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IN MEMORIUM: Ed Paschke

"Life is very much about rule-breaking, about confrontation. Otherwise history would just stand still.

By JESSICA CURRY
"My father inspired me to go down this path. He always had this workshop or studio wherever we lived. To me, it was always a magical act." &ndash Ed Paschke

The Red Line roared by Ed Paschke's studio. There was a simple door, squeezed between neon-lit beauty shops. Of course there was no sign &ndash not even name written next to the buzzer. I, then a college student, was there to interview Paschke, my painting professor, for a journalism project. It was never meant to go to print, but he nevertheless said yes. For Paschke, the way he selflessly gave his time, each day must have had more than 24 hours.

He went to every artist's opening, and if he couldn't make it that night, he'd go the next day. "There would be dozens of situations where Ed would go somewhere and be mobbed by people with questions," said Eva Belavsky, director of the Maya Polsky Gallery, where Paschke displayed his work. "He'd always smile and have a respectful and intelligent answer, no matter how silly the question."

Paschke died in his sleep on Thanksgiving Day. The apparent cause was heart failure. At 65-years-old, the artist had successfully reinvented himself countless times, though what people loved most, Ed Paschke the man, was always the same, never pretentious and always thoughtful. In 2004 he'd had two shows, one in Chicago, one in Paris, and was in the middle of creating his largest work to date, two mural-size paintings commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Although his paintings were typically an enigma, saturated with obscurity, illuminated by his unusual technique, Paschke was candid about his art. In the classroom, he taught his students how he worked with layering different paints, each project beginning with a "sketch" with black latex paint on the white canvas. "Ed had no secrets," said Maya Polsky. "Every time he gave a speech somewhere, he'd always first show a slide of the black and white canvas."

The afternoon I interviewed him, the entry room of his studio glowed from two PHScolograms he had propped against a wall. He'd created the PHScolograms, an innovative art form resembling a colorful, lighted hologram. One was a self-portrait, which cast red, green and blue light across the dark room.

"I want to do another one of these, but the woman I work with on them, because I know nothing about computers, drives me crazy," Paschke said. "She's a complete control freak."

We walked into his main workroom where five paintings in progress adorned each corner.Paschke offered me something to drink. I took a seat in one of the many oddball chairs that filled the room. Old advertisements, scribbles, sketches, posters from art shows, photographs, notes and business cards canvassed the wood-paneled walls. Piles of books, old newspapers and Playboys were stacked across the room (Paschke's illustrations for Playboy, along with his involvement in the Hairy Who movement, propelled him to national recognition decades ago). The studio's windows were covered in a combination of blinds, cardboard and bubble wrap, with only a few small rays penetrating the barrier. Duct tape patched up the linoleum floor's cracks.

"This is a crummy workspace," Paschke said with raised eyebrows and a smile. He stood more than 6 feet tall and was wearing a flannel, button-down shirt and gray pants. "There are no frills and just an accumulation of debris. At this point, it would be hard to move all this. I guess moving would force me to throw it all out, but it's not in the foreseeable future."

The artist's style was meticulous and detailed, but according to Paschke, the brand of paint he used didn't make the slightest difference. Despite red and green being his favorites, tubes of every possible color and brand of paint, even cans of spray paint, fought for room on the studio's various tables and stands. The same went for the brushes.

"I suppose I'm picky with brushes as tools, not brands," he said. Hundreds of different sized brushes were stuffed into cans scattered throughout the studio.

One of the pieces in progress was a painting that Paschke said was a commissioned portrait of a man who collects his work. The portrait showed the man with four different expressions amid flames.

"I don't like this kind of work," he said, referring to commissioned portraits. "It's kind of an awkward thing, dealing with egos, what people think they are, as opposed to what they really are."

While painting, Paschke said he enjoyed listening to public radio because "it's cool to be learning something while doing work." I asked him what was his favorite music to work to, as Cher's "Do You Believe" is pumping in the background.

