A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of speaking to Jim Bachor, a mosaic artist via phone. His work includes setting mosaics into potholes around Chicago and the rest of the world.
ES: How would you describe the work you do?
JB: I’m really thinking about how to leave your mark. It’s almost impossible. You might with kids or the pyramids. [When I] discovered mosaics on a trip in the 1990s in Europe, I was blown away. This is an artform that lasts so long. What a fascinating concept. You could lock concepts and thoughts all your own in this medium and it will look the same and exist 2000 years later. The durability is big. The pieces are heavy too, not [something] that could be thrown around or thrown in the trash. There is literally a weight to them. Big hunk of durability. I noticed that art form tends to repeat itself; to me a lot of it looks the same. What I bring to the party is taking the ancient art form and doing contemporary subject matter.
ES: Do you consider yourself a street artist?
JB: I guess I am. Partly, not completely. A portion of what I do is street art but not all. It’s one of my hats. I consider myself an artist. [When you emailed me,] I thought that I’m not hip or young. I smiled to be considered a street artist.
ES: In terms of your subject matter, you juxtapose the timelessness of the mosaics with ephemera like snack bags. How did you decide on that theme?
JB: They are snapshots of today. Still lifes. Like fresh packaged meats. The meat is not going to look the same in a few days. It’s capturing a moment in time in this wrapped meat from the grocery store. In addition, in 100 years, it’ll show folks how we used to package meat in this way.
ES: Could you talk about your series“Fanciest Pothole” and one of its pieces, “Burberry”?
JB: I spent 25 years in advertising as a designer. From that, [there’s a lot of] the branding experience. I like to juxtapose things: everyone hates potholes, so I had the ice cream series and a flowers series. In a similar vein, potholes are nasty, low class. I juxtaposed it with high end brands with identifiable patterns like Gucci, Burberry, Louis Vuitton. It’s the last place you expect overpriced brands to appear. [It’s] a window to my dry wit.
ES: Could you talk about your pothole series that contain words or numbers?
JB: The campaign started off with a branded identity. A classic Chicago Pothole was featured. [The word] “Pothole” in black and white with the Chicago flag graphic. It was proud Chicago in your face. The next series was Serial numbers because the city catalogues the potholes in the city; each pothole has its own serial number. Another series had the phone numbers of nearby car repair shops near the pothole.
“This is Not a Pothole” was a one off. It was an idea I had; it was funny. The location was choice [downtown right off Michigan avenue]. It’s one of the most popular installations by far.
Photo: Elisa Shoenberger
ES: I noticed humor as a part of your work. Why?
JB: Every so often, I do try to impart a humorous view on what is going on. But I try to make it not beat you upside the head, something more subtle and unexpected. For the cereal box series, I did research on ridiculous brands that existed and incorporated them into ancient still lifes, food stuffs rendered into background of frescoes. It’s a little bit of my humor and fascination with ancient history. It’s capturing a little bit of my personality in mortar that might impart to someone down the road when you are gone. After the people who knew you die off, your legacy is pretty negligible. [These potholes are] a way of instilling a few more clues of what made me.
ES: Has the process changed since you started in 2013?
JB: It’s more efficient, but there is only so much you can speed it up. [You are at the] mercy of weather and concrete. I learned a lot early on: if it is colder out, it takes longer for the concrete to set. There’s a higher chance that a car will roll over it. Safety has gotten better; I have traffic cones and a vest.
The art shouldn’t fail. If it does, it’s because the asphalt around the art starts to break. If the asphalt is stable, it will last indefinitely.
The biggest hassle is finding the correct potholes. Ideal road potholes are those on a stable street, not in the center of traffic, places where people can see them. I try to expand the area that has pieces of artwork but it takes longer if it is further away from where I am. It takes more time to get there, look around [for an ideal spot]. I”m a one man show —time is always an issue.
ES: Could you talk about your commision “thrive” at the Thorndale Red Line station?
JB: It’s a balance between doing something consistent with what I do and giving the client, the CTA, something they be proud of. I gathered a lot of information about the area; the CTA gave me notes from community meetings about what people wanted to see in the art work. I did a little bit of research; that area used to be covered in swales of sand and wild rice used to grow in it. I used that impetus for these plant like veins growing from blue bands that represent Lake Michigan. Those vines grow into “iconic fruit” that represent what is going on in the neighborhood like restaurants, music, schools, pink hotels, architecture, etc. You see something different each time when you look at it. You notice the little baseballs that are hidden like berries. There is stuff to be discovered.
ES: What do you want people to get from your potholes?
JB: An unexpected grin. [I want to] impart some of my personality. A little PR. I want them to track down and find out who is doing it. You see there are pieces all over the places. If you like the potholes, you’ll like my other work.
ES: Is there anything you want to talk about that we didn’t talk about above?
JB: I love doing potholes, it’s simple and goes quickly. It used to be a small percentage of what I do. The rest was fine art. Now it is swapped – 90% of my time. The potholes are nice; it gets attention drawn to my fine art. I just don’t have a lot to sell right now. I haven’t had the time to do new stuff. To do more commissioned stuff, it takes time. I’m a stay at home day with two ten year old boys. I have a short work day – 6 hours to get what I need to get done before I need to worry about dinner.
He explained that there are some exciting prospects in the rest of 2017. So stay tuned!
Photo: Jim Bachor