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Sculptures set inner kid free to soar

Sculpture by Bob Emser.  Phoby Neil Steinberg.

Sculpture by Bob Emser. Photo by Neil Steinberg.

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Updated: October 27, 2012 6:06AM

In a little room hidden somewhere deep within our brains, the little child we once were sits, pressing his palms flat against the gouged, glue-spattered, heavily shellacked wooden desktop, puffing out his cheeks, listening to the clock tick, gazing at the rain streaks on the windows, waiting.

I had just left the 8:17 downtown, shuffled in Fritz Lang lockstep with the other commuters through the platform’s smoky, dripping din, up the stairs, then surged across Madison, up more stairs and onto the plaza.

Dihedral, I thought, getting a glimpse of the first of a trio of artworks, an installation called “Test Flight” created by sculptor Bob Emser that went on display earlier this month at 2 N. Riverside Plaza, or what we fogies refer to as the old Chicago Daily News Building.

The dihedral is the angle of an airplane’s wings. I hadn’t thought of that word in decades, but it must have slumbered, scribbled on a scrap tucked into that little boy’s pocket.

“Two x 2,” a pair of wing tips — a Supermarine Spitfire’s, among the most beautiful planes ever built — made of Brazilian walnut, with little aluminum insets. You want to run your hand over the rich wood but, trained not to manhandle art, even public art, I didn’t.

Next is “Balsa Flies Better,” a large wooden skeleton of an airplane wing — a DC-3’s, another lovely plane. Typically, a kid would make one of these wings out of balsa, first cutting the pieces out with an X-Acto knife, gluing them together on a board with pins, later covering the fragile 10-inch lattice in paper, doping it until it stretches tight. This one was made of pine and 14 feet tall. I stopped in mid-stride — the other commuters nearly piling up, cartoon fashion, behind me, before flowing past like a river current around a rock.

Suddenly it was all back: the colorful cardboard boxes, the T-shaped pins, the Saran wrap over the diagram plans, so the glue wouldn’t stick. Decals. Toothpicks. Not only a Spitfire, but a Hawker Hurricane and others.

The third, “Glider Pilot,” is a little off-theme, but somehow pulled the three together. An exact model of those 19-cent — now $1.99 — Jet balsa gliders you’d get at Woolworth’s. Only this one was made of marine plywood and 12 feet long. Anyone who could make a Spitfire out of balsa disdained these gliders, though they would serve in a pinch.

Art should do at least one of three things: It should be original in idea, excellent in execution, or dramatic in effect. The idea of making common stuff really big isn’t new; Claes Oldenburg’s “Batcolumn” is around the corner. The big model plane components were certainly precisely made. But the impact — at least to me — flew me back to Berea, Ohio, in 1970, though I suppose art that only touches men who once made model airplanes is aiming for a narrow and thinning audience. This particular subject couldn’t be an accident.

“When I was a kid, I think that my first sculptural experience was taking these flat balsa shapes and ending up with this sensuous form,” said sculptor Bob Emser, 58, who has studios in Chicago and Eureka. He views the three pieces, together, as “a full theme of music stripped down to a three-piece band.”

Emser built model airplanes for the same reason I did — because of his dad’s influence.

“I wasn’t much for organized sports,” said Emser. “I liked building things. My father said this is something you can do in your bedroom and not hurt yourself.”

The wooden sculptures secretly solve a problem that any artist hoping to display art on this specific spot must consider — that 2 N. Riverside Plaza is built over the Metra tracks.

“There’s some problems putting large-scale sculptures over vaulted train tracks — most of it is pretty heavy,” Emser said. “I thought, ‘You know this is opportunity knocking to do something fun, quick, temporary.’ ”

Underline “temporary.” I mentioned that someone with too little control of their inner child had jumped on the glider and cracked it. “Two x 2” was tackled by drunk Bears fans.

“Stuff like that happens. It’s designed to be temporary. It’s not designed to last forever,” he said. “I’m going to go and reinforce that wing. I remember breaking lots of balsa wood planes. They’re fragile. I knew people were going to climb on them. That’s what happens when you put something in public. Still, I wanted to get the dihedral into the wing.”

I smiled, hearing the artist speak the same recondite word that had popped into my head when I first saw his work. Kindred spirits. I told him, given how much public art in Chicago is garbage — the chunky Dubuffet jammed next to the Thompson Center, other hunks of metal signifying nothing — it’s nice to see something evocative, at least to me.

“I even try not to call myself a ‘public art’ person,” he said. “I like to say it’s ‘civic art.’ It’s really about civilization and making civilization a happier place.” We can all use that. “Test Flight” is part of the 23rd International Sculpture Conference, in Chicago Oct. 4 - 6, and will be at 2 N. Riverside Plaza, north of Madison, west of the river, until mid-October.

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