Whatever issue came up for discussion during a recent visit with artist Leo Segedin, he rested his position on an axiom: “I’m a West Side Jew boy. What can I say?”
Whether he was talking about the ‘L’ that crosses many of his Chicago street scenes, chichi art galleries, pedagogical philosophy, or the Holocaust, he invoked the same bit of autobiography. Grammatically speaking, his self-description should be in the past tense: He is 95, and his West Side vanished eons ago, a victim of urban decay and urban renewal.
But it is still to be seen on virtually every wall of his studio and living quarters. His home is effectively the suburban mausoleum of a quintessential Chicago neighborhood.
Segedin pointed to a painting of children playing various games on empty lots, “prairies” in Chicagoese. “King of the Mountain,” he explained, referring to one of those games, is a metaphor for politics.”
He has been doing this for 75 years: creating straightforward images with latent messages.
“Follow the Leader #3″ depicts schoolchildren and workaday adults being directed down a street of Segedin’s youth by oversized, nattily dressed figures. In the coffee-table book “Leopold Segedin: A Habit of Art,” he identified them as Democratic Machine ward bosses.
“Every few years they’d come out of the woodwork and tell people the great things they were going to do,” he wrote, “and not much would get done in the interim. So it was a matter of following the leader and not going anywhere.”
Segedin’s parents lived at 3857 W. Polk St., not far from the border of the Jewish and Italian sections of Lawndale. On one of his canvases, two groups of menacing-looking young men are advancing on each other.
“Sure, we had fights,” he said. “But not like today. Not with knives or guns.”
He’d be confronted with virulent anti-Semitism if he crossed into the non-Jewish section of Lawndale. A big kid would grab him and ask: “Are you a Jew?”
“And I’d say, ‘Yes I am,’ ” he recalled in that coffee-table book. “And it stayed with me. That moment of fear.”
Segedin’s father rang doorbells in neighborhoods even more impoverished than Lawndale. He was a collector for a jewelry store. Poor people would make periodic payments on a ring or bracelet they’d bought on time. Standing in their doorway, Segedin’s father nudged them with a reminder that an installation was due.
From that perspective, his father’s view of his son’s precocious talent for drawing was understandable: “Art is a nice hobby, my father thought,” Segedin said. “But it’s no way to make a living.”
His mother agreed, but she took him, via the Garfield ‘L,’ to see exhibitions at the Art Institute. In his 1956 painting, “L Platform,” the tracks unrealistically make a 90-degree turn and shoot off the top of the canvas.
A curve symbolizes change, he noted.
Segedin’s paintings are too narrowtzy for some critics’ taste. To that argument, he responds:
“Torn wallpaper, broken walls, cracked streets and sidewalks — that’s not sentimentalism. That’s history.”
Segedin thinks of himself as a scholar who happens to work with a brush instead of a typewriter or a computer.
He was first encouraged to pursue his muse by his homeroom teacher at Crane High School, who “showed me that illustrators got paid for their art work,” he said. He took a drafting course that gave him the skills for his hard-edge painting style.
Years afterward, he doubled back to Crane as a teacher. He was feeling full of himself, until a student brought him back to earth: “He threw an eraser. Hit me right in the head.”
When he went into the Army during the Korean War, his ambition was to be some kind of engineer. The Army had teach him drafting, then assigned him to create a mural at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. The finished product depicted a hunting scene in Missouri.
“I’m a Jew boy from the West Side,” he said of creating a scene so foreign from his own background. “What can I say?”
After the Army, he enrolled at the University of Illinois and boldly declared himself an art major. For a graduation project, students were required to enter a competition.
He sent a painting to the 1949 “Artists of Central Illinois” exhibition at the Decatur Art Institute. “City Fabade” depicted a well-worn apartment building and a storefront with the garish sign “Roosevelt Furniture.”
“I won second prize in a WASPY town with a West Side painting,” he said. “My professors finished below that.”
“First prize went to a painting of flowers. Flowers!” he repeated, as if still reconciling himself to that long ago injustice.
Returning to Chicago, he found himself face-to-face with the history of art, as he saw it. “Before the French Revolution, artists were members of the aristocracy’s courts,” he said. “With their patrons gone, they had to sell their work through galleries.”
Galleries put a premium on what was new. Romanticism gave way to Impressionism, which gave way to Expressionism that yielded to abstract art. The nondescript images were justified by the wordier and wordier explanations posted alongside them. Segedin did not go along.
“That is not art,” he said. “It is philosophy.”
Segdin’s paintings are sizable and realistic, if sometimes surrealistic. In “What’s Next” a skeleton puts his hand on an aged Segedin. Multiple images of Segedin go off to the horizon where an ‘L’ car is about to exit the frame.
In the 1950s, galleries were few and far between in Chicago. Segedin and a couple of artists opened a short-lived cooperative gallery. When he and his wife, Jan, had children, she went to work as a school librarian. But he needed a steady paycheck. So in 1955, he began a 32-year teaching stint at Northeastern Illinois University on the Northwest Side. He sees himself as something of a survivor of the academic world.
“When many artists become professors they never go back to painting,” he said. “I never gave it up.”
The academic calendar enabled him to broaden his horizon.
“In the 1950s, I tried to paint the coast of Maine — the rocks and surf — but as much as the scenery turned me on, I could never capture its dynamism,” he wrote.
In the political heat of the 1960s, he vented his anger against the Vietnam War and a depersonalized America with paintings with titles such as “Parts of Man” and “Body Parts.
“They weren’t what people wanted to hang on their wall,” Segedin acknowledged.
The horror of the Holocaust is a subject that has always exercised an irresistible force on his paintbrush and palette knife. And he has always done self-portraits, some free-standing, others of him inserted into the cityscape of his youth.
Inevitably, he returns to the West Side. It’s as much a duty as a choice — his way of preventing his old neighborhood of Homan Avenue, Polk Street and Roosevelt Road from being thrown into the anonymity of history’s dustbin.
“When I began painting, Chicago was the world I lived in, but today that Chicago exists only in my memory, and memory is always a reconstruction,” he wrote in that coffee-table book.
“Every time I paint it, I create it all over again.”
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