Chicagoans say 'holy cow' to herd of bohemian bovines

A public art exhibit featuring fiberglass cows is the talk of the town

For the cows of this world, Chicago used to be the absolute last place they'd ever want to go.

Now it's practically heifer heaven.

Yes, this is the city that used to ship trainloads of bovines to its famed Union Stockyard slaughterhouses.

But now it has put 300 cows on the sidewalks and in the flower beds of the glitziest shopping district around - and bedecked them in everything from tennis shoes to evening gowns.

OK, so today's cows are 580-pound fiberglass imitations, part of a whimsical city-sponsored art project called "Cows on Parade."

But the transformation in the way Chicagoans think of this beast - from walking prime rib to modern-art canvas - speaks mouthfuls about the changes in this city's culture and economy over the decades. And the project's success even says something about the evolution of public art in America.

Take the heifer near Italian clothier Ferragamo on boutique-lined Michigan Avenue. She's got a chic pink wrap and a big bow on her backside and gloves on her front legs. A strand of pearls dangles into the flower bed below. Her name? Ferragamoo.

Or there's the monochromatic bovine with "HOW" stamped on one side of her and "NOW" on the other. Her color? Yep, brown.

And while most Chicagoans haven't yet developed a Hindu-size respect for cows, these sculptures have set off quite a buzz. "City goes cowabunga over art," boomed one headline.

"This is great! Where can I get one?" oozes Phyllis, a Chicago native, as she circles a cow encrusted with marbles and pottery shards, reminiscent of Spanish architect Antoni Gaud.

Actually, most of the sculptures will be sold at a "Cattle Auction" after they're taken off display October 31. Proceeds will go to the buyer's charity of choice.

The cow-invasion idea came when a Chicago businessman visited Zurich, Switzerland, last year and saw a similar project - which drew some 1 million tourists. He suggested it to Chicago's cultural office, which then matched local artists with companies and individuals who sponsored a cow for up to $11,000.

The project fits into the city's efforts - led by Mayor Richard M. Daley - to attract people and their pocketbooks. Because while the meat-packing industry was an economic anchor for more than 100 years, today it's been replaced by flower-studded streets.

A cow with a camera and Hawaiian shirt sits atop a river tour boat. (And yes, there's even a tribute to Mrs. O'Leary's cow, the infamous bovine who sparked the Chicago fire of 1871.)

As for public art, the cows are a far cry from the debacles other cities have had, such as the 1981 outcry in New York City over sculptor Richard Serra's 80-foot-long metal wall.

They hint that a little whimsy - and funding from places other than public coffers - are key ingredients for successful public art.

As for the people of Chicago, the cows are certainly a marker of the changes in many of their lives. Only a few decades ago, nearly one-fifth of Chicagoans toiled in grim conditions of the meat-packing industry. Now, it seems everybody's an art critic.

"They've pushed the envelope pretty far with these cows," says Stacey Hopp, a frizzy-haired driver of one of downtown's horse-drawn carriages. "But they should have gone further. I wish there'd been a little more creativity." Her suggestion? A clear cow filled halfway up with milk.

"We stole it from Switzerland - what's up with that?" another resident gripes. "And why didn't we use hogs? You know, that 'Hog Butcher to the World' thing," she says, intoning poet Carl Sandburg's moniker for Chicago. Porkers on parade? Maybe next time.

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