Chicago, city of bitter wind and beautiful art

George Seurat’s ‘‘Sunday Afternoon in the Park’’ on display at the Chicago Art Institute. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU
George Seurat’s ‘‘Sunday Afternoon in the Park’’ on display at the Chicago Art Institute. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU 

Chicago is not exactly the ideal spot to visit in January which is the dead of winter in the mid-West of the US.

The days are cold and overcast; one can go for days without sighting the sun and one can’t go outside without wearing layers of woolly sweaters, socks, scarves, hats and even earmuffs to help you endure Chicago’s bitter wind, nicknamed ‘The Hawk’ since it’s swift and sharp as it’s coming off chilly Lake Michigan.

But for me, one saving grace about Chicago is getting to the Art Institute (CAI) with my friend Robin who’s a card-carrying member of CAI and gets me in for free.

Setting off before 9am, we took the express subway that let us off just a block from the place.

We could have driven since it’s an easy trek down the Outer Drive, the eight-line highway that skirts the Lake and offers an exquisite view of the Chicago Skyline. But parking in the city costs anywhere from $32 (Sh3,300) for the first hour and then rises after that.

There was nothing special on that day’s programme apart from a tour at noon of the modern wing and the new contemporary galleries of the institute.

So we roamed among the medieval and Renaissance paintings that I’d known since childhood when I used to come to the Art Institute regularly with my mum.

There were a myriad of artworks and exhibitions that were also new to me since the CAI staff are ever-busy rotating works from their vast store of artworks either gifted or bought over the years.

They are also busy booking exhibitions from all over the world, such as those bypassed that day — one on photography from Japan, another on religious art from the Spanish Andes and several more.

But as noon drew near, we passed swiftly through the East Asian, Egyptian and Islamic art displays so as to reach the new modern/contemporary art wing in good time.

Sadly, the tour guide we got didn’t measure up to what Robin and I had hoped for, since she got stuck for half an hour on one pop-art piece, ‘‘The Jazz Wall’’ by Marisol (Maria Sol Escobar). It was an interesting multimedia piece.

But since we’d wanted to see as much as we could in the short time we had, I slipped away, checked out works by Andy Warhol, Willem de Kooning and Roy Lichtenstein while everybody else stood patiently as the guide rattled on.

I kept checking back in with the group who seemed cemented to one spot; but when we finally got the guts to leave the group completely, we went straight to see our favourite modern artists such as Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall and Vasily Kandinsky.

Picasso’s ‘‘Nude under a Pine Tree’’.
Picasso’s ‘‘Nude under a Pine Tree’’.

We also managed to make a whirlwind run around Henri Renoir’s ‘‘Two Sisters’’, Monet’s ‘‘Water Lily Pond’’, Rousseau’s ‘‘Waterfall’’ and even saw Brancusi’s beautiful sculpture, ‘‘Wisdom.’’

We could have gotten an audio guide for Sh515, but long ago, I learned how highly informative is simply reading the well-researched wall captions which cost us nothing. Without that encumbering earpiece, we could freely opine about the art and what we liked and disliked about it.

I had to make a special stop before we left at the acclaimed George Seurat painting, ‘‘A Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jaffe.’’

I had to stop not only because Stephen Sondheim had written a whole Broadway musical based on the painting entitled ‘‘Sunday in the Park with George’,’but also because I once met a settler-styled ‘memsaab’ in Nairobi who, upon learning I was originally from Chicago, informed me she occasionally flew into the city just to see ‘the Seurat’!

Chicago has lots more to boast about than the Seurat and the Art Institute. There is also Kanye West and Jennifer Hudson, Michelle Obama and even Spike Lee’s hit movie called ‘Chi-raq’, which explores that side of the city best known for what Donald Trump once called its mass carnage.

But Chicago is also renowned for its Symphony Orchestra, its Opera House, fabulous urban architecture and multitude of skyscrapers.

It’s also a city full of immigrants and ethnic neighbourhoods which mostly coexist apart from those where there are too many drugs, gangs and hand guns.

But perhaps what many people will best remember Chicago for is Grant Park since that is where Barack Obama received the word that he had been elected the first black American President of the United States.

Chicago is also the city that the Obamas ultimately call home.