John Mefferd has spent most of his 39 years in flat, gray Chicago. A free spirit and knockabout, he's worked as a grocery store clerk, a construction worker, and a pizza deliveryman. In 1989, an old friend in Boise asked him to drop everything and come visit. Mefferd didn't have much to drop, so he went.
On his way he drove up the California coast, ambled along mountain trails, simmered in hot springs, and basically saw "what the world was like outside my perimeter." Finally he settled down in Boise and started working odd jobs. Things didn't go well. His job at the Salvation Army paid $6 an hour. He was homesick. His pickup truck broke down, and he had to walk all over town. After ten months he bought a plane ticket back to Chicago.
A few nights before he left Boise, his ex-girlfriend's roommate gave him a box of paints. On a square of scrap wood he painted a log cabin and a man skiing down a hill. It was "a BC/AD moment for me," says Mefferd, a gangly, ardent fellow who wears an arrowhead necklace and a ring ornamented with an Indian's head: "A point where I became some-body new."
Mefferd came home with his head full of the "mind-blowing" western landscapes he'd seen: Big Sur, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Estes Park. This was 1990, so he talked his brother, Jeff, into seeing Dances With Wolves. Mefferd felt a kinship with the hero, a soldier who wants to experience the west. As the credits rolled, he turned to Jeff and announced, "I'm going to paint Indians and landscapes."
He was so eager to release the pictures inside him that he went home and painted on the first blank surface he could find: the stepladder in his mother's furnace room. "I painted a scene of a chief's daughter being given away to a warrior on the top step," he says. "It was one of those things that made me feel I have talent at this, and I love this."
After that he painted cow skulls, wolves, and scenes of Indian warriors riding off to battle. He painted mountain peaks with red suns glowing behind them and silver streams with faces hidden in the water--all Mefferd's paintings have faces hidden in them, to represent the spirits he feels in the outdoors. To refine his craft Mefferd took art classes at a community college and watched the half-hour painting shows on Channel 11. He tried to support himself as a housepainter, but the fumes made him sick and the drudgery frustrated his spirit: he wanted to use the brushes to paint landscapes. So he quit and took a job delivering pizzas. It didn't matter what he did for a living; his business card said "John Mefferd, Artist."
For three years he rented a booth at the Wells Street Art Festival; in that time he sold one painting, for $150. Another went for $100 at an auction held by the Old Town Chamber of Commerce. The scant sales were discouraging, because Mefferd wanted to share "my story, my love of nature" with people. He gave paintings away to friends. When Mayor Daley went into the hospital with chest pains in spring 2000, Mefferd took a half day off work and rode the train to City Hall with a gift: a painting inspired by Field of Dreams, a movie in which Daley's beloved White Sox appear as ghosts. The mayor's office accepted it, but Mefferd never heard anything more.
Mefferd's studio apartment is across Northwest Highway from the Norwood Restaurant, where he eats almost every day. One day after a meal he told the owner, Frank Rexhepi, that he was a painter. Rexhepi asked Mefferd to bring his artwork in after closing time. If the paintings were "family oriented," Rexhepi told him, he'd hang them on the walls.
"He was very impressed with them, and he allowed me to hang my art in his restaurant for three years," Mefferd says. "More than one time, I'd be sitting at the counter and have people thank me for my artwork. One woman said, 'I sit under this painting every day, and every day I see something new in it.'" Rexhepi calls him "the neighborhood artiste."
Last month Rexhepi took down all Mefferd's paintings--so they could go up on the walls of the Carl B. Roden branch of the Chicago Public Library, which is on the next block. This summer Mefferd went into the library to look for a book on seascapes and got talking to librarian Michael Schorsch about his art. After seeing Mefferd's paintings, Schorsch offered Mefferd his first show.
"I'd like to see my paintings all over the city, but I definitely as a start would like to see my paintings all over Norwood Park," says Mefferd. "I think it's a really up-and-coming neighborhood, artistically. There's a beauty shop opening in my building, and I told the owner I was an artist and she said, 'When I open up, I'd like to see your artwork. I'd like to be involved.'"
There's a reception for the artist Wednesday, October 24, from 7 to 8 PM at the Roden library, 6083 N. Northwest Highway. The exhibit runs through October 31; the library is open from 9 to 9 Monday through Thursday and from 9 to 5 Friday and Saturday. Call 312-744-1478 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jin Newberry.