When the Los Angeles street artist Shepard Fairey heard Barack Obama's keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, he was impressed but figured that it would be a while before he saw Obama on the national political scene. A scant three and a half years later, in the hospital awaiting his second daughter's birth, Fairey found himself working on a poster—a portrait of the senator in red, white, and blue with blocky letters beneath him proclaiming "Progress." Fairey produced these screen-printed posters himself in the weeks before Super-Duper Tuesday and sold them on the streets of Los Angeles and on his Web site, obeygiant.com. The response was instantaneous and immense: The campaign contacted him within days of their release, and to date Fairey has produced 80,000 posters and 250,000 stickers. "I think it's incredibly radical that somebody who is as idealistic as Obama could get to this point," says Fairey. As for the overwhelming response to his posters? "A lot of people were craving a symbolic image," Fairey says. "I made the right image for the right time."
SCHWARTZ'S INTIMATE APPAREL
108 Skokie Blvd., Wilmette; 847-251-1118
As perhaps telegraphed by the eternally tanned lingerie-clad mannequins in the window display, Schwartz's Intimate Apparel harks back to a time before bra-fitting specialists became a subniche profession in the undergarment trade. Here, an above-average shopping experience is standard fare from the awesomely helpful staff who will talk to you, measure you, install you in a dressing room, and bring you lingerie until you have settled upon the foundation garments of your dreams. Under such attentive care, you'll feel delighted, rather than cowed, by the voluminous selection, which ranges up and down the continuum of bra sizes and includes a full wall of girdles and body shapers.
SCHOOL OF THE ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO GRADUATE EXHIBITION
33 S. State St., 7th floor
Your walls need some art: not posters, not artlike things from IKEA or Target—Art with a capital A. But real art is expensive. If you trust your own eye, head to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago's annual Graduate Exhibition (held usually in late April or early May), where more than 150 master's students present the culmination of their art-school efforts. This show is your chance to buy work by the next generation of artists before they sign with galleries—and before the prices reflect gallery commissions. If you focus on photography or works on paper, you'll really find some deals. And if you can't wait until spring, there's a smaller exhibition with selected pieces for sale in the late fall.
BAD AT SPORTS
Founded in 2005 by two friends over a drink, Bad at Sports is a podcast that manages to educate and entertain on a subject that causes the brains of most people to fog over and disengage: contemporary art. Originally a fun side project, the weekly interview show invites guests—from emerging local talent to bona fide heavies like Kerry James Marshall—to discuss art exhibitions, trends, and news events, such as the recent death of Robert Rauschenberg. With its loose, finding-its-way vibe, the show yields discussions so illuminating you begin to wonder whether the hosts—Duncan MacKenzie, a 31-year-old artist and lecturer, and Richard Holland, a 36-year-old artist and lawyer—are nursing dreams about becoming broadcast professionals. WBEZ, are you listening?
ELECTRA on Q101
Who else but an English major from Brown University would take a midday slot at an alternative-rock station in the Midwest and turn it into a zany gabfest? Which, incidentally, is why we love Electra at WKQX (101 FM) and her playful riffs on topics breathtaking for their sheer randomness: the Metallica version of Guitar Hero, good Web sites for wasting time at work, dancing to a Jimmy Eat World song, or advances in robot technology ("They're coming to kill us all!"). "I'm passionate about the same sort of things our listeners like, and that translates on the air," says Electra, a.k.a. Christine Pawlak, a 27-year-old Rhode Islander whose on-air name comes from the comic-book character, not the Greek tragic heroine. And, of course, what would the lunch hour be like without the Last Letter Game, during which listeners request a song that begins with the last letter of the previous song? "My goal is to make people's day a little easier," Electra says. "If that means cracking a one-liner about something in the news, I'm doing my job."
ROCKEFELLER CHAPEL ORGAN
5850 S. Woodlawn Ave.
If you heard any organ music in Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago between 2001 and this past May, you weren't hearing the masterful 1928 instrument created by the legendary organ builder E. M. Skinner. The chapel rented an electronic organ after dead notes and wind leaks from water damage had rendered the grande dame unplayable. The Skinner is back, after a three-year restoration effort: Hundreds of new pipes were added. Rooms full of pipes were rearranged to free buried sounds. A large arch was cut in the organ chamber's south wall, the better to allow sound to reach the congregation. All the pipes were cleaned, revoiced, and tuned. The $2.1-million project makes the organ the largest in Chicago, and the sound palette is now hugely rich and lush—a real step up from an instrument riddled with notes that did not even work. Thomas Weisflog, the university organist, is thrilled. We are, too.
Best Room at the Art Institute
Sixteen pillars arranged in a four-by-four square. Dim, meditative light. Past the pillars, visible through them, lighted exhibit space behind near-invisible glass. Behind the glass, objects and explicative text on the floor. Museumgoers bending down to read. Two oak benches. Balanced asymmetry. Inward evocations. Quiet.
Our dining critics pick their very favorites among this past year's stellar new openings.
Dennis Ray Wheaton
OLD TOWN BRASSERIE
1209 N. Wells St.; 312-943-3000
Don't be misled by the casual-sounding name. Old Town Brasserie's opening terrines—any of them—and closing soufflés—any of them—are so flawless that you might forget you're not in Le Français, where chef Roland Liccioni once reigned. There's a vague disconnect in seeing Liccioni's polished haute wizardry in a more informal setting, but that makes offerings such as rare roasted duck breast and crispy duck leg confit with sauce rouennaise and thyme-infused beluga lentils even more striking. Kick back and enjoy: The whole experience is all so polished, it's really fudging to call this a brasserie; but whatever you call the chic little dining room, it's a fun spot and the food is damn good.
