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.

Meet the Artist: Indira Johnson


C201312-COTY-Indira-Johnson-thbThis week I was fortunate to spend some time with Indira Johnson, the talented artist, sculptor and peace educator behind Conversations: Here and Now, a photo of which graces the top of this blogspace.

I met with Indira at her studio to inquire about her creative process.  Indira originally conceived Conversations: Here and Now as an entry for a public art commission sponsored by the City of Evanston and the Public Art Committee for an installation at Fountain Square. Conversations: Here and Now was one of five entries selected from hundreds submitted throughout the United States as well as many countries; Indira was the only artist of the five who lived in Evanston.  Despite one of the five finalists living within three miles from the installation site, the Selection Committee made it clear it would choose the winner of the commission on the basis of merit; it was not to be a popularity contest.

Chairs were always the centerpiece of the design.  Each chair’s unique design represents the diverse cultures of people who call Evanston home and the uniqueness of each individual.  Made of wax and cast in bronze, the chairs surround an open space to inspire conversation–listening as much as speaking–contemplating, and sharing of memories.

Indira’s design was not selected for the Fountain Square site, and of course she was disappointed about not being chosen.  Yet not being chosen turned out to be a good thing: the Curley family loved her design and chose it to honor their mother, Isabel Alvarez Maclean, a long-time resident of Evanston who had passed away a few years earlier. Since the design had already been vetted by the Evanston Public Art Committee, official approval for installation permits took place relatively quickly and the manufacturing process took about a year.

The verbatim quotes on the spiral design of the base and on the chairs are from a series of public meetings held among different community groups in Evanston during the planning stages of the project.  Indira heard what was important to her Evanston neighbors as they described what they loved about their community, shared their memories, and voiced their hopes for the future.

The seven chairs are sturdy and functional, impervious to the weather, interspersed with images from nature and of water.  The base is wheelchair accessible, and there is a spiral of bronze starting at the center of the square, expanding out, etched with more thoughtful words.  The spacing between the chairs is wide enough to allow for meditative thought, yet close enough to encourage genuine conversations.  The words on the chairs and on the base stimulate questions as well as stories and inspire conversations.

Visit the northwest corner of Raymond Park to experience the tranquility and beauty of Conversations: Here and Now.  Even in the depths of winter, it is a lovely spot within Evanston.

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.