Changes of Scenery

Six years ago, painter Didier Nolet’s wife, Nona, sat down in their Lakeview home for a good read. The book in hand was Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence. When she was done, she looked up and said, “OK. Let’s sell the house and move to France.” Nolet, a French native who’d lived in the U.S. since 1979, agreed on the spot. What’s a change of surroundings to an artist who only paints the landscape in his head? Faster than you can flip a crepe, “without knowing anything,” he says, they hatched a business plan, shipped all their possessions (including a car) to Provence, and were on their way. The plan? Nona would sell clothing from the American southwest to tourists and locals. They rented a house and shop for that purpose but–zut!–failed to take into account the difficulty of dealing with French authorities. There might have been a demand for cowboy boots and belt buckles the size of hubcaps in the south of France, but they never got to find out: import regulations were a nightmare, Nolet says, and the neighbors said he was speaking French with an American accent. Seven months after they arrived, they bid France adieu. They had made a mistake, but it wasn’t too late to correct it. Next destination: Phoenix.

Nona opened a shop in Scottsdale, then moved it to a mall in Chandler, another Phoenix suburb. Mall rules required her to be open seven days a week. That meant she was in the store five days, Nolet the other two. “It was difficult,” he says. “You’re spending your life there.” They stuck it out for five and a half years, battling outfits with big-spread advertising budgets that sold “southwestern” goods made in China. The worst part was that Nolet couldn’t sell his paintings. “I was at Suzanne Brown Gallery, one of the most established in the area,” he says. “But in the southwest, everything has to be local flavor–food, clothes, art.” He cranked out the obligatory saguaro and mountain once or twice, but after a few months of blistering sun he hung blankets over the windows of his home and began to produce cool green canvases with lush vegetation that had no market. “My work doesn’t reflect local scenery,” he says. “I never painted a cornfield in Chicago. It’s about my emotions.” In November the Nolets came home to Chicago for good. His nearly mural-sized oil paintings of rolling countrysides (a little warmer now that Phoenix is only a memory) are on view in the back room at Lydon Fine Art and in the one-man show “Full Circle” at Oakton Community College’s William A. Koehnline Gallery through next week.

Swag Gag

The headline on the E-mail from the League of Chicago Theatres said, “Welcome Tribune Theater Critic Michael Philips [sic] With a Gift From Your Theater.” The text advised member theaters to bring an unwrapped gift worth no more than $25 to the January 7 party in honor of the former LA Times staffer. It suggested mugs, T-shirts, posters–“something that introduces and identifies your theater or promotes an upcoming production.”

That got the attention of Bailiwick artistic director David Zak, who responded, “I think the gift idea is tawdry. And hearing people discuss the lengths [to] which they are going to try to make an impression is discouraging. I hope we can make an impression on him with our work, not our merchandise.” Bailiwick will host another welcoming party for Phillips January 28, sponsored by Performink. No gifts, please.

Stars (and Stripes) in His Eyes

Brian Russell announced this week that he’ll leave American Theater Company at the end of August. Russell’s been ATC’s artistic director for five years, during which the theater’s annual budget has grown from $70,000 to $385,000 and the audience from 2,200 to 11,000. “I’m planning next year’s season and will direct the first play,” he says, “but I’ve largely done what I came here to do.” ATC sent out a brink-of-death letter in October that brought in $57,500 in donations plus a $10,000 grant from Chicago Community Trust; Russell insists it’s now as healthy as most small companies. A search will be conducted for his replacement. As for him, gigs with the Breakthrough Group (which works for corporate clients) and the Lyric Opera’s Center for American Artists will pay the rent while he works on a novel and some other writing projects and thinks about his dream goal: running for public office. “I was living in Minneapolis when Paul Wellstone ran for the Senate,” he says. “He’s sort of a hero of mine.” A Democrat and a novice, Russell says he’d start with a run for Congress. “I at least want to think about it. I’m probably looking at 2006; certainly not before 2004.”

The Waiting Game

“We began our odyssey with the city a year ago,” says Raven Theatre artistic director Michael Menendian, explaining the company’s long dark wait for its new digs at 6157 N. Clark. At that time Menendian was expecting Raven to open its first show in the former grocery store in May 2001. “It’s been a more arduous task than I foresaw,” he says. “It required a zoning variance I was not made aware of at the time of the purchase. That took six months. Now we’re in the final stages of the permit process.” Bringing the 50-year-old building up to code is also proving more expensive than originally thought. The project’s estimated cost has gone from $1.2 million to nearly $2 million; the theater’s hoping to get $550,000 in TIF funds from the city to cover part of that gap. Now Menendian expects to open Marvin’s Room, Raven’s first main-stage production in two years, in April, “but I’ve been wrong every single time,” he says, “so let’s just say that’s the target.” A city consumer services investigator for home repairs in his day job, Menendian’s finding it “very hard to get anything built in Chicago.”

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