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Chi Lives: city artists, country dreams

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In Bob Cooley's cramped office, there are paintings and sketches of flowers and underwater pebbles reflecting sunlight. There are watercolors and mountain panoramas. But the view out the window is of an Ohio Street parking lot.

"I like to get out in the country, but this is where I make a living," says Cooley, who divides his time between painting nature scenes and designing logos and direct-mail ad campaigns.

"The city doesn't interest me that much," he continues. "I enjoy landscapes. I enjoy painting beach scenes with waves breaking, water, sand. I enjoy wandering in the woods, seeing flowers starting to grow and everything turning green. I'm intrigued by mountains, glaciers, craggy rocks."

Cooley goes on lots of vacations. While skiing in the Alps or relaxing in a Wisconsin cabin, he takes photographs that he uses to make sketches for his paintings.

"When I'm not working, I paint. If the phone doesn't ring and I don't have any commercial work, I take out the watercolors."

He grew up in a rural New England town and studied art in California before settling in the Chicago area. Though he doesn't paint city scenes, he does find a good deal of natural subject matter in the midwest.

"Illinois is very flat, but you have gorgeous skies with flat land under it," he says. And "if you go to Galena or Wisconsin, you get rolling hills and all sorts of vegetation."

When he goes home to his apartment in East Rogers Park, Cooley can look out at his view of the lake and make believe that the city is miles away. "It's the next best thing to being in the country."

Janet Johnson's backyard has a bird feeder and a little pond with fish in it. Across the alley there's a Latin Kings insignia on a garage.

"I'm committed to the city, but I love the rural areas," says Johnson, as she works on an etching plate. She has been etching natural subjects for eight years. Her work was recently exhibited at the North Lakeside Cultural Center and has taken first-place honors in neighborhood shows in Andersonville and Rogers Park, and at the Indian Boundary and Garfield Farm art fairs.

"Someone encouraged me to do some art shows a couple years back," recalls Johnson. "I felt very embarrassed. I thought, 'Oh, having people look at your work, oh.' If you've never done it before, you feel funny. Like anything you do for the first time. And the day was going by and I thought, 'I'm not gonna do this anymore.' And then I won best of show and a number of purchase awards. It was like, 'Oh wow--maybe this is worth doing.'"

Johnson grew up in Chicago, but spent a lot of time out in the country and in the woods. She works from her imagination and from photographs she takes when she gets out of town.

"A lot of my images come from northern Michigan. We had a cabin up there. It was great. . . . Lake Superior and miles of empty beaches."

Still, Johnson says it's possible to find natural subjects on the north side of Chicago. "I like the country, but outside our house here, there's this little tree that I like to draw. I've used that in a lot of images. It has an oriental kind of feel to it."

"The artists here have a real passion for nature and wildlife," says Marj McCabe, who manages the shop One Touch of Nature in Andersonville where the works of Cooley and Johnson are on sale. (Cooley has a one-man show opening there in July.) "Some people have enough money to go out and buy a cabin. But if you can't afford a cabin, you can come in here and buy one of their pictures."

One Touch of Nature, 5208 N. Clark, is open Tuesday-Saturday 10:30-6:30 and Sunday 11-5. Phone 561-3300.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.

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