Dealing art under the rumbling trains
Surrounded by ruckus, William Bigham Galleries makes noise with custom decorations and awards
05/16/2012 10:00 PM
On South Wabash Avenue near 15th Street, the train noise is nearly constant. Amtrak trains rumble past the building’s left during early mornings and evenings, and freight trains occasionally crawl past it.
But most of the noise comes from the ‘L’ tracks behind it. The Orange and Green lines ride past it every other minute during rush hour, and about every 5 to 10 minutes during off-peak hours. The sound of the wheels echoes off every metal surface.
It feels like there are trains everywhere.
But take one step inside William Bigham Galleries at 1528 S. Wabash Ave., and the noises fade. Originally an industrial building, the walls are thick enough to muffle the sounds, helping them fade into the background.
To gallery owner Bigham, train noise isn’t an issue.
“It’s not a big deal at all,” he said. “The customers don’t really notice it.”
In its home nestled next to the two sets of tracks, the gallery features paintings, sculptures, and jewelry. Some of it is Bigham’s work; other pieces were created by artists from around the Chicago area. Most notably, it offers oil paintings by Rodriguez J. Hill and Bruce Jefferson.
But what Bigham is especially proud of are the custom awards he crafts. Some are trophies and some are plaques, but each award incorporates artwork he purchased from the Ivory Coast artisans. Bigham has been to the region many times, and he had nothing but praise for its residents.
“The people of Ivory Coast are very friendly,” he said. “They are always happy to share their culture.”
Bigham aims to create awards that are unique, distinctive and perfectly suitable for the occasion. He also creates what he calls “greeting cards” — plaques that incorporate artwork and quotes to recognize special occasions.
Bigham considers himself more of a designer than an artist. He meticulously plans out every aspect of each piece, but he leaves the actual assembly to workshops. Prior to opening the gallery, Bigham worked as a design engineer for AT&T.
“My background is in engineering,” he said. “It always intrigued me to come up with new and creative works, but my job didn’t really me do that.”
Around 20 years ago, Bigham decided to channel his creativity into a business. At first, he operated out of his home. In 2003, he opened a 5,000 foot gallery in Aurora’s Fox Valley Mall.
That gallery remains his primary location. But four years ago, Bigham decided to set up another location closer to the city.
“A lot of my customers are from Chicago,” Bigham explained. “It’s much easier for them to met me here than go all the way to Aurora. It’s more convenient.”
It also helped to bring his work to a neighborhood that doesn’t have many galleries. Bigham made an effort to make the store eye-catching. African statues are arranged along the window displays. Paintings and jewelry displays hand from the wall unobstructed.
That alone is enough to catch the attention of some passersby. During the course of the interview, two people stopped to gawk, and one of them even took a few pictures.
“I’m normally here on Friday evenings and Saturdays,” Bigham said. “That’s when we get the most foot traffic. We usually get some good traffic after 7 o’clock.”
As he explained, Fridays and Saturdays are when people tend to go out to eat. Many South Loop residents go to the restaurants further north on Wabash. They walk past the gallery on the way home, and many stop to take a look inside.
On Saturdays, Bigham sometimes gets some foot traffic from the nearby M Lounge jazz club.
“I usually try to be here until 9 p.m., sometimes 10 p.m.”
But that is not the schedule Bigham is bound by every single week. The sign on the door does not list any regular hours, asking customers to call for an appointment. On Saturday, May 12, the store was closed all evening.
Not that Bigham is short on customers. During the course of the interview, he got several phone calls, and was talking to a prospective client almost as soon as the interview was over.
Twyler Jenkins, who heads the Bronzeville-based event planning agency Strategic Events Solutions, first encountered Bigham’s work 10 years ago when she organized a conference for the Indiana Black Expo. Jenkins was impressed enough to recommend him to her next client, the Rainbow/PUSH coalition.
Since then, Jenkins worked with Bigham every time she had an opportunity. When Strategic Events Solutions celebrated its 10-year anniversary, Jenkins hired him to create the awards to recognize 12 of her best clients.
“I wanted each award to be unique,” she said. “I wanted to acknowledge each client for something particular. Will sat down with me and talked me through. He didn’t just want to know who the awards were for, he wanted to know why.”
The results impressed everyone involved.
“After the awards [ceremony],” said Jenkins, “every one of my clients called and said that it was the most beautiful award they ever got.”
Bigham acknowledges that the gallery has its ups and downs, but he has no complaints. Not even the prospect of the impending NATO summit was enough to dampen his spirits.
“The parking might be an issue,” said Bigham, “But I’m not worried. I hope that it will get me more foot traffic. We’ll see.”
Photos by Erika Hildegard Johnson/Contributor