Egg and dart molding from the Stewart-Warner building, demolished in 1994.
I try to explain to people who weren’t here back then how Chicago has changed since I arrived in 1973.
What I want is to paint a picture of what it has meant for Chicago to lose its industrial base and our union jobs. Numbers don’t seem to be enough to do it justice.
Within a week of arriving here I was working at a job paying union wages at Stewart-Warner. I simply walked in the door of its fortress-like building at Wolcott and Diversey and I was hired. Within a couple of hours I was working on a line alongside a United Nations of employees, winding wire for automobile gauges.
Neighborhoods all across the city had their local factory along with a neighborhood school.
I don’t want to romanticize things. The politics of Richard Daley were corrupt. The neighborhoods were segregated. The police force engaged in the very racist brutality we witness today.
We just didn’t have the video.
It turns out that somebody did paint it.
Several months ago I was visiting friends who live in Oak Park. Hanging on their wall was a drawing of the Stewart-Warner building, the building where I wound wire eight hours a day when I first came to town. It was signed by the artist, Richard Slowinski.
My friends had been given the drawing by a friend, but they had no idea who the artist was.
I went looking for Richard Slowinski. I even posted about it here.
A few weeks ago I received this note from an old girl friend of the artist:
Prolific oil painter with thousands of unseen paintings. (He did a term at Spring Green with Frank Lloyd Wright.) He is an unknown national treasure. He turned 80 in March. Always planned to let the world see his paintings when he was dead. Find him!!!
She included a phone number and an address. Richard Slowinski lives on a street near where the Stewart-Warner factory once stood and about a mile from my home.
I called the number and talked to Richard for a while, and then asked if I could come over.
And yesterday that’s what I did.
Richard’s wife Janet had warned me not to expect “neat.” So, I was prepared for what I encountered: Rooms with paintings and stuff stacked everywhere, redolent with the smell of cigarettes. Richard (he says he is 78) smokes non-stop. A carton of Lucky Strikes was perched on the table where we sat.
Slowinski told me his story. He grew up in Albany Park. He has an older brother who is a painter of some note. He says he is illiterate although he graduated from Lane Tech.
“I only wanted to paint,” he said.
He told me he exhibited his work at Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights in San Francisco. He had a studio in New York in the late fifties. He hung out at a bar in lower Manhattan with Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning.
He said Mark Rothko hung out in the corner, drinking, but not talking to anybody.
An early work from around 1954. “Kline loved it,” Richard told me. “He gave me the money to rent a studio in New York.”
Slowinski admires one of his early works from when he painted in the abstract expressionist style in New York in the late fifties.
Richard and I share little in the way of political views. He showed me a painting he did in 2008 portraying Sarah Palin as the Virgin Mary. It is an abstract piece. I couldn’t recognize Palin, but the painting was really lovely.
St. Alphonsus on Southport and Wellington.
He says he has stopped painting large scale works – just small sketches of his wife and the Virgin Mary – until after the November election. He supports Trump. He is convinced we are all doomed if Hillary wins.
He says he is a blood relative of the Polish royal family.
But we found common ground through his paintings, in spite of his politics and religion.
“Are you Polish?” he asked me.
“With a Y,” I said.
“Ah. Russian Jew. That’s alright.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“When they started demolishing the building, I thought someone should archive it.”
And so he did the silkscreen of the Stewart-Warner building.
Richard added color to the acetate that he used to make the silkscreen and labeled what he knew about the building from asking around. He asked me if there were men’s bathrooms in the main tower, but I had no idea.
“They never let me off the floor that I worked on,” I said.
Then Richard showed me a painting he did of the Finkl steel plant that had just been torn down on Cortland.
“I thought somebody should paint it before it was gone,” Slowinski told me.
Slowinski had a few copies left of his Stewart-Warner drawing. He let me pick one out and I paid him.
Before I left he asked if I wanted to hear the first few bars of a symphony he was writing to the words of the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution.
“Sure,” I said.
I pushed some stuff off a nearby chair while Slowinski sat on a stool in front of a keyboard.
“I have several symphony orchestras who want to perform it.”
And then he took me into his backyard and gave me a brick from the Stewart-Warner building from when it was constructed in 1905.
And a section of the decorative egg and dart.