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Drawing Crowds 

Attack of the Subway Sketcher

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In the last 30 years, John Matthews says, he's spent time in every part of Chicago and witnessed burnings, lootings, riots, murders, drug abuse, and just plain neglect. In the process, he's learned that the city is no place to fall under the influence of others, particularly if you're in his line of work.

"I'm an artist," he says. "If I feel like drawing, I sit down and do it. If I don't, I just get up and I leave. People want me to do flowers. But there's only so much you can do at one time. You can't please everybody. You ever tried to please everybody? The public expect you to please them; that's what happen when you in the public eye. That's what happen to musicians. They wanna sell me out and put me on a pedestal or somethin'. Every last one of 'em wanna sell me out. Including my wife. Including my mama. It's terrible here. But I'm payin' attention. I know the score. I know what's goin' on. And ain't no one gonna sell me out."

It's a sunny afternoon, but Matthews is having none of the weather. He's down in the caverns of the city, at the subway platform at Washington and Dearborn, where he's draped a plastic sheet over a garbage can to create a makeshift easel for his sketch pad and box of carbon sticks. Among the buskers, Matthews stands out with his stocky frame, wild dreadlocks, and mouth full of rotting teeth; today he's wearing shiny leather boots and a straw hat with wildflowers attached to the band.

Matthews notices a guy on the platform getting ready to listen to his Walkman.

"Lemme do one of you!" he shouts. "A sketch!"

"How much is it?" the guy says.

"Five. Lemme draw."

Before the guy can protest Matthews is at the pad. He rubs the carbon across the paper, then waves his hand with a flourish. Soon the rubs get harsher and the flourishes more pronounced. His movements are jazzy and scatty, twitches and ticks followed by broad, swooping strokes. People gather and Matthews's movements become more and more showy; he feints some strokes without touching the page, then whips out a few tight carbon lines and emits an enthusiastic guttural laugh, then waves his hands around again. All the while he keeps up a steady patter on any number of topics, like the progress of the State Street redevelopment project, the reason why the American flag is nicknamed Old Glory, the number of books in the Harold Washington Library, the environmental consequences of undersea mining and also of highway construction, and the general, not to mention very sad, decline of American civilization.

He finishes the sketch with a virtuoso wave. The subject smiles; it's a likeness all right. He pulls out a fiver and gets on his train.

"Oh, I like that picture," says another man, who tries to shake Matthews's hand.

"Better watch it," Matthews says, "in case you have a nail in your hand."

"Oh," the man says. "OK."

"You know what that did to Jesus."

Everyone around Matthews laughs. "It's not funny," he says. "Nail in the hand. It's serious business. Once a soldier, always a soldier."

Two teenagers come up to him.

"Watcha doin'?" one of them asks.

"Sketching, man," Matthews says.

"I wanna play rocks," says the other. He opens his left hand to reveal a pair of dice.

"No dice, man," Matthews says. "Heh, heh, get it? No dice."

"Can you do a picture of me and him? Five dollars?"

"I'll consider it. Consider. Nobody tell me what to do."

"Has to be the both of us, 'cause we're always together."

"We shall see."

In the end, he refuses to sketch them because of the dice. The teenagers walk away.

"Hey, I used to play dice too," Matthews says. "But I got principles I got to separate. Art from life, man. Art from life."

Matthews has lived in Chicago since 1965. Before that he lived in Arkansas and Tennessee. His parents were sharecroppers, but his father also worked as a mechanic and his mother as a church pianist. He is 54 years old and has seven children. His oldest is 32 and his youngest 16; his last six children he had with his wife of 30 years, his high school sweetheart. He's been sketching and painting for almost four decades. For years he had an art shop on 75th Street where he taught classes, did charcoal portraits, and displayed his numerous oil and airbrush paintings. He spent a year in Vietnam, and afterward, from 1970 through 1976, was a student downtown at the American Academy of Art. "Hey, I know that's a long time," he says, "but I liked it. I liked goin' to classes. Fundamentals." Meanwhile, he began roaming the city and sketching people.

In the mornings and afternoons, Matthews likes to ride the Howard-Dan Ryan back and forth, from one terminus to the other. When he does stop, he has several favorite sketching spots: the front of Marshall Field's on State Street, the platform at Washington and Dearborn, and the entrance to the 95th Street station. In the evenings, he drives a monstrous, tanklike chocolate brown Ford van, filled to bursting with paintings and art supplies. He does not allow any passengers in his van. "My wife don't even ride in this thing." He often drives his van to two other favorite sketching spots--the 79th Street el station and the White Castle parking lot at 71st and Stony Island. Sometimes during the day he goes to a vacant lot on the corner of Harrison and Independence. In the middle of the west side, where some of his relatives live, this last location is close to Matthews's heart; he often sets up to sketch there even though he realizes that business will probably be quite poor. "Sometimes people driving by in cars will buy my pictures. Sometimes they won't. If they do, it's OK. If they don't, it's OK. You gotta be patient. You gotta wait." He also sketches at large public gatherings--such as the Taste of Chicago and the annual African arts festival in Washington Park--and at various north-side Chinese restaurants, since Chinese is his favorite food. Before the Maxwell Street market shut down, he was often seen sketching there on Sunday mornings.

