It was another chilly evening in November. The air was damp, a cold wind was blowing off the lake, and darkness came too soon ― all the signs that winter is drawing near. Despite the harsh realities that summer is long gone, a cold night in Chicago is an apt setting to visit Everybody’s Coffee and see the new exhibition, Winter Dreams, that displays 25 watercolors by Chicago artist Bill Bartelt.
This impressive exhibition shows another side of city life in Chicago. Rather than depicting the crowded and noisy streets of the city, Bartelt creates scenes of solitude and quiet within an urban environment. There is a contemplative mood to his work.
In his paintings, there are many familiar Chicago settings, such as rooftop water towers, L platforms, L girders along the street, and various views of alleys.
“My favorite subject is the urban environment. There are all these converging lines in the city like the streets and alleys, the sidewalks, and the railroad and L tracks. Most of the scenes that are in this exhibition are in a two-block radius around my home,” said Bartelt.
Bartelt began his professional career as an art director and designer for the stage, film and television. During his career in the entertainment industry, MGM asked him to be the stunt painter for Minnie Driver who portrayed an artist in the film, Return to Me. About 45 of his paintings can be seen in the film. Bartelt currently works out of his studio in the Ravenswood neighborhood and also holds watercolor workshops.
Due to his theatrical background in set design, Bartelt creates a strong sense of lighting as well as drama in his work. A number of Bartelt’s paintings convey a sense of pensiveness with solitary figures placed in various urban scenes. These settings capture a fleeting moment in time while still hinting that a bigger story is taking place. A good example of this is in Date Night II where a man stands alone on an L platform at night ― is he heading out to meet his date or going home from a date that didn’t work out? Or was he stood up?
“When I first started painting in watercolors, I approached it with a theatrical mindset because of my training as a set designer. In every scene I paint, I always try to create a sense of lighting and drama,” added Bartelt.
Bartelt also creates vanishing points in his works such as L tracks and streets that run off at a distance ― and this effect draws the viewer in to take an even closer look. Many of his city landscapes have a timeless feel ― they can be viewed as either contemporary urban scenes or as urban settings that are part of Chicago’s past.
Also worth noting is the sepia-tone effect that Bartelt creates in Southport Showers and LaSalle St. Bridge. A number of Bartelt’s works also capture scenes that are rapidly disappearing from Chicago’s landscape such as rooftop water towers that were once ubiquitous in most Chicago neighborhoods.
In this exhibition, Bartelt powerfully portrays the many common scenes that we see on a daily basis, but often block out over a period of time. But his work reminds us that we need to open our eyes once again and not take these scenes for granted. Bartelt also creates a fine balance as he captures the magic as well as the gritty reality of urban life in Chicago.
Winter Dreams will be on display from November 3 through December 15. Everybody’s Coffee is located at 935 W. Wilson. Hours: Monday thru Friday 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.; and Sunday 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.