Sculpture pays tribute to Batavia's history

BATAVIA – An iconic windmill, a Native American Potowatomi along with quarry limestone and colored glass to represent the Fox River were encompassed in a new bronze sculpture unveiled Sunday on the William J. Donovan Bridge in downtown Batavia.

The new sculpture, entitled "A Look Back" by artists Oscar Leon and Jessica LoPresti, combines the elements of the city's past with its natural history, the second of four sculptures planned for the bridge, Mayor Jeff Schielke said.

As the mayor, City Administrator Bill McGrath and artist Leon climbed on the tarp-wrapped sculpture to pull off the cords, a crowd gathered on the sidewalk cheered, clapped and took photos.

LoPresti and Leon won a competition to be commissioned to create the sculpture for the city.

"This means so much to me," LoPresti, 37, of Chicago, said. "I have worked with many artists on sculptures, I've been an assistant I've done lots of paintings. But this is my first sculpture where I can say, 'I am a part of this,' in a major way."

Leon, 33, of Highwood, said they took a lot of time to capture the true essence of the local history.

"For us to be able to capture something like this means a great deal," Leon said. "Not only is it as opportunity for us as artists, but it's really an opportunity for generations … to continue the conversation … for all those future generations."

McGrath said the artists worked with local historians and windmill experts Bob and Francine Popeck for technical advice. They also traveled to the Potawatomi Cultural Center, Library and Museum in Forest County, Wis. to have the tribe's elements represented accurately and with respect.

Leon explained that the Potowatomi means "Keepers of the Fire” and that is why next to the Potowatomi man, who is dressed for winter, is a fire, and why he faces east.

"They educated us on how they dressed and their way of life and the key areas of their culture," Leon said.

One of the skills the Potawatomi prided themselves on was their hunting skills, so behind the man is a bow and quiver of arrows.

Schielke said the unveiling of the sculpture also commemorates Batavia's 180th year of existence.

Native Americans camped on the Fox River, and later the windmill industry used the river's water power to build windmills, he said.

"This piece of art speaks very very well of what the true history of Batavia was about from the very beginning to modern day," Schielke said. "I want to thank the artists for their innovative ideas … giving people something to admire for, hopefully, generations to come."

Schielke thanked Batavia residents and his fellow officials for their support for the project – as well as former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, whose office used to be on River Street. Schielke said he asked Hastert for an additional $500,000 in federal funds when the bridge project ran short.

Because of the Batavia police and fire providing safety for Hastert during his years of being targeted by protestors, "He said, 'I really owe the City of Batavia a big one,' " Schielke said. "He got us $1 million. That is where the money came from to build the outlooks and to pay for the trails underneath the bridge on both sides."

The sculpture cost $30,000 and was paid through tax incremental finance funds, officials said.

Two years ago, the theme of "Nature" was represented by the installation of “Nature’s Sounds of Harmony” by area resident Kai Schulte, Schielke said.

"When we redesigned the bridge, we had Lane Allen here to propose the idea that we should use art to tell people … how our community was," Schielke said.

Schielke said the final two pieces, representing the themes “Science” and “Art” are currently under review.