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Artist Turns Old Payphone Into Fantastical Sci-Fi Art Display: ‘It’s Generated A Lot Of Interest’

West Ridge Artist Luna Rail saw an abandoned payphone station on Western Avenue and decided to fill it with a fantastical art installation that details Earth's possible future.

Artist Luna Rail discusses his pay phone installation in West Ridge.
Joe Ward/Block Club Chicago
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WEST RIDGE — A former payphone stall in West Ridge is offering a portal into the past and future of Earth — or at least one local artist’s depiction of it.

The abandoned payphone on Western Avenue just south of Pratt Boulevard is now home to an elaborate, science fiction-themed art installation by West Ridge artist Luna Rail. Rail asked to be identified by his artist alias to protect his career as a social worker.

The phone has long been removed, with only two metal boxes that previously contained it still standing. In one of those boxes sits the art piece, an elaborate, 19th century theater display with gold ornamentation and red velvet curtains.

On stage in this theater is a day in the life of future Earth, where aliens sit around a campfire. The scene is idyllic — except for the remnants of human life, including discarded Old Style cans.

The scene depicts several layers showing remains of humans and other creatures. Other items buried below the surface are things left behind by humans, including a shopping cart. There’s also an X-Wing fighter plane from Star Wars, hinting at a long-lost society.

“I was thinking, ‘Humans, how long will we be around? Are we about to obliterate ourselves?'” Luna Rail said. “I love the idea of, ‘Maybe something will survive us.'”

Credit: Joe Ward/Block Club Chicago
A pay phone in West Ridge is home to a fantastical, theater-themed art installation.

The art display is named for its coordinates: 42.004587, -87.690123. It features an inscription with a cryptic quote attributed to St. Luna, another alias of the artist, saying, “Some day the words of an old, beloved song will go, “Parlin’s space is vast and so is time … .'”

The payphone is across the street from Warren Park, a few blocks from Luna Rail’s West Ridge home. One day, the artist took note of the payphone infrastructure that had been left to decay.

Luna Rail figured there could be a better use for it and conceived of the installation. The piece was installed in June.

“There’s so few of these left,” Luna Rail said. “I looked at it [and thought], ‘It’s perfect.'”

Credit: Joe Ward/Block Club Chicago
The pay phone installation depicts layers of the earth plus perhaps some future inhabitants around a camp fire.

Luna Rail visits the display most days. He comes by at night to turn on lights connected to the installation. During the day, he fixes issues caused by weather or vandalism.

The piece draws on many of Luna Rail’s first artistic passions.

One of Luna Rail’s first foray’s into art was painting the backdrop of high school stage productions. The work calls back to those days, with the art being set within a theater that is back-dropped by a hand-drawn background.

The installation is a one-off for Luna Rail, the artist said. But similar installations could pop up around the city courtesy of Agitator Gallery, the Logan Square-based artists collective he co-founded.

Agitator has put out a call for artists to submit works for a “guerrilla/insurgent art installation.” The idea is to put thought-provoking pieces in places where the public might not normally see such works, Luna Rail said.

“I’ve always loved underground art, art that pushes the boundaries to be socially relevant,” he said. “As goofy as it is, it’s generated a lot of interest. I’ve has some interesting conversations” about the piece.

Credit: Courtesy Luna Rail
The display lights up at night.

The West Ridge art installation has some nearby fans: the employees of the local Jiffy Lube.

The piece sits on the sidewalk by the Jiffy Lube at the corner of Western Avenue and Pratt Boulevard. Workers saw Luna Rail tending to his piece and asked about the installation, the artist said.

Now, the Jiffy Lube employees take care of the art display when it needs upkeep.

“It’s life before us,” said Ivan, a manager at Jiffy Lube. “It’s a pretty good design. You don’t see this too often.”

The installation will not last the winter. Luna Rail plans to take the display down this fall and give it to Ivan, who said he’d be honored to have it.

“It’s his,” Luna said. “We’ve talked about putting it inside the Jiffy Lube, which I love.”

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