According to Steve Mueller founding a sculpture garden comes with only one requirement: a bit of land.
The bit of land for the High Lake Sculpture Garden is an acre lot that is the home and studio of Steve and Debbie Mueller, its proprietors. The land slopes gently upward from High Lake Avenue in West Chicago, Illinois to a broad spread of flat terrain. Amid the trees and shrubs gracing the plot are sculptures ranging from the monumental to the intimate.
One of the most compelling features of this sculpture garden is the unique array of spaces available to harbor sculpture in a variety of scales and styles. Two large grassy swards provide for the largest works. Somewhat smaller sculptures gather under the high, spreading branches of mature hardwoods. Visitors can spy yet smaller pieces nestled under flowering trees or along a row of arborvitae. Heading toward the home, a Prairie School residence built in 1915, one passes into a fenced garden set between the home and studio. This garden, a combination of vegetables and native plants, marks the Muellers as gardeners and serves as a verdant gallery for several mid-sized sculptures.
Along with these transitions in scale come social transitions, that is, from wide open public spaces to more private spaces. This works to “color” the visitors’ apprehension of the sculptures by affecting subtle shifts in their state of mind. This signals a curated sculpture garden with care taken to factor the psychological effects of the shared environment of a sculpture and its viewer. Mueller believes that the deepest appreciation of art is gained by living with it, and his curating of High Lake Sculpture Garden affords guests an introduction to this philosophy.
The interest in sculpture that brought these artworks to roost had been long in growing. Its dates back to when Steve Mueller and his father Karl, a businessman and accomplished painter, visited the studio of Karl’s former painting instructor Curry Bohm and saw his father purchase one of Curry’s paintings. As far as the youth knew, buying, owning, and living with original art was commonplace and a need to be fulfilled.
The Muellers acquired their first sculpture while Steve was still a student at Herron School of Art and Design in Indianapolis. By selecting Herron, the young artist was, in effect, electing to return to his native Midwest, after having spent most of his early years in Switzerland, Germany and Australia. Herron offered an exceptional range of technical methods for realizing sculpture. As it turned out, it was a pivotal choice for his future in art.
Among these methods was -- as expected in Indiana -- carving limestone. Mueller recounts his attempt at carving stone as “turning perfectly good blocks of limestone into gravel”, an enterprise which had him spend several weeks in the backlot of the sculpture building. There he noticed a large fragment of steel resting on a 55-gallon drum. Initially taken aback by the ugliness of this fragment, he believed it was being discarded. Nonetheless, he grew intrigued by the object. With the passing weeks, he began to see the fragment for what it actually was – a sculpture – and eventually purchased it in 1975.
Thus "Boots", a 1970 creation by Gary Freeman, became the first sculpture for what, 30 years later, would become the High Lake Sculpture Garden.
Freeman taught sculpture at Herron while Mueller earned his BFA in sculpture. Freeman was a master craftsman who worked alongside his students in the foundry of the sculpture department. Freeman’s background was in casting bronze, but in the early 70s he shifted his working method to fabricating – the joining together of separate components by welding or mechanical means. Mueller, along with his fellow students and future business partners Barry Hehemann and Michael Wilkie, were thus able to develop their own expertise in tandem with Freeman.
Some years later, the future sculpture garden acquired four more works by Freeman: "Equipmental" from 1979, "Obvious" "Solution" from 1982 (restored at Vector in 2003 and donated to Herron) "Table Statement" from 1986 and "Logic Cubed" from 1989. By this time, the three young sculptors had formed their own sculpture fabricating business, Vector Custom Fabricating, in Chicago. Their shop specialized in custom architectural metals for architects and designers and became the “go to” facility for fabricating large public commissions for Midwest sculptors. Vector was a natural evolution for the three. They had gone on to earn their MFA degrees from the University of Illinois in Urbana, where they could also interact with master sculptors and further develop their craft. Chief among these sculptors was Roger Blakley.
