One recent afternoon, in his cluttered studio at the historic Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue, Stanley Smith had already finished his fries and was halfway through his cheeseburger. But he was not in the midst of a late lunch.
A visual artist and self-described “amateur gardener” who creates commercial displays for businesses around town, Smith was finishing up a fast food-themed topiary for the Thompson Center’s food court atrium. He’s no Edward Scissorhands, though, transforming shapeless bushes into dinosaurs and ballerinas in a furious flurry of hand-shears. Smith’s hand-crafted shapes are made from metal caging, various fencing materials, chicken wire and rebar, then covered in natural moss and coated in an adhesive substance to make them more weather-resistant.
The owner of Oak Street Design, Smith also has made aquatic-themed topiaries for Shedd Aquarium. Just recently, he moved into the realm of music for designs inspired by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The CSO-themed shrubbery — a cello, French horn, treble clef and a logo — are displayed outside the Hotel Essex at 800 S. Michigan and the Chicago Athletic Association at 12 S. Michigan.
Save for the burger and fries, Smith’s fanciful inventions are part of a project launched by the Loop Alliance’s “Cultural Mile” Committee to spruce up planters along Michigan Avenue between Randolph and Roosevelt. The idea, Smith said, is to pair cultural institutions with cultural locations. CSO administrators chose the CAA spot “because it’s very vibrant,” he said. “There are a lot of young people, and there’s a lot of activity.”
Suspended overhead in his studio and not yet sheathed in moss was the metal skeleton of a literary-themed topiary for the American Writers’ Museum, at 180 N. Michigan. Ahead of a major Andy Warhol exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago in late October, Smith hopes to conjure something Warhol-themed to display outside the Chicago Cultural Center at Michigan and Randolph.
“I love it when companies and organizations do stuff that’s value-added,” he said. “It’s not just an overtly promotional money grab. It’s for the betterment of the community, and I think it sets us apart from some of the more commercial areas of the city.”
Both the Loop Alliance and Symphony Center, he said, proved to be excellent partners.
“I really applaud the Loop Alliance for picking up the storyline of the Cultural Mile, because they didn’t have to. I also applaud the Chicago Symphony, because they got involved without hesitation and were very supportive. This was an unproven thing, and they both took a chance.”