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Beauty All Around Us
During the pandemic, nearly everyone stayed closer to home, and many suddenly had a lot of time available provided by normal activities that were no longer available. For Mark Cleveland, a graphic artist who creates oil paintings, stained glass, and illustrations, that extra time translated into driving and walking around Evanston – his community for 30 years – and observing its sights much more closely than ever before.
What he discovered was amazing beauty and untold stories all around Evanston. Cleveland saw buildings that were built in the 1950s and as far back as the turn of the 20th century. The businesses occupying these structures may have been handed down through generations, or they may have come and gone, but the architecture remained despite the ongoing changes within and without them. The stories of these buildings and their businesses inspired him to bring masters-based techniques to his paintings. Cleveland had discovered he did not have to turn to Chicago iconic images for his inspiration but could stay close to home.
In one example, he saw Cross Rhodes Restaurant on Chicago Ave. It started as a meat shop explaining why the building facade has bright red terra cotta clay with a sculpted cow head. Today it is a multi-generation restaurant that happily survived the pandemic.
This article is about the large oil painting project Cleveland is creating inspired by Evanston’s own.
There are two studios at his home, and most of his paintings are created with a combination of en plein air and studio work.
For his paintings this last year, Cleveland selected about a dozen locations that met two criteria he developed during his COVID walks and reflections on the community. First, it must be a unique setting where he can use a 12” x 12” canvas to create a forced perspective showing a building in the context of its community. For example, his painting of the iconic Evanston Main Street Newsstand you not only see the newsstand, but also the street down to the Fire Station restaurant. It is not a view you could see if you stood at the corner, but certainly one you would think about if you had walked that street.
The second criteria is a location where Cleveland can create on canvas a “…sense of time and the existence of a long period of time…” even though we are here only a limited time. Cleveland experiences a similar sense of time in his love of music. He plays a 1917 mandolin and often thinks about how the creator did not yet know of the soon-to-erupt World War I. He feels that timeless icons, like the buildings and the mandolin, provide a sense of confidence in the future that helps us be more positive, especially in times of difficulty. Cleveland notes that in prior times and in the times yet to come “…people passed here, and we won’t be the last either.”
When Cleveland first started with the Evanston paintings, he posted them on social media, and they sold before the day was over! So inspired, he continued creating them. The stories of who purchased this art, is also interesting. His painting of Bennison’s Bakery was purchased by a woman who kissed her husband-to-be for the first time while waiting in line there.
The Main Street newsstand painting was bought by a woman whose husband had lived across the street and looked out on the newsstand daily. The image of the Fish Keg on Howard Street was purchased by a person who had grown up next door to this now third-generation business. And a second image of the Fish Keg was purchased by the same family. Each are examples of place representing a timeless quality of memories.
Cleveland’s techniques have a timeless quality as they borrow from the old masters’ techniques of different periods. He first underpaints the canvas in yellow. Then he paints the entire building en plein air using either brown or blue depending on the light. This creates the tone study the painting is based on. Next, he paints details using an impressionism style rather than realism. But there is no doubt what you are looking at. Close up the books on the shelves in the bookstore may look like slashes of paint, but as you back away, they are books. Cleveland’s last step, which arguably contributes the most to his distinctive style, is the 1930s-based glazes he applies. He lightly adds paint to glaze and then adds layer upon layer to the painting in the shady areas to add depth.
Cleveland works six days on each painting, obsessing over the details. Each step requires significant drying time. and as often as not, he will wipe the entire painting off the canvas and start over. He may return to a given building’s location to paint en plein air several times before he is satisfied the painting is a worthy representation of iconic Evanston.
Not everyone can afford an original oil painting, so Cleveland may create peripheral products such as a high quality Giclee print – printed in Evanston – or note cards.
Cleveland’s first show of Evanston icons at the 1100 Florence Gallery owned by Lisa Degliantoni completely sold out, to his amazement and pleasure.
He also is working on a number of Evanston home commissions and images of the lake in the summer. Based on the popularity of his Evanston creations, he has received requests for other neighborhoods including North Chicago, the Howard Street corridor and other locales further north.
If you would like to see Cleveland’s work, visit www.markclevelandart.com.
The article first appeared on the Evanston Made website.