THE MANY SHADES OF SKIP
Waukegan Arts Council board members Carolyn Brode and Lori Nerheim interviewed Skip over the course of several months, including at his Waukegan home studio and local art galleries. Article written by Carolyn Brode. Artist videos by Lori Nerheim.
“A natural knack for art”
Skip is a professional artist who has managed to make a living full time with his art from his early years fresh out of high school right up to the present. He has raised his family in affordable Waukegan while making his career in Chicago—all the while pursuing his art.
“Skip is also the link from the past to the future in the arts in Waukegan,” stated Theodora Anderson, Manager of Community Relations, Waukegan Park District in a recent interview about Skip’s contributions to the arts movement in Waukegan.
Smilin’ Jack, Skip, and two Leroy’s
Skip grew up of Polish decent in a working class neighborhood in Chicago known as Bucktown. His father was a tool and die maker. He is the middle child of three. His nickname came from a local politician who visited the family shortly after little Leroy’s birth. The pol looked at the baby in his crib and said “Hey Skipper!” and the baby grinned broadly. The nickname “Skip” has been with him ever since.
He showed artistic talent at an early age. When he was only seven years old he was already copying and sketching Smilin’ Jack comics. He always had in his own words “a natural knack for art.” He attended parochial school which had at the time once a week art classes. He later attended Lane Technical High School and studied art three hours a day in various art classes offered there.
While still in high school he enrolled in The Famous Artist School correspondence course and managed to build a modest portfolio, which later helped land him his first job.
In 1951, after graduating from Lane Tech he attended The Art Institute part time while serving a two year apprenticeship in commercial art at H & R Studio—a downtown Chicago fashion art studio. At the time H & R Studio was one of the largest commercial studios in Chicago employing over 30 artists.
In the 1950s there were quite a number of art studios in Chicago employing scores of young artists eager to learn commercial art and land a full-paying job. Many of these artists, like Skip, would apprentice in a downtown studio while taking classes part time at the Art Institute. Skip worked first as an apprentice and then “on the board” as a commercial artist for such clients as Sears, Marshall Field’s, and Carson Pirie Scott to name but a few. He learned plenty about technique. This studio shop experience allowed a teaching environment without formality. As apprentice, he could ask questions of his fellow shop artists such as “how do you do shiny lapels on a tuxedo?” And he would learn just how. For instance he was told to think of himself as a weaver when drawing fabric. It was a very hands-on approach.
He worked alongside many fellow full time artists. Another artist with Waukegan roots, Phil Austin, also worked at that time as a freelance artist doing work for H & R Studio. The most famous of Skip’s fellow artists was also named LeRoy. When the new apprentice was introduced to the other artists at H & R Studio, they said “Oh no! Not another Leroy!” But luckily this new Leroy had an established nickname of Skip.
The other Leroy? He was LeRoy Neiman who went on to much fame and fortune as a major contributing artist for Playboy Magazine.
City boy, the middle of nowhere, and a life defining move
Skip grew up very much a Chicago city boy, and only knew life living in the city neighborhoods and studying/working in downtown Chicago until he was eighteen. Because his stepfather worked on the Chicago and Milwaukee railway as a welder, Skip’s family decided to move half way between Milwaukee and Chicago to be more accessible to the train line connecting both cities.
Skip was very concerned with this move thinking he would be “living in the middle of nowhere.” At least Waukegan looked a little more urban to this city boy than several other small towns along the train route.
Skip’s family moved to Waukegan in 1951 and Skip has lived in Waukegan now for sixty two years.
Japan tour of duty, an earthquake, a train accident and true love
Skip’s budding career as an artist was suddenly put on hold when he was drafted in 1953 during the tail end of the Korean War. He was stationed in Asaka, Japan outside Tokyo as a Signal Corps communication teletype operator. He said he wasn’t very good at it as he was only able to type 16 words a minute instead of 60. Even so he had what was considered a front-line assignment, as the relay station he worked at was in direct communication between Korea and Washington DC. Still he saw no combat and didn’t really know what the messages were as most were in code.
But his tour of duty proved life changing in quite another way.
He met his future wife his first day in Japan. Skip and his army buddy, Buck, went to check out the local PX after arriving at Camp Drake. They were wary of spending their money on anything silly but spotted one concession stand that sold individualized stamps made to order with the soldier’s new address. This seemed practical to the young men newly stationed on this foreign island and wanting to communicate with loved ones back home.
