NO artist could ask for a better canvas. And Chapman Kelley, a bearded, well-tanned Texan, is happy to be painting what he considers his most important work right on the landscape of one of Chicago's loveliest downtown parks.
Never mind that Chicagoans haven't decided quite what it is -- a wildflower painting, as the artist contends, or simply a beautiful garden. ``From the roof of my building it looks like a giant needlepoint,'' says neighbor Willard Nyburg.
Whatever it is, ``Chicago Wildflower Works I'' (its official title) is fast becoming a major tourist attraction and luring hundreds of curious strollers and volunteer helpers from neighboring office and apartment skyscrapers.
Mr. Kelley has long had a special fondness for the natural beauty of wildflowers, which have been the subject of many of his paintings for the last 20 years.
``To me they're very lyrical,'' he says. ``Everything about them historically and symbolically is absolutely positive.''
With the cooperation of the Chicago Park District, the artist has taken his favorite subject off the canvas and orchestrated the planting of hundreds of thousands of colorful wildflowers on the grassy roof of an underground parking garage in Chicago's Grant Park.
The design is in the form of two ellipses, each the size of a football field. Ringed by a 10-foot border of white blossoms, each contains 48 varieties of native wildflowers, blooming from spring to fall in programmed sequence.
Lovely as it is, this is not strictly art for art's sake. Yes, Kelley is trying to make an artistic statement to a broader-than-usual audience. ``Art-ists want their work to sing to everybody,'' he concedes.
But as he explained it recently, sitting in white shirt and white shorts near the ``painting'' he regularly tends, weeds, and interprets to passers-by, the project also has a significant educational mission.
``This whole wildflower thing has become very glamorous, but there's been a lot more talk than action,'' says Kelley, who hopes to educate people to the popular but little-researched area of wildflower study. He also hopes his project will go some distance toward building solid public support for wider use of wildflowers in landscaping.
Growing wildflowers as art is not new to Kelley. During the last nine years, he has sown their seeds along a four-mile stretch between toll booths at the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, in a park by the Dallas Museum of Natural History, and around the yard of his own art gallery in that city.
Kelley says that if nothing else, he's proved it can be done.
``In the beginning everybody told me this was a great idea, but that you can't grow wildflowers and you certainly can't transplant them -- I couldn't buy that.''
He also became convinced that ``nature's flowers,'' as he calls them, have strong economic and environmental advantages over grass as landscaping material. Their root systems are better at preventing soil erosion, he says. And they need less fertilizer, water, and mowing.
A number of state highway departments, well aware of those advantages, now mow around existing fields of wildflowers.
A few, such as the Texas Highway Department, which has been at it since before the Great Depression, have recently tried growing or transferring wildflowers by mowing them when seeds have set and moving the mulch to new areas.
The chief problem with wildflowers, says Kelley, is that so little is yet known about how to grow them. Texas botanist Thomas J. Allen, who has been working with the artist on the Chicago project, confirms that fewer than 200 of the 25,000 native plants in this country have been researched to any degree.
Unlike cotton or corn, wildflowers have had no natural producer or user groups to finance such investigations, he says. It is one reason, in his view, that some people consider any wildflower that is not in bloom a weed. ``I prefer to think of a weed as a plant whose virtues have not been discovered,'' he says.
Lack of appreciation for and information on wildflowers was a factor in Lady Bird Johnson's decision to help launch the National Wildflower Research Center in Austin, Texas, in December 1982.
Kelley, a trustee of the center until his term recently expired, says he first got interested in growing wildflowers as art while serving as consultant to a number of art collectors in the 1970s.
In the course of flying with these collectors on short trips in private planes, he noticed the similarity of white concrete airport roadways and runways to the borders of his paintings. He says he could visualize how much better the interior would look with colorful wildflowers than with grass.
Rather than wait for the Chicago Park District to finance his ``Wildflower Works I,'' Kelley opted to finance the project himself as his gift to the city. He figures it will cost him at least $1 million. Although some people question why anyone would spend his own money, Kelley insists that not everyone who has the means necessarily wants to move to the Bahamas.
``Some of us really want to leave the world a better place than we found it,'' he says. And he hopes it will lead to similar projects financed by others, although he is well aware of the risks involved.
``It won't be easy. It won't be fast. And it certainly won't be cheap.'' Indeed, he expects to devote the next 8 to 10 years to making his ``Wildflower Works'' work. He will take out those plants that crowd others or fare less well, and put others in.
``It's a real apple-pie-and-motherhood project,'' agrees Mr. Nyburg, a retired Navy captain, who first visited the Chicago park last fall to check out the ``strange things'' going on in his front yard. He is now one of Kelley's most faithful volunteers.
Nyburg circles the painting every morning to record new blooms, look in on a mallard nest, and check the progress ladybugs have been making against aphids on the Missouri primrose.
The artist, too, spends much of his days checking on the painting's progress. But like Monet at his garden in Giverny, France, Kelley cannot resist trying to capture some of the beauty -- like the clump of bright orange poppies now in full bloom -- on a traditional canvas.
``I'm not going to stop painting -- that's my livelihood,'' he says. ``But I don't have to go to the country anymore.''