Grace Lai’s interest in construction began right where the bus would drop her off hours before class at Chicago’s American Academy of Art. Starting out as a sidewalk sketcher, Lai was soon invited inside the project gate to become a celebrated “on-site” artist, earning commissions from contractors and building developers, as well as tradespeople’s nods of approval.
As an artist, Lai was a late bloomer, going to art school and taking up painting in her late 50s after her husband, Harry, died in 1985. Previously, she was an assistant in his art studio. Lai’s art was her personal therapy, but it soon became an industry and public obsession when the Chicago Tribune and ENR both profiled her and highlighted her drawings.
Lai died at age 82 on March 16 after complications from a fall at home. She leaves behind more than 200 pen-and-ink watercolors of cityscapes, detailed construction scenes, portraits of craftworkers and more. Please click here to view a slideshow of Grace Lai and her watercolors. “She was one of the family,” says Tom Broderick, executive director of the Construction Safety Council, which displays about 100 Lai paintings at its headquarters in Hillside, Ill. Sitting atop the uppermost construction floor and defying harsh weather, the Chinese-American woman would often suit up in a hard hat and an improvised garbage-bag poncho. She would tie down her paintings with bungee cords to prevent them from blowing away and used rubbing alcohol to keep her paints from freezing. In addition to corporate commissions, Lai would offer portraits to craftworkers for very little money. “It was just a way they could have something to take home,” says Broderick.
Lai’s sweeping scenes captured construction’s muscles, machines and materials, and she was a keen observer. “Each trade has its own work belt, tools—and the stance [with which] they carry themselves exhibits the necessary physical stance they need to carry out everyday practices,” Lai said on her Website.
On the job, Lai “was just mesmerized by how the different crafts were able to take raw materials and be able to build them into fantastic structures,” says her son, Ed. “She enjoyed talking with the different men, as well, and she enjoyed being a part of the group.”
Those who would like to view or purchase Lai’s paintings can contact the Construction Safety Council, which is interested in establishing a scholarship in her name, says Broderick.