In the early 70s, Matthews frequented south-side disco lounges with his sketch pad. At one, he met a young secretary named Sandra Norris. She loved the portrait he did of her and quickly became his friend; in 1988 she became his business partner as well. The two organize home showings of Matthews's art. If they sell $100 or more worth of art, Matthews will sketch the party's host for free. From 1994 to 1995 they operated Inner World Uniques, a store near Irving Park and Ashland, with the goal of exposing Matthews's art to a wider public. The store didn't do very well, but was more popular in warm months when Matthews would set out chairs on the sidewalk and sketch pictures of passersby.

The store's closure didn't really harm Matthews's career. "He's good financially," Norris says. "He's not trying to get rich off nobody. That ain't his purpose. He's an artist. He's out in the streets and he meets different kinds of people. They tell him to get a real job. He don't want a real job. He's so well-known. People know him in a couple of states. Even if they don't know him by name, just describe him. Just tell them about the dreadlocks and the hats. They'll know who he is.

"He's in open places. People tend to come. They like to see the way he draws. It's the spirit that he has, the way he moves his hand around in the air. Some people laugh, but to him it's serious business."

During the daytime Norris works as an administrative assistant at a counseling center. At night she takes messages for Matthews, who doesn't give out his telephone number to anyone. Every other day, and sometimes daily, he calls Norris, who informs him of potential commissions. But she never calls him. "Nobody knows where he lives," she says. "He keeps his family secluded. He protects his family because he runs into all kinds of situations. He said, 'I'll tell you where I'm at if you really want to know.' I said, 'Your life is none of my business.'"

Matthews has been sketching underground all afternoon, attracting a continuous crowd of onlookers. He does a profile of a woman who refuses to accept her portrait, even for free. He draws a heavyset Latino man, who appreciates the sketch and slips Matthews $10. The whole time he's chattering away. "I listen to everybody," he says. "I listen to myself a lot of times."

A young Asian woman comes up and looks at him quizzically.

"What are you good at drawing?" she says.

"People!"

"Do you ever draw other things?"

"Sure! But people are the hardest thing in the world to draw."

"I draw too. But I don't like to draw people."

"Some people like to draw landscapes and other things. Some people like to draw buildings. I like drawing people with buildings in the background. Buildings aren't nothing without people. Life ain't nothing without people. The world is made out of people and I draw 'em. Everything is in me. All this stuff is in me. We're all potential artists. Every one of us--more or less. We gotta work hard and stay goin'. Every knock is a boost. We gotta keep corresponding with each other. Inspiration. Inspire. We have to inspire others."

The woman doesn't look convinced. She walks away.

"That girl don't like people," Matthews says. "She not comfortable with herself. Some people will draw anything but people. They draw cars. They draw factories. Anything but people. Anything but they true selves. But she'll be back. Some people pass through and I don't see them till 20 years later. But everybody passes through again eventually."

He goes back to sketching. A man in his 30s wearing a tie walks over.

"I've always been fascinated by art," the man says.

"That's because it's in you," Matthews says.

"In me?"

"Art is in you. You gotta tap into it."

"But it still amazes me when people can, as you said, tap into it."

"You gotta humble yourself. You've gotta be humble before your art."

"Let me ask you a question," the man says. "Why don't you take some classes and learn how to do commercial art? Make use of your talents?"

Matthews unwraps a Sugar Daddy and pops it in his mouth. "Good question," he says. "My family got angry at me about that years ago. I love doing this. They wanna turn this into hate. I love what I do. It ain't big business. My own father wanted me to be a lawyer."

"I'm a lawyer myself."

"That's good. But I wanna be what I wanna be. I don't want to work for a living. I learned long ago how to survive. Ain't that enough? That's what I've learned how to do."

Without warning Matthews packs up his materials, and before anyone else can request a sketch, he barrels onto the Congress line, headed west. He's decided to set up his sketch pad at his favorite abandoned lot, where an old friend is fixing a busted axle on Matthews's van.

The train rumbles through the tunnel, and Matthews keeps talking. His topics emerge independently, flow randomly into each other, crisscross, untangle, and retangle again. It's never certain what he's going to talk about next: how to fry a chicken, the difficulties of school funding, the semantics of hip-hop lyrics, the intricate skills required to properly jump rope.

He shows his sketch pad to the train conductor.

"What the hell is that?" the conductor asks.

"Sketch!"

"That ain't a sketch!"

"Hell it ain't!"

"Look, man, it's a sunny day. Why don't you do something else with your time?"

The train emerges from underground. Matthews looks out the window.

"Now we outta the tunnel," he says. "Another vision. It's another reality. Some people can't face it. But I can. You know what reality is?"

He winks.

"Everyday life. That's reality."

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

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