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After Waiting 22 Years, Illinois Town Gets Sculpture Park While Home Town Artist Gets World-Wide Fam

At dusk, on Sunday, October 14th, in Urbana, Illinois, city dignitaries, financial donors and a wide range of supporters will gather to marvel at the wonders of nature – shaped by the talents of one artist. Starting at 5 p.m., they will watch as the fading light of the sun plays over one of the few parks in the world completely sculpted by one person, a man in whose mind ancient spirits dance, foliage long forgotten comes to life, and the lights of nature and science illuminate carefully-placed trees, sculptures, walkways and a ceremonial mound. When environmental artist and sculptor John David Mooney started his process of pondering a small stretch of grass in front of the city hall of Urbana, Illinois, he did not envision, as others had, a parking lot and a new source of municipal revenue. “Don’t pave it,” he pleaded. And they did not. The year was 1990. Working out of a five-story loft just north of the Chicago River, built in 1872 just after the Great Chicago Fire, Mooney was a little-known artist and teacher, running master classes for students from many disciplines, encouraging them to break out of their “little molds,” as he called them, and look at Earth’s bigger pictures. Now, some 22 years later, Mooney’s fame has spread around the world, helped by commissions ranging from a 48-story light sculpture that was a symbol of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta to outdoor sculptures in the Vatican gardens and the Vatican Observatory at Castel Gandolfo created in 1994. In 1997, he transformed Chicago’s Tribune Tower into a light sculpture to celebrate the newspaper’s 150th birthday. For the University of Chicago, he designed Crystara, a 30-foot-high atrium sculpture of Waterford Crystal and aluminum. On the edge of the architecture-rich town of New Harmony, Indiana, he is designing a 70-acre park with solar panels built into giant sunflowers, following the path of the sun, much like the real sunflowers grown by peoples of the Mississippian tribe a thousand years ago. This year, at last, his Urbana project will reach full flower, a matter of great satisfaction both to Mooney, who was born in neighboring Champaign, and to the backers of the park who have watched it evolve over two decades. “I told the city it would be done in this century,” said Laurel Prussing, who has been mayor of Urbana since 2005 and brought the park project to completion. “It has been a long drawn-out project,” added former Urbana Mayor Tod Satterthwaite. “But it certainly looks good. John David had a vision for the entire park. It had to be just so.” Led by Urbana lawyer Carl Webber, fund-raisers collected $200,000 from donors in both cities. In-kind donations came from as far away as Chicago, a donation of salvaged granite from the Federal Plaza, thanks to a rehabbing project by Berglund Construction. Mooney turned the stone into tables and benches. In his meditative mini-park, Mooney has also designed plantings, walkways, a fountain and a semi-circular earthen mound, mindful of ancient Native American mounds, a symbol both of early democracy and of Urbana’s nearby city council chambers. The park’s centerpiece is an abstract sculpture of a tree. “The sculpture gets to the heart of Urbana, a city of forward-looking people who recognize the value of planting trees,” noted Mayor Prussing. Trees have long been part of Urbana’s history, including a spreading elm under which Abraham Lincoln gave an important speech in 1856. He “pleaded the case” for a fledgling Republican Party, according to an editorial in the Urbana Union newspaper. That tree was removed by a woodman’s axe sometime in the early 1900s. But what really tore apart the woodsy nature of Urbana was a fatal fungal disorder, Dutch elm disease, spread by tiny elm bark beetles that destroyed almost all of Urbana’s 15,000 elm trees in the 1950s and 1960s. Fighting back in the 1970s, Urbana planted thousands of trees of diverse varieties, winning many awards from Tree City USA, a tree planting and tree care program sponsored by the National Arbor Day Foundation. The park’s long gestation allowed Mooney to take advantage of an important scientific breakthrough of which Urbana is proud, the development of light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, pioneered by University of Illinois engineering professor Nick Holonyak, Jr. Cheaper, smaller, faster and longer lasting than previous light sources, especially neon, Mooney used them to create even more subtle illusions in the components of his mini-park. But his inspiration for this 22-year project was somewhat simpler, as he will explain in a book he is writing called, “The American Garden.” “We don’t have an American garden model, unlike the French or the English,” he says. “But people spend time and a fortune on their backyards.” That perception, he adds, was “the basic nutshell” that inspired his Urbana park. “I put a backyard garden in the front yard of City Hall,” he says. But, as the talk in Urbana has it these days, what a garden! For further information please contact June Rosner at (312) 664-6100 or cell (312) 404-5646

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