Toni (her Japanese name Hiroko Kawai and later baptized Antonia Hiroko) was a beautiful young Japanese woman from a well respected family of professionals and landowners in their community. She and another Japanese girl were working the stamp concession stand that day. The two soldiers, recently landed with their new and neatly pressed uniforms, stood out to the two women. The other girl spoke better English than Toni and talked to the soldiers. The young men ordered their stamps which ensured they would be returning to the concession soon. Two weeks later the foursome decided to go to the USO and go dancing. The two Japanese women first introduced the two soldiers to Japanese food at a Tokyo restaurant. Toni was paired with the skinny guy called Skip. As they sat down to eat—the earth shook! It was Skip’s very first encounter with an earthquake! As the earth literally shook beneath their feet, so started a lasting love affair that eventually stretched across oceans and cultures and many happy years together.
The war soon ended and Skip returned to his job at the art studio. But he wrote to Toni upon his return. Sixteen months later he returned to Japan to see her. This was considered a very honorable gesture by her Japanese neighbors and family. Skip proposed and they became not just married—but very married. All together they were married three times—first at the American Embassy, then at the Japanese Ward Office, and finally at St. Ignatius in Tokyo. Their marriage has been long and fruitful. They have raised four beautiful daughters, two of whom still reside with their own families in Waukegan. Another daughter lives in nearby Lake Forest and one is in Wisconsin. All are married and Toni and Skip now have eleven grandchildren. One granddaughter is even studying to be a graphic designer. They now have been married for 58 years. This Chicago city boy and girl from far away Tokyo have called Waukegan their home all that time.
This almost didn’t happen. While Skip was waiting for Toni to clear the process for her to come to the States, he was riding home on the train from work one day when the train had a serious accident. Skip was standing at the train car exit waiting to disembark at Waukegan when the train crashed into a coal car that had been placed on the wrong track. Skip was thrown in a heap on the other side of the vestibule. He and many others on the train were seriously hurt and taken by ambulance to the local hospital. He sustained trauma to the head among other injuries and was hospitalized for several days. But because of the settlement from that train accident he was able to buy wedding rings, a used car, and have enough money to fly his bride to her new home in Waukegan.
His wife Toni is an artist in her own right, specializing in beautiful landscapes. Skip and Toni have taken many classes together over the years and both have flourished with their natural talents. They have often competed for various art awards, and as Skip said, “she has beaten me more than once in those contests!” Toni is above all “his muse and his support.”
From Bicycles to Accolades: Teacher, Professional Artist, Mentor
During all this time Skip has made a living with his art. He worked for 29 years as a commercial artist for H & R Studio while commuting daily to the city. Skip was a fashion illustrator specializing first in children’s then later both men’s and women’s clothing, as well as spot illustrations, covers for store publications, even wrapping paper and wallpaper designs. Skip loved exploring each new challenge with all the diversity of subject matter he was assigned, but he admits he hated drawing bicycles the most and found medical illustration the most demanding. His work offered him great variety and he tried many different art techniques often driven by the customer’s needs.
While working full time as a commercial artist, Skip freelanced with murals, posters and mechanical drawings. Over the years Skip also did set designs for many stage productions for local theatrical groups such as The Community Players, St. Bart’s, and St. Dismas. He designed for productions such as Brigadoon, Flower Drum Song, My Fair Lady, South Pacific, Oklahoma, Oliver and many others.
He ‘retired’ from H & R studio in 1980 in order to devote full time to his work as a freelance artist. Within a decade he opened his first studio and gallery on Genesee Street, as well as showing at various “pop-up” galleries over time. Eventually he moved his studio to the Genesee Theater building and had two storefront galleries there. He remained there until the Genesee Theatre was renovated in 2000.
His repertoire is so extensive it defies category. He works in pencil, oil, watercolor, pastels, acrylic, mixed media, collage and many types of printmaking—encompassing most of the visual arts.
Skip says he “always listens as an artist to what the client wants.” And even after all these years he still needs and likes to hear compliments. He loves to hear someone say “I like your work.”
Skip has been an active part of several local communities beyond his home base of Waukegan. He has taught art for many years in several North Shore communities, most notably Lake Forest. He belongs to both the Deerpath Art League headquartered in Lake Forest, as well as Artists on the Bluff located in Lake Bluff.
Many who commute to Chicago from Lake Bluff see one of Skip’s most recent murals whenever they enter the Lake Bluff train station. Three years ago he was commissioned by Artists on the Bluff to design and paint the mural in the entry way to the historic 1904 Lake Bluff Train Station. This mural commemorates one of the most identifiable traditions of Lake Bluff—it’s annual 4th of July Parade. Skip’s design captures the tradition, fun, history and patriotism of this longstanding parade first held in 1895.
Skip has also taught extensively over the years. He has conducted Lake County Art League workshops, taught at College of Lake County, David Adler Cultural Center in Libertyville, Anderson Art Center in Kenosha, The Art Center in Highland Park and still teaches at Gorton Center in Lake Forest for the Deerpath Art League—where he has taught drawing and painting for over 20 years.
As longtime art class student Scott Washburne of Lake Forest put it, “I have enjoyed and benefited so very much from Skip’s classes for many years. He makes his expectations for our work very clear, gives fair and helpful critiques of our work and makes our classes a very pleasurable experience.”
