Whatever happened to Irene Siegel? | Feature | Chicago Reader

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Whatever happened to Irene Siegel?

She gave up painting years ago, after a bitter dispute with neighborhood activists over her fresco for the Sulzer Library. Now she's back, with new work and a new outlook on life.



"I don't know why I stopped painting," says Irene Siegel. "I may have had a feeling of not being appreciated. Who knows? But it isn't that I went away from painting--I went on to other things."

A well-known artist and educator, Siegel was a mainstay on the Chicago art scene for nearly 30 years. She was a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago from 1970 until 1982, and her work ended up in the permanent collections of the Art Institute and New York's Museum of Modern Art. But then Siegel dropped out of the spotlight for a decade.

"In that ten years the art world has probably changed five different times," she says. "In that ten years I've been developing as a person outside of the art world."

Ten years ago, Siegel found herself at the center of a heated controversy after accepting a $10,000 commission to paint a four-wall fresco in a meeting room at the Conrad Sulzer Regional Library in Ravenswood. The fresco depicted scenes from Virgil's Aeneid. The painter's bleak rendition of Aeneas's voyage through the netherworld, from defeat at Troy to the founding of Rome, got neighborhood antigang activists up in arms. They thought the mural's combination of scrawled text and stark figures implicitly endorsed graffiti. The feud spilled over into print, public meetings, and even court.

At one point, the city insisted she stop working on the fresco, and Siegel was forced to leave her paints behind as they closed the doors. "It was like Pompeii," she said afterward. "I even left my cup of coffee in the room."

Ultimately, she was permitted to complete the work, which can still be seen on the first floor of the library. She took on the project as an artistic challenge, but the dispute--which eventually developed into a debate over the control of public art--went on for years. Siegel was left embittered and burned out.

She decided to set her brushes aside, not knowing when, or whether, she would return to them.

But today Siegel is having her first gallery show in a decade. The story of her return to painting crosses three city neighborhoods and the Atlantic Ocean. Her renewed enthusiasm makes it obvious that for Siegel it's been a journey worth taking.

Siegel was born Irene Yarovich 63 years ago. The daughter of Russian immigrants, she grew up on the south side in Gage Park. Early on she grappled with the conflict between her own desires and what was expected by others. "I'm an only child to foreign-born parents, and some of their dreams for me I found totally unacceptable at a very early age," she says. "I couldn't do what my mother dreamed I should do. I mean, you know, it had nothing to do with who I was."

She says her mother wanted her to "not go to college, marry a Russian boy, and have her live with me. Here I was, a kid who was superexcelling in school, and I had to sneak to read! I think I've probably been quite used to forging ahead and finding things that interest me, all my life, without any help. I was very young when I knew I had to strike out on my own."

At first she set her sights on becoming a doctor, but those plans began to change when she earned a scholarship at age 11 to take classes at the School of the Art Institute. She graduated from Northwestern in 1953 and studied social science at the University of Chicago.

Living on the near north side, she would regularly sneak into film classes at the Institute of Design, which was then located at Dearborn and Ontario. The teacher was photographer Arthur Siegel, one of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy's first students at the New Bauhaus. He went on to help develop the Institute of Design's influential photography department, along with colleagues Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind.

Irene Yarovich became a Moholy-Nagy scholar at the Institute of Design, where she earned her master's degree in 1956. She married Arthur Siegel in 1955, and they had three children. In the early 60s the Siegels bought a house on the 400 block of Roslyn Place in Lincoln Park, which, she recalls, was "a real neighborhood" before gentrification.

During those years, Irene Siegel was dedicated to raising her family while continuing to paint, draw, and exhibit. "I worked all the time," she says. "It was quite a life. I don't know when I slept." She remembers Chicago's art scene as being "much smaller than today. Most of the established galleries were owned by Winnetka women." Yet she found the art community close-knit and supportive. When she had her first one-person show in 1968 at Lo Giudice Gallery on Ontario Street, "Claes Oldenburg came to the opening," she says.

