SOFA 2002

P1000444By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
October 24, 2002

Mark Lyman had a simple concept in mind when he founded the International Exposition of Sculpture Objects & Functional Art nine years ago: Make fine, functional art available to the public.  While highbrow types might have wondered whether there was enough of an audience for such an ambitious project, Lyman was confident.

“People hear the word ‘art’ and they sometimes think it has to be something hanging in a gallery,” says Lyman. “But art is everywhere, and someone who has never taken an art class can appreciate or criticize a piece just as concisely as a person who makes a living as an artist.”

The ninth annual art festival kicks off tonight at the cavernous Navy Pier, where the works of about 1,000 artists from 85 galleries will be on display and available for purchase. Six foreign countries are represented–the most in SOFA’s history.

“We’re very excited that the international component has increased, especially after last year when so many artists had a difficult time getting here after 9/11,” he says. “There’s a wide range of media in this year’s show and people will find some great treasures, like some of the one-of-a-kind furniture pieces. People have the opportunity to purchase the artists’ specific pieces right there, or they could commission them to make something custom that fits the dimensions or colors of what they want.”

Of course, not everything at SOFA is meant to be functional. Some of the highlights include Japanese artist Tsuguo Yanai’s large-scale paper heads of such pop-culture notables as Charlie Chaplin, Mother Teresa, Pablo Picasso, John Lennon, Andy Warhol and Albert Einstein. The striking paper sculptures are muted in color and bear a striking resemblance to their subjects.

Another must-see is Dale Chihuly’s exhibit. The world-renowned glass artist has enjoyed enormous success with his “Chihuly in the Park” installation at Garfield Park Conservatory, which has been extended through the run of SOFA Chicago. For this year’s SOFA, Chihuly fills a boat’s hull with blown glass. The nautical theme is in honor of Navy Pier.

Martin Blank, who has worked with Chihuly, will be one of the artists at the Corning Museum of Glass display showing spectators how the gorgeous, delicate designs are crafted.

Lyman expects this year’s attendance to better last year’s 27,000–which was down 3,000 attendees from 2000, due in large part to the events of Sept. 11.         “There’s a very positive spirit at this year’s SOFA,” says Lyman.

“There are certainly art connoisseurs who purchase high-level pieces here. But it’s also where a lot of people just beginning to collect look around and get a feel for what they like.”

Lyman concludes that just as the work speaks to the artist’s individuality, so too does a buyer’s selection speak to his.

***

His ‘Heart’ is in his art

Tommy Simpson knew it was time to move away from Chicago when art collectors from home traveled to New York to buy his art.

“I was literally around the corner from them,” says Simpson, who grew up in Dundee. “Chicago is a wonderful place and I love it, but there are three times as many galleries in New York in addition to auction houses. I found that most of my business was out there, so I moved out East. I wanted to be within striking distance of the big monster.”  Simpson’s work will be on display at the Leo Kaplan Modern booth at SOFA. His piece de resistance is a lush 30-foot by 40-foot vibrant, colorful creation titled “Garden of the Heart.”

“It has about 160 pieces in it,” says Simpson, 63, who has participated in SOFA since its inception nine years ago. “It isn’t pushing any envelopes, but it’s something fun that I think people will enjoy looking at.”

And sitting on.

“Yes, I have no pretensions that you can’t sit on my art,” he says, laughing. “It’s a fun garden based on a Persian model. I like to show that artists can do things that don’t have to be put on a pedestal at a gallery.”

You may be able to sit on it, but taking it home may be a little more iffy. It’s priced at $300,000.

But then, as Simpson notes, “Somebody bought the London Bridge, so it’s possible! The likelihood is slim that someone will pay that much money for the entire piece, but eventually people may buy the various pieces that make it up.”

Besides creating functional art for SOFA, Simpson specializes in paintings, sculptures, handmade books and jewelry. (The book Two Looks to Home: The Art of Tommy Simpson, published by Bulfinch Press, features a wide range of the artist’s work.) Over the years, he has seen all kinds of artists’ creations–some more interesting than others.

“In the 1960s, if you didn’t do abstract expressionism it wasn’t art,” he says. “Now if you do it, people scratch their heads. But they also pass off a loaf of bread painted blue with knives stuck in it as art. It’s not a bad thing, necessarily. It gets people’s juices going and talking about it, but people tend to see it once and not want to see it again.”

Not that he hasn’t dabbled in the avant-garde himself.

“I did one show where I put ducks in the pond,” Simpson says. “I put a big pile of straw in the front lobby and filled it full of manure. So the museum had ducks quacking and smelled like manure.”

Yes, but was that art?

“I considered it fun,” he says, laughing. “The art part would be a long discussion. It lacked a certain amount of craftsmanship, but the nature of the idea was certainly different. Sometimes the idea is what’s important to people rather than the skill involved or the beauty. There is a lot less craft in art today. I’m sort of old school. I love something that’s done really well.”

Thank goodness for that. A manure-filled Navy Pier wouldn’t be nearly as enticing as his pristine garden.

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