Making potholes into art

Artist fills a need with slightly satirical, civic-minded 'Pothole'

Mosaic artist Jim Bachor has the artistic answer to Chicago's pothole problem. (Bill Hogan, Chicago Tribune)

It's officially spring. We're deep into pothole season, which, like other holiday seasons, seems to grow longer every year. This pothole season could be the longest yet. Potholes are out of control. The Chicago Department of Transportation said last month that pothole complaints have tripled in the past year; and since New Year's Day alone, the city has filled more than 350,000 potholes. And because, according to CDOT, which assumes there are at least five unreported potholes for each reported pothole, their conservative estimate of the number of potholes remaining is, well, about 60,000 potholes.

At the very, very least.

Now, take into account that Chicago has merely 30 pothole crews, only a few of the which work weekends, and the pothole epidemic stemming from the apocalyptic winter of 2013-2014 should be resolved ... um, uh ...

But wait: In Chicago, one man can make a difference. And that man is Jim Bachor, professional artist, stay-at-home dad and former corporate branding executive. He has an elegant solution. Not an efficient solution.

But it looks terrific, and is pretty near genius. (Are you listening, MacArthur Foundation?)

About a year ago, Bachor began filling potholes with a clever 16-by-24-inch mosaic, modeled on the design of the official Chicago flag but with the word "Pothole" through the center.

Think functional graffiti. Or cheeky public art.

The mosaic slides into a pothole, Bachor cements it in place. Boom, done: A "Pothole" where a pothole sat.

So far, he's filled only four potholes, in the Mayfair and Jefferson Park neighborhoods, not far from his home on the Northwest Side. He said he has loose plans to do several more in the next several months. But not every pothole in the city. Partly that's because he does this on this own, with his own money; each mosaic costs about $50 in marble and materials. But also, Bachor, who reinvented himself as an artist in 2012 after being laid off from his job as creative director at a Chicago advertising firm, sells ironic, pop-culture mosaics of cereal boxes and junk food for $2,000 a piece; and this summer, his sprawling, elaborate mosaic for the CTA's Thorndale station will be installed, his first public art commission. "So, the potholes are literally filler."

And yet, if the city of Chicago needed a tasteful way of addressing its pothole problem, if it needed an official Chicago pothole patch, it could do worse than Jim Bachor's slightly satirical, civic-minded "Pothole."

The other day, in his home studio, while preparing to install his fourth pothole mosaic, he stepped through kaleidoscopic piles of marble crumbs and angled around takeout containers full of marble chunks, gathering materials: utility knife, hot water, spray bottle, towels, broom, traffic cones ...

As he prepped, he explained:

"This started a year ago. I watched these pothole crews going up and down my street, and there was a defiant pothole in front of my house that was just staying, that wasn't being fixed. I thought I should fill it in. So I waited until nightfall. I was paranoid about attracting attention, and because it was toward the center of the street, I wanted to be careful. My wife asked me if she should set aside money for bail. Our 87-year old neighbor, from his porch, served as my spotter. I mixed cement, poured it in the hole, let cars go by, poured some more. It worked great. The thing is, these mosaics would last forever if I could just control the canvas."

Story over, he put his latest "Pothole" mosaic under his arm, walked to his minivan, loaded it into the back and nodded at the street, at his first "Pothole" mosaic, now crumbling. He sighed. Irony of ironies, since installing the mosaic, a new pothole has opened beside it and proceeded to swallow the original "Pothole."

He backed down his driveway and drove slowly through Mayfair, scanning for the perfect pothole. You would think these are salad days for most pothole artists, that Bachor would have his pick. But no: "A bunch of characteristics needs to be in place." He needs a temperate day (at least 50 degrees, so the water involved evaporates quickly). A pothole can't be too deep, big or small — he needs a pothole large enough to fit the word "pothole." Also, a pothole needs to be stable, to be an "outcast pothole," separate from other potholes, and preferably not in the middle of the street, so his clandestine art installation isn't dangerous or disruptive.

