Yep, that's Oak Park on the cover of the New Yorker

Artist Chris Ware's illustration recently showcased a Gunderson four-square

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By Michelle Dybal

Arts Editor

"Last Days" is the title of artist and writer Chris Ware's latest New Yorker cover. It depicts a large four-square home with people enjoying an end-of-summer gathering. Sound familiar? It could be any September neighborly get-together in Oak Park. But, with it being 2020, the diverse group wears masks and the chairs are spaced widely apart around the grill. Meat cooks away while the flag, in a tangle, hangs from the open porch. 

"The house is an amalgam of details of the very standard Oak Park four-square as designed by Frederick A. Hill and Seward T. Gunderson, recognizable to anyone who's familiar with the area," said Ware, a resident of the village since 2001. "Since cartooning is essentially a sedentary vocation, I try to ride my bike around town as much as possible, and over the past months I'd occasionally pass 'socially distanced' neighborhood gatherings of folks sitting just pandemically far enough apart that the overall tableau seemed to stretch the idea of what a social event actually was, and it struck me as a sort of amusing yet melancholy image for a cover, especially as we head into the even more isolating months of winter." 

"At the same time, in our age of prevarications and polarization thanks to Trump and Fox News, where we're all stuck to the edges of the political centrifuge, I found such scenes sort of inspiring and heartwarming — especially since I think that trying to find some center point is our last hope as a nation and a culture," he said.

This is Ware's 25th cover for New Yorker magazine. The artist began contributing in 1999 according to the publication. 

"The New Yorker is about the last place in America where a drawing meant for reproduction can exist on its own terms just as a painting does in a gallery, and it's not really any secret as to why — no headlines ever tell the reader what to think," Ware said. "… It's really the last place an artist working for print can exist on his or her own terms, which is why I think the New Yorker's covers have something of a reputation — it's because they show a respect for the visual intelligence of their readership."

He also created covers for these times for the May 4 and April 6 issues. The April cover shows a hospital corridor abuzz with, presumably, COVID-19 patients, while an essential worker takes a break for a video phone call to say goodnight to her kids while their father-figure waves. It is called "Bedtime."  

"My daughter Clara, who's a sophomore at OPRF, suggested that I made sure to remind the viewer/reader that the doctors and nurses pictured had families, too — which was good advice. Some of her friends' parents are doctors, and a neighbor across the alley from us is a physician, so in thinking of them, the image sort of drew itself." 

While Ware does not feel art should try to communicate specific messages, he does believe it "can certainly impart feelings and especially inculcate empathy, which is the greatest superpower we have as humans, and the one we should always be trying to extend and to hone."

For a scene like a hospital, accuracy also comes into play.

"One of my last real jobs — an essential one, unlike being an artist — was delivering blood to emergency rooms in Texas and I became familiar with the basic ways that hospitals functioned, as well as got to know some of the nurses and lab techs, so it wasn't a huge leap of imagination to draw a trauma unit," Ware said. "Of course, Google image search helped, too. This said, I was terrified I'd get something wrong -- and probably did, but everyone's been nice enough to not say anything."

Ware is also known for his graphic fiction, including Jimmy Corrigan – the Smartest Kid on Earth and his most recent publication from September 2019, Rusty Brown, Part 1, a New York Times 100 Notable Book of the Year, which Ware said he worked at "off and on for nearly 19 years." His Building Stories is a treasure trove of Ware's art in books, booklets, magazines, newspapers and pamphlets – 14 in all. It was recognized as a Top Ten Book of the Year by The New York Times Book Review among others. And, it is set largely in Oak Park according to Ware. 

He said he is "politely disappearing for a good long while" to work on his next three books over the next few years, but that is not all. Ware is designing a jigsaw puzzle based on Building Stories and is involved in two museum exhibitions with planned openings in 2021. One, at Wrightwood 659, Chicago, will be on Adler & Sullivan's Schiller building, in which Ware is designing the exhibition and catalog. The other, in June, is an early Chicago newspaper comics exhibit that he is co-curating at the Chicago Cultural Center. That is running concurrently with an exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) about contemporary Chicago comics where his work will be shown. Ware's art has previously been shown at the MCA; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and MoCa, Los Angeles. Ware's art is at the Oak Park Main Library, too.

He is also involved in the restoration of a home in Riverside, purchased in 2017, where he and his family will move after Clara graduates from OPRF. 

"In the meantime, I've started transferring books and archival materials one bike ride at a time — the slowest move ever — but at least it's good exercise," Ware said of the trip to the house designed by Joseph Lyman Silsbee, Frank Lloyd Wright's first employer.

To own a piece of Chris Ware art, prints of past New Yorker covers, including "Last Days," are available online (condenaststore.com/art/chris+ware?searchType=artistname). His graphic fiction is sold at the Book Table, 1045 Lake St., Oak Park, (booktable.net). To purchase art close to home, visit the Oak Park River Forest Museum, 129 Lake St., Oak Park, (oprfmuseum.org) where images of the Oak Park Heurtley House, River Forest Purcell House or Historical Society Firehouse are available as posters, signed or unsigned, and limited edition Giclee prints, signed by the artist.

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