New public art project captures Lake Michigan through ‘eye of the community’

‘100 Views of Lake Michigan’ depicts waterfront as a reflection of collective experiences

If you’ve walked around the University of Chicago’s Main Quad recently, you may have noticed that the walkways are decorated with banners, adding a splash of bright color to the wintery scene.

The banners are one of many manifestations of a student-organized public art project called “100 Views of Lake Michigan,” which showcases photographs and videos taken by members of the campus community. The images are also being displayed on installations in dorms and library vestibules, creating an immersive experience at UChicago. Plans are in place for an outdoor video projection, stickers and even coffee cup sleeves.

“I’ve enjoyed exploring the idea of having art everywhere, even on a coffee cup,” said Esha Deokar, a third-year undergraduate studying art history and economics. “It’s portable, community-based and engagement-based. It’s also a really unique way to show art on campus.”

Deokar is one of six student interns working on the project with Laura Steward, curator of public art at the Smart Museum, and Chicago-based artist and designer Jason Pickleman. The group solicited submissions from the campus community over the past several months, and curated the submissions into a selection for display. Each shows Lake Michigan in a vertical format, with the horizon line bisecting the image, such that most are half lake and half sky.

Included among them are photos of sunsets, ice floes, bonfires and Canada geese. People are also captured, sometimes as the primary subjects of the lens, and at other times as a part of the scenery.

“You can really see the eye of the community in every single photo, especially the ones with people,” said Natalie Jenkins, a second-year in the College studying art history. “It’s such a good reflection of the community, and of what people are experiencing on a day-to-day basis.”

The Lake Michigan shoreline—especially Promontory Point—has long been a gathering place for the University and Hyde Park community. But the lakefront became especially important during the pandemic, when it also served as a safer place to come together: outside and with ample breathing room.

Lake Michigan also functions as a kind of mirror, its waves reflecting the shifting weather patterns and moods that imbue the experience of living in Chicago. Together, these qualities made it ideal for a project like “100 Views,” which captures both the continuity and variety of one landscape.

“I wanted to do a campus-wide project that would turn on us all being together—here, in this place, together—which is exciting after so much time apart,” Steward said, adding that Lake Michigan, specifically, is “an important place in the emotional life of UChicago students,” who go there both to celebrate with friends and to reflect.

Steward’s idea to launch the project is rooted in part in her own habit of taking a snapshot of the lake on her regular walks. The concept also draws inspiration from artists throughout history—from Monet’s haystacks to Hokusai’s “Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji”—whose iterative works show the same landscapes or objects under different lighting or through changing seasons.

Both Steward and the students also emphasized that the project is truly “public” art in that it is by, for and of the people who live in Chicago and around Lake Michigan. Community members—many of them students in the College—took the pictures, are featured in some of them, and are now getting to enjoy and reflect on the collective endeavor of documenting life near Lake Michigan by seeing their photos everywhere on UChicago’s campus.

“Often, the idea with public art is that the audience becomes a part of it,” said Oscar Taub, a third-year studying economics and art history. “But by creating a piece that’s sourced from the audience, I think that makes it more engaging, interesting and representative of the student body.”

Not all the photographs were originally captured as part of the project, Deokar added, which makes them particularly exciting as windows into individuals’ experiences at the lake. They’re unscripted, and therefore personal and authentic in a way that photos taken for a contest might not be.

UChicagoans interested in seeing the photos can find them on the Main Quad, or visit the Stuart Hall Reading Room in Harper Memorial Library, where the images are being displayed as translucent panels.

In March, they will also be available as stickers and on coffee cup sleeves at the University’s student-run coffee shops. (One would have to drink quite a few cups of coffee to collect all 100 views.) Finally, on March 10 and 11, video of the lake will be projected onto the side of the Smart Museum, from 7:30 to 9 p.m.

The “100 Views” project is a collaboration between the College and UChicago Public Arts, supported by a College Curricular Innovation Grant. The project will run through the rest of the current academic year.