Siegel was quickly gaining recognition. In 1967 she received a printmaking fellowship at the Tamarind Institute in Los Angeles. A year later, critic Lucy Lippard called her work "impressive . . . direct and honest." Citing a series of drawings titled "Unmade Bed," Lippard wrote that Siegel's work had "a freshness that derives from more than innocence, a crudity with a touch of cruelty in its insistence on the graceless and awkward in people." Lippard later included a piece on Siegel's "brooding, blackly humorous approach" in her book From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women's Art.

A couple of years later, Siegel became a professor. She tried to divide her time between painting and teaching, but teaching and its professional demands began to win out. "Teaching in a sense requires you to know what's going on, because that's what you're there for--to show students how to come into this world where they'll do their work," she says. "I mean, I went to openings. I went to galleries. I read the literature. I was exquisitely tuned to the art world."

By the time her husband died in 1978, she was losing interest in teaching and felt compelled to return to being an artist. "I had already been changing," she recalls. In 1982 Siegel took the great leap into full-time painting. With her children grown, she says, "I felt responsible only for myself."

In 1984 she received the commission to execute a fresco in the new Sulzer Library. She was inspired by the challenge of mastering fresco painting--in which paint is applied directly to wet plaster, so that the painting becomes part of the wall. She had read the Aeneid 11 times and thought that its lessons fit the mission of a library. "If the Aeneid has more blood and gore than most stories, it also deals with mythological characters that you see in Shakespeare. You read about them all the time." Siegel hoped that she could give the epic "a contemporary painting, or reading, to make it relevant and make people curious about reading the classics."

With the help of plasterers, she began work on the mural. The tale starts with Aeneas's escape from the burning city of Troy and his descent into the underworld. Necessarily dark and dreary, this part of the mural was painted early on, Siegel says, so she could follow the narrative and move on to depict the more uplifting scenes of the saga.

But she didn't get very far into the story because some area residents started to complain. They objected to the lack of community involvement in planning the mural and expressed resentment toward what they called the work's elitism. Looking at the quotations carved into the wall, some regarded it as glorified graffiti. "Children are going to go into that room and say, "Didn't I get spanked for doing that to a wall?"' said Victoria Khamis, president of Uprave, a group of Uptown and Ravenswood residents. Many felt the tone of the work was too sinister.

When Siegel resisted making changes, she was harassed. One woman brought in a priest and a psychologist to persuade Siegel that she was "deranged." Forty-seventh Ward alderman Eugene Schulter got involved, introducing an ordinance that would guarantee community participation in public art commissions. After protesters filed a lawsuit to have the fresco changed or removed, the Chicago Council on Fine Arts asked Siegel to suspend work until differences were resolved.

Almost two months later Siegel participated in a public forum at the Welles Park field house, where she faced questions from an often hostile audience. She said the mural couldn't be judged fairly because it wasn't finished. Schulter asked Siegel to work with an advisory committee. Siegel agreed to listen to their suggestions but said, "They have to do something positive, not just tell me they hate it." Of the 200 residents at the meeting, 129 voted to remove the painting, 45 voted to keep it, 39 wanted it changed, and 4 were undecided.

Siegel was eventually permitted to finish the fresco, to mixed reviews. One who did not like Siegel's mural was Tribune art critic Alan Artner, who wrote, "The con- troversy . . . has had the effect of drawing an enormous amount of attention to an undistinguished work of art. . . . Each form in the mural is loosely painted in colors ranging from the palest pastels to the deepest blues and blacks. Overall structure likewise is loose, with a welter of elements appearing more collaged than composed. When legible, the quotations bring the images into tighter focus, although their syntax often is fractured and their relation to the scenes remains vague. Many seem justifiable only as part of a collection of the artist's personal favorites.

"Sad to say, but the work's strongest impact is that of visual logorrhea."

Dodging an artistic judgment, the New Art Examiner's Bill Stamets revealed that Siegel's quotations came not only from Virgil but from Goethe, Neruda, and Kazantzakis as well. "Although it is hard to spy any resemblance between what Siegel calls "calligraphy' and gangs' vandalizing marks, it is very clear that Siegel's work contains no resemblance or reference to Graffiti Art as it exists in the art world."

