Kathy Kozan puts down her cigarette and picks up a sponge and starts slapping the wall with it. Dust and paint particles fly in her face, and she shouts instructions to her workers over the din of Public Image Ltd. Construction workers sand pieces of wood, and sparks fly from a blowtorch up above. Artists are painting musical instruments on the lavender walls, and some guy is sitting below the scaffolding, eating his tuna-fish sandwich out of a Muppets lunch box.

“You’ve got to learn by doing it,” Kozan shouts. “In school you can make little color charts and abstract paintings–and you talk about the theory of conceptual art. It’s not till you do something that you have any idea of what it’s like. You can sit and theorize anything in a little art book. Too many times you get interior designs, with a little board with a sample of fabric–a sample of this, a sample of that. And it’s like you’re looking at two-inch tiles and fabric samples. You’re like, ‘What the hell does this mean?'”

It’s around noon in what will soon be the Excalibur nightclub, the site of the old Limelight at Dearborn and Ontario. Through the fog of dust and cigarette smoke the place looks like a Levi’s 501 commercial: good-looking kids in paint-splattered jeans sprawled atop scaffolding, sharing jokes and paintbrushes. At age 37, Kozan is the oldest.

Kozan designs large-scale murals and backdrops. One of her specialties is three-dimensional illusion: trompe l’oeil. She’s done backdrops for an Air Jordan commercial and for the Fabulous Thunderbirds. She works on community murals and interiors and exteriors of restaurants, and did the swimming pool on the lower-level floor of the Limelight. She and her staff once made copies of old-master paintings for the Fairmont Hotel–and were given only three days to complete each painting. “You couldn’t stretch the canvas and prime the damn thing in three days,” she says.

Kozan says she has studied at 13 colleges and has taught art at Gordon Tech. Although she’s in charge of 20 artists, all of whom work for Kozan Studios, she takes full part in putting her designs on the walls–scrambling up scaffolding and spraying paint all over the place with everyone else.

She was recently named one of Today’s Chicago Woman’s top bachelorettes, which makes her cringe. At first she might seem like an odd choice to design the interior of a glitzy singles’ hangout. But she hopes her influence will make Excalibur a place where people like her, people who don’t like the Division Street scene, can come and feel comfortable. “It should be like life,” she says. “There will be enough different rooms where you’ll be able to find your own niche. If you want to dance, there’ll be a place for that. Or you can sit out on the terrace with a beer–that’s where I’ll probably be.”

Mention the word “Limelight” around Kozan or anybody working here, and they’ll give you the kind of look you’d get if you ordered a ham-and-cheese sandwich at the Jerusalem Kosher restaurant. Aumiller Youngquist, the architects responsible for a bunch of Melman restaurants, including Hat Dance, have designed an interior consisting of 11 bars, three dance floors, and a restaurant called the Galerie, which will serve “gourmet cuisine.” In the basement will be 13 pool tables and 100 or so different games.

“Thank God there’s a Kathy around to help me maintain my family life,” says Jose Berrios, a Chicago mural artist who works with Kozan on commercial projects to support his large-scale-mural work with teenage kids in crime-ridden areas. You can see a lot of his work if you drive down Milwaukee Avenue. Right now, he’s in the Dome Room, which will soon be the Galerie restaurant. He’s painting in some rose-colored trompe l’oeil curtains that he says drunk people will think are real.

“You see that?” he says, pointing to a huge mural of curtains that look as if they should open onto a circus. “That’s a Kathy Kozan special. She brings it up that extra level so it really looks three-dimensional.”

Kathy Kozan is drinking egg-drop soup with one hand and paging through a series of blueprints with the other. Her studio manager, Danielle Giudici, is going through a list of pop-song lyrics that will be painted on the walls to strike nostalgic chords in the baby boomers who will frequent this place. A guy who’s studying the acoustics is clapping his hand loudly and yelling “Hello? Hello?” Clap, clap, clap.

“I don’t know what he’s doing,” says Kozan. “Personally, I don’t see how you’re gonna figure out acoustics if you don’t have any of the carpeting or anything yet. But if he doesn’t bother me, I won’t bother him.”

Over the years Kozan has had to endure the occasional sexist remark. But as her reputation has grown, the snide remarks have begun to fade. “People come in and say, ‘Who’s the boss?’ And I say Kozan Studios. They say, ‘Oh. Where’s Mr. Kozan?’ I say, ‘There is no Mr. Kozan. You want me to call up my father so you can talk to him?’

“There’s always going to be some jerk who’s not gonna accept you no matter what. But, I don’t have to preach feminism because what you do with your life is enough of a statement.”

Kozan was once commissioned by the arts council of Decatur to redo the side of an old building with a trompe l’oeil motif, but ran into trouble because she wasn’t unionized. “I went in there and met with all the heads of the unions. I think the only thing we had in common was that we all had tattoos,” she says. “They said, ‘Just tell me one thing. That’s 70 feet up in the air. Who does all that high stuff there?’ I said, ‘Well, I do.’ One guy elbowed another guy and he said, ‘That broad’s gonna go up 70 feet in the air?’ They said, ‘All right, go ahead.’ I don’t know if they were hoping I would fall or what.”

Yet after she began work on the project, plenty of people started to pitch in and help. “You get your credibility by doing it,” she says.

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