Stephen Wilkes: Ellis Island -- Ghosts of Freedom

July 31, 2008 10:31:38 AM PDT
Chicago is a city built by immigrants, many of them Europeans who entered the United States through Ellis Island in New York. Stephen Wilkes: Ellis Island -- Ghosts of Freedom, a new photo exhibit at the Chicago Cultural present a beautiful and captivating view of the iconic entrance to the United States. Over 12 million immigrants passed through there between 1892 and 1954. For five years (1998-2003), Stephen Wilkes photographed the long abandoned hospitals of the south side of Ellis Island. Wilkes' photographs capture a spirited vision of beauty among the extreme decay and disrepair in rooms long abandoned, neglected for almost 50 years. Despite the ruined landscape of the infectious disease and psychiatric hospital wings, his large-scale, color images vividly recall the place where children and adults alike were detained before they could enter America. The photographs offer a new interpretation of the well-known gateway to freedom.

Stephen Wilkes: Ellis Island -- Ghosts of Freedom will be on view in the Chicago Cultural Center's Michigan Avenue Galleries through October 5. A gallery talk with exhibition curator Sofia Zutautas will take place on Thursday, August 28, at 12:15 p.m. Admission to the exhibition and these associated programs is free.

Approximately 30 photographs in this exhibition explore the hospital complex south of the Great Hall which reopened in 1990 as a museum dedicated to the immigrant experience. In contrast to the grand Beaux Arts gateway, the island's south side earned it the nicknames "The Island of Tears" and "Heartbreak Island." One percent of the people who arrived in search of a new life were turned away due to health reasons. Some entrants were quarantined and treated, while others found that this was the closest vision of America that they would have. The veiled light and shadows of Wilkes' photographs show the pealing paint and overgrown vines but also expose a quiet beauty that honors both the history and future restoration of this side of the island.

The photographs in Stephen Wilkes: Ellis Island -- Ghosts of Freedom were first exhibited in April 2001 in a solo exhibition at the Soho Triad Fine Arts Gallery in New York. They have since traveled to Los Angeles for an exhibition at the Apex Fine Arts Gallery in 2003, to the Monroe Gallery of Photography in Santa Fe in 2004, and to ClampArt Gallery in New York City in 2007. In 2006, W.W. Norton and Company published a monograph of the photos that pays tribute to the south side of the island.

Through his photographs and video work, Wilkes has inspired and helped secure $6 million in funding towards the restoration for the hospital. The National Park Service's Centennial Initiative for 2016 plans to improve the condition of the 28 Ellis Island buildings that have not yet been rehabilitated.

For more than two decades Stephen Wilkes has been widely recognized for his fine art and commercial photography. With numerous awards and honors, as well as five major exhibitions in the last five years, Wilkes' photographs can be found gracing the covers of top magazines such as Sports Illustrated, Time, Life Magazine, and The New York Times magazine. His work on Ellis Island and his Burned Object series were also featured in the magazine in an artist showcase. He has been praised numerous times by the photographic and design industry with several awards, including the Alfred Eisenstaedt Award for Magazine Photography, Photographer of the Year in Adweek Magazine, Fine Art Photographer of the Year 2004 Lucie Awards, Epson creativity Award, as well as honors in Graphis Magazine and Awards of Excellence in Communication Arts and Art Directors Club.

Along with Stephen Wilkes: Ellis Island -- Ghosts of Freedom, the Michigan Avenue Galleries of the Chicago Cultural Center will show "Martin Koenig: Voices and Images from Bulgaria, 1966-1979" through September 28. The Sidney R. Yates Gallery and Exhibit Hall on the building's fourth floor will exhibit Life as a Legend: Marilyn Monroe through September 21.

Viewing hours for Stephen Wilkes: Ellis Island -- Ghosts of Freedom and other exhibitions at the Chicago Cultural Center are Mondays through Thursdays, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Fridays, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturdays 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and Sundays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The Chicago Cultural Center is closed on holidays. Admission to Chicago Cultural Center exhibitions is free.

Exhibitions and related educational programming presented by the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs at the Chicago Cultural Center are partially supported by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency. Transportation support is provided by United Airlines, the Official Airline of the Chicago Cultural Center. Lawry's the Prime Rib is the restaurant sponsor of Chicago Cultural Center exhibitions.

For more information about Stephen Wilkes: Ellis Island -- Ghosts of Freedom and Chicago Cultural Center exhibitions, the public can visit www.chicagoculturalcenter.org or call 312.744.6630. (TTY: 312.744.2947).


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