“… with hope that this assemblage of rubble would become a shrine …”

This is my Summer Solstice contribution to the Artists of the Wall 2021 project. It’s a local (Rogers Park, Chicago) tradition extending back about 30 years, when residents started decorating a 600 foot long concrete bench/ barrier between Loyola Park and the Lake Michigan beach. Artists purchase the right to paint sections of the wall and the art remains there for a year, then the wall is whitewashed and a new “gallery” is painted.

The background is midnight blue and the quote is in silver. I added a scattering of stones and bricks that have been tumbled around in the lake for who knows how long and, when I returned to the site the next day, I was happy to see that others have already started adding to and re-arranging the assemblage.

I’m considering this to be a year-long experiment in interactive public art and I’ll update this post occasionally as the shrine changes.

June 30th: about a week later, the assemblage is growing. I walk past the shrine most days and each time I’ve passed I’ve seen people stopping, taking photos or adding a pebble or two. One of the two stones I’d wrapped with colored ribbon has disappeared. Yesterday I watched a young guy spend about 15 minutes carefully re-forming the cairns and shifting them around. That made me feel good.

I’m very conscious that the ambiguous nature of the text invites multiple interpretations. It’s likely that some people are adding stones specifically to commemorate lost loved ones; someone’s already added a small pebble inscribed with initials.

July 3rd: The other ribbon-wrapped stone has disappeared. New pebbles continue to appear. For the past two days, I’ve found most of the cairns toppled and the stones pushed back off the top of the shrine, onto the grass; I’ve spent a few minutes re-assembling them into pleasing patterns. This is developing into a kind of ongoing, anonymous conversation. Was the impulse to disassemble the assemblage a philosophical statement about entropy? Did the person(s) take the shrine to be some kind of pagan altar, attracting evil spirits to Loyola Park? Was it simply vandalism? I’ll probably never know. Yesterday, though, as I was reassembling the cairns, a young lady passer-by stopped and told me that she liked my artwork, which was a happy moment.

July 5th: the rubble was scattered again during last night’s 4th of July celebrations at the beach and I arrived at about 7.00 a.m. this morning prepared to re-make the cairns, only to find an older man already arranging them into an elaborate S-curve and also adding some new items …

,,, including a small hand-made cross and a hand-written note reading “May the rocks that bombard your soul give you growth and courage to build a life of compassion – Hollywood 2021”

July 10th: 22 days after I first established the shrine, I arrived this morning to find all the rubble gone. I’d been anticipating that this would happen eventually.

I scouted the area and found nothing, then followed a hunch and looked in a nearby recycling bin, and there found most of the large stones and old bricks. Perhaps a Parks employee assumed that it fell under the “litter” category, perhaps something else – who knows? Doing unusual things in public invites unpredictable reactions. I retrieved them and re-established them on the shrine.

July 12th: yesterday someone re-arranged the cairns into a symmetrical pattern for the first time:

July 14th: someone’s added some kindness rocks to the assemblage:

July 15th: this morning I arrived on site to find all the smaller stones pushed back onto the grass and the large stones and bricks scattered over a wide area of sand and tussock within throwing distance. As I was gathering and reassembling them, one woman stopped by to mention that she liked the way it looked and another placed a small pile of lake-smoothed glass “pebbles” on the shrine.

July 17th: the latest iteration of the assemblage, with the new “Be Kind” stone front and center. Someone spent some time on this one.

July 19th: I wasn’t expecting the shrine to change so often, but here we are. At the moment it’s radically reforming every couple of days.

July 20th – 21st: more vandalism. I arrived on the evening of the 20th to find most of the bricks and large stones gone; some had been thrown into the sand, others were nowhere to be found. Some of the smaller stones had been painted, though – presumably in an unconnected event. I gathered what I could and re-assembled them on the shrine. This morning, everything had been dumped in a trash-can (apart from one pebble, perhaps left by a passer-by after the dumping); again, I re-gathered and re-assembled.

July 31st: I was away for the past week and returned to the site of the shrine fully expecting to find everything gone, only to discover that – although most of the rubble had, evidently, been removed while I was away – someone had also added a new arrangement of four pebbles and a twig. That gave me a warm glow. I augmented the arrangement and look forward to recommencing my daily curation.

August 8th:

This sort of thing keeps happening; sometimes daily, sometimes a few days will pass before I find many of the stones smashed and/or missing. When they’re missing, they’ve usually been dumped in a nearby recycling bin. This morning, my beachfront buddy Hollywood helped me retrieve and re-assemble the rubble:

August 8th: Making my mini-pilgrimage to the shrine last night, I met and got into a very long and intense philosophical discussion with an older guy from Mexico.  He’s a devoted Platonist with a wide-ranging interest in lived philosophy; at one point he noted that he refused to fit into the dominant cultural paradigm of dividing people into “important” and “victim” categories.  I explained a bit of my Way of Life and Death perspective and practice, and we parted friends.

