Totally Tubular! Chicago Art Aficionados Go Gaga For Wabash Lights

The Wabash Lights

Image courtesy of The Wabash Lights

It smells of diesel. Weird stuff drips down from it. The noise is unnerving every few minutes. I’m referring, of course, to the CTA elevated train tracks in the Loop.

For tourists and locals alike, walking under the L tracks may not seem like strolling through a field of daisies.

Jack Newell and Seth Unger

Jack Newell and Seth Unger

Jack Newell, Seth Unger and Justin Wardell aim to change that. They are the brains behind The Wabash Lights. It’s a bold public art initiative using light as a medium. The goal is to actually make the L tracks a fun destination. Sounds like a tough assignment. But, as Newell explained, people are drawn to light, and “it can erase invisible boundaries.”

A sneak preview of Wabash Lights was provided to an admiring crowd at the offices of Gensler on Wednesday evening. The timing was significant, Newell said.

“This is Chicago Art Month, and the theme is ‘crossing borders,’” he said.

If successfully funded and implemented, Wabash Lights would place a series of colorful LED tubes in four-foot lengths end-to-end under the L tracks along Wabash Avenue from Lake to Van Buren.

Wabash Lights Technical Guru Justin Wardell

Wabash Lights Technical Guru Justin Wardell

The underside of the L tracks would in essence become art, Unger said.

“There’s a term called ‘placemaking,’” he said. “It’s when a space provides a new experience. We want to create personal memories for people through public art.”

Not only would people be able to experience the art, but they could contribute to how it looks, Newell said.

“It will celebrate the infrastructure of Chicago, and transform the L. The people of Chicago could even decide what it looks like.”

The Wabash LIghtsThat would be accomplished by average knuckleheads like me and you going online, suggesting a design theme of colors, and programming the Wabash Lights ourselves. It’s a fairly easy-to-use program, as Wabash Lights technical guru Justin Wardell demonstrated during the Gensler event.

As to “if” and “when” the Wabash Lights might become a reality, well, money could be a barrier. Newell and Unger estimate the cost at roughly $2 million. They’re starting out with a kickstarter campaign to generate interest and gauge whether the art-appreciation public is interested enough in the concept to toss in a couple of bucks.

Author: Bill Motchan

Bill Motchan is a writer and photographer, and a former resident of the West Loop. He can be reached at

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