The summer after 8th grade, I went downtown a few times a week to take classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago Young Artist’s Studio program. The photo silk screening class was in the Pakula building at 218 S. Wabash. The painting class was in a studio on the campus building behind the Art Institute. On occasion, I would shop at the Woolworth’s on State Street and the Stop & Shop at 16 W. Washington. When I was about 18, I summoned the courage to walk into an X-rated book store located on Randolph near State, if memory serves me right. I hightailed it out of there when a freaky guy in a trench coat leered at me. Perhaps he would have flashed me, or my vivid imagination got the better of me. I was fascinated by Randolph Street, in particular the block between State and Dearborn. It had a similar kind of sleazy charm as Times Square in the 1970s, albeit on a tiny scale. The photographs featured in this blog provided inspiration for businesses to include and a search for materials such as matchbooks, postcards, and menus. This ephemera offers a glimpse at a street that was once vibrant and thriving with an incredibly cool and eclectic array of businesses. Sadly, by the time I ventured downtown, most of these businesses were long gone or had lost their luster. I primarily researched businesses between State and Randolph, west to LaSalle. Of course the beautiful Chicago Cultural Center’s north lobby is on Randolph at Michigan.
As a lifelong lover of history and unique vintage goods, I often write about the past. On occasion, I discuss and analyze unusual objects that strike my fancy visually. The idea of interviewing a vintage shop owner never crossed my mind until I met the remarkable Carlos Pascoll, owner of Vintage Underground. The first Vintage Underground opened in 2007 at 1834 W. North Ave. in a 3,500 sq. foot basement space. I cannot speak firsthand about that location, however, the current store at 1507 N. Milwaukee Ave. is a fantasy come true. I was surrounded by so many beautiful, eclectic treasures I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming! Trust me – you won’t find a more impressive, lovingly curated collection of vintage goodies anywhere. The spacious shop is filled with an amazing array of red-carpet worthy jewelry, as well as vintage cameras, hats, purses, clothing and unusual artwork. A big thank you to Carlos and Ellen Sax, Vintage Underground manager and partner extraordinaire for doing this interview.
I thought I left comic books behind in early adolescence, however, Jeff convinced me recently to read Saga, an intriguing, often risqué, beautifully illustrated 7-set graphic novel volume based on the comic. So began my sojourn back into the world I left behind, albeit on a completely different level of existence than the fluffy comic books of my youth. While I enjoyed Saga, after hearing her interview on Fresh Air, I looked forward to reading My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, the first graphic novel by Chicago illustrator Emil Ferris. Her personal story of perseverance is remarkable and tugs at your heartstrings, but even without the back story, this book is so incredibly brilliant, I found myself mesmerized. About 15 years ago, Ferris contracted meningitis and encephalitis from a mosquito infected with West Nile Virus, losing her speech and suffering from partial paralysis which impacted her right hand. As a child, she suffered from severe scoliosis, which was exacerbated by childbirth years later, leaving her spine quite vulnerable to infection. Her then 6-year-old daughter duct-taped a pen to her right hand and she arduously retrained her brain and hand to draw. She developed the fantastic, truly unique dense crosshatching technique employed in Monsters many years prior to that. The book is printed on lined paper with a facsimile spiral spine, resembling a typical composition notebook. Ferris used Bic pens to draw the images and Paper Mate Flair felt tips for the text.
Lately I have been thinking about how much I adored North Wells Street in Chicago’s Old Town in my youth. My parents took us to Old Town on occasion and every single trip was imbued with magic. I’m not alone in this adoration – in my research I found quite a few blogs devoted to this unique street. Of course Old Town is far more than Wells St. – it consists of the charming, tree-lined residential and historic district defined by the triangle formed by North Avenue, Clark Street, and Ogden Avenue. Commercial Old Town is the busy stretch of North Wells running from Division Street roughly north to Lincoln Avenue and a small piece of North Ave., east and west. To residents in the 1960s to 70s, North Wells was a fabricated medley of oddities targeted at suburbanites and tourists looking for an edgy, artsy thrill in the big city. This June 7, 1964 Chicago Tribune article certainly implies North Wells was a Disneyfied tourist attraction. “It’s far from the true Bohemian atmosphere the tourists think they are savoring, but North Wells street is fascinating, lively, colorful, crowded and a pot of gold for the merchants. Like any night-life addict, Old Town’s Wells street sleeps until just before noon when it opens one reluctant eye to welcome the day’s first visitors: the suburban matrons. Sleek and well-dressed, they motor in from the north shore or the far western suburbs to infiltrate the shops and restaurants. ‘They arrive at 11:30,’ says Kris Perkins, co-proprietor of Charlie’s General Store, citing their movements as precisely as an almanac predicts the orbits of the heavenly bodies. ‘They eat lunch until 12:30, then shop until 3 O’clock when they all leave at once to beat the traffic and get home before their husbands.’”
