.

The paintings ranged in price from $100 to $800. Bondy said 25 percent of sales revenue would support Friends of the Chicago River, although he couldn’t estimate a final figure.

Plein air painter Barbara Kay Herring takes a picture of finished works displayed outside the McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum. (Alexis Shanes/MEDILL)

However, sales proceeds weren’t the only benefit. By the time the paintings were dried and displayed, riverside traffic had shifted from daytime runners to tourist groups. Coles said he hoped the works would create interest in the museum, where admission costs $6.

“The more people that are exposed to an exhibit that we have inside, which tells the story of the river, the more people will understand why this is so important to the city,” he said.

And if the past is any indication, the Chicago River will continue to be a favorite artistic subject — and source of pride — for PAPC members, Longe said.

“The Plein Air Painters have painted as far north as the Skokie Lagoons,” Longe said. “We’ve painted at North Avenue. We’ve painted at Canal Street. We find locations that show the river, work with the river.

“We all want to be outside,” she added. “We want to be doing landscapes and urban-scapes, and really showing off Chicago.”

Photo at top: A plein air artist paints outside Trump International Hotel & Tower during a non-profit benefit Saturday morning. (Alexis Shanes/MEDILL)