Chicago artist lands dream assignment decorating the White House
Artist David Csicsko is photographed in front of his stained glass windows at Lurie Children's Hospital on Thursday, December 6, 2012. Csicsko recently installed work in the White House. I Stacie Scott~Sun-Times Media
Updated: January 3, 2013 5:34PM
His late mother was a well-read woman who greeted the world with wide-eyed wonder. His father, a former welder and man of few words, brought home the bacon.
Not surprisingly, their oldest child and only son — Chicago artist David Lee Csicsko — is a combination of both. Consequently, the 55-year-old has earned an increasingly good living from his artistic ventures alone since exiting art school more than three decades ago. The kid who often was scolded for doodling during class followed his bliss, and it ultimately paid off.
“He’s a real connector,” longtime associate David Condon, owner of Colorsmith Stained Glass in Riverside, says of Csicsko’s knack for networking and promotion. “Not a lot of artists know how to do that. In fact, most artists don’t [do it], because the idea of making the art and then promoting it is two different things.”
Self-confidence plays a key role, Condon explains. One reason Csicsko can effectively market his art is because “he knows it’s good.”
You might have spotted Csicsko’s stained glass and mosaics around town at various churches, the Belmont L station and Loyola University’s new Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing, among other venues. His award-winning 1983 poster advertising Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera “The Mikado” for Lyric Opera is still on display at the Civic Opera House.
Early on, his graphic designs appeared in Chicago magazine and the Chicago Tribune. Marshall Field’s and Bloomingdale’s also were clients.
But it was Csicsko’s creation at the recently opened Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago in Streeterville that vaulted him onto the national stage.
This past spring, after being wowed by Csicsko’s nature-themed mosaics and stained-glass handiwork in Lurie’s narrow 12th floor chapel, Chicago-based event producer Gabrielle Martinez invited him to conjure designs for one of her biggest clients — and certainly the biggest one of Csicsko’s career: the White House.
“When I think about the house and the decor, you want something that’s obviously in keeping with the tradition and classic style,” says Martinez, managing partner of agencyEA, which has produced the White House’s holiday extravaganza for three years. “But my challenge every year is how do I come up with something fresh, different — [that has] a big wow effect?”
Csicsko’s modern-yet-traditional sensibility, she thought, fit the bill perfectly. Upon approval by first lady Michelle Obama, to whom Martinez presents her concepts, he began in June. The final pieces were completed just a few stomach-churning days before installation began late last month.
In addition to four multi-paneled, wood-and-lead-framed windows bearing stained-glass wreaths and other quintessentially American symbols (pineapples, a bald eagle) that line the well-trafficked East Colonnade, Csicsko constructed two wooden Christmas trees for the White House garden, large-tiled planter boxes for the State Dining Room and round ceramic ornaments that match the room’s Clinton-era draperies and adorn topiaries that sprout from the planters.
“The first thing I thought was, ‘You picked the perfect guy to do this,’ ” Csicsko said.
“And in the beginning,” he went on, “I felt really confident. I didn’t feel nervous at all until Nov. 1. Then I couldn’t sleep. Just really nervous. Just horrible. So I just kept trying to force myself to go to every yoga class I had a spare minute for to just sort of decompress and calm down.”
His main concern was that everything would be finished and delivered on time. Much like an architect does, Csicsko focuses on design and farms out the manufacturing. His projects, therefore, require skilled experts around the country. One maker of glass rondelles (circular ornamental glass pieces) lives in Kokomo, Ind. Another fellow from Pennsylvania specializes in the use of recycled Pyrex glass bowls. And those ceramic ornaments in the White House State Room? Meticulously crafted in Oregon.
All of Csicsko’s stained-glass windows — some of which are derived from melted-down dishes and bowls the artist stockpiles (he loves sales) — are born at Condon’s Riverside shop, which contracts with area churches as well as private homes and other businesses.
It was Condon who assembled Csicsko’s four White House windows, packed them in Styrofoam, loaded them into a trailer-hitched minivan and drove them to Washington, D.C. “There was a lot of anxiety about everything getting there,” Csicsko said. “But it looks amazing, so all the sweat was completely worth it.”
Plus, thanks to a persistent pal, he was finally able to meet his benefactor, Michelle Obama. While in the State Dining Room, “having some lovely food by the White House chefs,” Csicsko heard the roar of a crowd just outside and noticed “this sea of old ladies running into the grand foyer.”
He left his lunch to check out the ruckus and discovered a dense throng of “short women and the first lady’s head floating above them.” Wading through them to her, he assumed, was impossible.
But just as Obama was about to be whisked away, a bold companion of Csicsko’s “zigzagged” through the elderly ocean and shouted, “Michelle, we’re from Chicago!” That got her attention, and soon Csicsko was up close and personal.
“It was two minutes that lasted an hour,” he recalled, “but she was very gracious.”