An Artist With a Niche | Our Town | Chicago Reader

An Artist With a Niche 

His crush on Jane Byrne kick-started a career as a star sketcher, but lately Dave Cooney's more into immortalizing mortals.

Leonardo had Mona Lisa. Pablo Picasso had Dora Maar. Dave Cooney's muse, his ideal of feminine grace, was the 41st mayor of Chicago, Jane Byrne.

The year was 1979. Byrne had just been elected, and boy did Cooney have a crush on her. Even today, Cooney springs out of a chair and practically spikes a smoldering Marlboro when he talks about Byrne in the flower of her mayorhood. "I had dreams about this woman," he booms. "I thought she was so damn hot. I swear to God, I was obsessed with her. There was something about this woman that just fascinated the hell out of me. I don't know what it was all about. I guess she just had that look."

At the time Cooney was a bricklayer, a family man, and a pencil-sketch artist hoping to turn his hobby into a part-time business. He sat down at his drawing table with a publicity photo of the politician who haunted his sleep.

In a few weeks he'd finished a portrait that was so "honest-to-God gorgeous" he decided to present it to Byrne in person. One morning, Cooney and a cop buddy stopped in at City Hall and lingered outside the mayor's office. "We dropped by the press office, and her husband, Jay McMullen, walked in. He said, 'Who the hell drew that picture?' He took us right in, in front of everybody. People were sittin', waitin' to get in with flowers. He took us right in."

Cooney sat down "right by that big desk of hers at that office" and spent 20 minutes making small talk with Byrne. The mayor loved the portrait, Cooney remembers. "I gave her the original. She said, 'Would you like some press?' Like an idiot, I said no. But still, when a woman, a mayor, they walk you into the office and ask if you want press, that fires you up."

Byrne's face launched Cooney's sketching career. Confident that he could "bring life to things" like his idol Norman Rockwell, Cooney began drawing and peddling celebrity portraits. He took a month off from bricklaying and set out on a cross-country shopping mall tour, stopping at every Deck the Walls store with his portfolio of Hollywood's brightest: Sinatra, Nicholson, Monroe, Hepburn. He sold 500 prints of a Charles Lindbergh likeness through an ad in an aviation magazine. His reputation blossomed. When a sports collectibles dealer wanted a limited edition of autographed Yankee portraits, Cooney got the commission. He went to Long Island to see Billy Martin, Whitey Ford, Phil Rizzuto, Yogi Berra, and Mickey Mantle sign his artwork. Cooney still has the Mantle on the wall of his O'Hare-area apartment. It's inscribed, "To David--You did a great job. Thanks a lot--Mickey Mantle."

But Cooney soured on the celebrity market. For every subject who thought he did "a great job" another snubbed him or, worse, threatened to sue him. His most popular drawing ever was a sketch of Paul Newman in The Hustler. A Niles video distributor gave one to every store that bought three copies of The Color of Money--until Newman's lawyer sent a cease-and-desist order. Cooney also has bad memories of visiting Jim McMahon's Glenview restaurant with a portrait of the Bears quarterback. He was hoping McMahon would hang it on the wall or print it on promotional T-shirts.

"Call my manager," McMahon told him, without turning away from the video game he was playing.

"These stars, these people, they could care less," Cooney complains.

He's discovered a new subject, one he's sure will bring him more respect: dead people. Last year, laying bricks for an apartment in Arlington Heights, Cooney found himself on the job with Tony Fath, a union brother he hadn't seen in 15 years. Remembering that Cooney was an artist, Fath commissioned a portrait of his recently deceased father. When Fath showed it to his sister, she said, "Oh my god, he looks like he's about to say something." Fath bought a print for every member of the family.

Moved by his coworker's gratitude (and smelling a market), Cooney decided to go into business drawing pictures of the recently deceased. At 59, he's three years from retirement, so he'll soon be able to pursue art full-time. "Say you have 20 people in the family who really love this guy," he says. "The original is $1,000. The prints are $85. That's $3,000. Not that I'm lookin' for the money. I'm lookin' for the recognition. To be really appreciated with your art, you have to be seen all over the country. With this bereavement, this could get all over. I'll tell you what, I'm not gettin' anywhere with these stars. Too much red tape."

Cooney has been pitching the service to funeral homes, and he's started a Web site (cooney-art.com) to showcase his work. Wouldn't it be nice, he thought, if the site featured his finest portrait: the lovely Mayor Byrne. "I guarantee you she's still got it," he says. "It's probably hangin' in her apartment right now!"

Like a man trying to track down his high school flame, Cooney searched the Internet for Byrne's E-mail address. He turned up nothing. But if he had, it would have been for naught. Byrne, it turns out, has forgotten about the smitten artist who came into her office 24 years ago.

"(A) I really don't remember the incident," she said, when reached at home. (Her number's in the book.) "I don't want to hurt his feelings. (B) I don't know if I would have the picture yet. And (C) I'm on the other line."

Cooney sounded disappointed when he learned that Byrne didn't remember the portrait. But he was philosophical. He was one of three million constituents, and she was--a celebrity. "I'm sure she's probably gotten a thousand gifts," he said, and sighed. "That was a good piece. I should have hung onto it."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.

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