"Besides Cher?" he joked. Paschke had a soothing voice with intonations that somehow made everything he said funny. He asked Gabe, his studio assistant, to turn on Steve Roach or Paul Oakenfold. "I like this energized trance music. You get deeper and deeper into your head."

"Why don't I interview you while you're interviewing me?" Paschke asked, tapping his white sneaker on the floor.He was working on a small painting of a goddess-like face with a headdress as he talked to me."What's your favorite music?"

Gabe packed up his things and said he had to get back to school.

"OK, man, see you later," Paschke said.After Gabe left, he commented, "Over the years, I've had a few studio assistants. One was Jeff Koons. He's now a famous artist.The other was Liz Phair. I think we'll hear from Gabe one day."

Paschke said he frequently had visitors in his studio, and because painting is a solitary activity, Paschke said he frequently had visitors in his studio, and because painting is a solitary activity, he usually enjoyed the company.

"I used to have this entourage of neurotic people who'd come over to tell me about their lives. It was almost a performance for me," he said. "They needed to tell me, and perhaps, I just needed to listen."

Paschke told me about a guy who wrote to him who was down on his luck and wanted advice on how to become an artist.

"Well, he's coming over tomorrow," he said. "I don't need to meet with him, but I can appreciate the position he's in. I want to give back to my fellow man."

Those who permanently resided in Paschke's studio, through their photographs on the walls, served to show the artist who he was and where he'd been, he said.One room was completely covered with his memorabilia. There were photographs of Paschke with celebrities such as Pamela Anderson and Kim Cattrall, artists such as LeRoy Neiman and athletes like Michael Jordan. Notes of appreciation, such as one from Mayor Richard Daley, were taped to the wall. Paschke said that of all his belongings in the studio, what he valued most was a photograph of him and author William Buroughs, whom he called "my hero."

"The space you work in is a reflection of you," said the artist, who'd always sought to confront the status quo. "It's an unconscious outgrowth of my personality."

Despite spending about 30 hours per week in the studio, Paschke said he still got excited to be there.

"It sounds really corny, but every morning when I walk through the door, it's thrilling to me that I get to do this," he said. "My father inspired me to go down this path. He always had this workshop or studio wherever we lived.To me, it was always a magical act."

I asked him, of all his work, what was his favorite. He instantly replied, "The next one. It's kind of like being addicted to a drug.You keep trying to top yourself.Whatever excited you before won't do it again.I try not to look back much.If you keep looking back and resting on your laurels, it can slow you down going forward."

Ed Paschke's wife Nancy died on January 18, just before Chicago Life went to press. Ed and Nancy are survived by their daughter Sharon, son Marc and granddaughter Erica. An Ed Paschke memorial tribute exhibition runs from Feb. 4 through Mar. 12 at the Maya Polsky Gallery. Another tribute show opens April 8 at Gallery 415. The Paschke family is currently putting together a foundation that will continue to perpetuate Ed Paschke's legacy,with the goal to establish a permanent space to display his work. For more information on Ed Paschke, visit www.edpaschke.com.

Sharon Paschke Remembers Her Father

After a long day's work, Ed Paschke preferred to go home, watch TV and make some popcorn. He got excited if Cops or a boxing match was on, and he could never resist a Steven Segal movie. "We'd recently gotten high-definition TV, and he loved it," recalls Sharon Paschke, who lived with her father in a modest brick house on a quiet street in Chicago. "He'd say, 'I just love to come home and watch my high-definition. I don't care what's on &ndash everything just looks so clear.'"

Paschke would often pick up shrimp on his way home from work or would find himself driving to Elmwood Park to get a pizza from Armand's. Even though he liked sitting on his couch and watching TV, Sharon says her dad could never be completely still and usually had a pen and paper in hand for drawing. He had an ever-growing stack of reading material that he was saving for a lazy day, but with only Sundays off, he never got through all of it.