In Inland Architect, Philip H. Bess wrote, "I myself find portions . . . charming . . . though curiously--to me--what I like most is the subtlety of color and technique, when viewed from about 12 inches. But these frescoes aren't going to make anyone forget Giotto or Fra Angelico."

At the distance of a decade, Siegel now confesses, "I really think that mural probably represents the negative atmosphere of all of what was directed at me. . . . I don't know what would have happened if it had been nurtured all the way."

Each day, she says, "I almost had to get up there and call for the gods to help me try to remember who I was," struggling "to work in such a negative atmosphere that had nothing to do with art."

When the work was attacked, "the official art world didn't rise up!" Siegel recalls. "In fact, the only people who rose up were basically Latino activists, who could see the political situation for what it was. The art world didn't know it was political. I mean, you live in the academic world or the museum world, and it's very protected. It's not real life."

The controversy resulted in Siegel's departure from the world of Chicago art. She thinks the turning point may have come during a segment on John Callaway's Chicago Tonight, when Siegel "told off" one of her critics "nicely but very clearly." She blames herself for "wanting to include everybody, and there are just people that don't want to be included. You know, they have their own agenda. And I think I saw that in terms of the mural, and it made me feel OK--that there was nothing more that I could do in explaining for these people, that my job was not to explain and explain, it was just to paint.

"I felt that probably inside of me I was a fairly strong person to have withstood public ridicule, because I think that a lot of people have a fear of being humiliated, and for most people they don't try anything--that fear is what I think keeps people being careful."

After completing the mural, she stopped painting entirely.

In 1986 Siegel sold her home in Lincoln Park and consciously gave up her studio. She moved to a Latino neighborhood on Paulina Street in Wicker Park. "Immersing myself in Latin culture saved my life," she declares. "It liberated me. When you learn the language, you have to be more open to everything."

She'd already been drawn to the challenge of studying Spanish at the now defunct El Centro Latino School of Universidad Popular on Belmont just west of Sheffield. She says the school was "highly politicized. . . . We were learning Spanish from newspapers and political leaflets."

Intending to take only a few Spanish classes at the University of Chicago, Siegel was encouraged by her instructors to enroll for a postgraduate degree in Spanish language and literature.

Between her studies and the exposure to Spanish-speaking people from Latin America, "a whole new world opened to me," she says. "It was not a part-time endeavor. I had to read three novels in Spanish a week. I plunged into it. . . . It was such a turn-on to use these other parts of myself! If you're going to speak the language, you just don't read, you go and you talk to people every day. You just have to keep those molecules going."

She believes that North Americans tend to shun intimacy, while Latin cultures are "set up for social interaction. This was even true on Paulina, where everyone sat out on their porches in the summer." She talks about an "instant intimacy" that results from "culture being valued. . . . Spanish people know their songs, and they know their writers, and they're quite proud of it.

"There is a thread of humor in Spanish literature that started early on," says Siegel. "Certainly it starts with Cervantes. . . . Even contemporary Latin writers, who have lived very complicated and not very easy lives, are not cynical about it. Their writing is funny, intelligent, popular, with a strong, wonderful attitude toward life."

With the encouragement of friends and teachers, she went to Madrid in 1987 for a six-month stay. "I came with a list of literary people to contact," she remembers. "But I just wanted to speak Spanish.

"I was walking down a street and I heard castanets and clicking, and I thought "I'm in Madrid!"' She asked a bartender where the sounds were coming from, and he directed her to an old building, where she found a woman teaching flamenco classes. Siegel settled in comfortably, conversing in Spanish, studying flamenco, and living in the oldest section of Madrid.

"Flamenco is everywhere," she says. "You'd hear it on the streets and in cafes. You can barely walk on the sidewalks there without hearing it. You'd go to dance, and almost everyplace you'd go would have a platform, and there'd be a guy with a guitar." Everyone, even little children, could dance, and found the complex clapping--"dancing and clapping are all point and counterpoint"--second nature.

