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It was a dream eight years in the making. When Oak Park artist Mike Hedges and his wife Julie purchased a home across the street from her parents, they knew what they were taking on: a mortgage and a plan for their future family. Hedges knew the responsibility came with a downside.
"I used to rent a studio in the city," he said, "but once we took on mortgage payments, it made more sense to paint in the basement."
As their family grew to include three boys — 5-year-old Brady and toddler twins Dylan and Jack — the basement became valuable real estate. Hedges eked out a small space for painting, but it was less than ideal. Some of his abstract works can be quite large, and his oil paints are pungent. Not to mention painting below ground kept him from seeing daylight on a regular basis. He always dreamed of having his own room for painting and thought there was one spot on the property that might work.
The old garage
When the couple bought the property, it included a one-car, dilapidated garage. According to Hedges, "dilapidated" is inadequate.
"It was leaning," he recalled, "and I'm sure if I'd pushed really hard, I could have knocked it over."
In spite of the structure's condition, getting permission to raze it took more time and permits than the actual demolition. "It took a long time to get the appropriate village and county approvals to knock it down. Once we had that, it only took my guys about four hours to completely demolish it."
With no alley and a limited backyard space for the kids to play in, Hedges wanted to limit his storage shed-turned-studio to a narrow spot on his lot. As a house painter by trade, he has years of experience with home renovation and associated trades, but he knew better than to attempt the design on his own.
Luckily, he didn't have to look far for some expert advice. Local architect Drew Nelson of WDN Architecture (www. wdnarchitecture.com) happens to be both a neighbor and a friend. Nelson's wife has been teaching with Julie Hedges for 10 years, so the men knew each other socially but had never worked together.
As Hedges puts it, "I'd seen his work before and knew that he did great stuff, and I knew I needed help with all the zoning and permitting that went into this."
Nelson took Hedges' sketches and turned them into a design plan that squeezed a lot of functionality into less space than a one-and-a-half car garage would've occupied on the lot. In fact, Hedges originally thought about simply hiring a garage company to throw up a basic structure on the lot that he would modify for use as a studio, but he quickly realized that with his connections to the trades and some help from family and friends, he could build something better suited to painting than parking.
Nelson was able to come up with a structure that takes advantage of the lot lines, reaching up almost to the height of the power lines hanging over the yard. A structure of trussed beams and three huge north-facing windows on the ceiling allows for plenty of light as well as plenty of wall space for hanging paintings.
Hedges attributes the creation of a perfect space to Nelson's training. "I just wanted a box above ground, not in my house, and these guys came up with this. With the windows where they put them, I can use every square inch of the walls for paintings and still get good light."
Another Oak Park friend, Ted Stroup of Kinetic Energy provided electrical work and wired the room for surround sound.
It might not be a large space but small touches make it perfect for both the painting and storing of artwork. Hedges' father-in-law, Bob Dunn, a retired carpenter, came up with a sliding barn door system that allows Hedges to slide a long wooden door to cover up a storage nook, or to cover the glass doors when he needs privacy to work. Hedges also credits Dunn for coming up with a solution for hanging canvases.
"He built a system with two tracks on the wall," Hedges said. "On top, we can hang paintings and slide and move them around with this system of removable cleats. The lower track helps stabilize canvases."
While the space primarily serves as storage for Hedges' artwork and a studio for painting, he notes that it also easily cleans up into an exhibit space if clients want to view his paintings. Admittedly a messy worker, Hedges noted that any stray sprays of paint are easily painted over on the white walls, and a puzzle-like floor covering actually removes to reveal a concrete floor when he wants to the space to look more like a gallery. His website michaelhedgespainting.com allows people to view his art and make appointments to see his work in Oak Park.
More space = More production
The studio blows away his former basement space, but Hedges admits he could always use more room.
"In a perfect world, I'd like it 10 times bigger, but we live in Oak Park with no alley. This feels so big with the windows and light. I was used to working in a furnace room with low ceilings, so I can already see the plus in being able to work on larger pieces.
"It's a lot more fun to paint out here. It's more of an experience now. I think my work's actually gotten better. Before, I was kind of like a fish that could only grow as big as its tank."
With a show of his paintings ongoing in Columbus, Ohio, and a fall show planned for the Thomas McCormick Gallery in the West Loop, Hedges finds that he is able to produce more paintings than he could in his basement.
The impetus for the project may have been to gain some distance from little hands that might be too curious about his paintings, but for Hedges, the studio's genius is that it enhances his life with his family.
With the studio just steps away from the basement door, it's inevitable that the boys join Hedges in the studio, and he wouldn't have it any other way. At 5, Brady already pretty much has free rein, and proving that nothing's off limits, Hedges keeps a series of smaller canvases readily available on the ground for the twins. At 18 months, they
keep busy moving them from one side of the room to the other.
"I can come over here anytime — even while the babies are napping. I can shoot in and out for five minutes if I have something to work on. The biggest stretch I can count on is about three hours, but if I'm getting ready for a show like I will be in the fall, I set aside a week or more to get ready."
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