Feature

The Nate: Monumental sculpture in the prairie

The imaginative. The surprising. The beautiful. The contemplative.

Take a walk through the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park. You’ll discover the creativity of monumental sculpture and the overall natural beauty of art on the prairie.

The Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park, affectionally referred to as The Nate, is a magnificent gift to the South Suburbs. Its 33 sculptures are spread over 100 acres on the campus of Governors State University in University Park. The relative quiet of the area lets you clear your mind as you meander the walking paths cut into the prairie.

In addition, an 11-acre Butterfly Ranch was created within the park using grants from ComEd and Open Lands.

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Guests are invited to walk up to the sculptures. About a dozen of the pieces are large and visible on the grounds surrounding GSU buildings or along the road that circles the campus. “Paul,” the 30-foot tall mythical lumberjack Paul Bunyan, greets you on your drive into the campus. Follow the road south to the striking yellow beams of “Illinois Landscape No. 5” often referred to by its nickname “French fries.”

Some pieces are tucked away in tranquil spaces surrounded by prairie grasses, such as “10,000 Ripples” heads of Budda created by Indira Freitas Johnson for Chicago World Peace Day.

The Nate wins top ranking
In 2021, the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park was ranked the best sculpture park in the country in a readers’ choice poll conducted by USA Today. This is quite an accomplishment, considering it was judged against parks in California, Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina and others. In 2022, the Nate ranked second in the competition.

Still others, such as “Bodark’s Arc” and “Field Rotation,” are built into the landscape rather than being set upon it.

The Nate has gained a reputation in part because of its setting in the prairie landscape, but especially because of the sculptors it has attracted: Mark di Suvero, Bruce Neuman, Richard Hunt, Terrence Karpowicz, Mary Miss, John Henry and Jerry Peart were among the first, their pieces dating to the 1970s and 1980s.

“For art enthusiasts, they’re really well-known artists and these are like pilgrimage places people should come and visit,” said Jeff Stevenson, director and curator of the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park.

But you don’t need to recognize the names to appreciate the art. Each piece is striking in its own way. Maybe the color will draw your attention, or the detail of the piece, or the sheer size.

“10,000 Ripples” by Indira Johnson at the Nate Manilow Sculpture Park on July 10. The piece is part of the Ten Thousand Ripples project, featuring a total of 100 of the heads distributed around ten different Chicago community areas. (Andrew Burke-Stevenson/H-F Chronicle)
“10,000 Ripples” by Indira Johnson at the Nate Manilow Sculpture Park on July 10. The piece is part of the Ten Thousand Ripples project, featuring a total of 100 of the heads distributed around ten different Chicago community areas. (Andrew Burke-Stevenson/H-F Chronicle)

You may be surprised to find Neuman’s “House Divided,” a utilitarian building that appears whole but is divided on an interior angle to form two parts. Stevenson said Neuman knew Illinois as the Land of Lincoln. When designing the piece, he focused on Abraham Lincoln’s line “A house divided against itself cannot stand” from a speech Lincoln delivered in 1858.

“Yes! For Lady Day” was built by di Suevro in honor of Billie Holiday, a Black jazz singer whose nickname was Lady Day. The sculpture uses I-beams and rigging to suspend pieces of a railroad tanker car that swing in the wind. Di Suevro, now an internationally renowned artist, created the sculpture in 1968-69 in an old barn on the site of what would become the GSU campus. When the piece was presented to the university, it was the impetus for the university receiving National Endowment for the Arts grants. The money supported other artists creating works that helped The Nate flourish.

The originals are mixed with new pieces. Stevenson said the park will add a new work, “Sound of the Woods” by Neil Goodman, sometime next year. Bernard Williams’ piece “Avian Station,” selected from 27 entries, will be set in place this month on the edge of the Butterfly Ranch. It will allow guests to climb it for a full view of the surrounding prairie.

Among the international artists with works in the park is Yvonne Demenge whose piece “Windwaves” was a gift of the Mexican Consulate in the United States. The piece had been shown in Chicago’s Millennium Park and was given to The Nate in recognition of its major works and because of the care given to the pieces in the collection.

The Nate also has several pieces on loan, including “Running Table” by Dan Peterman, a 100-foot-long collection of picnic tables made from recycled plastic. It was moved from a site in Chicago’s Millennium Park and now sits in a stand of trees. Stevenson said guests are welcome to picnic there, but barbequing isn’t allowed on the grounds.

