One day in February, Joe Royer took some time off from his job as a part-time teacher at Saint Bruno’s to drive around the southwest side and take pictures. At 49th and the Stevenson, he caught an eerie glimpse of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. “Right as I see the river, there was this monolith of an electrical plant–it looked like a castle,” he says. “I knew I had to get down there. There was an entrance by the plant, the gate was open, and I slipped down the hillside, right under 49th Street. It was so cold that the river was warmer than the air temperature, and you see the steam rising.”

Photographs he took of the canal that morning are included in an exhibit of his work on display at Street Cafe in Uptown. The photos and paintings all reflect Royer’s interest in nature, its relationship to humanity, and what he calls the “cultural exchange of information.”

“One of the things that comes up with my work,” he continues, “are these disparate or even contradictory parts that come together to make an image–an odd mating between the man-made and the natural.”

Royer was born on the south side of Pittsburgh in April 1968 at a hospital directly across the river from the city’s Hill District, which was rioting in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. One of ten children, he grew up on a 20-acre organic farm 25 miles outside the city, where he milked cows before school and sold eggs on the weekend. His father, who died unexpectedly when Royer was only 14, was a social worker and civil rights activist; his mother, a distant relative of the artist Milton Avery, was a painter. “She did these Grandma Moses-influenced works,” he says, “somewhat between naturalistic and primitive style.”

Royer joined the army reserve to help defray the cost of college and studied art at Penn State. He came to Chicago in 1992 and earned an MFA from the School of the Art Institute in 1994. He’s been painting and shooting photographs ever since; currently he’s enrolled at Northeastern Illinois University to become certified as a teacher and works part-time as a photo technician at Stuart-Rodgers Photography in Evanston.

In another series of prints included in the Street Cafe exhibit Royer documented a peculiar social response to development. He’d gone to shoot a burned-out building near Chicago and Damen when he looked across the street and was struck by some posters on the side of another abandoned building. Side by side were two tattered black-and-white portraits of women–one white and one black–paired with patchy text reminiscent of a personal ad, but, Royer says, “with some sort of racial connotation.” He thinks another artist had plastered the doomed building with the words and drawings, but that passersby had defaced them, tearing at the edges and scratching out particular words with a knife or a rock. (He was hoping to shoot the images as they disintegrated over time, but when he returned to the site two weeks later the building had been demolished.) “I love being here, in a major city,” he says. “I’ve tapped into this urban vernacular–the way human beings leave their mark.”

“Joe Royer Paintings and Photographs” runs through July 27 at Street Cafe, 5012 N. Sheridan. Call 773-275-4060 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.