More than 200 postcard-size paintings of hearts, most of them red or pink, hang from strings in Beth Reitmeyer’s richly colorful installation With Love, part of a show with the same title opening tonight at Zg; hearts made of pipe cleaners cover the walls. Reitmeyer, some of whose other exhibits have involved giving her work away and who’s hoping here to “spread affection from one viewer to the next,” is inviting people to take one of the small paintings as a “valentine for a friend or loved one.” She asks only that the person who takes the painting write on a blank card “what’s endearing about the recipient, why they’re worthy of love,” and leave it in place of the one taken. In another room she’s showing 12 larger paintings, for which the card works served as studies, and these are for sale.

When Reitmeyer was growing up in Kentucky, her mother sewed clothes for her and her sisters; they got teased for their unfashionable skirts in “crazy” floral patterns. “It was a big deal when my mother finally bought me a pair of jeans in seventh grade,” Reitmeyer says. “She would also cut a piece of chicken to make it look like a chicken, like with carrots for legs, and dye our milk different colors. My family didn’t have a lot of money, so if you wanted a toy you made it. I dug up clay to make a whole farm with animals.” That was good practice, she says, for learning to see everyday materials in new ways. Reitmeyer, who lives in Evanston, was shocked when her mother was diagnosed in 2001 with ovarian cancer. She traveled home to see her as often as her job as a photo researcher permitted, and she stopped making art. When her mom died two years later, Reitmeyer says, she was “out of practice” and not ready emotionally to make large paintings, so she started doing one of these cardlike sketches each day, hoping for a Valentine’s show at which she would offer them free.

As a high school student, Reitmeyer was torn between art and science. But she ended up majoring in art at Penn State after discovering that the science courses there were much more concerned with the “correct outcome” and less stimulating than those in high school, when her teacher demonstrated the principles of air pressure by using a vacuum to “blow up a marshmallow like a balloon.” She painted still lifes in the manner of Seurat, then of Chuck Close, and later she did grids of pure color based on the palettes of famous paintings. Other influences included Gustav Klimt and medieval Spanish illuminated manuscripts. She made her first installation in 1997, when she was a Northwestern grad student, in reaction to instructors who both praised her pattern paintings and criticized them as decorative: she painted an abstract pattern on the wall of a small drab room next to the students’ studios, figuring people would look at it while on the phone there. “About my work being decorative,” she says, “I was replying, ‘I give up, it’s decorative.'” Soon after graduation, in response to the idea of artists needing collectors and objects to sell, she created an installation for the Evanston Art Center with star-shaped pillows viewers were invited to “wish on,” then take with them. “Part of it was about the joy of giving somebody something, part about viewers being able to assign their own meanings. Kids loved it.”

Raised in a devout family, Reitmeyer has struggled since her senior year in college with the difficulty of being a Christian artist. Her family, which frowned on even bland pop music, feared the art world would corrupt her, while those in the art world tend to be suspicious of Christians. She decided then that she was both a committed artist (“It wasn’t just my major anymore”) and a believer: “Lots of art is depressing and pedantic. And rather than all these faiths disagreeing and killing each other, we should focus on loving our neighbor. People need goodness and love.” Those who favor cool, ironic, doubt-ridden work might find Reitmeyer’s deliberately naive art too simple. But many should appreciate her eye-poppingly sensuous colors and playfully various designs. Sometimes truly original art surprises by being “ordinary.”

Beth Reitmeyer

When: Through Sat 3/11

Where: Zg, 300 W. Superior

Info: 312-654-9900

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