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Chi Lives: Marya Veeck brings art where it's needed



On the day Marya Veeck's famous father Bill died, she picked up a tiny toy figure in the street that was missing a leg, just like him. The next day, when she awoke and saw it, it reminded her of reality. "Otherwise, it was like a dream," she says of the period following her father's death. "You can't believe it's happened. You lose whole days."

Later the artist put the figure in a dollhouse she made (she paints toys, furniture, and canvases). When a little autistic girl visiting Marya one day fell in love with the dollhouse, Veeck gave her the one-legged figure to take home. "She was so attracted to that dollhouse. She was the only one who ever looked at it. And it was time to give that little figure away. It was the right time."

Marya Veeck and her mother, Mary-Frances, are sitting in the kitchen of the little frame house on the north side that Marya shares with her husband, photographer Jim Matusik. Marya is one of nine children. Marya and Jim have invited 4,000 people to drop in over the weekend (they only expect about 300 to show up) for an annual holiday art show and sale showcasing their work and that of some of their friends and colleagues. While Marya chops vegetables and cuts cake, her mother is telling stories about her childhood.

Marya rolls her eyes when Mary-Frances recalls the day Bill Veeck decided to lie on the sofa and design a new scoreboard, calling Marya to his side so she could sketch the Rube Goldberg design as he made it up. Marya still has the sketch packed away in the house.

"I hope you're not going to tell about the piano recital." They both laugh. "You cut my bangs too short," she says to her mother. "I got nervous and butchered the piece. Beethoven was rolling. The nun who taught me piano--now she works in the prison system in Saint Louis--she came to my first [art] show. She said, "I can't believe you did all these paintings.' I said, "Well, I wasn't going to make it in piano."'

Mary-Frances adds, "In our family, we always quit while we're ahead." Mother and daughter smile.

One of Marya Veeck's goals is to display her work in galleries or juried competitions in all 50 states. So far she has hit 18. She shows and sells a lot in Chicago, and she's constantly being asked to donate work for charitable causes. "New work. Old work. It doesn't matter," she says. "I'm disenchanted with my work five minutes after it's done."

She often finds the old wooden furniture, mirrors, birdhouses, and toys that she paints in alleys and thrift stores. "I'm always picking up stuff. It's my own brand of recycling." She has two stipulations, though. She refuses to paint over fine wood such as mahogany or oak. And she won't paint over phony pressed wood. Old pine is fine. Her striking canvases sell for up to $3,000. She has the same sort of everyman cult following in the art world that her father did in sports.

She's sensitive about using the name to further her career. "There was a show recently," she explains, "of painted seats from Comiskey Park. And no one contacted me. People called to say that was outrageous. Because that's what I do. I'm a furniture painter. But I thought--that's wonderful. It was a testimony [to her independence from the family name]. Although some people figured that since I wasn't included I was estranged."

Scores of people are filing through Veeck's house. Her living room is practically barren--she has very little furniture, and all her books and records are packed away for the weekend. The day is punctuated by hugs, kisses, how are yous, and people asking for snacks and for each other. One woman comes in and asks Marya if she has any vitamin C handy. Another presents Marya and Mary-Frances with homemade bottles of kahlua. "I don't want to buy anything. Don't let me buy anything, Marya," she jokes. "I can't resist. I have three of Marya's pieces already." A few minutes later she writes a check for a small painted birdhouse.

Veeck and Matusik also run a side business, an art-rental concern called August House Studio. They have a slide registry of about 50 artists (all of whom show at other galleries). They lease roughly 200 works of art a year to corporate and residential clients, who have the option of buying.

Veeck says the business is hard work: "I have more respect and understanding of why a gallery takes 50 percent." She credits John Leinweber, head of American Office Equipment, for giving her the impetus to enter this sideline. With all his offices in the midwest, including one in the new AMA building, he accounts for a substantial number of leases. The art-rental business isn't a new idea, says Veeck; the Art Institute does it too. "But John has an interest in Chicago artists."

Veeck has also taught art therapy, and she's on the board of directors for Very Special Arts of Illinois, an organization that provides art programs and creative opportunities for children and adults with disabilities. "I would like to see it not be an issue in the art world at all--although it is nice to have Chicago artists aligned with it, because artists have an understanding of disabilities," she says. "Creativity is creativity, whether it's disabled people or not.

"It's a natural situation for professional artists to be aligned with groups working with people with disabilities. The more you break the barriers down, the better it is, whether it's in art or not. Creativity should override the barriers."

Veeck's father, she says, "used to say he wasn't 'handicapped.' He always said he was 'crippled.'"

Beginning this weekend and continuing through January, August House Studio will make free "house calls." Armed with slide carousels and a projector, Veeck and Matusik will visit homes and businesses by appointment to help clients make suitable selections for rental. For appointments or more information on leasing, call 327-5644 or 327-5615.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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