Fellow student Mary Beth Broccolo of Northbrook writes, “Skip is always encouraging, positive and has been delightful to learn from. His teaching style is unique because he doesn’t impose his ideas on his students—he gives us great guidance and we paint it our own way.”
As a teacher Skip says “I want my students to be able to paint without me, to be confident enough in their art, and be able to see in their work what is wrong and what is right.”
“I’ve really enjoyed the way Skip works with each of us and continues to stretch us within our individual talents. I’ve grown tremendously!” said another current student, Barbara Gutbrod of Northbrook.
Skip has received more than 50 art awards including signature membership to the Midwest Pastel Society. His art is widely displayed in galleries and private homes and has been commissioned for private and corporate collections worldwide.
People often end up “collecting” Skip’s work, some at a young age in fact. The first piece of art Claudia Freeman’s son Robb, now 24, ever bought was one of Skip’s. As a young boy he admired a print in the window of Skip’s studio on Genesee Street. Claudia remembers she would have to frequently drive him by to let him visit the work in the window. He saved up his allowance until he had enough to buy this coveted artwork. Skip remains to this day one of Robb’s favorite artists and he now owns several more Wiese pieces of art.
Natural talent properly nurtured: Art Collector, Art Lover, Artist at home
The wellspring of Skip’s work is vast—almost endless in scope. He has literally hundreds of art pieces spanning over 60 years work stashed in his home and garage studio. And that is just what he has held onto as so many of his works have sold over the years. He is prolific. He could easily ‘rest on his laurels’ and just sell off what he has already done over the years. But no, he is constantly working on new projects. Instead the work he hangs at the Dandelion is often brand new—hot off the presses. He is often overheard saying “I am still working on this series” when describing his projects. Dandelion Gallery co-owner Emilie Dieck-Correa said when discussing his recent work in the gallery, “One of my favorite things about Skip in his work is that every month that he drops pieces off you are amazed at the range he works in. These are the many shades of Skip!”
His body of work includes abstracts, landscapes, still life, cartoons, murals, medical illustration and portraiture—you name it, the list goes on and on. He has even dabbled in sculpture and photography. His work totally defies description. It is too vast, too diverse, too uniquely different—one piece to another.
His subject matter varies from city skylines to rural settings, from Noah’s ark to interpretations of his dreams. He is also capturing Waukegan from its skyline and various local scenes, to a local lawyer’s connection to a historic watch that Lincoln owned. Every year Skip does a portrait of a local recipient of the Golden Deeds Award connected to the Waukegan Exchange Club.
When one visits his home, it is like a combination art gallery and studio. Works of art adorn all the walls. But this is not where you will see mainly his work—although there are a few. Instead, he has work by many other artists, some famous, some local, some “finds” from sales, some works traded from a fellow artist for his art—all fondly hung in large collages on his walls. There is a stunningly beautiful young Toni in traditional Japanese dress over the couch done by a fashion artist Skip once worked with. Portraitures, landscapes, abstracts, various prints, even sculptures adorn his home. This alone is a testament to how Skip appreciates art—he is as interested in what fellow artists do as he is in his own work.
He finds inspiration wherever he goes—from his art students to fellow artists he works with at the galleries he exhibits in. He finds interest and new ideas all around him. Skip would often try to interpret how another artist saw his art, stating “You can’t really steal the idea, you only can take it and run with it and turn it into your own interpretation.” He talks of how for instance Artist Ed Paschke, also originally a commercial artist in Chicago and a personal friend of Skip’s, would influence him. Examples of Paschke-influenced psychedelic pieces by Skip are the result.
He is always still learning—still studying how a fellow artist interprets the art, then doing his own interpretation or variations on a theme. He hates mistakes, and “sees them right away.” He purposely doesn’t usually date his pieces, preferring instead to let them have a continuous life.
Watch the video below and you will see this for yourself—the vast variety—diversity—range of subject matter. And this is but a sampling he pulled for an afternoon viewing.
“Setting the table” with creativeness and collaboration: Pioneer, Visionary, Waukegan treasure
Waukegan has always been supportive of the arts—and a nurturing environment for artists and artistic endeavors—going back well over a century.
“The community of Waukegan has always embraced and supported the arts. Art is woven into the culture here,” stated Claudia Freeman, Superintendent of Cultural Arts, Waukegan Park District and herself recently awarded the 2013 Illinois Parks and Recreation Community Impact Award.
“Skip Wiese comes from a group of fellow Waukegan artists, among them Phil Austin, Everett and Liz Misunas, Art Czarkowski, Dan Bleck, Bob Gordon and Jim Harrington, who have all made a living with their art,” said Theodora Anderson in a recent interview. These Waukegan artists have included fulltime commercial and fine artists with direct ties to the City of Chicago, University of Chicago, The Sun-Times, Harold Washington Library, and Door County, Wisconsin to name but a few. “These were all serious full time artists making a living at their craft. This is the legacy for Waukegan that Skip is very much a part of.”
