There are a lot of far-fetched scenarios in the made-in-Chicago Jennifer Aniston-Vince Vaughn vehicle The Break-Up, but none more unlikely than the real-life events that have unfolded around some of the movie’s props since it opened earlier this month. The film, a romance between a sports-addicted schlub and an elegant artist, is mostly set in a vintage condo the couple shares and a sleek art gallery–locations that show off the work of a number of Chicago artists. Of the half dozen or so whose pieces are identifiable, the most pointed attention goes to a couple of huge canvases by notorious local bad boy/art star Wesley Kimler. (“Why buy something I could make myself?” is the question uttered by a gallery visitor while the camera lingers on an incendiary Kimler study in red and black.) But the pieces that get the most exposure–all over the walls of the condo and portrayed as works in progress (by Aniston and her over-the-top boss, played by Judy Davis and pitched somewhere between Ann Nathan and Anna Wintour)–were done by relative newcomer Francine Turk.

It was just three years ago that Turk, a Columbia College dropout, abandoned her tableware design business to focus on the series of figurative nudes, most sketched in charcoal, that are so visible in The Break-Up. They were selected by set decorator Dan Clancy, who’d discovered Turk hawking her artwork at the monthly Chicago Antique Market (where she still sells) a year ago. Turk, who’s 34, works in a range of styles, but for the nudes she arrived at an unusual process: she collects antique frames, then conceives of drawings or paintings that will complement them, usually sketchy, moody, faceless figures in earth tones. With their vintage frames, these pieces make a reliably tasteful, neutral package. “I work with a lot of decorators,” Turk says, adding that her current commissions include 55 pieces for a single home in Northfield.

The film generated some publicity for Turk, including pieces in Chicago magazine and Chicago Social, and she says demand for her work has jumped over the last year. But that exposure paled in comparison to the coverage generated shortly after the movie opened, when her South Loop gallery-studio was burglarized and ten paintings vanished. According to police reports and Turk’s account, at 7:15 AM Tuesday, June 13, while neighbors were walking their dogs and heading out to work, a maroon van cruised past Turk’s storefront at 18 E. Cullerton, then returned and parked in the alley below the el tracks next door. Two men, the lower part of their faces covered, smashed through the glass front door, leaving a trail of glass shards across the floor, and pulled the paintings off the walls. Approached by a witness on the street as they were leaving, one of them flashed what looked like a gun. The witness backed off and the burglars jumped into the van and took off. When Turk and the police arrived they found that other than the artworks–which Turk valued at $3,000 to $4,000 per piece–nothing was missing. The studio hadn’t been ransacked; a laptop computer and expensive digital camera lying in the open had been ignored. Turk says the scene didn’t resemble any of the suspected drug-money burglaries that had been reported in the area. In a town where art thefts–especially those targeting the work of emerging artists–are rare, the police told her it looked like an inside job. They asked for a list of employees.

In May, Turk had placed an ad for an assistant on the Columbia College Web site. After interviewing several candidates she’d hired a 23-year-old art student, Michael Gutweiler. She says the arrangement was that he’d help her on an as-needed basis with graphic design and other duties, but after just two days of work she’d decided he wasn’t the right person for the job. Turk went through with a prearranged third day about two weeks before the burglary but let Gutweiler know that it wasn’t going to work out. On June 16 police took Gutweiler in for questioning, charged him with felony burglary, and tossed him into Cook County Jail, where he remained until he posted bond last week.

The television stations and dailies were all over the story, their interest heightened because Gutweiler had been in the news before, albeit in an entirely different light. In 1998, his mother, 47-year-old Susan Gutweiler, was fatally injured in a Saint Louis auto accident. Her car had been hit by an SUV that ran a red light; the driver was Saint Louis Rams defensive end Leonard Little, and he was drunk. To the distress of Michael Gutweiler and his father, Bill, Little got just 90 days in jail, 1,000 hours of community service, and four years’ probation. When Little was picked up and charged with speeding and driving drunk again six years later, Gutweiler–the date of his mother’s death tattooed on his arm–told the Tribune’s Rick Morrissey that the crash had ruined his life and he wanted to “see [Little] be walked away in cuffs,” to know that “justice does happen.” Gutweiler said then that he wanted to work with Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, “to stop this from happening.” He could have been the car crash poster boy: his sister and an uncle had also been killed in auto accidents. In the wake of his mother’s death, Gutweiler told Morrissey, he’d dropped sports and friends, found art, and stopped taking his medication for Tourette’s syndrome. (Little was found not guilty of the 2004 DUI charge.)

After Gutweiler’s arrest Turk told reporters that “it’s just been such a frenzy, with people grabbing my work left and right that I can’t make it fast enough. I think he saw the frenzy and one thing led to another.” Oddly, though, Turk didn’t get a credit for her artwork in the movie; neither did Kimler. Of the artists with work in The Break-Up, only watercolorist Danielle Klinenberg’s name appears in the credits. Klinenberg, whose background includes a stint in Hollywood working on film production, says she got the acknowledgment by inserting a line demanding it on a distribution release. (Like the other artists, she’d been paid a rental fee for the art that was used.) “If you want something, you’ve got to go for it,” Klinenberg says, adding that the movie brought her a lot of publicity and helped her land her first solo show, currently on view at Thomas Masters Gallery.

Turk, meanwhile, says she’s eager to tap her recent turmoil in a new body of work that she expects to have ready to show at her gallery in August. The paintings have not been found, and police are still looking for one or two other suspects. Gutweiler, in an e-mail last weekend, said he’s taking his lawyer’s advice and “will not be speaking out on this subject until I have been proven innocent in court.” His next hearing is July 13.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.