"Oh, good one," he said, slowing for a long, oval-shaped abyss of missing pavement. "But too near the middle of the street. Don't want to get into trouble." He continued on, his minivan bucking up and down and side to side, passing over rutted, pocked street. After a few minutes, he stopped the minivan, got out and stretched his tape measure over a pothole. He climbed back in the driver's seat: "Too small," he decided.

He drove on, wondering out loud: "Is there a century-old law saying citizens can't fill potholes on their own?"

Well, not exactly: But according to city spokesman Bill McCaffery, there could be permit and safety concerns that apply to rogue pothole completionists. The official city statement is this: "The Department of Transportation continues to work diligently to fill the numerous potholes that have appeared on our streets as a result of the historic winter. Mr. Bachor and his art are proof that even the coldest, harshest winter can not darken the spirits of Chicagoans. But filling potholes is a task best left to the professionals and CDOT."

Actually, Bachor is not the only artist finding inspiration in potholes: Recently, New York photographers Davide Luciano and Claudia Ficca have used potholes for conceptual art works, reimagining gaping chunks of street in New York, Montreal and Los Angeles as ice-fishing ponds and baptismal pools. But Bachor may be the only Chicagoan using potholes. He is 49, grew up in suburban Detroit and spent decades here as a designer and creative director in the advertising industry. A few years ago, when the advertising firm he was working for lost a major client and several employees were fired, he found himself turning to mosaic art, a medium he had fallen in love with during a trip to Europe. He liked the juxtaposition of using a timeless format (mosaics) to create art works of ephemeral subjects (snack cakes and cereal).

When it came to designing a pothole mosaic, having worked on branding for John Deere, Dow Chemical and the U.S. Postal Service, he decided to ape the "simple, clear branding of the Chicago flag." Not to mention, a mysterious pothole mosaic could serve as kind of mysterious branding of his own work.

When he reached Jefferson Park, Bachor turned down Argyle Street, which, around Roberts Square Park, becomes narrow and residential. He was a block from Beaubien Elementary School, and it was the end of the school day. Parents sat in SUVs, reading their cellphones. "I think we have a winner," Bachor said, nodding toward a large, perfectly round pothole somewhat out of the center of the street. He got his measuring tape.

He raised his thumb.

"It's good," he said.

He got a broom from his minivan, swept stones from the pothole, then set up the traffic cones he had bought to teach soccer drills to his 7-year-old twin boys. "I think my next investment will be an orange vest," he said, mixing cement in a candy-cane-colored bucket. A school bus rumbled past. Bachor poured cement into the pothole, smoothing in round motions. Cars rolled by, the drivers glancing at Bachor, on his knees, but not stopping. Ann Yost, who lives nearby and was just home from work, walked over: "What's this?"

Bachor explained.

"Huh," she said. "The city actually did the streets here not that long ago, but they did a crap job of it. Well, obviously. So, what are we going to get then? Some kind of picture of a sun or a moon or something?"

She saw the pothole mosaic: "Oh, it's wonderful! I love that. Clever! Are you doing this on your own?"

"My own."

"Thank you for filling our pothole."

"All I do is give."

After an hour, as the cement settled, he slid the mosaic into place and patted it down, cleaning off dirt and mud. The more he attempted to spritz away the gunk, though, the muddier the mosaic became. He dabbed at it with towels but soon required more towels. He glanced up at the darkening clouds, waiting for the inevitable rain. Indeed, for the next two days, Bachor would return to Argyle, cleaning off the mosaic with a wire brush until it looked perfect. One nearby homeowner would bring him a Danish as a thank-you. But that first day, initial installation took about four hours. A man who lives across the street walked over with a thick roll of paper towels. Bachor, crouched on the street, scrubbing, looked up. Relief flooded over his face.

"Thank you," he said.

"You know," the man replied, "it would take you a decade to fill every pothole in this city." Bachor smiled. He wiped at the mud until an image shone through. The man stepped back and read: "'Pothole.' That's classic."

cborrelli@tribune.com

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