Fortunately, Jules Stein didn’t take enough expensive drawing paper to North Avenue Beach that day, and after a while he ran out. The light was still good, his nylon pens were working fine, the chess players he’d been sketching were still at it, but he had nothing to draw on and there was no art supply store nearby,

He looked in the trash can, but the newspapers he found there didn’t have enough white space. “Then suddenly it occurred to me,” he said. “I got some of that brown paper-towel material from the beach house. It was gorgeous!”

Stein–now a sprightly 73–got his start as a sign painter, then did lettering for Chevrolet in Detroit during the Depression and later for advertising agencies in Chicago. “At 39 and a half I decided I’d like to draw. The art director at one agency said, ‘You may be disappointed, those are different things.’ Of course that just made me more determined. Once I started I was relentless, and just drew and drew and drew.” He says he showed some drawings many years ago at a gallery on Michigan Avenue–“but those weren’t on paper towels.”

Ever since that first day at North Avenue Beach, Stein has been a partisan of fine drawing on cheap paper. He did switch from brown towels to the white textured supermarket brands (he wont say which are his favorites). The walls of his Chicago Chess Center at 2923 N. Southport are filled with framed paper-towel sketches, many depicting the world’s great chess players. (The center is Chicago’s most active chess club, with casual chess every evening and tournaments almost every weekend. Stein, the proprietor, says half joking that he started the center so he’d have free models during the winter when the beach was empty.)

“When people come in here the first time,” he chuckles, “I usually drag them in here and have them look at this picture, and ask them, ‘What kind of fabric is that?’ And they’ll always say, ‘I don’t know–canvas?'”

Paper towels are no vehicle for watercolors–markers are Stein’s tool of choice. The towels, he says, do not rip easily, and they last well (a portrait of chess great Bobby Fischer that’s nearly 20 years old is faded only where Stem failed to protect it from the sun). Even the tendency for the ink to spread through the porous paper fibers is an asset. “Here’s a smooth line on smooth paper,” he says, showing me a sketch. “And here’s the paper towel. See the difference? That blurring gives the line much more vigor. And the accidental effects are wonderful.” He likes the texture too: “I’ve had artists come over and say, ‘Gee, this is nice paper. Where the hell did you get it?’ An artist would give his life for that kind of texture.” Stein photocopies one study of five players’ heads, and it becomes a moody study in shades of brown: “It picks up all that texture. It looks like a nice print.”

Stein would like to promote his idea to a paper-towel company; he has also invested considerable time and money in prototypes of a kit for children for commercial sale. In the meantime, he’s put together a selection of paper-towel works for an exhibit at the Paper Press.

A gallery and artists’ work space located in a bright, airy former sweatshop at 1017 W. Jackson, the Paper Press is largely devoted to the making of paper by hand as an art form. “We don’t very often have a show with representational imagery,” says codirector Marilyn Sward. “This seemed like a good chance to do that and still be about paper,” albeit the mass-produced kind. “I used to draw on brown paper towels in college. I liked Stein’s energetic calligraphic line, and the whole reflective process, the combination of drawing and chess, was very interesting. Anything that breaks down the boundaries people set up between themselves and their creative spirit I think is very worthwhile.”

“Jules Stein: Chess Drawings From North Avenue Beach” opens this evening, Friday, with a reception from 5 to 7 at 1017 W. Jackson. After that, gallery hours are by appointment only. Call Sward or Linda Sorkin at 226-6300; the best time to call is between 10 and 4 Tuesday through Saturday.

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