All good things come to an end

By Bethany Reinhart

Tucked away on a residential street in Lincoln Park stands a nondescript three-story building filled with 60 years of art history. Bronze sculptures line countertops, brightly colored paintings decorate office walls and life-sized stainless steel sculptures of animals, created from recycled car bumpers, fill the artists’ work areas at the Contemporary Art Workshop, 542 W. Grant Place.

The community art center and gallery has been a Chicago staple since 1949. But after devoting their lives to the artist community, owners John and Lynn Kearney, both in their 80s, have made the decision to retire and close the Workshop’s doors. The brightly lit, two-room gallery, designed to house two-person exhibitions, closed Jan. 23, and its artist studios will close April 30.

In its small gallery space, the Contemporary Art Workshop has shown the work of dozens of nationally and internationally renowned artists, including Leon Golub, Seymour Rosofsky and June Leaf. In its final exhibition, “The End,” the Contemporary Art Workshop featured the works of Matt Davis and John Lyon.

“It’s really sad that something like that has to come to an end,” Lyon said. “[But] I was really happy to have a chance to be a part of the Contemporary Art Workshop.”

Throughout the past six decades, art galleries have come and gone across the city, but the Contemporary Art Workshop thrived, said Director Lynn Kearney. The workshop was founded by a group of five artists-John Kearney, Leon Golub, Cosmo Campoli, Ray Fink and Al Kwitz. Today, however, the only remaining founder involved in the Workshop is the man who came up with the idea-John Kearney, 84.

Kearney, a World War II veteran from Nebraska, came to Chicago after studying at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. Before opening the workshop, Kearney had a small gallery on North Rush Street below the famous Seven Stairs Bookstore. The gallery, which was called the Contemporary Art Gallery, was the starting point for Kearney and later developed into the Contemporary Art Workshop.

Lynn Kearney, 81, said the workshop was created in response to a need by young Chicago artists for inexpensive studios and a place to get their start. Without an outlet like the Contemporary Art Workshop, many artists would have been forced to leave Chicago and head to New York, she said.

“At that time there were almost no galleries in town,” Lynn said. “We were a gallery, but we were also teaching classes, and the artists were working and creating there.”

Since the beginning, the Workshop’s mission has been to promote the work of emerging and little-known artists. The Contemporary Art Workshop has helped pave the way for up-and-comers to be seen and respected in the art world. The workshop has helped support artists by providing low-cost studios to those who qualified.

Despite its lengthy history, the workshop has had only three different homes. Initially, the Workshop was housed at the southwest corner of Michigan and Chicago avenues. The building was the former carriage house for Cyrus McCormick, an inventor who founded the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company. The building had been vacant for more than 50 years when Kearney discovered it.

“[John] happened to see a broken window in there so he went to explore it and he found out, here it was, right off of Michigan Avenue, right where the Ralph Lauren [store] is,” Lynn Kearney said. “That is exactly where the first workshop was.”

The workshop remained there for about seven years before moving to a loft behind the Wrigley Building. Then, in 1960, the Kearneys, along with Cosmo Campoli, one of the original five founders, moved the workshop to a former dairy in Lincoln Park, where it has been for the past 50 years.

“We got tired of chasing the wrecking ball [so] we moved when we found this building in Lincoln Park,” Lynn Kearney said.

In the Workshop’s Lincoln Park home, artists flourished. The exhibition schedule increased from three or four shows a year to one show every five weeks. For about 40 years, John and Lynn Kearney, along with other artists, taught sculpting, painting, weaving and even jewelry-making classes.

“It’s really clear that they were never here to sell,” said Jose Cruz, one of the gallery assistants. “They were here to show and to teach.”

The Kearneys plan to continue living out their passion through art. John Kearney will continue to work from his studio at home.

“[John] started his career as a painter but spent most of his life sculpting,” Cruz said. “But now he plans to go back to painting. He is sort of going back to his roots.”

Kearney’s work and other items from the workshop have been donated to the Chicago History Museum.