(In our interview Skip also mentioned other serious artists that have contributed to the rich stable of Waukegan artists over the years; among them “Malcolm Layson, Seppo Arnos, Bruce Niemi, Maggie Kraus, Pat Tufo, and David Dallison.”)
Skip was part of the local arts scene beginning back in the 1970s and 1980s spanning well over 30 years. “As part of that creative community of Waukegan, Skip is the foundation of this movement. He gives legitimacy to the arts movement in Waukegan,” Said Ali Albakri, curator, Undercroft Art Gallery and Editor in Chief, Lake County Arts Magazine.
As local attorney Doug Stiles recently put it during a toast to Skip at the Undercroft reception for Skips’ print exhibit, “Skip Wiese kept culture alive during the dark days of the Waukegan downtown in the 1980s.
While many local artists have eventually moved on to other locales, Skip is still here anchored in his roots with the Waukegan arts movement.
David Motley, Director of Public Relations and Marketing for the City of Waukegan recently said, “I consider Skip a pioneer of the Waukegan Arts movement. I first worked with him during the first version of ArtWauk in 2002 when he was already a tenant in one of the storefronts in the Genesee Theatre building, way before the reconstruction project even started. He proved to be a solid foundation and was a great partner when it came to reclaiming the other vacant storefronts in the building when we converted them all into galleries. He and his new artistic neighbors helped set the table for the even larger arts resurgence that we are experiencing now.”
Claudia Freeman describes Skip as “very giving as a human being. He is inclusive, supportive and unselfish. He has a humility to him that is very endearing.”
Theodora Anderson said, “Skip is always a visionary of what can happen with the arts in Waukegan and always willing to put himself and his art and his professionalism on the line to help his community succeed. Skip is one of the most generous people I know as an artist. He is a Waukegan treasure, a catalyst for growth among fellow artists, and he keeps giving of his talents and his time. Whether through having his own gallery in town or contributing his art to causes such as Mainstreet, Waukegan Symphony, the Booster Club, or the City of Waukegan Skip remains committed to his community, to making the connections—he keeps on giving and brings meaning to the word collaboration in the arts.”
Claudia Freeman explained, “Each generation builds for generations to come with each new arts movement in Waukegan. Skip is the link from the rich artistic traditions of the past to the resurgence of the arts in Waukegan in the new century.”
Twenty first Century Mural with a Message
David Motley, himself an artist as well as co-founder of Urban Edge Gallery further stated, “In 2011, I was delighted when Skip’s fellow artists at Dandelion Gallery selected him to create a concept for the mural that we painted on the wall of the Reyes Grocery Store on S. Genesee St. when the nationally syndicated radio personality, Delilah, chose Waukegan for her annual “Paint the Town” effort. When this mural was completed, Skip and I shared a reassuring smile and maybe a tear or two upon seeing the finished product because we both knew how far and how fast this arts movement had grown. Now this mural serves as a monument, cornerstone and beacon for the future arts-related projects.”
Under short deadline, within a week Skip envisioned the design for this mural as “Waukegan rising like the phoenix out of the old industrial city” depicted at the bottom by a landscape of factories growing into the arts-centric vision of today and the future. The title across the mural is “Waukegan Arts Revolution—A New Beginning” and the center of the mural depicts the variety of artistic endeavors including music, dance, visual and performing arts. The mural is flanked on either side by quotes from famous artists, one of whom grew up in Waukegan. Native author Ray Bradbury is quoted from one of his books Dandelion Wine depicting his home town. The other side is a quote from Picasso: “Others have seen what is and asked why. [We] have seen what could be and asked why not.”
To Sum it all up
Skip said in our recent interview, “you never retire in the arts.”
Turning 80 this spring, he still produces an incredible amount of work from his home studio. He still teaches, he still actively contributes to Dandelion Art Gallery, he recently had his own exhibit focusing on his extensive print work at Undercroft Gallery, and he is still a driving force in the arts movement in Waukegan.
I recently overheard a conversation at the Dandelion Gallery during Waukegan’s monthly ArtWauk. Two young women were admiring Skip’s work on display (that month it was collages). Skip went up to them and introduced himself as the artist. One woman recognized him from an art class he had taught that she attended years earlier. While admiring his collage work she said, “But I thought you were a watercolor artist?” Skip replied quite sincerely and humbly, “No, I am a jack of all trades—I do all kinds of art.” That in a nutshell, sums it all up.
As Claudia Freeman said recently, “there is something about Skip. Something that goes from his soul to his fingertips to the canvas.” It brings her home, makes her feel at home.