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The Art And Science Of Putting Large Chicago Blackhawks Helmets on Lions

Dinosaur sweaters, stone lions in hockey helmets, and a pterodactyl in a Bulls jersey. This is how Chicago's landmarks came to wear Chicago sports teams' gear.

by B. David Zarley
Jun 15 2015, 12:01pm

Photo courtesy of Gary Heitz/Chicago Scenic Studios

Good lord, those are some really big hockey helmets.

The light is green and the driver in the yellow cab is still turned in the half-corkscrew rubber necking position, leaning a bit over the empty shotgun side, his lips curling up into a sly kind of smile. There is bemusement there, and pride. The cabbie's eyes are on two large lions wearing two massive black hockey helmets. They look practically real, these two Blackhawks helmets sitting on the proud toothpaste-colored patina of the Art Institute's twin Lions, proclaiming to the cabbie and all the commuters and tourists and anyone walking down Michigan Avenue that it is Championship Time. The art—and the city—is ready.

These public displays of sporting fervor and final-push support can be found in other cities across America and the world, but there is something about Chicago—the sheer amount of public sculptures? the shameless way the city embraces its sports?—which seems to lend itself particularly well to these Playoff Pop Sculptures. These sculptures contain within them the perfect blend of artistry, ridiculousness, camp, and sports. Their very existence is a sort of success. They only appear, after all, when something big is on the line.

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The Lions alone are prolific multi-sport athletes; they have borne down for the Chicago Bears, donned White Sox caps when the South Side won the World Series, and of course laced up the skates—or at least pulled on the helmet—against the Flyers, the Bruins, and now, the Lightning. If a Chicago sports team is in contention to win it all, it is a sure bet that the lions will wind up wearing their gear. The City of Broad Shoulders is also the city of large pieces of public art wearing oversized logo wear.

A brief history of former sports wear sporting pieces of art shows that the lions are just the beginning. The Chicago Picasso looming imperiously over Daley Plaza, with its body horror cello base, sweeping flanks, and Beta Ray Bill face—had a Sox hat placed on it during the 2005 World Series, a true marvel of problem solving. The Field Museum has hosted a veritable Chicago sports fashion show, slapping jerseys across all sorts of statues and bones. In the capacious lobby, there is a didactic sculpture of a newborn babe in the arms of the most noble Muse, Dissemination of Knowledge; that child has been swaddled in a Blackhawks sweater. Up above, with leathery wings and scythe-like head, a mighty pteranodon has found itself clad in a Bulls jersey during deep playoff runs, poised to pluck point guards into the black abyss of the United Center. The Field Museum's brachiosaurus—four stories tall, prodigiously forelimbed, skull-crested king of thundering behemoths, with a ribcage the size of a studio apartment—has previously been swathed neck-down in a brilliant red Blackhawks sweater.

The type of mom that lets the baby choose its own outfits. — Photo courtesy of Emily Waldren/Field Museum

People adored the sweater clad sauropod, according to Jaap Hoogstraten, the Field Museum's Director of Exhibitions. "Oh yeah," Jaap told me. "People love it. The Blackhawks, on Lake Shore Drive, very visible there. And the dinosaur is standing there, so iconic for the museum."

As one can imagine, dressing the brachiosaur is a rather involved task; so involved, in fact, that the poor beast is nude for the Hawks' current cup run. "It does take time, money, and effort," Hoogstraten said. "Capacity, timing. Depends on what we're doing."

A tight budget and busy schedule this summer—Hoogstraten and his team of artists, writers, designers, and craftsmen design and create the museum's exhibitions—coupled with the weather-tattered current state of the sweater wound up scrapping plans to do it again. Hoogstraten will not go into detail over the logistical and economic costs—"It takes the romance away from the whole experience"—but he and the museum seem a touch crestfallen it cannot be done this year.

The Art Institute, at least, is holding up its end by putting hockey helmets on its lions. "Our visitors absolutely LOVE the Lions in their helmets," an Art Institute spokesperson wrote via email, "and Chicagoans are proud all year round that the lions are sports fans."

Fears of the art cognoscenti scrunching faces at a proud art collection being topped with oversized athletic protective gear seem unfounded. The Art Institute spokesperson said the museum had yet to receive a complaint, which they attributed to the fact that "the Lions stand in as an iconic symbol of Chicago and not just the museum." Also people in Chicago really like Chicago sports.