When she returned to the states, she continued to study at a Chicago-area flamenco school for a year, but abandoned it because she found flamenco dancing "so divorced from reality here." She then turned to modern jazz dancer and choreographer Joel Hall, and she's studied with him ever since.

Dance suits Siegel's kinetic presence, from her alert blue eyes to arms and legs that seem to want to be in motion even when they are at rest. Dance made Siegel aware of how much she'd enjoyed the physical side of painting. She remembered liking the physical activity involved in doing the fresco.

Tentatively, she began to dabble again with painting, but found that the apartment on Paulina wasn't suitable: "It was just too small, and with paints in the kitchen sink, it gets a little depressing. It's just very hard to paint where you cook."

On a whim, she contacted a real estate broker in La Porte, Indiana, to look into buying a home in the country. She fell in love with the first place she looked at, and soon she was the proud owner of a log cabin, a garage where she would have the room to paint if she wished, and 20 acres with a pond, tall grass, and trees.

At about this time she became involved with Dick Meyer, a divorced psychoanalyst with grown children. In 1992 they moved into a loft on the near west side. Here, Siegel decided she could perhaps begin to paint again: "They had already put in the sink for me. . . . It was meant as a studio. . . . There's good light, and I could see the work, I could step back from it. And that made an enormous difference. I mean, you can't paint large paintings, or many paintings, in a small place. You just can't.

"How did I start? I just went to the paper, every day, and pretty soon I felt good about it. It takes a lot of confidence to come to a white piece of paper without knowing what you're going to do and trusting that what comes out is what you really wanted to do."

Dick Meyer describes the weekends he and Irene spend in the country as restorative therapy. "I love driving the tractor," he confesses. He marvels at how Irene's artistic imagination has changed the land over time. It was once "a very pleasant place with plantings close to the cabin and a tended lawn." Now there are islands of grasses and "a lot more of everything," he says.

"That lawn--I can almost see it in her view--the tall grasses are going to take over. Wow! It will just blend in in a much more wild way with what there is in the surrounding land. It's fun, and it's becoming more and more beautiful."

These islands are a mixture of prairie and oriental grasses, sculptured into curves to gradually replace the existing lawn. The changes are an example of Siegel's way of looking at the world. "Nothing is not seen by her," Meyer insists. "So your eyes open, sort of out of self-defense. You don't want to be a dummy! It just extends you."

During the couple's trip to Portugal last November, he says, "We went around Lisbon. You began to see things you never would have noticed before. She noticed how the houses were, how the streets were, plants and flowers, everything.

"I think living with Irene has allowed me to see things in a different way."

In Chicago Irene and Dick share a rehabbed loft, open and airy with a high ceiling, exposed brick, and hardwood floors. The apartment was designed with Tanyce Langdon, an architect who had assisted Thomas Beeby on the Sulzer Library project, and who has remained a friend of Siegel's. She also helped plan and hang Siegel's current show, the product of two years' work, titled "The Garden."

Beginning as experiments with splashes of acrylic colors on corrugated paper, Siegel's preliminary drawings progressed to 46 finished works on canvas, forming a suite of paintings along a 40-foot wall in Gallery 312, at 312 N. May in the Fulton Street Market area. Though some works incorporate geometric shapes, they cannot strictly be called "pictures." They are abstract. Colors range from mute to bright, with layers of opaque gesso and transparent shadings. Images peek through the layers.

"Everybody's doing gardens," Siegel says. She mentions the work of artist Kerry James Marshall, whose recent paintings show plots in front of Chicago housing projects with the word "garden" in their names. "Kerry Marshall's look like gardens but aren't about gardens, and mine are about gardens but don't look like gardens."

To Siegel, gardening and nature have to do with a mixture of control and lack of control. Through gardening, Siegel gradually learned that it was impossible to fully control nature. "When I first came to the country, I thought that I could control unwanted greenery." She soon learned better.