Blakley fostered a very different aesthetic than Freeman but worked with the same keen discipline. Several of his works grace High Lake’s collection, most prominent is "h-v" (1978), an organic totem that grows from the prairie soil like the fields of corn that surround his studio.
The two largest sculptures in the garden are "Buffalo" (1999) by Mike Baur and "2nd 4th" (2003) by Barry Hehemann. "Buffalo" rests at the geometric center of the sculpture garden, where its eye-catching scale – 10 feet in height by 14 feet in length – dominates one’s first view of the garden. The steel and concrete sculpture boasts the hulking profile of its namesake, while its position at the top of a long rise conveys the classic image of a buffalo gazing across the prairie. There is a somber irony in the title of this piece, as its industrial construction echoes the railroads encroaching on a virgin prairie to spell the near eradication of the buffalo.
Mueller recalls how the installation of "Buffalo", which is clearly visible from the street, left no doubt in the neighborhood about what was happening on their lot. The garden had become public.
As one of the principals of Vector, Barry Hehemann has had access to space and state-of-the-art equipment to become a master builder of large-scale works. Hehemann’s "2nd 4th" animates much of the space in the open backlot of the Garden. Its loose trusswork of thick, painted tubes rises to 14 feet, suggesting the construction of a bridge. A massive arc of concrete shaped like the hull of a boat hangs from this truss. Consequently, this observer recalled ships hoisted in dry dock. This effect, plus its footing on raised concrete pilings, conveys the sense of floating, despite the tons of material used in its fabrication.
Sharing the large backlot with Hehemann is "Chicago Totem". Commissioned in 2009, Seattle sculptor Ed Wicklander fabricated his work at Vector. Wicklander had for some time sought to create a work too large for his own studio. This was a collaboration long anticipated between Wicklander and the artist/fabricator friends he had met years earlier in graduate school. "Chicago" Totem features three black tori perched one atop the other. Rising to 14 feet, visitors can glimpse it from High Lake Avenue.
A year later, Mueller approached Stephen Luecking (this writer) for a sculpture to occupy a low 50 foot berm he was landscaping in the southeast corner of the property. Luecking had been exploring mathematical forms that bridged the gap between the geometric and the organic. Of these he chose thirteen to cast in iron at the size of soccer balls and asked Mueller to use his own judgement about where to plant them. Titled "Crocuses", they appear like buds emerging from the berm amongst the ground cover. Their final distribution spreads beyond the berm to include an additional 60 foot stretch of arborvitae that flanks the drive as it climbs into the garden.
The Muellers also host sculptures scheduled to be exhibited in upcoming shows and needing a temporary home. At this writing the guest sculpture is "Marker" from 1987 by Eric Lindsey. Lindsey has created an elegant contrast of form and texture by adjoining a shimmering slab of black granite atop an incised boulder of brown granite. In the past, sculptures from John Himmelfarb’s series of trucks have been regular guests at High Lake. Particularly powerful was his enigmatically titled "Greek Opera" (2007) a massive chunk of iron sand cast at the Kohler factory in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, as was the case with "Reflection" (2007), also displayed here for some years. Those two plus another temporary guest "The Road Ahead Leaves a Trail Behind" (2012), painted steel, were all collaborations with Mueller. And most recently, in 2023, the artist Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle lent the collection a prototype that Vector fabricated for his "Stool with Mug".
The largest variety of sculptures congregate under a small grove of shade trees set between "Buffalo" and "2nd-4th". Benches impart restfulness and offer a point for viewing works by Terry Karpowicz, Judy Robins, Derick Malkemus, Daniel Hunt as well as Blakley and Freeman.
Thoughtful planning can create a reciprocity between sculptures and the landscape, with the result being a sculpture garden that is itself a work of art that enhances both. Under the vision of the Muellers this synergy comes alive at the High Lake Sculpture Garden.