One woman and 123 globes

  • Medill News Service
  • May 18, 2007 @ 11:59 AM
In summer 1999, a public art exhibit titled "Parade of Cows," a collection of dozens of life-sized cattle sculptures, adorned Chicago's downtown sidewalks. 

Each designed by a different artist, the cows were an instant hit, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors and city residents.

This summer brings another ambitious public art exhibit to Chicago, "Cool Globes: Hot Ideas for a Cool Planet," composed of 123 artist-designed globes. The exhibit runs from June 1 through September. Unlike their bovine ancestors that strutted their stuff just for fun, the 5-foot globes will be both artistic and educational, each offering a different solution for global warming. The display is the brainchild of Wendy Abrams, a Highland Park native and a most unlikely environmentalist.

Abrams, now 42, grew up in Highland Park and attended Brown University, where she studied liberal arts and earned a degree in advertising. Never during her college years did she take environmental science courses, involve herself politically or volunteer for the cause.

In fact, Abrams' chosen fields were marketing and advertising, and she still looks the part of a dynamic advertising executive, svelte and wearing a trendy suit. Abrams returned to the Chicago area to earn an M.B.A. from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and moved back to Highland Park when she got married. Before having children, she focused her ambitions on her career.

But in April 2001, her life changed forever because of a Time magazine article that questioned how government could ignore the many warning signs that global warming was a dangerous reality. Abrams, who has four children, read it just after her youngest children, twins, had been born.

"It really hit a nerve in this maternal instinct," she said. "I thought, 'Shame on me! Why am I not doing anything to stop this?'"

In an article chock-full of frightening statistics, one in particular stood out for Abrams: The planet's average temperature could rise 3 to 11 degrees, potentially within the span of her children's lives. While 3 degrees doesn't sound like much, Abrams said, its effects could be devastating.

She called Environmental Defense, a New York-based national non-profit environmental organization, and asked to volunteer, "probably driving them crazy," she said, with her desire to help in more and more ways. She joined other groups and worked as a volunteer, all the while hoping to discover that the media had sensationalized global warming's threats or that someone, somewhere was going to take care of the problem.

"But none of that was true," Abrams said. "There is just such a gap between what the scientific community is saying and what the public is believing. I decided I needed to get the public's attention."

About two years ago, Abrams began to toy with the idea of an outdoor exhibit illustrating global warming's dangers. At first, she thought about a display like the car crashes the Mothers Against Drunk Driving organization sets up on high school and college campuses. But, ever an optimist, she hoped to stay away from what she calls the "doom and gloom" of most global warming messages.

"I read a study that said the reason people tune this issue out is because they feel helpless about it," Abrams said. "They feel overwhelmed by it. We needed to show people how they could take action in a way they wouldn't ignore. And with public art, it's right there in front of you. That was the symbolism: that these solutions are right there in front of your face."

Influenced by the popularity of 1999's "Parade of Cows," Abrams came up with the idea of displaying oversized globes that would present solutions instead of threats. In spring 2006, she flew to New York to attend a Clinton Global Initiative conference at which all participants were asked to sign a pledge, committing themselves to educate the public about global warming in some way. She vowed to get Cool Globes rolling.

Without that written pledge, she said, the exhibit might not have ever become a reality. 

"I have to say, it was a motivation to have this in writing, to have pledged that Cool Globes would happen," Abrams said. "I could have thrown in the towel so many times along the way."

After the conference, Abrams began to make contacts in the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, which organized "Parade of Cows."  She received a list of artists the city had previously worked with from Nathan Mason, curator of special projects, and began to invite artists to participate. But Cool Globes really took off just over a year ago, when Abrams met with John McCarter Jr., president and CEO of The Field Museum, and asked for help.

Abrams' emphasis on concrete steps that could be taken to curb global warming appealed to McCarter, and he offered the museum's campus as a setting for the exhibit.

"Wendy wanted the display to be practical and down-to-earth," McCarter said. "And her enthusiasm was just great."

McCarter is in awe of Abrams' tireless efforts to make a project a success, he said. Her dedication hasn't waned at all since McCarter signed the museum on to help.

"I get these e-mails in the middle of the night and early in the morning from her,"
McCarter said. "And I asked her, 'Wendy, when do you sleep?' And she said, 'June 3.'"

The exhibit opens June 1, and June 2 is its fundraising dinner. A few of the globes will be installed along Michigan Avenue and at Navy Pier. Several will be displayed inside the Field Museum, but most will be set up on the Museum Campus grounds.The globes' costs are underwritten by scores of sponsors, ranging from corporate giants like Pepsi and McDonald's to the long-running show, The Blue Man Group.

Abrams and McCarter originally expected to display no more than 25 globes. When that number rose above 100, Abrams was flabbergasted. And yet at the Cool Globes press briefing, she happily led a gaggle of reporters and cameras from globe to globe, showing them off as if they were her children. The artists, in a way, consider Abrams their benefactor and the project's mother, without whom Cool Globes would never come to fruition. And though she loves the art, it is the art works' messages, Abrams said, that are important.

Through it all, Abrams has insisted that her goal is not a political one. She believes global warming is a human issue, not one that requires taking political sides. And even after meetings with executives of the most powerful environmental action organizations and politicians, she has remained firmly rooted in terra firma.

"Really," Abrams said, "I'm really just a mom who read a [magazine] article."