This morning I had to reassemble most of the rubble again – retrieval of the larger stones and bricks from the recycling bin, etc. has pretty much become part of the routine now.  Several people stopped to take pictures, but as I was walking away I noticed a man walk up to the shrine, snatch a handful of pebbles off it and toss them into the sand.  He seemed to have done this before, and he seemed irritated. 

August 24th:  The past few weeks have fallen into a familiar pattern; several days will pass with only minor changes appearing on the shrine, then I’ll find all the rubble scattered or sometimes missing.  Sometimes some of the more brittle stones are smashed.  Some of the scattering, I know, is done by children at play; the rest is vandalism.  I reconstruct and move on.

September 17th: On the morning of August 27th I noticed a helicopter hovering over the water near Pratt Pier, which extends out into Lake Michigan very close to the site of the shrine. I often go out to the end of the pier during my walks, tossing a pebble into the lake as a memento mori gesture. As I approached the scene I saw divers, police boats, ambulances and fire trucks – clearly there was a massive search and rescue operation under way, and I gathered that a swimmer had gone missing.

His name, I later learned, was Miguel Cisneros and he’d drowned within a few feet of the pier. The structure itself creates extremely dangerous water currents, especially when the wind is blowing from the wrong directions, effectively generating a washing machine-like turbulence on one side and a powerful undertow on the other. Bystanders had watched from the pier, helpless to assist him.

In the aftermath, the Cisneros family and local residents pressured the Chicago Park District to install life rings at the end of the pier in hopes of preventing a similar tragedy. When the Park District dragged its feet, residents began to fund and install rings of their own accord, but the Park District authority had them all removed. The cause attracted widespread media attention and I was present at a candlelight vigil at the site on the evening of September 7th:

Chicago resists putting life rings at risky lake piers, unlike what groups  in Racine have done | Local News | journaltimes.com

The next morning I found the wax remains of two large candles, one red and one white, that had melted down on the shrine. I’m glad that it served a real memorial purpose, though sad that it had to.

The Parks District has now installed a life ring at the end of Pratt Pier, and a graffitied memorial painting of Miguel Cisneros has joined that of fisherman Croslene Kettle, who drowned in the same area in 2018:

September 21st: overt vandalism at the shrine seems to have diminished recently. A few days ago I was re-assembling the rubble when an older woman approached to ask what it all meant. I started to explain when we were joined by another woman who, as it turned out, used to manage an art gallery, and her explanation was more coherent than mine.

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September 25th: over the past few days I’ve been approached by several more people noting how much they like the shrine. This evening I found that someone had left this cardboard box on the seat, and the shrine itself was adorned as shown below:

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October 1st: the small figurines have all vanished over the past week but the larger female figure playing the violin is still in place. Perhaps she’s the Goddess of the Shrine; someone was burning incense there a few days ago and some new kindness rocks have appeared recently.

This evening I met two young women who were filming the shrine for a university documentary project – I guess it’s officially community art now.

October 3rd: above is one of several photos of the shrine posted today by members of the Rogers Park Neighborhood News Facebook group. Apparently we have at least one canine fan.

October 6th: this morning I found an empty glass jar and three short pretzel sticks, neatly lined up on the shrine. Evidence of ritual activity? Whimsically arranged picnic leftovers? I’ll probably never know, but the pretzels have attracted an industrious troop of ants.

October 17th: there’s been no significant change to the shrine for over a month now. Sometimes I’ll find small piles of glass shards smoothed by the lake, which is gratifying because I appreciate the time it takes to gather lake glass from the shoreline. A spray of pine needles appeared last week. The larger stones are inclined to gradually vanish over time, but recently they’ve been replaced by others. A few days ago an older woman approached me during my morning rearrangement of the shrine we had (roughly) the following conversation:

Her: Ha! I caught you! Here I was, thinking that this all happened by magic!

Me: Well, perhaps I’m not really here.

Her: Good point! I love the way the fairy village changes all the time. I sometimes add a stone or two. I hope that’s OK?

Me: Of course, that’s what it’s for.

October 19th: I’m not sure of the significance of the new figurine, nor the neat row of four coins, both of which I discovered when I checked the shrine early this evening.

October 20th: Someone has carefully laid a small, wrapped lollipop on the large base stone of the current cairn configuration.

