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Watch, But Don't Sneeze, as Sand Art Installed in Loop Lobbies This Week

Downtown Sand Art
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DNAinfo/Lizzie Schiffman

DOWNTOWN — As with most fine art, the newest installation in the lobby of 300 S. Riverside Plaza has a strict no-touching policy. Building management would also appreciate it if viewers would avoid sneezing, coughing or breathing too close to it.

The installation is one of several geometric sand sculptures being created by New York-based artist Joe Mangrum in corporate buildings around downtown this week.

Commercial real estate firm Means Knaus Partners flew Mangrum to Chicago Monday to create the one-of-a-kind 2-D sculptures in the lobbies of two of their buildings: 300 S. Riverside Plaza near Union Station and 540 W. Madison St. near the Ogilvie Transportation Center.

The School of the Art Institute graduate is scheduled to complete the first piece Monday and spend Tuesday and Wednesday working at 540 W. Madison St. before returning to New York.

Mangrum's pieces incorporate dozens of shades of fine-grained sand, expanding for yards in each direction from a single center point. They're usually symmetrical, and inspired by nature, architecture and traditional iconography from Mexican, African and other cultures.

Mangrum got his start as a painter and installation artist, often using found objects, before picking up sand as a medium out of necessity while traveling.

"I was doing large-scale installations using various objects, and I did an installation in New York, at this gallery, and didn't have access to all the materials that I had been using for installations, and found sand at that point and created the installation out of that," he said. "Just using it as an opportunity to — as a challenge, really, just to find a material that I could use under the circumstances, simply because I couldn't take auto parts on the plane."

That was in 2006. Since then, Mangrum estimates he's created nearly 600 temporary art pieces out of multihued play sand, some of which he's spun off into more permanent incarnations using photography, glass art and glue-coated surfaces instead of sidewalks and floors.

Switching his medium from found objects and paint to play sand has brought challenges: a vast majority of his artwork is temporary, and subject to the whims of unpredictable elements, "like wind, and the occasional kid," he said.

He's such a good customer that his play sand supplier, Sandtastik, let him name their newest color — a bright purple, silken variety he dubbed "Ultra Violet," a nod to the Andy Warhol collaborator whose work he admires.

At the Riverside Plaza building, his piece is accompanied by canvases showcasing photos of previous sand sculptures. At both buildings, the sand will be roped off, and manager Greg McGovern said they hoped to keep them displayed through September.

"We'll put a little extension around it that will prevent people from touching it and hopefully allow it to last very long. It may get messed up — hopefully not," McGovern said.

"Our building owner was in New York and they saw Joe's work out there, and they thought it'd be a fun thing to do here," he said.

Employees of the building's tenants — their largest is Chase, which opens onto Jackson Boulevard — slowed their pace in the lobby Monday to catch a glimpse of Mangrum at work.

"We heard there was some guy who's gonna start doing sand art downstairs, and I was like, 'No way!' and ran down here," said Virginia Leonard, 27, who works for DeVry in the building. "This is the coolest thing we've had happen in our lobby. It's so crazy. I'm going to come down here every hour so I can watch it come together."