It’s 10 a.m. Wednesday, and Bob Kwas is surrounded by women peering intently over his shoulder in the former hayloft of the onetime stable at 720 Chicago Ave. They’re all staring at a nondescript photo of a nondescript house on a hill. Kwas has thumbnailed a more interesting version, and now he’s about to turn it into an even more interesting watercolor painting for the benefit of his students.

The number of students varies in this nine-week course. Today, six have joined him, spreading their brushes, sketchpads, books, paint trays, and Diet Cokes on the paper-covered card tables, which form a giant U. Kwas, who is sitting at a small table in the center of the U and hoping his sciatica doesn’t flair up, is grey-bearded, avuncular and approachable. He’s been drawing since the age of 4 and started taking lessons in his hometown of Racine, Wis., when he was 9. Today his works are accepted in national art shows, including the one currently in Elmhurst. He belongs to no less than six art leagues.

“He’s the master,” says Margarete Gross, “a wonderful teacher.”

As the women gather around, he begins mixing paint on the flat surface of his tray with quick circular motions, dabbing frequently in the Jewel yogurt container filled with water, occasionally swiping it against a large sponge.

“Think in terms of composition,” he says, offering a running commentary as he works. “You’re not just doing studies of things. Copying is good practice, but make it your own. Unless you’re a forger, you’re going to be in that work. … That’s how you grow as an artist.”

Kwas has been teaching at the Art League for more than 20 years here in this upstairs studio space. The windows to the west look out on the stately Oak Park Avenue Victorian home that this coach house and stable once belonged to. For the past 70 years, though, it has functioned as a kind of headquarters for artistic expression in the village.



Oak Park has its share of venerable institutions”Hephzibah, Family Service, OP-RF Day Nursery, 19th Century Club, Infant Welfare Society, the Economy Shop”organizations that have survived and even thrived for the better part of a century, or more.

Most, however, have focused their efforts on social needs. The Oak Park Art League, on the other hand, exists solely to celebrate creativity.

And celebrate is the operative word as the Art League turns what some might call a wildly improbable 85. But its members wouldn’t call it that. In fact, they’ve seen a genuine renaissance at the Art League over the past dozen years or so, with revitalized membership and a renewed effort to raise visibility in the community.

Back in 1994, Marcia Palazzolo”a photographer, already a departure from tradition”took over as president of a moribund organization that seemed to be going nowhere. It was perceived as a somewhat stodgy, “closed” society of artists who didn’t particularly welcome community interaction. Palazzolo and a pared-down board put together a report called “Into the Next Millennium,” which attempted to clarify the group’s identity and determine a new direction.

They hired a director (Jessica Mackinnon) and brought in new members with fresh ideas and energy. Lisa Woolford took over the education program and grew it to the point where it now provides 75 percent of the group’s revenue (the rest comes from memberships, grants and donations). Woolford, who also served as director, and her husband are in the process of moving to Barrington.

The Art League presently has about 95 “artist members” (artists have to be “juried in”), but you don’t have to be a juried artist to be a league member, and you don’t have to be a member to take classes. The new board president, Keith Taylor, in fact, hasn’t been juried in yet, though he hopes to be soon. The league sponsors six or seven shows a year in its ground-floor gallery space; it also has a satellite gallery at Edward Jones Investments, 316 Lake St. And there is an 85th anniversary exhibit on the second floor of the Oak Park Public Library through April 30, featuring some of the 35 or so paintings in the permanent collection as well as new artwork in a variety of media by current members (see sidebar).

One of the main reasons the Art League has been able to maintain its identity and survive for eight and a half decades is that they own their building, which Palazzolo, the league’s unofficial historian, describes as “an asset and an albatross.” The A-frame structure looks every bit the stable it once was. Set back from Chicago Avenue, and easy to miss (which is why it was recently painted a bright combination of spring green, yellow, and rusty orange), it was designed by E.E. Roberts in 1902, the same year Oak Park was incorporated.

When the league membership somehow managed to raise $4,000 to purchase the stable and coach house in 1937 in the depths of the Great Depression, Roberts, who was by then a member of the Art League himself, undertook the task of converting it to a ground-floor gallery and upstairs studio.

The league itself was founded in 1921 by Carl Krafft, a nationally known painter in his own right, who served as the organization’s first president. It remains, according to the league’s literature, “the oldest organization of its kind to be granted a charter in the state of Illinois.”

