OLD TOWN — After reviving Chicago's conservatories, building art gardens in Grant Park and creating little colorful forests of painted trees on the lakefront that people just couldn't stop talking about, what's Adam Schwerner going to do next?
He's going to Disneyland.
The visionary Chicago Park District Cultural and Natural Resources Director got cherry-picked by Mickey Mouse's parent company to take over as supreme leader of ornate gardening at the Anaheim, Calif., theme park.
"When Disney calls, you gotta listen," said Schwerner, whose official Disney title is director of horticulture and resort enhancement.
"It's an amazing company. … And they consider plants are part of the show and just as important as everything else. They've entrusted me with that, and my interest in artfulness of nature, and we'll see how that works at Disneyland."
Schwerner's brand of artistic horticulture, especially those brightly painted dead trees, certainly got people talking in Chicago.
"Both my parents are artists, I'm an artist, and through the years we've been able to merge arts and nature into this really great conversation," he said.
Schwerner got the idea for painting trees as a kid growing up in East Hampton, N.Y., where one of his parents' artist friends had spray-painted all the weeds in his front yard in bright hues to turn what otherwise would be garbage into art.
He used his vibrant backyard garden as a testing ground for painting trees with leftover paint his wife picked out for their house before persuading the Park District to give dying trees a colorful send-off instead of immediately turning them into mulch.
"The bright colors that aren't in nature take a dead tree or a weed tree and bring attention to it and also it's architecture," Schwerner said. "It's a living thing that means something and is important. It makes people take notice, and it's a conversation, and that's always interesting."
Schwerner moved to Chicago 18 years ago after a stint at the New York City Botanical Gardens. One of the first projects on his to-do list was to revive the Garfield Park Conservatory in the heart of the wild, wild West Side.
From the moment he walked inside he could "feel the spirit of the place."
"I came in and had a blank palate to make the conservatory more important to the city, and I had a mandate to turn around something that had become a forgotten gem," he said.
"I was overwhelmed at how almost sacred the space is, the authenticity of the design and the staff who care about plants as if it was their pets."
But what Schwerner says he'll miss the most is all the great folks he's worked with during his nearly two decades in Chicago.
"The guys and gals who work at the conservatories are remarkable people in a remarkable city. I'm blown away by their capacity to create and sustain the living art we have created in a public setting," he said. "We have the most extensive annual garden planting of any city in the world, and some of the best people doing it. That's been hugely fun for me."
And everyone, from his former bosses to horticulturists working under him at the conservatories, loves him back.
"Adam is amazingly creative and tenacious in pursuing his ideas," former Chicago Park District Supt. David Doig said. "His mark will be seen in the city and Park District for years to come."
Last week, the Park District even feted Schwerner's success with a going-away gala at the Garfield Park Conservatory complete with a life-size cutout of him suspended over a pond as if he were walking on water.
Just before Schwerner started out on his cross-country journey to Disneyland, I asked him what he hoped for the future in his adopted hometown — the place where he met his wife, Stephanie, and raised his kids, Jamin and Claudia.
"For me it's challenging that not everyone in Chicago knows how incredibly wonderful and beautiful the city is. We have the best parks in the country, the cleanest streets, the best Downtown and so many wonderful hardworking people," he said.
"Unfortunately, all you hear about is how bad it is. It's not just Capone and meatpacking. Chicago is arts and culture and a vibrant social life. I don't know if people in Chicago really appreciate what a gift that is, and I wish that would change."