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Chicago artist gets a national stage: the holiday White House

Chicago artist David Lee Csicsko designed stained glass windows decorating the grand entryway at the White House in Washington, November 28,
Chicago artist David Lee Csicsko designed stained glass windows decorating the grand entryway at the White House in Washington, November 28,

By Mark Guarino

CHICAGO (Reuters) - To help decorate the White House for the Christmas season this year, President Barack Obama turned to an artist from his hometown.

David Lee Csicsko, a Chicago mosaic artist who specializes in public installations, designed the annual display in the corridor leading to the East Room and the State Dining Room, both areas that are elaborately decorated at the beginning of each holiday season.

The White House decorations, which included Csicsko's work and a tree featuring holiday cards by children of service members from around the world, were unveiled to reporters and dozens of school children by first lady Michelle Obama Wednesday. As many as 90,000 people will view the decorations throughout the season.

Csicsko, 55, was told his selection was based on the large-scale art glass installation he created for a chapel at the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago.

The tradition of decorating the White House for Christmas started with first lady Caroline Harrison in 1889 with an indoor tree lit by candles and her own decorations. Since then, the display tradition has remained the first lady's responsibility and has evolved to incorporate issues of particular interest to the women in charge.

Jacqueline Kennedy solicited artwork from the disabled and seniors for a "Nutcracker" theme in 1962. Nancy Reagan commissioned decorations from a drug treatment organization in Washington. Hillary Clinton invited artisans from the National Needlework Association and Council of Fashion Designers of America to create a "Santa's Workshop" motif in 1997, while Laura Bush emphasized animals for "All Creatures Great and Small," her choice for 2002.

Csicsko says he has long been drawn to public spaces that serve as sanctuaries amid dense urban areas, beginning with the Catholic church he attended while growing up in Hammond, Indiana.

"The church seemed very vibrant and an oasis for me," he said.

CELEBRATORY SIMPLICITY

His work at the White House, a combination of stained glass windows, outdoor sculpture and ornamental topiaries, references America's folk art past, from the colonial period through early last century.

Created with over 40 pieces of cut glass each, the four large stained-glass windows that line the corridor of the East Room and overlook the first lady's garden use ornamental emblems from different eras — an eagle, open pineapple, acorns — that Csicsko says are meant to present a simplicity worthy of the American Shakers while remaining celebratory.

"The idea was trying to create something universal, so no matter how feel about the holidays, you could see these and smile," he said.

Two decorative Christmas trees Csicsko sculpted from wood are on display in the garden. Inside the State Dining Room, where the White House's annual 400-pound (180-kg) gingerbread house is on display each year, Csicsko created four planter boxes housing topiary trees that are each decorated with round ceramic tiles colored to match the room's draperies and featuring iconic American images such as the soaring eagle.

Nancie Mills Pipgras, editor of the online magazine "Mosaic Art Now," says she was not surprised Csicsko was chosen for the White House considering "his work is a people magnet."

"The White House is the people's house and his work speaks to people universally," she said.

Csicsko is under White House orders to not reveal the budget for the decorations, but he says the process involved contracting with artisan friends in several states to manufacture the elements.

He says he has not yet met President Obama or Michelle Obama, but did have "a quiet moment" with Bo, their dog, who was roaming the corridor.

"I have this feeling I went from being a Chicago artist to becoming an American artist, this crossing over to a bigger place," he said.

(Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Eric Walsh)

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