When we adopted two kitties in May of 2015, it took a little while to come up with two perfect names. I never had a kitten and did not have cats growing up. Sweet Pepper came into my life fully grown when I met Jeff in 1998. I fell in love with him, but it took a few more years to fall head over heels in love with Pepper and truly become a cat person. Pepper succumbed to kidney disease at age 19 1/2 in December 2014. While I thought we would never get over this loss, I have to say that Matisse and Monet have filled the collective hole in our hearts. Jeff let me choose the names Matisse and Monet for our male and female kitties – he liked the names right away, but now he cannot imagine any other names for our two little characters. Aside from the fact that we are both artists and these were two of the greatest French artists of all time, the names are beautiful, rolling off the tongue like music to the ears. I love van Gogh as an artist more than Matisse or Monet, but I could not see naming our male cat after the talented and tortured Dutchman – when you pronounce it the correct and guttural Dutch way, it’s not so pretty! When I first told my dad the names of our new kittens, he said, “Monet is a man’s name,” and yes – Claude Monet was a guy – and an immensely talented one at that. However, Monet is also a girl’s name, as in Monet Mazur.
The F. W. Woolworth Company, also called Woolworth’s or Woolworth, delighted children and their parents alike for more than a century. In Illinois, 25 Woolworth stores, mostly in Chicago and the suburbs, were shuttered forever in July 1997. In the UK, the stores lasted a decade longer, going out of business in December 2008. The very last thing I bought at Woolworth’s when the store was liquidating stock, was a pair of Barbie roller skates for my then 9-year-old daughter. The store closures symbolized the end of quite a run that began on February 22, 1878 when Frank Winfield Woolworth opened “Woolworth’s Great Five Cent Store” in Utica, New York. The first store failed after a short time, however, the second store that opened on July 18, 1879 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania was a big success. When he launched the Lancaster store, Frank enlisted his brother Charles Sumner Woolworth to join the business.
My obsession with Patti Smith began in 2011, after reading Just Kids, her brilliant, touching memoir about coming of age in NYC with Robert Mapplethorpe. When I was an art student at RISD, I was aware of her music because my freshman roommate Katherine played Horses over and over again. Her music back then was too raw and visceral for my immature tastes, so I did not worship her like many of my art school peers. However, by my senior year, I worshipped Robert Mapplethorpe – strictly for his bold imagery – which inspired my marble carvings of nude muscular males. I met him at the Young Hoffman Gallery in 1982, where he was standing all by himself – a handsome, soft-spoken cowboy whose demeanor completely belied his promiscuous sexual proclivities and frank sexual imagery. As I wrote in a prior blog, by a stroke of serendipity, I briefly talked to Patti Smith in December 2012 at a little Nepalese boutique in Soho that was going out of business. When I read Just Kids, I found myself sobbing at times, and it was this poignant book that provided my opening line, so I endeavored to maintain some composure. While she was nice enough to engage me for a few seconds, she turned her back before I was done talking and clearly wanted her privacy. I will never forget this chance encounter, as fleeting as it was.
My love for NYC goes back to when I was a teenager and visited my older sister, who at the time was living in her first dive apartment, a 3rd floor walk-up on Sullivan Street north of Houston. However, it was during my four years at RISD, from 1976-1980, that I became immersed in NYC. I have written about this before in Reflections on a New York City Christmas and The Times Square of My Mind. I have photographed the gritty streets of NYC going back to my RISD years. Every time I return, another small or large chunk of my youth slips away, swallowed up by gentrification and cookie-cutter commerce.
“The work she produced in her short life is 100 times better than anything you have created or could ever create!” Those were the cruel, harsh words that were hurled at me from my 20-year-old daughter’s insolent lips in 2007. The occasion was a visit to the Tate Modern in London and the discovery of an Artist’s Room dedicated to Francesca Woodman. It was hard to process everything I was feeling when I saw those photographs. Difficult because my daughter’s post-teenage angst overshadowed what became a trip from hell, but also because I had somehow forgotten about Francesca in the context of my four years at RISD. I am not sure why it has taken me so long to write about this – perhaps I needed the distance and perspective of the passage of time. Or the sheer volume of online content could have dissuaded me – 567,000 Google hits on Francesca as of April 2015, and counting.
There have been many short articles about celebrities who also happen to dabble in the visual arts. But I have to say, with the risk of sounding like an art critic, that many of these folks are not very good visual artists. Come to think of it, some of them are considered mediocre at their primary pursuit – whether politics (guess who?) or acting, while others are considered pure genius. In either case, the best of their fine art would be considered the work of somewhat talented amateur hobbyists by anyone who is a trained fine artist or art critic. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is wonderful for anyone to pursue the visual arts – what I object to is when famous people who are art hacks gain renown for mediocre work simply because of their celebrity status. The purpose of this article is to shed light on a few special celebrities who have not been heralded as much for their visual art, but in my opinion, deserve to be. Viggo Mortensen This strikingly handsome actor who made many hearts melt as Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy is quite the Renaissance man. In 2002, Viggo Mortensen founded the Perceval Press to publish the works of little-known artists and authors. In addition to being a talented actor, Mortensen is a gifted photographer, painter, jazz musician, and poet. As far as I can ascertain, he is self-trained in the fine arts. This site has a lovely description of his visual art talents.