Diana Leviton Gondek’s horse soon will ride again.
The Naperville painter is among the local artists whose work comprises the Horses of Honor. The public art installation benefits the Chicago Police Memorial Foundation through creatively inspired tributes to officers who have died or become disabled in the line of duty since 1853.
The exhibit includes about 60 life-sized horse statues, each painted to honor a specific officer. The horses will remain on display through the city’s Nov. 22 Festival of Lights before being sold via auction. The proceeds will benefit the foundation’s work in supporting loved ones left behind by the fallen officers.
Leviton Gondek, 54, was stunned when she awakened Oct. 13 to learn her horse had fallen, just two days after it was put in place outside the Wrigley Building on the bustling Magnificent Mile.
In one of two weekend acts of apparent vandalism or attempted theft at installations along Michigan Avenue, the piece showed evidence that someone loosened the hardware holding it together. The person then took off, leaving it precariously assembled, perhaps having found it harder than expected to move from its place. When a family came along the next day and gathered around the star-covered horse for a photograph, it took barely a touch for it to crash to the sidewalk in pieces. The unsuspecting family was almost as horrified as the artist.
“It was devastating,” Leviton Gondek said. “I was told there was damage to two horses — and mine was the worst.”
The segments were returned to the manufacturer for repairs, and by the end of the week, the mended horse was back in Leviton Gondek’s South Side studio for re-painting.
She had been introduced to the survivors of P.O. Myles Smetana, the Foster District officer whose memory her horse honors. Smetana, a 20-year department veteran, died in 1999 at age 46. With support from the statue’s sponsor, Wendella Boats, she wanted to waste no time getting the creation back to its intended spot.
“I’ve met the family, and they were incredible,” said Leviton Gondek, who expects the piece to be reinstalled by this weekend. “They were one of the biggest reasons I wanted to fix this so fast.”
During the previous several weeks, she had grown accustomed to the silent beast’s company. She said she spent about a month working full time on the project, which includes more than 300 tiny stars representing the fallen responders. She would set a goal each day of completing a specific section before she would call it quits. Sometimes that meant very long days.
“I’m married to a workaholic, and I would get home after him,” she said. “We would eat a lot of leftovers.”
After studying fine arts at Northern Illinois University, Leviton Gondek worked as an art director at Northwestern University early in her professional life. She returned to painting full time in recent years. She has intense personal connections with each of the paintings that recently made up her eight-week solo show in North Central College’s Schoenherr Gallery.
She knows her line of work can be physically demanding, even for someone who regularly runs and works out, as she does.
“There were times when I would bend over for long periods of time to reach places” on the horse’s underside,” she said. “It was a physical challenge, but then I’d think, ‘Who am I to complain?’ These people gave their lives. It was an honor to do this.”