Enjoy the walk and the sculptures any time. The Nate is free and open 365 days a year from dawn to dusk. Dogs are welcome on a leash. Guests can download a free app about the sculptures, and a map is available online at www.govst.edu/sculpture.

Art, conservation, education
Jeff Stevenson, director and curator of The Nate, said his focus is on three things: art, conservation and education.

New art is acquired through purchases and or with pieces on loan.

Conservation work is essential. Taking care of the pieces already in the park is a major responsibility and expense. Stevenson said The GSU Foundation recently spent $25,000 to have “Yes! For Lady Day” painted.
It’s the one piece in the park that visitors can climb on. All other sculptures are art to enjoy. “We don’t encourage people to climb on the sculptures,” Stevenson said.

“Phoenix” by Edvins Strautmanis with “Flying Saucer” by Jene Highstein seen behind it at the Nate Manilow Sculpture Park on July 10. (Andrew Burke-Stevenson/H-F Chronicle)
“Phoenix” by Edvins Strautmanis with “Flying Saucer” by Jene Highstein seen behind it at the Nate Manilow Sculpture Park on July 10. (Andrew Burke-Stevenson/H-F Chronicle)

Art in The Nate is there to be studied and enjoyed. School groups regularly take field trips to the park, and The Nate hosts lectures on art and artists. Guided walking tours given by staff or docents can be scheduled. The suggested donation is $10 per person.

Support The Nate
The Nate’s major fundraising event “Sculpture, Wine & Dine” will be Saturday, Sept. 9, starting with a 4 p.m. guided tour of the park on golf carts, a 5 p.m. cocktail/wine reception followed by a farm-to-table dinner in the park and an afterglow party.

To learn more, visit www.govst.edu/sculpture.

  • “10,000 Ripples” by Indira Johnson at the Nate Manilow Sculpture Park on July 10. The piece is part of the Ten Thousand Ripples project, featuring a total of 100 of the heads distributed around ten different Chicago community areas. (Andrew Burke-Stevenson/H-F Chronicle)
    “10,000 Ripples” by Indira Johnson at the Nate Manilow Sculpture Park on July 10. The piece is part of the Ten Thousand Ripples project, featuring a total of 100 of the heads distributed around ten different Chicago community areas. (Andrew Burke-Stevenson/H-F Chronicle)
  • “Stargazing with Contrails” by Terrence Karpowicz at the Nate Manilow Sculpture Park on July 10. (Andrew Burke-Stevenson/H-F Chronicle)
    “Stargazing with Contrails” by Terrence Karpowicz at the Nate Manilow Sculpture Park on July 10. (Andrew Burke-Stevenson/H-F Chronicle)
  • The sculpture Paul by Tony Tasset at Governors State University in University Park on Thursday, June 11, 2020. (Provided photo by Guy Rhodes)
    The sculpture "Paul" by Tony Tasset at Governors State University in University Park on Thursday, June 11, 2020. (Provided photo by Guy Rhodes)
  • “Illinois Landscape No. 5” by John Henry was a 1976 purchase for the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park. It's taken on the nickname of "French fries." (Andrew Burke-Stevenson/H-F Chronicle)
    “Illinois Landscape No. 5” by John Henry was a 1976 purchase for the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park. It's taken on the nickname of "French fries." (Andrew Burke-Stevenson/H-F Chronicle)
  • “Yes! for Lady Day” by Mark diSuvero at the Nate Manilow Sculpture Park on July 10. The piece is named after singer Billie Holiday. (Andrew Burke-Stevenson/H-F Chronicle)
    “Yes! for Lady Day” by Mark diSuvero at the Nate Manilow Sculpture Park on July 10. The piece is named after singer Billie Holiday. (Andrew Burke-Stevenson/H-F Chronicle)
  • “Phoenix” by Edvins Strautmanis with “Flying Saucer” by Jene Highstein seen behind it at the Nate Manilow Sculpture Park on July 10. (Andrew Burke-Stevenson/H-F Chronicle)
    “Phoenix” by Edvins Strautmanis with “Flying Saucer” by Jene Highstein seen behind it at the Nate Manilow Sculpture Park on July 10. (Andrew Burke-Stevenson/H-F Chronicle)

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