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Notebaert Museum’s bison just dropped in as a Chicago icon

InstallatiChris Williams’ life-sized bissculpture was show-stopping event Wednesday outside Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. | Dale Bowman

Installation of Chris Williams’ life-sized bison sculpture was a show-stopping event Wednesday outside the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. | Dale Bowman

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Updated: October 17, 2012 6:39AM

Even as crane operator Danny Sullivan hoisted a 3,500-pound bison sculpture over the wires and two concrete bases at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, the sculpture was already a show-stopper on Cannon Drive.

The Art Institute of Chicago has its lions. Now the Nature Museum has its bison.

Only the staff is thinking bigger than lions.

‘‘I hope it is as iconic as the triceratops at the Smithsonian,’’ said Alvaro Ramos, vice president and curator of museum experience.

‘‘Certainly an iconic figure,’’ said Marc Miller, vice president of external affairs. ‘‘They used to roam right here.’’

Well, not exactly right there.

‘‘It was probably a bit mushy for herds to be milling about,’’ said Steve Sullivan, curator of urban ecology. ‘‘Bison are an iconic prairie animal. As great as our forest preserves are, I sometimes wish we had better appreciation for prairie. One way to get that is by looking at bison.’’

There are things that fall in place in life just right. The bison sculpture seems to be that for the Nature Museum.

‘‘Having an iron bison sitting on the corner of Cannon Drive, if not epiphanic, it will at least be thought-provoking,’’ Sullivan said. ‘‘Hopefully, it will help people to think of conservation as they are commuting to work or going to the beach. Bison can help them care a little more.’’

The sculpture was donated by the late Gary and Sheila Handwerker of Northfield. Gary was quite a collector of sculpture. The bison was created by Chris Williams of Massachusetts in 1999.

‘‘From far away, it is an illustration of an iconic beast,’’ Ramos said. ‘‘Details mount when you get closer.’’

That includes iridescent eyes and the mane, individual pieces of metal between which light may shine. Miller called it a mixture of art and nature, one that should get families excited and catch the eyes of passersby.

He got that right. Even as the Methods and Materials crew finished up installation, families stopped to look. But so did people in their retirement years.

‘‘Pretty cool — that is why we liked it,’’ Miller said.

‘‘Look in the [truck] mirror and see this buffalo charging at you,’’ rigger and installer Peter Rybchenkov said of the delivery drive, which drew its own share of stares.

Bison are cool, and perfectly apt, as a connect to natural history.

The sculpture is 6 feet high, 111/2 feet long and 3 feet wide — life-sized. It will be in a plot with native prairie plantings.

‘‘There are so many things bison can teach,’’ Sullivan said. ‘‘If I was school teacher, I would spend a bunch of my [field trip] money to see them.’’

Northern Illinois already has a small herd of a couple dozen at Fermilab. Reintroduction of bison is expected to begin within two years at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, which should provide good access for public viewing, and possibly relatively soon at Nachusa Grasslands.

Sullivan noted how important it is to fully experience bison, such as his family had in the Badlands, where they rolled the windows down when surrounded by bison.

‘‘It is a really cool animal smell,’’ Sullivan said. ‘‘I would love to have that experience [here].’’

The bison has an iconic place in our natural history. Now we have a chance to experience it as iconic art near the Chicago lakefront.

Only it needs a name. Naming will be done online at or by visitors to the Nature Museum.

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