When it comes to art, everybody wants an original. Brian Bonebrake's paintings, in which everyday subjects—plump fruits, frosty popsicles, dead fish, shiny tricycles, voluptuous nudes—are rendered in epic scale and bright saturated colors, fulfill every definition of the term. They also help support a lifestyle that includes two kids, a wife, two cars, three motorcycles, and a West Loop home and studio. "I've been able to sell at least one painting a month without being in a gallery since 1995," he says proudly. His pieces sell for anywhere from $400 to $15,000.
But Bonebrake's greatest artwork of all is not for sale, because he and his family live in it. "It's a giant piece of installation art that's always in progress," he says. And it's definitely his work: Portia Bonebrake, a psychiatrist who practices two days a week, barely suppresses a laugh as she admits, "I leave the art and decorating to Brian."
The duplex apartment where the couple live with their two toddlers, Rebecca and Grace, is above the proverbial shop, Bonebrake's studio and self-run gallery the Red Trike Art Company. It was once home to a wholesale butcher, who also lived above the shop, and since buying the building in 2006 Bonebrake has kept the selling space much the same. A small antechamber serves as the gallery, with its grungy, hulking steel refrigerator doors intact. But their industrial edge is tempered by the vibrant, often capricious paintings that surround them. The cavernous meat locker, no longer icy cold, now houses the studio as well as some of the family vehicles.
A steel staircase Bonebrake built leads to the family's quarters, where he has dreamed up, built, and executed every single architectural feature, decorative element, and piece of furniture, "except for the stainless steel countertops that came with the place, the standard appliances, a desk chair, and a leather bench made by a friend," he rattles off. Some surprising things he did make include the sculptural concrete sinks for the bathrooms and a huge steel cabinet with brightly painted Masonite doors the family uses as a pantry.
All the walls, save those that are exposed brick, are swathed with graphic designs in wild hues. "I don't color in the lines, and I don't follow any rules," Bonebrake proclaims, then quickly makes an amendment: "I do use a drop cloth." When a new material inspires him, he experiments with it here. This explains the patchwork of bright construction paper that sheathes a wall and part of the ceiling in his daughters' room, adjacent to another wall of squiggly stripes in myriad hues. "They like the stuff so much I just papered the wall with it." he says. "When they get bored, I'll toss up something else."
All the walls are covered with Brian's equally colorful artwork, which is nonchalantly hung even on top of his iconoclastic murals. "If it doesn't look good, I just move it until it does," he says. "The more color the better. Nothing matches, and it doesn't have to."
Another thing Bonebrake moves, quite regularly in fact, is the furniture, "from side to side in a room when I'm cleaning it, or to another room if I need it there. But that's why I put wheels on all the furniture I make, except the built-ins," he says.
For all its whimsy, the space is also functional. On the first floor, there are two large rooms divided by a bathroom. The front room contains the kitchen and dining area, while the back is devoted to family life and play. The former is furnished with stainless steel appliances and the shelves, pantry, marble dining table, and chairs Bonebrake made, while the back has very little furniture at all, save a kiddie table-and-chair set and a sofa Bonebrake also made.
Two separate staircases–one with wood steps that Bonebrake is slowly replacing with burnished butcher-block treads, the other a winding spiral that came with the place—lead to the second floor, where there are two large bedrooms. The one the couple shares has a washroom without a wall. But a reedy blind that swings out from the wall to contain water from the shower in the corner "doesn't work too well, so everything gets wet," Bonebrake acknowledges. "It needs a little work."
In fact, everything needs a little work, as far as he's concerned: "I'm about to put doors over the kitchen shelves to turn them into cabinets, work on our bedroom and maybe replace the spiral staircase with something more fun, and be done by Christmas." But he plans on starting all over again in January. "There's nothing more satisfying than finishing a house," he says. "You might as well keep finishing it over and over again."v