After a long day of layovers, in the back seat of the cab bound for home, there’s comfort in spying the “Welcome to Chicago” sign at the crossroads where O’Hare International Airport ends and Interstate Highway 90 begins, where the glittering Chicago skyline appears like a mirage.
Soon, the decades-old sign that shouts in all-capital letters will have company, in the form of a pack of giant joggers, frozen in place, poised to follow the downtown-bound traffic. It’s a work of public art that might become as familiar to returning Chicagoans and tourists as the nearby oversize greeting.
“The Runners,” designed by Athens, Greece, sculptor Theodoros Papagiannis, is a massive, stainless-steel pack of athletes; it and the “Welcome” flank the eastbound stretch of Interstate Highway 90 and sit on medians near Mannheim Road.
Construction for “The Runners” began Tuesday and is expected to be completed in time for a ribbon-cutting ceremony May 2. For the group behind it, the Chicago-Athens Sister City Committee, the project has been years in the making. Six, to be exact.
Papagiannis said the sculpture ties Chicago to its Greek residents.
“The Runners is a symbol of emigration, moving — the Greek people in America,” Papagiannis said. “Also, it’s (about) marathon runners, who bring a message. The message is peace, collaboration, friendship between two cities, two countries. It’s very important, this message.”
Papagiannis also emphasized the sculpture’s representation of pre-Socrates philosopher Heraclitus, who said, “Everything flows.”
Sortis Rekoumis, who chaired finance committees for the project, clarified. “Nothing stands still,” he said. “You cannot get into the same river twice. That’s the concept.”
“Gateway Green offered the opportunity to us,” Athens committee chairman Demetrios Kozonis said Monday, seated in the light-filled conference room at Delko Construction, his company that is also responsible for the installations.
“Without knowing how difficult it is, we said yes,” Kozonis said, and all three men laughed. “In order to install in a public area, it’s very difficult.”
Which is an understatement, especially for Kozonis, founding president of Delko, which has overseen construction projects in Chicago since 1981. Given that the sculpture is being installed as an extension of the City of Chicago Public Art Collection, and given the nature of doing construction at airports, red tape for the 18-by-40-foot sculpture has been thick. Kozonis rattled off a list of approving committees that included the obvious O’Hare contacts and the Chicago Public Art Collection, as well as Chicago Sister Cities International, the mayor’s office, the state of Illinois and Gateway Green — the nonprofit responsible for the greening of Chicago’s expressways — which spearheaded the project.
“We haven’t finished yet,” Rekoumis said, laughing. “There’s still fundraising to do.”
In all, Rekoumis, Kozonis and the local Greek community raised $750,000 of the more than $1 million cost of the sculpture, and donated numerous hours to the project. Concrete was donated by Gateway Green. Papagiannis, for his part, hasn’t yet been paid.
“For me,” Papagiannis said in a thick accent, relying at times on Rekoumis to translate, “the money isn’t the first problem. It’s the last one. The first problem was making a good sculpture.”
Born in Ioannina in northwest Greece, about 50 miles from the Albanian border, Papagiannis was educated at the Athens School of Fine Arts, where he still teaches sculpture. Nearly a septuagenarian, Papagiannis has sculptures all over the world and won the Athens Committee’s proposal over 37 other artists. His definition of a “good” sculpture for Chicago? One that ties the city to its Greek residents.
At the construction site Tuesday morning, Papagiannis donned a white hardhat and gingerly perched atop the muddy median, breaking a few branches from an imposing tree to clear the view for a snapshot of the construction.
He smiled and squinted in the sunshine at his 4,000-pound steel runners, lowered into place one by one via crane.
Because at least one runway was temporarily closed for construction of the sculpture, Kozonis and his team had only Tuesday and Wednesday to install the five runners and their composite shadows, which make up the rest of the sculpture. Over the next few weeks, landscaping and lighting will be completed. A gala is scheduled for April 29, to which Mayor Richard Daley has been invited as the keynote speaker. Papagiannis, for his part, seemed pleased to add Chicago to the list of cities to which he has contributed art.
“Life is short,” he said, when asked what might be next, now that this project is nearly complete. “I believe that the most interesting ideas remain in the future.”