A helmet of the appropriate size. — Photo courtesy Gary Heitz/Chicago Scenic Studios

The sweaters and ball caps and helmets all come from one place, as it happens: a rather nondescript but massive workshop-cum-wonderland on Chicago's Goose Island. A highly built up sliver of land—which smells, depending on which way the wind blows, of exhaust and slow river urban stink or spearmint from the nearby Wrigley plant—Goose Island is the home of Chicago Scenic Studios, which is one of those places that churns out art, commerce, and spectacle in equal measure.

Chicago Scenic is impressive in scope. It lives in a former factory—supposedly for tanks during World War II—of massive, high ceilinged chambers, god boxes which seem to stretch indefinitely. The abyssal spaces are divided into workable sections via archipelagos of work desks and ad hoc walls of stacked-high piping, lumber, and angle metal. It is a place of endless material and paint and plastic and sparks. A massive crane, seaport-grade, crowns the main chamber.

Upstairs on the day before the Blackhawks helmet's installation, at the high-topped desk of Chicago Scenic Project Director Gary Heitz, there is an orderly legion of manila folders, each one containing the specs of some sort of massive project. On the table, Heitz set out photos—a Lion in a Bears helmet, Picasso's Sox cap—as documentation of his factory's role in the creation of Playoff Pop.

Heitz used the Hawks helmets for illustration. First comes the business side; once all of the usual arrangements are made w/r/t cost, deadlines, et cetera, the process of creation can begin. This starts with the measurements, which are used in the creation of the plans.

"We get it drafted as much as we can," Heitz explained. "Scalable drawings, so the guys have something to work with on the floor." The design element can be difficult—it was damn near impossible for that Picasso—and especially so for the Lions, which have, Heitz demonstrates via models, unusual and differently sized due their manes.

"For something like this, it's almost like a sculpture," Heitz said, "guys just kind of start carving away at it." The fabrication process for the Hawks helmets, which is particularly involved due to the helmet's distinct shape, took the shop nearly a month. The bizarre shape required that individual components be made and then fitted together. Something like the Bears helmets, which are little more than a half-dome and face mask, come quicker; faster still was the stitching together of the brachiosaur's sweater, which is made of that porous material that covers the high fences of outdoor tennis courts and took four to five people a day to complete.

You will notice one small historical inaccuracy, here. — Photo courtesy of Emily Waldren/Field Museum

Since Chicago Scenic's gear must go on sacred pieces of art and science, avoiding damage to the wearer runs parallel with aesthetic concerns. The helmets are relatively easy; just as in real life, an adjustable amount of foam stuffing provides a soft and safe contact area, keeping the patina pristine. The brachiosaur sweater took a more complicated solution—a custom framework that, save for some special rib anchoring, kept the sweater from touching the skeleton; aluminum collars and clavicles insured that the shape was perfect.

Beth Smith, head of the metal department and leader of the install team, designed the brachiosaur frame, born of blurry photos scored in black marker and esoteric engineering shorthand. It took her less than a week to create the frame.

"I bent all the aluminum," she said. "Did it by hand." The finished Blackhawks helmets weigh only about 60 pounds; down on the floor, where the helmets were going through a mad-rush refurbishment after the Hawks' Game 7 win, they resembled potato bugs on their backs, with an interior as plush as a luxury car's. Smith brushed down the visors and assessed the helmet's condition before deeming them fit to be worn and wheeling them over to paint.

Later, Smith looks up. She leans in one direction and then another, stands back on the sidewalk from all sorts of angles as she solidifies the helmet's position on the Lion. She and a small crew comprised of Chicago Scenic personnel, members of the Art Institute's physical plant team, a Lion-protecting curator, and some photo and video people from the Blackhawks have come to help stop the traffic at Michigan and Adams.

The process is a simple one, about 45 minutes of work for the southern Lion, the one detailed here. Around the Lion is an ad hoc infrastructure consisting of a simple scaffold, one of those tall orange ladders, and the museum's scissor lift. The helmet is unwrapped and placed upon the lift in the same position desired for the Lion. The helmet is lofted, then hoisted onto the head by someone on the lift, two on the ladder, another pair on the scaffolding, and a member of the team straddling the padded blanket across the Lion's back. Once in position, after the requisite foam stuffing and Smith's approval, the helmet is cinched down in a proprietary manner—one which Chicago Scenic does not wish to be made public, to prevent a go-getting, too-passionate Blackhawks fan from adding a leonine helmet to their memorabilia collection. With one more wiping down of the visor, the Lions are helmeted, and ready for the Finals. Simple as that.

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