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Brush With Normalcy

A portrait artist captures a thousand everyday faces--one at a time.



Marty Garcia is immortalizing 1,000 people in Chicago one at a time, in oil pastel on eight-and-a-half-by-eleven sheets of bristol board. "Every Sunday I call 20 to 40 people to schedule as many as ten in one week," says Garcia, 26, who fits his hour-and-a-half sessions between shifts as a part-time stock clerk at Dominick's. "I've asked customers," he says, and he sneaked in one sitting with a coworker in the store's break room. He recently turned up for an appointment to find his subject's neighbor had locked himself out of his apartment. So Garcia helped the neighbor take apart a window and then did his portrait, too.

"Today is number 216," said Garcia as he parked his rusted-out '85 Isuzu on a quiet street in Cragin. He was scheduled to sketch Juliette Urganus, a 24-year-old public relations account exec who was recently laid off. She welcomed Garcia into the neat kitchen of the second-floor apartment her brother rehabbed, just two blocks away from where she grew up. "I just burned five CDs," she said, and put on a Stan Getz version of "Girl From Ipanema."

Garcia asks his sitters to pose in their natural environments and do whatever they want while he works. Urganus fixed herself a salad. Turned out Garcia has done portraits of some jazz musicians she knows. This was not her first portrait; one year at DePaul a caricaturist did a sketch of her. It's still packed in a box from her last move.

"Did you do a self-portrait?" Urganus asked.

"That will be my last one in the series, number 1,000," he answered.

"I don't want people to think art is some elite thing," says Garcia. He's been working at the same Dominick's--the one on Central near Addison--since he was 16; the job helped pay his tuition at Saint Patrick High School. Becoming an artist was not a boyhood dream. "I was really just a stupid kid," he says. "I was a tagger, but I really didn't have a style yet." He didn't show up for graduation in 1993: "They called my name but I wasn't there--I was all excited about that."

After that "it was a toss-up between art school and the military," he says. He enrolled in the American Academy of Art on South Michigan. "I didn't know anything about fine art," he says. "I did watch a lot of Channel 11." The Chicago art scene as portrayed on Image Union and Wild Chicago struck him as "quirky" and "cool." He says he didn't fit in at art school. "I was the only kid listening to punk rock," says Garcia, a Circle Jerks fan. "And nobody knew who Howlin' Wolf was."

He made his own way. "They took attendance at the beginning of class and at the end," he says. In between, he went across the street. "I would go out and draw bums in Grant Park and get to know them." There was one teacher who liked barns. "He wanted everybody to do barn paintings. Another one wanted us to make cloud paintings. How could you spend a week on a cloud? If you were painting a cloud, it would be gone by now. I went out and did six of them." Garcia took a year off and then went back.

"Once I got out of school I really started educating myself." His teachers had told him he could make a lot of money as a portrait painter. That's not his intent. He started writing down ideas in a notebook, and the project of 1,000 portraits took shape. He developed a personal style he says was inspired by Pablo Picasso, Red Grooms, and Alice Neal. He portrays only people older than 17. "There's something behind your eyes," he explains. "There's something in your life by then you regret."

Garcia grew up near what real estate agents now call Roscoe Village. "Everybody knew each other," Garcia says. "People on the next block always had a block party. I haven't been invited to a block party in I don't know how long. They don't have them anymore. So I'm trying to create a community together of people I've done portraits of." He keeps his portraits simple by omitting any background detail. As soon as he finishes a portrait, he signs it and tears the sheet from his sketch pad, then hands it to his host. It's free. He leaves with his drawing pad, his nubby pastels, and the water bottle that he brings to every session. "The idea is generally Taoist in nature," he once wrote in a grant application. "When something is created, it should be left to grow." He plans to revisit every portrait and photograph it wherever its subject has placed it. If they've tossed it, he'll photograph the Dumpster in the alley behind their apartment building.

Last Sunday Garcia was driving along East 75th Street looking for a storefront church run by Bishop Bernard McKenzie, his 222nd subject. They first met last June when McKenzie pulled up in his white Cadillac on State Street, where Garcia was sketching the Australian performance artists who were living in the Sears store window. McKenzie wanted his portrait done too, and months later the two finally hooked up. He asked Garcia to stop by around 3 PM, when his noon service would be winding up. Garcia slid into the last pew, wearing phat pants accessorized with a looping silver chain on the side. A woman asked him to remove his fedora, which covered a wispy tuft of hair on his forehead. "It's the remnant of my Mohawk," he explained. "I wanted to look like a cartoon character, but the only ones with any hair were in Japanese animes, and their hair stuck straight up."

After the last amen, McKenzie led Garcia to his office. On his desk there was a battery-powered "Dancin' Shoutin' James Brown" doll. "I wanted to be an entertainer," said McKenzie. "Actually, I wanted to be an exotic dancer. I like to be the belle of the ball." Garcia drew as McKenzie told how his calling as a prophet began in his early teens with a vision--"I saw myself in the backyard shoveling a lot of dog mess." Years later he started his first church after seeing a ray of sunlight strike a flower growing through the floor of a building he rented on 59th Street. He counts among his prophetic visions the Loop flood ten years ago and the September 11 attacks. "I told the church I saw bricks and concrete a week and a half before," he said. "I didn't see no airplanes, though. I knew we were overdue for something to get our attention."

Garcia finished by quickly filling in a blue backdrop around McKenzie's likeness and signed the artwork. McKenzie seemed pleased and promised to frame it. He showed it to a woman in his office, who took a look and said nothing.

Driving home, Garcia argued that the portrait is more than a likeness. "It's a by-product of us hanging out. He's going to think of the time we spent together. He's going to remember me."

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

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