by Caroline Connors
Wood is the medium for the rooms and buildings that Ben Schlitz creates as a carpenter, but it is also the medium for the sculptures he creates as an artist.
A Beverly resident since birth, Schlitz has been using chainsaws to sculpt tree trunks for about nine years, ever since graduating from the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. His pieces— human figures, animals and a 17-year cicada created in 2009—are scattered throughout the city, with a few still rooted in Beverly/ Morgan Park.
Schlitz’s most recent project is perhaps also his most prominent: a 50-foot tree along Chicago’s lakefront near the new 31st Street Harbor. It is one of several trees uprooted during the construction process that now have new life as public art.
With only a finishing coat of mineral spirits left to apply, Schlitz’s piece is nearly complete. He said he is happy with his piece, which stands with three other trees north of the marina near the city’s lakefront bike path. Schlitz said he used a chainsaw to cut rectangles in the tree and create an abstract piece. Inspired by David Nash, a British artist known for his work with wood and living trees, the piece is different than what Schlitz has typically done in the past.
“I didn’t want anything literal,” he said. “It was more of a conceptual design and was more about the tree fitting into the space.”
The renovation of the lakefront at 31st Street from a neglected beach to a $103-million, state-of-the-art harbor began more than two years ago, Schlitz said, and included clearing the land of trees to accommodate a new playground and parking lot. Originally proposed as the site for the sailing competition of the 2016 Summer Olympics, the construction of the harbor moved forward despite the city’s loss of the Olympic bid to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Schlitz was chosen as one of the tree sculptors for the project, he said, based on his past experience with the Chicago Park District, which featured 12 of his life-size chainsaw sculptures at the Garfield Park Conservatory’s Art in the Garden program in 2004.
After a lengthy approval and waiting process, Schlitz said, the harbor public art project began to move forward in May, when the 20- ton tree was relocated while northbound Lake Shore Drive was shut down during the NATO Summit weekend.
“It took eight hours to move the tree a half mile,” Schlitz said. “They poured a concrete cylinder one-foot thick and eight-feet deep, stood the tree up with a crane and packed some aggregate around it.”
He was finally given the green light to begin working on the tree this fall, he said, and set to stripping it of its bark, setting up platform scaffolding and using a chainsaw to create his design.
“I had a lot of creative freedom with this,” Schlitz said, “and I’m happy with the results.”
Married and the father of 2-year-old Violet, Schlitz is currently rehabbing his residence, an “old house in Morgan Park.” He hopes the 31st Street Harbor project will serve as a steppingstone for his career, he said, especially since there has been talk of a similar project at Grant Park in the near future.
“I don’t view myself as a chainsaw sculptor per se,” he said, “but I am having fun.”