November 11th: There’s a sense, somehow, that the shrine has become simply a part of the landscape over the past several weeks – probably because fewer people visit the area as the weather cools, hence less constant change to the assemblage, and partly also because dead Fall leaves gather against the countours of the cairns, just as they do against everything else. There’s been virtually no vandalism recently and new objects – a piece of driftwood, a scattering of lake glass – appear when they appear.

Still, I recently replenished my hidden cache of larger stones – gathered from an adjacent beach, about a half-mile away – against the chance that they’ll be needed during the winter months. It’s a squirrelish necessity.

November 21st: The shrine abides.

November 27th:

This iteration – a Stonehenge-style central structure comprised of two half-bricks and a worn brick lintel, flanked by larger stones and fronted by an arrangement of diverse pebbles – has proved unusually “durable” as a design, in the sense that it hasn’t substantially changed for a decent period of time. The latest anonymous additions include a piece of fabric adorned with an image of the Buddha and (I think) Sanskrit text, a few coin offerings and a rather handsome piece of driftwood as a sort of centrepiece. There’s a cosily communal feel to the shrine now that the cold has reduced pedestrian traffic down to only the more dedicated lakefront visitors.

December 19th:

There have been no very substantial changes over the past month or so. The most recent “offerings” include a large freshwater lobster claw and a tea-light candle.

December 26th: Yesterday someone threw the lintel stone back onto the grass and stuck a “Have a Blessed Christmas”-type children’s book in the middle of the shrine. Perhaps they felt that the Stonehenge-ish, quasi-pagan or at least clearly secular nature of the shrine required a specifically Christian addition on Christmas Day.

December 31st:

January 3rd:

I’ve wondered how the shrine would look under snow, and now (finally – this was the latest first fall since records began in 1909) it’s happened, and I quite like the effect. I also like the friendly orange fellow who showed up recently, and the new and rather nicely engraved “Believe” stone.

January 11th: the only recent changes to report are the fact that most of the stones are currently frozen together and the addition of a tiny plastic monkey figurine to the assemblage.

January 18th:

More “offerings” than re-designs recently, including this photocopy of a 1983 booklet on Huna, or quasi-Hawaiian mysticism.

January 31st: All of the poem text, the bench seat and most of the assemblage are buried under snow, but a few of the stones and the little orange-and-toothpick pig fellow are still visible.

February 15th: The snow has finally melted enough to expose the shrine and I’m happy to report that it’s still there. This afternoon I lightly tidied the assemblage and noted a few new “offerings” of pinecones amidst the ever-growing circle/pile of pebbles. Perhaps the pinecones are a reminder that the weather will improve. They’ve clearly been placed by some very hardy souls; the wind off Lake Michigan will cut through you like a blade at this time of year.

February 22nd:

Over the past four months or so the participatory emphasis of the shrine has clearly shifted from rearranging the large stones, which is what I’d originally had in mind, to adding “offerings” – recently including an apple, a piece of candy and four blue glass marbles.

I anticipate that continuing as the weather warms up, along with a likely return of vandalism as the beachfront attracts more visitors.

March 3rd:

The assemblage of the larger stones and bricks is taking on a representational form for the first time. I think it’s probably deliberate, but I don’t know if it’s the inspiration of one passer-by or a sort of collective effort. The arrangement currently seems to suggest a human figure, with an upright brick representing the head and a semi-circle of horizontal stones and sticks representing outspread arms, embracing the ever-growing collection of “offerings”, which recently include this handsome purple gem:

March 7th:

I remain fascinated by the gradual anthropomorphization of the shrine and by the change of emphasis from re-forming the rubble assemblies to adding tokens and offerings. It’s like a miniature reinvention of Shinto.

March 25th:

April 21st:

There have been several definite uses of the shrine as a point of focus for memorial since last June, but this is the first time I’ve seen a photograph incorporated into the assembly. I wish that there was a word in English to describe how it makes me feel – somewhere half-way between pride, that some people in the local community have taken the shrine to heart, and humility that I may have helped a few people in need.

Here’s the full, new pattern of the assembly, with the photo taking pride of place, front and center:

May 1st:

The windchimes are a lovely new addition to the shrine.

May 12th:

Got into an interesting discussion this afternoon with a young guy who has taken the shrine to heart. He added a piece of lake glass and told me that he’s one week away from being homeless. I hope things work out for him.

So many new offerings over the past two weeks or so that all I can do is show pictures and speculate a bit:

The handwritten text reads “Joy + Jubilation is my birthright + Natural State of Being”. I don’t recognize the cosmic superhero characters, unfortunately.

