ELMHURST – In 1997, more than 500 people gathered in Wilder Park for a collaborative, community art project that would raise awareness of the opening of the Elmhurst Art Museum.
Joel Pfeiffer, a Wisconsin art teacher, and John Nester, a former fine arts teacher at York Community High School who teaches art at the museum, ran a clay stomp June 28, 1997.
The fundraiser acted as an opportunity for the public to contribute to the museum’s art via the 210 tiles in the four ceramic columns outside of the museum that make up the “Art From the Heart” art collection, which was a result of the first Illinois clay stomp, Nester said.
Participants mixed the clay with their feet and then designed tiles, which were bisque and glaze fired over the course of a year in Nester’s art room at York Community High School, and then installed on June 28, 1998, he said.
The images on the tiles include references to science, a memorial for a beloved family member, travels and other aspects of life the participants found meaningful. Randy Bronge, executive vice president of International Contractors Inc., donated the installation of the columns at his expense, Nester said.
“It was such a wonderful experience because so many people donated their time, talent and experience,” Nester said.
Twenty years later, Nester and his colleagues are restoring the artwork that has suffered some damage due to the weather freezing and thawing the moisture that the grout had absorbed.
“Chicago winters have done a number on it,” Nester said.
Brian McGlade and his son, Dylan, have partnered with Nester on the restoration project. They and Nester are reinstalling the tiles with new cement and grout and sealing the surface of the tiles so the grout doesn’t absorb any moisture.
“The materials are far superior nowadays [than they were 20 years ago],” McGlade said, adding that the mortar goes through “rigorous” testing now.
“We got to it in time,” he said about the restoration.
“It’s definitely one of the finest pieces I’ve worked on,” McGlade said. “It speaks for itself. … It’s definitely worth preserving.”
Nester said that in 2004, Neil Bremer, a former executive director of the museum, bought vinyl covers for the pillars that helped keep them from being soaked by the snow. “It would have been tragic to lose it,” Nester said.
Four of the tiles had to be replaced because they had cracked, so Nester decided to recreate them. On the first attempt to fire them in the kiln at Elmhurst College, two of them were pulverized completely and two of them cracked, but he has been able to redo the tiles. They are now waiting for the tiles to dry.
“I was in tears,” he said.
Nester said he expects the final installation on the last side of the last of the four columns to be done by early September.
The Elmhurst Art Museum is located at 150 S. Cottage Hill Ave., Elmhurst.