Gambling and games weren't of any interest to Paschke &ndash he never saw the point &ndash but he loved nature and animals. On a sunny day, he'd sit in the backyard and read the paper, usually the Tribune. He didn't ever learn how to swim, but nevertheless, in fearless Paschke style, was drawn to the water. He loved boating and canoeing and took his kids fishing when they were young. Paschke's fondness of animals can sometimes be seen in his work &ndash the often-depicted chicken perhaps reminiscent of the one he had as a pet when he was a boy. There are currently four cats at the Paschke home. Sharon says each time she brought another cat home he'd grumble, but she'd soon find him playing with it.

Although Paschke traveled the world to show his art, he didn't like being away from home &ndash out of his routine and the city he cherished. It was lonely, being in a foreign place, staying in hotel rooms. He did, however, enjoy going to Florida, especially for the alligators, which fascinated him with their prehistoric nature.

Paschke sometimes talked about work at home, but usually favored conversations about pop culture, which intrigued him because of how it links everyone together and how people feel they know celebrities like they do their family, Sharon says. "He was an observer of human behavior," Sharon adds. "He loved people watching. He could pick up on the subtleties. He was just so curious. Sometimes if we were at a gallery, he'd go up to a painting, get real close and tap it, as if he was trying to figure out how it works."

Technology was one of the few things that ever frustrated the astoundingly calm Paschke, who never had a palm pilot, couldn't turn on a computer, rarely used a cell phone and never had a personal secretary. All his notes were handwritten, but he never missed an appointment. Everywhere he went he was 15 minutes early. "He was always keeping tabs on everything in his life," says Sharon. "He sent out cards for every occasion, visited my mom at least every other day and called his mom regularly."

The American Science Center was one of Paschke's favorite places to go, especially when he was shopping for Christmas gifts. He'd get a cart and wander down the aisles, picking up strange trinkets like magic rocks and plastic dolphins.

"My dad was always there for us when we needed him, whether it be for homework or little league, even if he had something else going on," Sharon says. She makes a reference to how kids are often embarrassed or don't want to be with their parents. "We had an incredible respect for him. I always wanted to be around him. I always liked my dad. We both liked each other's company &ndash we laughed at each other's jokes."

Ed Paschke's Greatest Triumph

My first thought upon hearing of my dad's unexpected and sudden passing on Thanksgiving Day was not that the world had lost a great artist, although it had. It was not that the Chicago art community had lost one of its greatest advocates, although that was true as well. It wasn't even that my sister and I had lost our wonderful and devoted father. Rather, the first thought that came into my head was that my mom had lost her soul mate.

As renowned and celebrated as my dad is for his artwork and his teaching, his greatest legacy is his devotion to his wife, Nancy. Stricken with Parkinson's disease at the young age of 32, she has endured the difficult life of being a creative soul trapped within a failing body. Rather than leave her to enjoy the riches of being a rising star in a welcoming art world, he chose to re-dedicate himself to his wife and family. Immersed in the time de-mands of being a highly sought after artist, educator and generous contributor to countless charities and foundations, he still found time to visit mom almost every single day at the nursing home. More importantly, he found a way to inspire her to be creative, to paint, to allow herself to feel better about her life than many of us feel about our own. He was always able to make her smile, to make her laugh and feel important, to forget about the reality of her physical limitations. There will never be anyone who can replace that wonderful look she always got when he came in to her room to visit.

Seven days after my father died, he was to have flown to my home in San Francisco to visit us and meet his only granddaughter, Erica, who had been born just six weeks earlier. He'd wanted to come sooner, but an opening in Paris delayed his visit. When she gets older I want her, along with future generations of artists and painters, to learn about my father and what he was about. I want them to be inspired, not only by the overabundance of creative output he has left us with, nor simply by his extraordinary generosity to his professional community. Rather, I want people to be impassioned by his absolute devotion and loyalty to his wife and his family. To me that is what made my father the greatest dad anyone could ever ask for.

Nancy Paschke is represented by Judy A Saslow Gallery. Her work is displayed in a show at the gallery that runs through Feb. 26. For more information on her artwork, visit www.nancypaschke.com.

Published: February 01, 2005
Issue: Winter 2005