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Alley Beautiful

Where others see Dumpsters and puddles, Mark Huddle sees inspiration.



It's 12:45 on a sunny Wednesday in Lakeview, and a man in a dark teal robe has just stepped out of his tiny kitchen and onto his back porch. He does this almost every day, cell phone in one hand and Kamel Red in the other, usually making a second appearance in the evening. Sometimes the cell phone is replaced by a book, which he reads standing up while he smokes.

Across the alley, Mark Huddle looks down at the man from his own back porch, two floors up. In front of him is a canvas he started painting on Mother's Day and might not finish until Labor Day. At his feet dozes his American bulldog, named Winslow Homer. Huddle is working on a landscape of the shadowy canyon formed by the alley between the two brick apartment buildings across the way--including the back porches, the telephone poles draped with black cables, and two Waste Management bins. He's still trying to decide whether or not to include the "WM" lettered on their sides. When the teal-robed guy appeared a few days ago, Huddle brushed in a hasty likeness of him. He also introduced himself and asked his neighbor if he minded being in the painting. Huddle says the man's response was "Why not? I guess I'm a fixture here."

"I try to take things we walk by without noticing and try to make people notice--think about what is beautiful and what is not," says Huddle, who's had about a dozen of his oils on exhibit at Mars Gallery since May. "Just to make people slow down a little. I mean, I slow down for four or five months to paint each one of these." Employed as a contract lawyer at Wildman Harrold, the 43-year-old puts in half weeks at his 30th-floor office. With the rest of his days he observes the vistas from his back porch.

Huddle works in all sorts of weather, watching the daily tide of workers leave their apartments and return. He sees schoolchildren at recess, garbage crews in compactor trucks, and alley scavengers steering their rattling shopping carts. He wonders if the neighbors notice him as he sings ditties from his Boy Scout days ("Where oh where oh where is Suzy?") and hymns ("There Is a Balm in Gilead") as he paints.

"I don't paint things I consider inherently ugly," Huddle says. He focuses on "how light hits buildings." Yet sometimes people look at his paintings and tell him his colors look more like Florida than Chicago. "Well, you're just not looking closely" is his usual reply. "People don't really understand how sun affects surfaces," he says. "Edward Hopper was such a brilliant strategist with light. His light was so carefully placed and calculated. I'm just at the very beginning of understanding how light works." In many Hopper paintings, human figures are solitary and distant; the neighbor on the far porch may end up being the only person in Huddle's alley painting. He's sensitive to "the isolation you can feel in a very crowded city. Sometimes the mutability of the city fascinates me. You can remake yourself. That's one of the things I wanted to do when I came up here."

Raised in Peoria, Huddle took his first art class at the YMCA when he was in fourth grade. Superheroes, cats, and dogs were early subjects. When he couldn't draw an entire animal, he would just show its tail sticking out from around a corner. At Knox College in Galesburg he did a series of portraits of Beta Theta Pi fraternity pledges in his dorm and won a school drawing contest. After graduating, Huddle got a job sorting mail in the secretary of state's office. He moved up to become one of Governor Thompson's assistants on natural resources policy, dealing with a constituency he called "the hook and bullet boys." On the side he studied oil painting at the Springfield Art Association and played rugby.

In November 1984 he traveled to London, Brussels, Dusseldorf, and other European cities to study acid rain. "I saw some amazing art, and a way of life in the outdoor-cafe scene I liked. I said to myself, I got to find a place like that." He transferred to the Department of Conservation's Chicago office and took some evening painting classes at the School of the Art Institute. Eventually he quit his state job and took a boxing class and a job as a bouncer at Clubland. Then he moved downstate again to earn a law degree at the University of Illinois, and painted in a studio across the street from the law school.

Back in Chicago he worked two years full-time in municipal litigation, then talked his firm into letting him cut back enough hours to get his MFA at the University of Chicago. Theory-heavy reading lists didn't thrill him. Jacques Derrida's impenetrable prose taxed him. "It's worse than law," he says. "In law you establish a record that lives on, theoretically forever, for appellate purposes, whatever. In these paintings I'm very interested in the facts on the ground. Theories aren't quite as important."

Huddle paints portraits as well as landscapes. A self-portrait hangs down the hall from his heirloom lithographs of George and Martha Washington, and for several years he's painted the chess players at North Avenue Beach. "I never know if these guys win or lose, but I find their intensity fascinating." He's filled boxes of little three-by-five-inch notebooks with sketches of strangers on the bus and el. "I'll wear sunglasses and tilt my head like I'm looking elsewhere."

Two months after starting the alley landscape, Huddle reports that he has decided to paint the green and yellow "WM" on the Waste Management dumpsters. "While I'm not trying to do photographic replicas, the painting needs to announce a place that helps ground it," he says. He also notes that a detail has changed: the guy across the alley got a new bathrobe. This one's white, which will work into the color scheme better than the original teal. "Like the rest of the world, he's blithely unaware of my artistic needs," says Huddle, chuckling. "But in my world these are the dramas."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bill Stamets.

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