Completing the Story — Isabel Alvarez MacLean


This is a story about art, but it is also a story about love and family.  What unites these stories is the capacity to go beyond ourselves, to take chances, and to fully embrace the experiences of our lives.

I wanted to learn about Isabel Alvarez MacLean, the woman memorialized by her family through the sculpture Conversations: Here and Now.  Recently I spoke to Ms. MacLean’s namesake and daughter, Isabel (‘Chie’) MacLean Curley, who generously shared her recollections and these photographs.  I thought this would be about Mrs. MacLean, but what I found turned out to be larger than just one person.

Isabel Alvarez MacLean was born in Mexico City in 1903 to a family of artists.  According to family lore, as a young girl Isabel (senior) was always creative and visual.  She studied art after high school, but it was completely serendipitous that Mrs. Curley’s parents met one another.  In the 30’s, one of her maternal aunts ran an art gallery in Mexico City and was hosting an artist reception.  The (senior) MacLean family was vacationing in Mexico during that time and were exploring the city when they saw the reception through the gallery doorway or windows.  Although the MacLeans did not speak Spanish, they approached the door and were invited inside.  At the gallery, mingling with the invited guests, they became acquainted with the Alvarez relatives.  More introductions took place and the families exchanged addresses; they visited one another within Mexico, and then later, in the United States.  The two families stayed in touch: every year the eldest MacLean son returned to Mexico to spend time with the Alavarez family, and of course, to visit Isabel.

Eventually the young couple married and settled in Evanston, where they became parents to two daughters, Isabel and Sabrina.  The family lived in Evanston for over 50 years where art in various forms was always a part of their lives.  In her later years, Mrs. MacLean moved to a building overlooking Raymond Park, where she continued to work in her studio, creating works in mixed media and oils.   Her subjects covered a range of themes, united by her playful and exuberant style.  Mrs. MacLean lived in relatively good health, often enjoying the people and activities in Raymond Park, and continued to make art well into her 90’s.  She died on December 6, 2003 at age 100.

The story does not end at the end of Mrs. MacLean’s life.  Chie MacLean Curley was active in Evanston public arts and had worked for over twenty-five years as a gallery curator for the Noyes Cultural Arts Center.  She followed with interest the Evanston Public Art Committee search to select a piece of art for a public park on Davis Street, to which Indira Johnson submitted Conversations: Here and Now.  (The Committee admired the piece, but they decided it required a different setting than the location on Davis Street.)

Mrs. Curley had never forgotten Indira Johnson’s wonderful design.  Shortly after her mother’s death, Mrs. Curley was driving on Chicago Avenue by Raymond Park, a route she had traveled hundreds of times before.  But on that particular day, a flood of memories overwhelmed her.  She thought about all the times her mother would sit in the park, watching the children at the playground, enjoying the sunshine, and chatting with passersby; she saw the empty space at the northwest corner, a stone’s throw away from the playground; she thought about Ms. Johnson’s beautiful model of Conversations: Here and Now and how much everyone who saw it liked the design.

And then the idea came to her: Raymond Park was the perfect place for Ms. Johnson’s sculpture, and it was a wonderful way to honor Mrs. MacLean.  An artist being honored and memorialized by art.  The sculpture was meant to be participatory, and it would encourage the continuation of what Mrs. MacLean enjoyed all those years: talking and interacting with friends and visitors to the park. People would sit on the sculpted chairs just the way Mrs. MacLean had sat on one of the park benches on pleasant days.

The MacLean family rallied behind the idea and the rest of the story happened quickly; the sculpture was officially dedicated on May 10, 2009.  The family dedicated the sculpture in memory of and to honor their mother and grandmother, Isabel Alvarez MacLean, but also to honor all the mothers and residents of Evanston.

Fittingly, there is a third generation of MacLean women represented within the installation. A granddaughter of Isabel Alvarez MacLean, Molly Curley, composed these words, engraved on two of the corners of the installation:

the most beautiful monarch

migrated from mexico, north

wings open to everything in her midst

stirring the souls of all she touched

leaving a brilliant, painted ribbon

of life in her wake

Chie Curley is certain her mother would have loved the installation.  The spirit of this remarkable woman and her family infuse that corner of Raymond Park.  Conversations: Here and Now is ours to enjoy in all seasons.

Conversations: Here and Now in the Snow at Twilight

Conversations: Here and Now

I LOVE this sculpture.  I love that it is accessible to anyone and everyone; it is functional as well as beautiful; it fits beautifully into this park, near the playground but apart from it.

Designed by Indira Freitas Johnson and installed in May 2009 as a gift to the City of Evanston, it resides in Raymond Park at the corner of Chicago Avenue and Grove Street. The sculpture was commissioned by the family of Isabel Alvarez MacLean to honor her memory.

In the coming weeks, I hope to learn more about both Ms. Johnson and Ms. MacLean. When I do, I will share it here.