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If Treasures Could Talk

There’s a story behind every piece of “unwanted art” at the Recycled Art Sale in Highland Park.


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When Evanston's Maple Avenue Gallery closed a month ago, artist Mary Barnes-Gingrich—who'd shown there for five years—lost the venue where she'd hoped to sell a suite of allegorical oils called The Four Seasons. The technique she'd used to create them (up to 20 layers of paint, building to a luminous surface) is straight out of the Renaissance, but the subject matter couldn't be more personal: the series is subtitled "The Life of a Violinist," and the lissome musician Barnes-Gingrich portrays at the mercy of the seasons is her daughter Dawn Gingrich, an emerging classical musician.

The four paintings, each a four-foot square, took a year to complete, and Barnes-Gingrich's family hadn't wanted to part with them. But she was unhappy about keeping them hidden at home. "They need to be seen," she said last week. "They need to be out in the world." Maple Avenue was great for that, with its highly trafficked location in the Evanston Century movie theater complex (soon to house a sports bar). Faced with "a huge influx of paintings coming back into my house," Barnes-Gingrich decided to donate The Four Seasons to the annual Recycled Art benefit at the Art Center in Highland Park, which opened July 31 and runs through August 15. There, if you're fast enough, three of the four can be not only seen but purchased at less than a fifth of Maple Avenue's asking price of around $2,500 apiece.

Barnes-Gingrich, 57, knows the ups and downs of the classical musician's life firsthand. She started playing the French horn as an eight-year-old in suburban Glenview, not long after she picked up a paintbrush. At Northwestern University, she took a lot of art classes but majored in music, planning on a career in the brass section of a major symphony orchestra.

Playing with the Chicago Civic Orchestra as a student, she met another French horn player, Daniel Gingrich, who was hired by the Rochester Philharmonic in New York while still an undergrad. They married in 1974, and at the age of 21 Gingrich joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where he still plays. Barnes-Gingrich began a long career as a freelance musician in the city that she says has "the best brass playing in the world."

She never got the permanent symphony seat she wanted, but she kept a busy schedule as an extra player, supplementing or substituting with the Lyric Opera orchestra and the CSO. And she was able to pursue her other art, studying at the Evanston studio of Alain Gavin and at the School of the Art Institute with Ginny Sykes. She became a prolific printmaker as well as a painter, building a print shop in the basement of her home and turning the master bedroom into a painting studio where she could work all night when the spirit moved her. (She also shares a studio in Ravenswood.) In 1998, after playing a CSO concert in London's Royal Albert Hall, she gave up the horn cold turkey to focus on her oil-painting technique.

Barnes-Gingrich says she nearly always paints in series. She looks for subjects that will push her technically and conceptually and often focuses on a single project for a year or more. She says she's been obsessed with pairings of circles and squares for a while now. In each of the Four Seasons paintings, the square appears as a trompe l'oeil frame enclosing the circle; the violinist and a small cast of figures cling or loll at the circle's perimeter while inside it the seasons play out their cycle on an iconic tree. Skulls hide among roots, a two-headed man-snake proffers an apple, Michelangelo's Adam awakes. Barnes-Gingrich says she could have sold the autumn piece earlier, but couldn't bring herself to split up the series. Though she was hoping they'd hang together wherever they went—and the Art Center offered a discount for the group—the autumn piece was snapped up on opening night.

Barnes-Gingrich has moved on to other subjects, including a series of portraits of women musicians. In the early 1970s, she says, the CSO had only a handful of female members. Now there are women in every section. She'll have a virtuoso for each instrument. And after a decade away from it, she's back to practicing the French horn three hours a day and making her own music. Last year, vacationing in London, she says she "picked up a horn," played with the British Brass Band, and "fell back in love. It was like giving somebody a cigarette who hasn't smoked for a while. I thought how much I had missed the brass sound and playing, and I just was so turned on."

She'll play Beethoven and Strauss with the Grant Park Orchestra at the Pritzker Pavilion August 12, 14, and 15.

The Como Inn, the Marchetti family's sprawling, cluttered, old-world fantasy of an Italian restaurant, closed in 2001 after 77 years. The secluded booths and melt-in-your-mouth veal have gone the way of pinkie rings and fat cigars, but the Recycled Art benefit offers a chance to pick up a memento. This year's sale included dozens of Como Inn paintings—cheery, mid-20th-century impressionist-style oils of Italian villages in Popsicle colors and gilt frames, bearing the signatures of a pair of artists that center director Gabrielle Rousso says are undecipherable in one case and untraceable in the other. (At press time only three remain.)

Recycled Art is a world-class hodgepodge of paintings, prints, drawings, photographs, sculpture, books, magazines, jewelry, rugs, tchotchkes, and treasures. Rousso estimates that there were 4,000 items to start with, and says they've shaved prices in deference to the economy. There are hundreds of pieces that will go for less than $20, including a torpedo-shaped women's rights collage by British artist Nicola Rowsell, a stash of Frida Kahlo-influenced portraits signed by a mysterious Federico, and a pair of figure studies of an old man by local artist Tricia Vail, who was surprised to hear that they were there.

Vail graduated two years ago from the University of Michigan School of Art and Design. Since then she's been working at a Chicago gallery and thinking about going back to school for something stable like art therapy. As best she can remember, she did this pair of paintings for a class. The model, she recalled, had a distinctive, blocky body. She set him in profile against a yellow background on one canvas, and straight on against a rich blue in the other, with results that convey his debilitation and pride, respectively.

Vail, who doesn't have a studio to work in right now, at first said she had no idea how the studies found their way to the sale, then reconsidered and said she thought perhaps a family friend had donated them. She says that's OK with her.


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