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Forest Preserves police demolish environmental art piece in Northbrook woods

Monday, December 21, 2015
Chicago Tribune
by Irv Leavitt,

What goes up, must come down. But sometimes, it goes up again.

The circular, concentric work of environmental art in Northbrook's Chipilly Woods, made of tree trunks and branches woven together over a period of more than a year, was demolished Dec. 15 by the Cook County Forest Preserves district police.

The district has now begun talks with the artist, Louise Fernitz, about the possibility of being more open to her future art endeavors.

They may get a chance to judge Fernitz' Shannon's Circle, or at least a version of it, in person. The artist, frustrated and angry, in a few days restored the sculpture to something approximating what it had been before it was razed.

"I am a woman possessed," she said Saturday. "I keep saying to myself it's so much easier the second time around."

The branches that made up Shannon's Circle were not taken away from the site, and some were familiar to the artist as she rebuilt.

Cook County representatives said Dec. 17 they didn't know what Fernitz' project was before they ordered it taken down, and they're sorry it was taken down. Still, they say they would have taken it down even if they did know what it was, and that they were right to take it down.

And they'll take it down again, but first, they'll talk to her.

"We don't want to have hard feelings in the community," said Lambrini Lukidis, the Forest Preserves director of communications, on Monday.

"It's against the ordinance to put up structures in the forest preserves," she said Dec. 17. "And it's a safety concern."

Two officers dismantled Shannon's Circle the same day a forest district volunteer had called in the illegal structure, Police Chief John Roberts said Dec. 17.

"You can't really wait too long," he said. "A kid could be on it, and God forbid, could fall."

Dave Dodge, a longtime woods dog-walker who admired Shannon's Circle, spoke about its loss Dec. 17.

"The same day?" asked Dodge. "They don't maintain the flagpole at the monument there, the softball diamond backstop is gone, and they don't maintain the trails. And these guys have got nothing better to do than tear down Louise's art?"

Fernitz, a former public school art teacher, says she is inspired by the environmental art movement, in which site-specific pieces of materials and components, ranging from pine cones to limestone, are used to create outdoor art pieces.

"I think art like this, you have to be open to it," she said Dec. 18. "If you're not, 'You say, 'What the hell is that? Oh, it seems like someone is taking drugs in there, someone is living in there.' Everything I've taken is dead – instead of laying on the ground, dead, I bring it up to be part of the forest in a different way."

Shannon's Circle was a subject of a district staff meeting after its demolition, Roberts said, which led to a decision to reach out to Fernitz for discussions about art in the district.

"She's very much a nature lover, and a friend of the forest preserves," Roberts said, after a telephone discussion with Fernitz. "She's an artist, teacher, so many nice things about her."

He and Lukidis said future opportunities will be discussed with Fernitz, but Lukidis said all structures in the woods must be permitted, and, according to Lukidis, "vetted by an architect" for sturdiness.

Roberts said volunteers are encouraged to report illegal structures in the woods, which he said are persistent problems. He said neighbors put up sheds and swing sets, homeless people raise tents and poachers erect hunting blinds.

Shannon's Circle – named for Fernitz' dog, who died during construction – had been visited Dec. 11 by a Cub Scout den of Northbrook's Troop 64, mostly 8-year-olds, leader Abe Reese said.

He said the danger to children expressed by the police chief wasn't credible to him.

"It's a logical on-paper concern, but when you stop and think about it, not an actual concern," Reese said Dec. 18. "There are probably 10 other pitfalls that a kid could get hurt on just walking through the woods."

Deeper in the woods, the police also took down a smaller art piece, Roberts said. This one was constructed by Northbrook Boy Scouts Sam Weiss and Matt Bonebrake, who had been inspired by Shannon's Circle.

Weiss noted Dec. 17 that Fernitz had been open to others adding pieces, which she would later make sure were hooked tightly together for strength. The circle made it through the tough 2014-2015 winter almost unscathed.

Roberts said two officers were well into dismantling Fernitz' art piece Dec. 15 when one of them came across a birch bark sign identifying the piece that had been tacked to the entrance, which is reached by walking along a path Fernitz cleared and bordered with logs.

Until that point, he said, no one knew what it was, other than an illegal structure.

"It's probably 30 yards from a walking path, and very tastefully done," Northbrook resident Ross Wolfson said Friday. "Most of the people I know find an interesting branch and add to the structure. That's part of the charm of the structure."

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