Like its subjects, the art gallery that Louise Cutler built in honor of bugs and birds exists in an almost hidden place: on the weedy slope between the alley and the Metra tracks behind her Evanston home. She advertises it with a little sign on Greenleaf Avenue, but she prefers that patrons “just discover it” while out walking.

“You don’t want crowds,” says Cutler. “That would destroy the tranquillity.”

In the 30-yard strip of land she reclaimed, wooden butterflies swing from trees, a metal bird scowls from a cage, and paintings of sunflowers and ladybugs pop up from the dirt like little billboards. The works are inspired, mostly, by the residents.

That ant portrayed in enamels, crawling on a leaf? Cutler captured it in her garden, sealed it in a jar, and carried it to her garage studio to use as a model. When she was through, she released it. Same with the grasshopper.

“The hardest thing I caught was a bee, because I’m very afraid of bees,” says Cutler, a sunny 36-year-old. “I caught him on a pansy, so I painted him on a pansy.”

She began her career doing portraits of a very different kind: she sat in front of a downtown restaurant and sketched passersby for $10 apiece.

“I used to draw with the street artists downtown,” she says. “They would have been considered homeless people, but they made their living drawing portraits of people in front of Bennigan’s. The city ran us all off. Daley ran us off, wouldn’t give us a break.”

Cutler then went to work as an arts-and-crafts teacher at Douglas Park on the west side and in 1997 married Richard Cutler, a suburban dentist. They met when Richard, a member of the band at Vineyard Christian Fellowship of Evanston, visited Louise’s church to check out the music. Art in the Rail Garden, as Cutler calls her gallery, started soon after they wed. The yard behind their new home was too small for a garden, so, says Cutler, “my husband said, ‘There’s all this railroad track here, let’s do something.’ There was all this garbage up there, so my husband started clearing it out–‘taming the land,’ as he said.”

The cleaned-up slope made a nice showcase, but it didn’t seem like a proper environment for the portraits Cutler was producing in her studio. So she painted bugs.

“I basically wanted to do something that related or blended in with the actual outdoors. I wasn’t big into bugs before that, but I began to find them fascinating….The milkweed beetle is a bug I’ve never seen before. The grub, which people hate because it destroys their grass–I’ll paint him in a way that people will adore him.”

In the city, wilderness often consists of the odd spaces Streets and San didn’t bother to pave. Cutler grew up among these tiny ecosystems, but was too absorbed in “hustle and bustle” and “man-made things” to examine them. After a lifetime of ignoring nature, she finds the few hundred square feet beside the tracks full of fascinations.

In the summer she plants sunflowers and watches squirrels scale their stalks. Bird feeders draw doves, which in turn attract a black cat that leaves feathers as evidence of its hunts. Butterflies hover over the pansies and zinnias. When it’s hot and the garden’s lush, Cutler says she stands out on the asphalt and tries to read the minds of the flora.

“Sometimes I’ll bet the trees and flowers wonder, ‘Why are they so busy? Why don’t they chill out for a while?’ I think there’s supposed to be some kind of communication between us. It’s part of creation. I think [the plants] are pretty at peace here. Even with the train running by all the time.”

This Saturday, June 9, from 1 to 4 PM Cutler will extend her gallery a few hundred feet when she installs a 60-foot-long mural under the tracks on the 1100 block of Greenleaf (between Chicago and Sherman; call 847-864-2104 for more information). Titled Natural Harmony, it depicts businessmen being led from their black-and-white world into a through-the-looking-glass fantasia of scuba diving, jazz, cafes, and dancing sunflowers. Cutler drew it, but the 15 panels were painted by local home-school students, who’ll be on hand to see their artwork enshrined under a viaduct.

“My whole idea is to take something ugly and make it beautiful,” she says. “I pass a lot of spaces in Evanston where I say, ‘That’d be a nice place to put some art, put some flowers.’ I want you to come down this alley, see birds feeding, see butterflies, and just for the moment, take your mind off what your problems are.”

–Ted Kleine

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