John Gawne may live here, but his heart is thousands of miles west and a few centuries behind. For the past 13 years or so, Gawne has crafted a successful career as a painter of the American Westâ€"particularly of Native Americansâ€"from no farther west than a converted garage studio behind his family's Home Avenue house.
But stepping past the backyard clutter of three kids, ages 12, 9 and 6, and into Gawne's studio is a bit like a trip out of town. On the day a few weeks ago when he put down his paintbrush to chat, the studio was an evocative hodgepodge of Native American flute music piping from an old CD player, a large bleached cattle skull mounted up on a wall, piles of his Western-themed oil paintings in various stages of completionâ€"including "Spirit of the Buffalo," the large portrait he's working on nowâ€"color photos of Native Americans and Western landscapes shot by Gawne on his many western treks, and scores of Western-themed books and magazines.
The fact that an Oak Parker might fall in love with the scenery of the Western United States or the cultures that once flourished there isn't surprising. But that Gawne, a basically unschooled, self-taught artist, is represented in a number of Western galleries and prestigious art auctions and is, as he says, "making a living as an artist doing what I love to do," is a revelation. Add to it that one of the foremost Western artists living today, Howard Terpning, was born in Oak Park, and a 1975 Fenwick grad, Bill Anton, is also well-known as a painter of the American West.
Gawne can't explain the others, but he
believes his own love of the West came from
summers spent a little closer to home. His
grandfather, who started a plumbing business in Oak Park that eventually included his father and uncles, built a cottage in Yorkville, about 50 miles west of here on the Fox River. Gawne's extended family spent summers there, as far back as he can remember.
"A big light bulb went on for me just this past year," says Gawne. "My infatuation with the West has to do with those summersâ€"hiking, swimming and canoeing on the river, playing on the farms and in the barns."
So many generations and permutations of Gawnes laid summer roots there, in fact, that a local farmer's cows are named after all the women in the Gawne family, he insists. Gawne's children are the fourth generation to love it there.
The real West
Gawne's introduction to the actual western part of the country came in a trip following his 1974 graduation from Notre Dame University. A product of Oak Park's Catholic schoolsâ€"he attended Ascension School and Fenwick High Schoolâ€"Gawne found himself with a degree in accounting and a few months to spare.
So he and a couple of buddies, including one from Oak Park, hopped in a car and headed west, adding two more friends as they went. They found themselves in Snake River Canyon, Idaho, just as Evel Knievel was planning (unsuccessfully as it turned out) to jump the canyon on his motorcycle.
"We were the straightest people there," Gawne recalls. "Just 30 or 40,000 Hells Angels and the guys from Oak Park."
But the "stunning" sceneryâ€" "we could walk to the edge of 600-foot falls," he saysâ€"took his breath away.
The group wound their way northwest to Seattle and then south to L.A. and west to Phoenix, picking destinations by friends they could talk into putting them up for a few days. Life intervened as Gawne's traveling companions peeled off one by one, for graduate school, the Air Force, law school.
Gawne and his Oak Park buddy, Ray O'Connell, eventually ran out of money in Las Cruces, N.M. A "lucky" accident in a friend's car netted them enough cash to get home (Gawne settled with the insurance company for $100; his friend got $150 since his glasses were broken.)
It was a glorious adventure. "Cruising through the desert at 110 miles per hour, 'Roc' [O'Connell] reading Hunter Thompson," Gawne reminisces.
College loans and his parents' upcoming 25th wedding anniversary brought Gawne back to Oak Park and his first accounting job, but he couldn't shake the pull of what he'd glimpsed on that first trip west.
"Two years later, Roc and another Oak Park friend called and said they were heading to Idaho. That Friday I went to work, resigned, and left with them on Friday night," he says.
After that it was years of traveling back and forth. He transitioned from accounting jobs to trading at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, eventually working for himself. The work, he admits, was "boringâ€"I didn't like it." He lived for the Western vacations, joined in the 1980s by his father.
"My dad loved the West, too. His dad used to pile the family in the car and go west; he remembered wandering off and watching bears go through the campground when he was 6 years old. We read tons of books, on the history, on Indians," says Gawne.
Native Americans became the focus of Gawne's interest, and later, his art. "When I started going west I realized how much of a fixture they were here, long before Europeans showed up. I became so infatuated with their culture, how they lived," he explains.
His dad died in a work-related accident at St. Catherine's in 1987. By 1991, Gawne had married and his wife (they've since divorced), encouraged him to try a different life.
Gawne's only "formal" art training came at the suggestion of his fourth-grade teacher at Ascension. "She thought I had some talent and brought it to the attention of my parents," he says.