After hosting get-togethers in Krafft’s home, the league rented space in various locations, including Frank Lloyd Wright’s Home & Studio, the Grace Episcopal Church rectory, and the top floor of the 19th Century Woman’s Club. Late Victorian Oak Park, however, felt the league’s core offering”figure drawing classes with nude models”was a little too risqué for propriety, which led to the search for their own building.

When their new home at 720 Chicago Ave. opened in 1938, the first member to cross the threshold was Grace Hall Hemingway, cultural dowager of Oak Park, and arguably as famous as her novelist son”at least locally.

The house has aged, of course, and not always gracefully. Kwas recalls almost getting electrocuted in the early 1980s when the roof was last redone and the workers didn’t tarp it properly during a rainstorm. The dripping water made its way downstairs to the gallery, where members had to scramble to save the paintings of a major show on display.

That roof now needs to be redone again, which means more fundraising (including one scheduled this Friday, April 28, at Holley Court Terrace). Ten years ago for their 75th birthday, Kwas said, they sold bricks and had the front area landscaped. The patio and gardens would make a nice location for a small art fair, which board members have talked about organizing at some point in the future. The Art League, in fact, previously sponsored the Village Art Fair, an annual highlight of the village calendar, taking place the second week of September from the 1940s through the ’60s.



League members today say they want to return to that level of visibility.

“This is a community of artists for the community of Oak Park and River Forest,” noted Taylor recently at the library gallery, where he was joined by Kwas; Susan Bjornson, head of the education committee; Palazzolo; and Nancy Fong, head of the exhibition committee, to talk about how the Art League has changed”and how it hasn’t.

“It’s a fun board to be on,” said Bjornson, “very hands on.”

Taylor noted they’re working hard to change their image.

“We’re not a bunch of stodgy old farts,” he said. “We’re not just Sunday painters. We want to utilize the space better, hold evening drop-ins so people can show their art to one another. We want to be looser and have fun. Heck, I’m a cartoonist.”

“We’d like to make it more of a gathering place,” concurred Kwas, “a place to socialize.”

“You don’t create in a vacuum,” Taylor added. “You need the interaction. That was one of our founding reasons. It’s our core.”

Another core part of the mission is education, and the one constant through the decades has been the drop-in figure drawing session with a live model every Sunday afternoon from 1 to 4 p.m. Longtime member Bobbie Raymond Larson, who now serves as the league’s grant writer, runs the program. To pay for the model, members pitch in $10″$15 for non-members.

“It’s a place to meet good people and fine artists,” said Fong.

The Sunday sessions draw artists from all over the Chicago area, added Taylor, because it’s a cheap way to get experience sketching live models.

The league boasts a number of longtime members, including Audrey Brown, who continues to teach into her 80s, and currently has a show in one of the Harrison Street galleries, and Richard Wilkinson, the longest continuous member (since the mid-1940s), who was recently honored at the league’s annual meeting.

They’re proud of the league’s heritage, as well as the permanent collection, though Taylor and Fong admit the paintings could use some restoration. That, of course, takes funding, which is why they want to heighten community involvement. To that end, the league is getting out to parades, sidewalk sales, and Day In Our Village to widen their exposure. In 2004 they held an “Art Slam” event to raise money for various local charities.

Palazzolo says the village tends to highlight the Harrison Street Arts District in its promotional materials, so the league often gets overlooked as a result.

But they’ve been around for 85 years, Kwas points out, run almost entirely by volunteers, so they must be doing something right. “We’re going in the right direction now,” he said.

“It’s a living thing,” he observed. “Sometimes it feels good, sometimes not.”

Like the old tree in front of the brightly painted house at 720 Chicago Ave. And what kind of tree is it?

“It’s a sturdy tree,” Kwas quips. “It’s a survivor”just like us.”

Upcoming

The Oak Park Art League is holding a fundraiser in conjunction with the OP-RF Infant Welfare Society, scheduled for this Friday, April 28. “Carnivale: A celebration of art and life” will take place at Holley Court Terrace, 1111 Ontario St., from 7 to 10 p.m. Tickets are $65 in advance or $75 at the door. A silent auction features the works of 80 local artists. Proceeds benefit the league’s children’s education program as well as the Infant Welfare Society. For information and reservations, call the Art League at 386-9853.

Meanwhile, over at the Oak Park Public Library’s Joseph Shapiro Gallery, the Art League’s anniversary exhibition, Past and Present, continues through April 30, featuring work from their permanent collection (including founder Carl Krafft) and current members.

For more on the Oak Park Art League, check www.opal-art.com or e-mail opal2004

Join the discussion on social media!