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Like a lot of his contemporaries, Ed Paschke Sr. had to drop out of school and go to work during the Depression. He got a job driving a truck for a Chicago bakery, met his bride there, and was launched on a lifelong blue-collar and small-business career that included construction work, farming, and demolition. In the evenings and on weekends he would come home to his workshop and turn clumps of wood and clay into whimsical, brightly painted sculptures–birds, animals, human heads–while his two young sons looked on.

The Paschke family moved around, from city to farm to suburb. Wherever they settled, a workshop would be established, either in the garage or in the basement. The boys knew their father was home if the air was filled with the smell of sawdust and the whine of a power saw. Paschke Sr. was a strong, tough-loving man with a temper that could be spectacular and scary. He was also a disciplinarian, administering a hand to their backsides when he had to. When he did, it felt like that hand had an iron bar in it instead of ordinary bones. He was reticent by nature, more of an observer than an extrovert–but also a storyteller, a country-music lover (and player) who could hold his own socially. Most of all, he was a hard worker whose creative impulses found expression when he picked up a carving tool or paintbrush. To his younger son, who was named for him, “it was a magical process–watching him breathe life into inanimate materials.” And the son said to himself, “I want to be just like that. I want to do these things, too.”

The elder Paschke never thought of art as a profession. “Art was something you just did on the side, because you liked to do it,” his son recalls. He was supportive when the boy chose the School of the Art Institute for college, but didn’t expect it to provide a livelihood. The son remembers piling into the family car after his graduation ceremony and can still see his father, hands on the steering wheel, turning to address him in the backseat. “Well, Ed, what’re you gonna do now?” he wanted to know. In the years of bohemian poverty that followed as the son struggled to establish himself as an artist, the foolishness of his choice grated on the father. He did his best to talk some common sense into the kid, telling him to get a regular job, for God’s sake, as he had done himself. Later, the son says, “when things started to turn around a bit for me, he was man enough to acknowledge that he was wrong in trying to steer me down the same path that he had gone down.”

Things turned around in a major way. The son’s vibrant paintings, with their neon colors, masklike faces, and occasional fanciful birds, came to attention at the Hyde Park Art Center in the late 60s. He went to graduate school, landed on the faculty at Northwestern University, and developed an international reputation. His father watched in amazement as he became Chicago’s best-known contemporary artist. Meanwhile, Paschke Sr. had developed a bad heart. A half century after he took his job with the bakery, he finally retired, freeing his days for his own art–carved canes with animal heads, dinosaurs in Santa suits, and enough birds to fill a sky. He showed his work at a couple of galleries and was a fixture at the annual art fair in Lake Forest, where his famous son would sometimes join him at his booth. He died two years ago at the age of 80, and the son began to think about what else he might have done for this man who had been his “first teacher, mentor, role model, and guru.

“I thought his work should have been seen more than it was,” the son says. “Then I ran into Ann Rosen [a former student, now executive director of the Suburban Fine Arts Center]. She said, ‘Hey, we’re still waiting for you to put together some kind of show for us,’ and something just clicked regarding my dad.” “Paschke Sr./Paschke Jr.,” a memorial show and sale of Ed Paschke Sr.’s work, along with four pieces by his son, opens with a reception from 6:30 to 8 tonight at the center, 1913 Sheridan Road in Highland Park, and continues through January 5. It’s free. Ed Paschke will discuss his father’s influence on his work at 1 PM tomorrow; admission to the lecture is $10. Exhibit hours are 9 to 5 Monday though Saturday. Call 847-432-1888 for more information. –Deanna Isaacs

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by J.B. Spector; uncredited background photo.