So his parents found an "older lady" with an art studio in her Maple Avenue basement (now a parking lot across from RUSH Oak Park Hospital) who taught Gawne to copy pictures using water-based paint. He did that through seventh or eighth grade. There were no art classes offered at Fenwick, and he didn't study art in college at all.
"I would occasionally pick up a pencil and draw," he recalls. "I remember vividly drawing soldiers from pictures in Life Magazine during the Vietnam War."
But all those trips west, which Gawne captured in what he estimates are 25,000 photos and slides, "drew me back to the idea of being an artist. Art is a way to express what you love," he explains.
His wife had two young children from a previous marriage. After a five-week honeymoon, she made him an offer: she'd support them with her phone company job and he could stay home, take care of the kids, and, as she put it, "try the art."
"I jumped at that," he says.
"Once I started to do it, get instruction, I quickly found out how much I didn't know," he adds. "I was driven by love to express the American West, and I was also driven to master the craft with an equal or greater intensity."
He was a fast learner. In the first year, his paintings were accepted into galleries in Western markets (where American West art sells, especially to tourists, he notes), and his work has consistently sold as fast as he can produce it. He's been invited to attend workshops with a number of leading Western art painters, including one with Terpning in Texas in 1997. Now he's represented by galleries in Arizona, Wyoming and Montana, and he's preparing for a big show in July in Jackson, Wyo.
A working painter
Travel is still a fixture (he actually loves the long drive west), even though he's a stay-at-home dad for three more kids he and his ex-wife added to their family. And he's always looking for new faces and landscapes to paint.
Gawne has developed a number of sources. A Native American friend, also an artist, has family who own some of the land that was the site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, also known as Custer's Last Stand, in Montana. Once a year the family stages a re-enactment, cast with local Indian actors. Gawne has been many times.
Gawne's "Many Lightnings," a painting he sold through the C.M. Russell Auction of Original Western Art in March, was inspired by the face of a young re-enactor. It went for $6,500, more than the auction estimate of $5,000 to $6,000. (In galleries, Gawne's paintings range from $1,500 to $12,000, depending on size. Keep in mind, he emphasizes, that the gallery gets 40 percent).
Once a year, Gawne also joins a group of about 50 invited artists on a ranch in South Dakota for a three-day photo shoot of models: cowboys and Indians on horseback, pioneers, cattle, horses galloping through rivers. "A lot of Hollywood extras participate," says Gawne. "We tip them as we shoot."
He's also a regular at Crow Fair, an annual powwow on a Crow reservation in Montana.
Back in Oak Park, the photos provide Gawne with a wealth of new material. "I'd do nothing but paint if I could," says Gawne, who tries to work at least eight hours a day and figures that between T-ball, baseball and Cub Scout camp he'll have been in the studio about 21 days in June.
"I'd like to do more," he admits. "You need to find a balance; it can be consuming. [My work] is on my mind 24 hours a day."
Although he's always concentrated on realistic portraits, Gawne says he's "loosening up, using more abstract backgrounds now." He's having a great deal of success lately doing Native American portraits with hide paintings or Navaho blankets as backgrounds. And he's working to set his figures into landscapes;
he took a workshop on landscape art
As his career grows, Gawne says he'd "love to be able in some way to help Native Americans, more than just painting nice paintings. I find myself so moved, by their customs, lifestyles, cultures. It's a sad part of our history."
Although Gawne's ideal life would be lived summering in Montana and Wyoming and wintering in Arizona, with a child just entering first grade at Lincoln School next year he's committed to staying here. And he's not complaining.
"My art is my passion," he says. "I love it; I put my heart and soul into it. If I won the $10 million lottery, I'd still do it.
It's truly a blessing, to do what you love to do."
Howard Terpning was born in Oak Park in 1927, and lived here for about five years, according to John Gawne. After a career in New York City as a commercial artist (including painting more than 80 movie postersâ€"many of them classics like the ones he did for The Sound of Music and a reissue of Gone With the Wind), Terpning began painting portraits and eventually moved to Arizona to do Western art full time.
Terpning is widely regarded as "the Michael Jordan of Western art," says Gawne. Often referred to as "Storyteller of the Native American," Terpning has won a host of prestigious awards. His painting, "The Force of Nature Humbles All Men," recently sold for more than $800,000; it's part of the permanent collection of the Museum of the American West (formerly the Autry Museum) in L.A.
"He's a humble, gracious man," says Gawne, who studied with Terpning at a 1997 workshop in Texas. An unfinished painting that hangs in Gawne's studio includes a torso of a Native American painted by Terpning during the class (see the painting at top left). And Gawne's neighbor's mother was engaged to Terpning before he left to join the Marines.
"It's a small world," says Gawne.