When Siegel began experiments with color paintings in her loft, the first results were "total chaos," she reports. This didn't really concern her. "I have a belief that comes somewhat from experience that sometimes I started on things and they weren't so great but I worked at it and they worked out."

She started framing some of the drawings in interesting or at least complimentary frames, and she liked that better. She started experimenting with acrylics on paper and she liked that better still. Some of the results can be seen in the drawings that are part of the current exhibit.

Siegel began to see how her working method resembled gardening--in that she could guide but not control the outcome. She says nature--like emotion--should be allowed to assert itself.

"I'm trying to find different ways of showing emotion, and feeling it's all right to show it, whether it be very quiet or very bombastic, and trying to define it as I go along rather than deciding what it is and then trying to illustrate it."

As with a garden, she "plants a seed, which is my idea. And then I let it happen, and by that I mean I think that the process is a very important part of the idea, so that probably the process takes over the idea and eventually paints itself. And if I allow that to happen, usually the painting works out. If I control it too much, it just doesn't."

She calls her style "magical abstraction," and she believes her new work flies in the face of current fashions: in a time that still values conceptual and political art, her work is emotional; while certain forms of representational art are favored, her paintings are abstract; in a time of pessimism, she's optimistic.

In most contemporary art, she insists, "There is no expression, no passion for the things that I think art can really give you and make you reflect on--the ineffable things, passions, feelings, whether it's somber or ecstatic or celebratory."

As a genuflection toward Monet and his famous garden, she's titled one of her larger works Giverny.

When Siegel first started thinking about mounting an exhibition, she worried about filling the walls. She began to think that "certain pieces will go together like [flower] beds--you know, related pieces."

On the main wall she hung five large paintings within a "border" of forty smaller paintings patterned after glazed Portuguese tiles. Except for the very large blue and white Forget-Me-Not, the paintings do not include images of plants or flowers. Their colors are mostly subdued, except for La Cuisse de Nymph Emue ("The Thigh of an Aroused Nymph") with its playful propeller-shaped geometric figures dancing into shades of red.

The paintings are evocative rather than representational. They "look" like something you remember--for example, Dolly Parton includes a large geometric figure painted on what appears to be muted orange wallpaper peeling over plaster.

Painted around their edges, the border pieces seem just like tiles. They are thematically connected, with common geometric shapes treated playfully, coming out of the background in blues, tans, and whites. They were inspired by Siegel's visit to Lisbon, "a very unusual place . . . where almost all the buildings have tile on them, so it's like you live in a painting. And so I've made kind of giant tiles."

As work for the show was progressing, Siegel credits her friend David Travis for freeing her from the idea of "picturing" flowers. Travis is a photography curator at the Art Institute. "I told him how I'd been trying to get my art and my gardening as one, and I said, "I think it's working, but it doesn't look like gardening.' He said, "It doesn't have any flowers.' Well, actually it didn't--now it has some, but they don't look like flowers. He said, "But you know, I know exactly what you mean--you mean painting and gardening as a force of nature.' And I said, "Yes,' because when things get really bad for me I start thinking of how I'm going to explain this to people. But when I stop "thinking,' that's when I can paint."

Siegel's words resonate with something she said a year ago, in the thick of her new work: "If I had my druthers, I would be a visual equivalent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez--a kind of funny, light surrealism, and I don't know that the work is there yet, but I'm trying. I don't want it to be weighty, I want it to be totally opposite to what's relevant and on the front page of the paper. I want it for the home rather than sort of a public statement. And I would like it to be warm and a pleasure to be with, if possible."

Looking back at the last decade, Siegel says she's had her ups and downs, but her strength comes from facing her fears and overcoming them.

"I think that the whole idea of fear is something that I peel away at slowly. As I peel away at that fear, I feel that probably I get closer to what I can do and what I want to do.

"It's not that if I peel away at my life I will be a different person--of course, I'm always the same person--but I have more freedom. I can probably do things that feel more right for me, rather than what the world is telling me to do. And so I think that, in this way, my life is like a journey, a journey to freedom."

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

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