2300 N. Lincoln Park West; 773-868-0002
I'm smitten with L2O: the spare yet striking décor, the pretentious and bewildering menu, the too-attentive waitstaff, the scope of seafood exotica. Where else would dinner begin with an amuse of raw sea urchin? That's gutsy. A four-course meal might last four hours—what with the amuse followed by a second amuse, a dessert amuse and three complimentary desserts after dessert. I did not love every dish (geoduck needed more wasabi; amadai did not delight to the tune of a $50 upgrade), but the Santa Barbara shrimp wowed my taste buds and the lamb loin (one of two land options) put my palate in a tizzy. I haven't a clue how long a 12-course meal would take, but the sheer breathlessness of L2O won me over.
1952 N. Damen Ave.; 773-772-6170
More accessible than L2O, less gimmicky than Graham Elliot, and more intimate than Sepia, Takashi Yagihashi's Bucktown stunner tops my list this year. Takashi is like the ballplayer who quietly hits for a high average—so you forget just how good he is, night in and night out. In Yagihashi's hands, potential throwaways like a sautéed Maine skatewing become masterpieces, pan fried to flaky perfection and served with a tangy reservoir of green ohba purée, braised turnips, and haricots verts. And a confident staff ensures that every detail is so precise that you don't even notice it, until after a couple of hours of little things adding up, something dawns on you: You've just had a top-notch experience.
What kind of man eats at the same Lincoln Park restaurant almost every night for 20 years? How does a poor Greek immigrant become the owner of one of the city's best-known diners? Trevor Jensen, 47, the Trib's chief obituary writer since July 2006, artfully answers questions like these several times a week. His reporting is thorough and detailed, the writing clever and smooth. In his hands, Chicago has produced countless notable people, both quirky and accomplished, whose lives have meaning for the rest of us. "The truth is, yes, you're dealing with death," Jensen says. "But you're writing about people and the lives they led, and in some cases it's uplifting."
MIDWEST INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL
When we're not busy supplying corn to the rest of the United States, Midwesterners produce some pretty great movies. Mike McNamara should know—he's acted in a bunch of them. A well-known face on the local film scene, McNamara put his connections to use four years ago by starting the Midwest Independent Film Festival, a year-round showcase of the latest and greatest in docs, shorts, indies, and features from the Great Lakes region. We love the series, which happens the first Tuesday of every month at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema, because McNamara knows that an excellent slate of movies is only half of what makes for a good festival—the other half being good networking potential. His screenings—which might include everything from award-winning docs to John Cusack's Grace Is Gone—draw the top dogs of Midwest film production, and McNamara makes sure people have plenty of opportunity to mingle. The place to be and be seen for seasoned pros and up-and-comers, the festival also hosts a well-stocked bar for social lubrication.
DEMPSTER STREET PRO MUSICA
Even before it's performed a single note, Dempster Street Pro Musica, based at the Society for the Preservation of Arts and Culture in Evanston (1245 Chicago Ave.), promises to enrich the classical scene of the north suburbs. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra's principal oboist, Michael Henoch, founded the group this year with the hope of pairing established career musicians—including his CSO colleagues—with younger performers for chamber music concerts at SPACE. The first scheduled public performance is November 2nd, featuring three CSO string players plus Henoch playing Mozart, Beethoven, and Haydn. Henoch's connections, sensibility, and enthusiasm make this a group to keep an eye on.
REBECCA SIMONE SCHORSCH
Exceptions like Britney Spears notwithstanding, even a pop singer needs real pipes. But, as voice students will attest, in Chicago a teacher willing to work in a pop style can be maddeningly hard to find. One of the few—Rebecca Schorsch, on the conservatory faculty at Roosevelt University—is our vote for the best, an instructor who never turns up her nose at the belting, scooping, and spread vowels of the genre. Schorsch embraces those techniques for what they can do—and teaches her students how to use them in an appealing and vocally healthy way. She'll even ask for a sound to be "uglier"—anathema to the opera set. 312-504-7376
For a long time, Rich Miller, a Kankakee-born Illinois politics junkie, cranked out a modest newsletter that reliably kept tabs on the inner workings of the Springfield Machine. Called Capitol Fax, the newsletter—faxed daily when the legislature is in session, for an annual subscription fee of $350—attracted a tiny but influential audience of politicians, lobbyists, operatives, and journalists. Now also a blogger (thecapitolfaxblog.com) and columnist, Miller reaches even more fans with writing seemingly impervious to political spin. "My subscribers and my readers are more plugged in than I am, and many are more educated and smarter than I am," says Miller, 46, who lives in Springfield with his wife. "So in order to keep them interested, the bar is very high." Working almost constantly, Miller frequently breaks news after many journalists have gone home. "For a lot of journalists, politics is a beat they cover," Miller says. "This is my whole life, essentially."
Battle of the hipster oenophile destinations
BIN WINE CAFE
JUICY WINE CO.
WINNER: Bin Wine Cafe. Its casual, user-friendly, competent ethos and greater number of food and wine choices earn it the nod over Juicy.
WINE DISCOUNT CENTER
1826 N. Elston Ave.; 773-489-3454
Ten dollars to taste 30 wines. Even without doing the division, it's clear that that's a good deal—free tastings around town offer only a handful of wines, and the bigger tastings bring along a lecture, or a meal that winds up costing more. The $10-for-30 deal is Wine Discount Center's First Look tasting, mounted on the first Wednesday of every month. Each of several tables offers a separate tasting of six or eight bottles, ranging in price from $8 to $40. There were a few clunkers the night we went, but we discovered (and took home) several brilliant bottles. (Caveat: The staff, also, are tasting the wines for the first time, so they're not always able to answer your questions.) Reservations necessary—it fills up.