I hope that the tiny man and woman navigate their love puddle. The note on the large neighboring pebble says “Love Family”. I have no idea of the significance (if any, beyond whimsy) of the freshwater lobster claw holding the cigarette.

The purple fabric visible in this shot is a fancy necktie and the small pewter figurine may be an incense holder. My young friend told me that the ninja kitten is a “Hello Kitty”.

The black bandana adjacent to the tiny brass knucks may be a gang thing, or maybe not.

I hope that the unicorn brings comfort.

The smiley face figurine reminds me of Banksy’s Grin Reaper (2004).

May 7th:

I took advantage of the first sunny day in weeks to snap this picture, which hopefully heralds the beginning of something that feels like Spring. The windchime is gone, the candles remain and the flowers are new.

May 16th: I overheard bits of the following conversation this evening, as a young couple speculated about the shrine:

Her: “Oh, what is this?”

Him: “I dunno – I think Jewish people do that with pebbles, or maybe it’s Pagan – oh, that’s a Voodoo thing” (he was referring to the odd little smiley face doll)

He then proceeded to light one of the incense sticks (see below).

Her (stepping back and reading the motto): “With hope that this assemblage of rubble would become a shrine”. That’s so cool. It’s creative!”

I don’t know the story here. Obi either lost his tag and some kind stranger put it here for Obi’s people to find, or – more likely, I suspect – Obi has crossed the Rainbow Bridge. Either way, I’m glad the shrine was useful.
Two large packs of incense showed up about a week ago, and one pack remains.

May 29th: yesterday I watched a young woman cross herself as she walked past the shrine. I think she’d noticed the Catholic candle and figured it couldn’t hurt.

The form of the shrine has hardly altered at all in recent weeks, but there’s been a steady stream of new tokens and offerings, some of which are shown below:

The slogan “No Karen formed against me shall prosper” is associated with the anti-racism movement (“Karen” being slang for a self-righteous person operating from racist motivations).
Several of these large blue glass pebbles have appeared over the past week or so.
The current iteration of the shrine resembles a rocky shore upon which have washed up a variety of interesting trinkets, here including a painted stone, a small plastic puppy figurine and a hamsa amulet.

The shrine occasionally serves a purely secular function; here someone has helpfully deposited a set of lost keys. I posted this picture on one of the Rogers Park Facebook groups, explaining where the keys could be found – hopefully they were retrieved by the right person.

There’s also been a recent influx of lightly damaged figurines and Christmas tree decorations, lending the shrine an “Island of Misfit Toys” poignancy:

May 29th: I’m not sure where the impulse comes from, but a new scattering of coins and a dollar bill have appeared on the shrine. Perhaps it’s something akin to the very ancient practice of sacrificing symbols of material value, a la dropping coins in wishing wells.

June 5th: The closing days of the shrine experiment – soon the Art Wall will be whitewashed, in preparation for a new set of paintings for the following year. We’ll also be moving to a new neighborhood soon, and I know that I’ll miss Loyola Park and Rogers Park’s artsy vibe. Fortunately, the new apartment is adjacent to a quiet river park – there shall be kayaking – and also close to buzzy Lincoln Square.

A recent offering in the form of an elaborate shell necklace with an arrow amulet:

June 5th: as anticipated, the Art Wall has now been whitewashed to clear the way for a new gallery for murals. I arrived on the scene this evening to find all the shrine objects pushed back onto the grass and the top of the wall bare for the first time in very nearly one year:

The cracks visible under the new coat of whitewash are the result of damage by the vandal who kept smashing stones and bricks on top of the shrine last summer.

I was pleased and surprised to note the reappearance of the windchime, which had disappeared about a month ago.

On a spur-of-the-moment impulse, I spent some time forming the items into a new shrine display, directly adjacent to where they had been, but now sitting on the grass rather than on top of the wall:

The experiment begun back in mid-June of 2021 is now, very nearly, at an end. I’m not sure whether I’ll leave the assemblage as is – I won’t be able to keep up my regular curation when we move to the new neighborhood. Given the extent to which the shrine has been embraced by some beach- and park-goers, it might be that others will keep up its maintenance, or it might fall prey to vandals as the summer weather attracts more people to the beachfront – who knows?

2 thoughts on ““… with hope that this assemblage of rubble would become a shrine …”

  1. I love how patient you are. Perhaps framing this as a public art project, with all that that implies about different reactions, helped you go with the flow of what happens on the shrine. Certainly any art done in public will elicit a huge variety of responses. Public art is messy and one has to have a high tolerance for ambiguity.

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