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Chi Lives: Sanford Roth and the art of living

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Students of Sanford Roth trek to his studio, apartment 2A in a loft building on the near west side, to learn how to paint and draw. Roth's bent is to start his followers on exercises. In teaching abstract painting, he may have his students put down a color wash first, later encouraging them to add scribbles and a grid. Then he lets them loose.

"In order to gain from your mistakes, you have to go out and make some," reads an aphorism mounted on the wall. Wandering around, the soft-spoken Roth dispenses bits of philosophy designed to encourage freedom and experimentation. "Paint, don't think," he is apt to say. Or: "If you don't go for broke, you won't have anything in the end." Or: "Say you're driving out to Skokie and all of a sudden you realize you're on the wrong expressway. You're a fool if you don't stop and correct your mistake. It's the same with painting--if it's not working, start over."

The 67-year-old Roth says, "I've had a pretty long life so far, and a varied one, and like all of us you draw some conclusions about what the hell has been going on. My conclusions are simple-minded, but then all I know is simple-minded."

Roth's students, largely women, greatly appreciate their teacher's creed, simple-minded or not. "Many of us are people who have been widowed or divorced," says Milly Marnin, a retired attorney. "Our children are growing up and leaving. Sandy's message to us, in painting and otherwise, is to be resilient and flexible, or else we'll shrink up. For him, painting is a metaphor for living."

Roth grew up in New Jersey, the older brother of novelist Philip Roth. "I was a kid during the Depression," he says. "When I was 16, I was living at home in Newark, and it came to me one day that my father paid for everything in our lives. He bought all the clothes, all the food. I thought to myself, how was I ever going to do that? It was overwhelming to me, and the work ethic became powerful, powerful." Trained in art at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, he worked as an illustrator and then as a creative director in advertising, earning a substantial wage.

In 1976, widowed and with two sons off at college, Roth moved to Chicago to help open the local office of Ogilvy & Mather. The agency did famously in Chicago, but in 1984 Roth quit the profession. "Thirty years in advertising is enough," he says. "Besides, I didn't have a choice but to pursue my mistress."

His mistress was painting. He'd been taking art classes and painting as a hobby for decades, and now he got busy at his craft. For some time he was represented by Circle Fine Arts, a national chain of galleries specializing in over-the-couch pictures and animation art. He also had a one-man show in SoHo. When reviews mentioned he was Philip Roth's brother, he didn't seem to mind. "I'm a journeyman who paints pretty well, but no better than pretty well," he says. "I have no career aspirations in art."

When he found he missed the pace and human contact of the advertising world, he took on students. "There is a great disparity in their gifts and backgrounds," he says, "but it doesn't matter. I have only one rule: Don't disparage yourself or your work. If you do, that's an excuse. My attitude is that anything goes. "What if?' I say. "What if?' The more risks you take, the more you can discover."

Late last year Roth and his students began to talk about holding a group show. Roth, whose work is priced at upwards of $8,000 apiece, elected not to participate. But he assisted with the arrangements and contributed the sketch of a woman painting that graces the exhibit invitation.

The exhibit "The Painters in 2A" features work by ten Roth students. It opens Friday, March 31, with a free reception from 5:30 to 8 at the gallery InsideArt, 1651 W. North. The show continues through April 9. Call 772-4416 for more.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Nathan Mandell.

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