Karen Mansfield, a retired labor attorney, had never taken an art class before stepping inside of Jesse Howard’s drawing class at the Oak Park Art League several years ago.
“I had absolutely no talent and I really had to push myself, but it’s something I wanted to conquer,” Mansfield said. “And I stuck with it. It’s a challenge.”
The fruit of Mansfield’s artistic labor, along with the work of several other advanced students who have taken Howard’s class over the years, is on display in “Mark Making With Piccolo,” an exhibition that runs through Jan. 7 in the second-floor Main Gallery at the Oak Park Public Library, 834 Lake St.
Mansfield described one of her pieces, a playful drawing of Democratic Vermont Senator and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at the 2021 inauguration of President Joe Biden. The famous photograph of Sanders “sitting masked, cross-legged and bundled up in a bulky coat and mittens against the frigid weather,” according to a Washington Post description, turned into a popular meme.
“He looked so poignant and I thought about what may have been going through his mind,” Mansfield said during the exhibition’s opening reception on Dec. 17. “Probably, ‘It should’ve been me.’”
All of the pieces on display are homework assignments that the students drew for Howard’s class. The pieces are all cases in mark making (the “lines, dots, marks, patterns and textures that artists use,” according to the Tate Modern) and piccolo, which refers to a “pop of color or an item that stands out in a composition,” according to a description on the library’s website.
For instance, in the case of Mansfield’s drawing, Bernie’s brown knitted mittens comprise the piccolo, which draws the viewer’s attention to Mansfield’s humorous riff on the original photo. In her drawing, the Democratic Socialist is knitting his own hand-warmers.
“When you look at the show, we try to have different social issues and a little still life,” said Howard, who is an accomplished artist himself. “When we put the pieces together, we wanted them to contrast one another.”
John Dames, another Howard student, displayed a drawing of pillows next to a drawing of “highway trash with a butterfly,” Dames said. The drawing came about when Howard told the class to go out and draw something from the expressway.
“I don’t tell them what to draw,” Howard said. “They have to solve that themselves.”
Dames said the class has been life-changing for him.
“I have learned so much from this man, I get choked up, because it’s spiritual, it’s enlightening, it’s encouraging, it’s growth, its compassion, it’s love,” he said. “And the critiques … You learn so much from those critiques. It’s such a wonderful educational experience. It’s a high.”