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Shifting sands mark art’s moment in time

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Updated: July 15, 2013 6:43PM



Art is work, if you’re lucky. Hard work, sometimes.

Sweat drips off the nose of Joe Mangrum as he crawls on the floor to dip his fingers into a clear plastic bowl, draw out a fistful of brightly colored sand, then dribble out arcing lines of purple. He stands up, crouches down, kneels — cushioned by a pair of industrial kneepads — then is on his feet again. Over and over. For eight hours.

Born in St. Louis, Mangrum came to Chicago to attend the School of the Art Institute. He graduated in 1991, lives in Brooklyn now, and has done nearly 600 of these sand paintings on the streets of New York, where oblivious striding businessmen, attention fixed on phones, and untethered toddlers often make abrupt alterations to his work.

“You have to be aware,” he says. “You have to have eyes in the back of your head and your guard up to prevent that. Some days 30, 50 people walk into my work. It’s not something I can get upset about.”

Not a worry on this day. His canvas is a 17-by-12-foot grid of tiled floor, safely set off the beaten path between a Gateway Newstand and one corner of the Alonti Market Cafe in 300 S. Riverside Plaza, a sprawling office building on the Chicago River, south of Union Station.

Artists appreciate wealthy patrons — they did in Roman times and they do today — and while Mangrum sometimes works for donations from passersby in New York, he was brought to Chicago by the real estate firm that manages 300 S. Riverside, the idea being his work will interest building tenants. Mangrum drove here with his wife, Deborah, and Papillon pup Pancho, toting 500 pounds of Sandtastik play sand in all 35 colors the company makes, including “Ultra Violet” — his doing. “They were coming up with a new color and asked me to name it, because I was buying so much sand,” he says.

(“He’s awesome,” Sandtastik general manager Bert Sabourin says, from its Ontario, Canada, headquarters, confirming the story. “If he needed a special color, we’d do it for him. The work he does is phenomenal. To put that much effort in and then sweep it up.”)

Not that this painting meets that fate, not yet. Sand paintings are thought of — if they are thought of at all — as a Buddhist commentary on the transitory nature of life. Rather than attempt to preserve an oil painting through the centuries, under the illusion that it will remain “forever,” they create gorgeous sand mandalas, utter a prayer and sweep them away.

That isn’t what Mangrum is doing with his work, which is set to remain in place through the summer.

“I don’t call them ‘mandalas,’ simply because it’s a very culturally specific term,” he says. “What I’m doing is drawing from all these ancient templates but then mixing it up with my own contemporary work — I just call them sand paintings so that people from all over the world can relate and not put it in what I call the ‘Eastern Philosophy Box.’ ”

As Buddhists do with mandalas though, he starts in the center — a single, dime-sized dollop of yellow, bright as an egg yolk. He builds out, ribbons of orange, of purple, paired with yellow. Mangrum has no set design, but builds from images in his head. “It’s all improvised,” he says. “I put down a couple dots and circles and start branching out.”

There are no sketches, no preliminary design. All he knew beforehand is he’d create “some organic round shape that has a certain organic symmetry to it.” Everything from “op art, one of many influences ranging from ancient designs all the way to sci-fi, ‘Avatar,’ Dr. Seuss, quantum physics.”

Even the most savvy artist can’t sell sand poured in the street, however, so Mangrum creates limited edition photographic prints of his work. He also has been commissioned to do his work all over the world, from Beijing to Copenhagen to San Francisco. Mangrum has appeared on “Sesame Street” and in the Corcoran Gallery Rotunda in Washington, D.C. He also does weddings.

As with all artists, Mangrum’s journey has been serpentine. He waited tables, worked construction. “I’ve worn a dozen different hats,” he says. Initially, he created his images out of found objects — leaves and flower petals and seeds. He didn’t start working in sand until 2006, when he had a painting to make but no materials at hand. And while he distances himself from more spiritual sand paintings, he does see his work as, “a metaphor for life. We all pass away and regenerate, spring into fall, fall into winter, then spring anew again.”

While here, he also created two works at 540 W. Madison. He will return to 300 S. Riverside Plaza to talk about his art and answer questions from 1 to 2 p.m. today.

The building roped Mangrum’s art off with stanchions. The day after he created it, most people stream to work — 300 S. Riverside Plaza is home to JP Morgan Chase, AIG, National Futures Association, among others — and pass by without noticing. One in 10 turns a head or slows stride. And a few rare individuals actually stop, most taking photos with their phones — as if that were permanent.

But Derick Evans, who works in the building’s messenger center, does stop, and stands there, beaming.

“It’s magnificent,” he says. “How does he have it all in his head? It’s a gift, just a gift. I love it. Just goes to show what’s with this human being. This was not something you are taught. This is something you are born with.”



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