Nate Quinn’s paintings are striking on many levels. For one thing, they’re huge–the sprawling panels, which Quinn makes out of wood he salvages from construction sites, are sometimes as large as 7 by 12 feet. Then there are his subjects’ expressions: frequently disaffected, sometimes despairing. But what’s most arresting about the paintings is the space between the people in them. A boy and a girl holding balloons stand on opposite sides of the frame, as do a beaming policeman and a smiling woman. They look happy, but they’re uncomfortably distanced. Even when Quinn groups his subjects, as in a portrait of his four brothers, there’s a reminder of isolation: to the left of the brothers is a shadowy figure suspended upside down in an elevator shaft. That figure, says the artist, is him.

Quinn, 26, was one of nine people accepted into New York University’s master of fine arts program three years ago; he graduated last May. In 2001 he won first prize in a National Arts Club competition; in 2002 he won that organization’s Award of Distinction. This past February his work was featured in an artists’ tribute to Amadou Diallo, the West African immigrant who was gunned down by New York City police.

Since graduation the Chicago native has been back in his hometown, subsidizing his art making by working as a substitute teacher and offering private art lessons. He plans to move back to New York in the fall, but until then his studio is an empty classroom at his former elementary school, Zenos Colman. Years ago his teachers here pulled him out of class for special tutoring, which helped him land an academic scholarship to Culver Academy, the prestigious boarding school in Indiana. From the window of his studio Quinn can see the empty lot that was the site of his childhood home: the 4500 S. State building of the Robert Taylor Homes, apartment 604. That’s where he returned after his first semester at Culver, only to find that his family–his father and the four brothers from the painting–had disappeared without a trace.

“[The] door was partially cracked,” he says. “I opened it up, and my apartment was completely empty.” He recalls picking up scattered clothes from the apartment floor–his mother’s dresses, some socks. He remembers finding a loaf of bread and a half-empty bottle of soda in the refrigerator. He was stunned. He had seen “a lot of stuff” growing up in the projects, but his family’s mysterious disappearance “slapped me right in the damn face.”

His love for art saved him.

One of Quinn’s earliest memories is of clutching a jumbo crayon in his hand. The only child of Mary Quinn and Joe Peterson, he lived with his mother, father, and Mary’s four older sons. His parents spotted his talent early on, he says. “My brother told me once that my mother would let me draw on the walls and she would wash the walls and let me draw again.”

Peterson, impressed with his son’s skill, would challenge him to a weekly Saturday-morning contest drawing TV characters. They’d use paper bags and pages ripped from the telephone book as their canvases, often drawing for hours. Peterson would break the erasers off their pencils. “There are no mistakes,” he would say. “My mother would be the judge, and she would always pick my father as the winner,” says Quinn. “Eventually she started picking me.”

Money in the Peterson-Quinn household was in short supply. Mary, who had suffered two strokes–the first when she was nine years old, says Quinn–had lost all use of her left side and couldn’t work. Her husband worked as a cook. Their electricity was frequently shut off for nonpayment. “And when [the power] would go out my mother would light candles and my father and I would sit at the table and just draw into the phone book.”

During his first semester at Culver, his mother died of a stroke–triggered, a next-door neighbor told Quinn, by drug dealers who broke into the tiny apartment looking for his oldest brother. Quinn tried to cope by throwing himself into his work. Then he returned home to discover the rest of his family gone.

He questioned his neighbors, but no one really knew what had happened. His maternal grandmother offered to take him in, but he opted to work at summer camps and stay with school friends during the holidays. He graduated from Culver with honors and won a scholarship to Wabash College in Indiana, where he majored in psychology and art.

It wasn’t until his last year there that he began to deal with his loss. He used his senior project–which would culminate in an exhibition of his work–to explore his family’s disappearance.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and then I said, I’ll just paint about my life in Chicago,” he says. “I took this huge board, 6 feet by 14, and I painted the projects and then I painted myself on the side. And then I took copies of my mother’s obituary and placed her throughout the projects. I put her eye in a project window, took her face and had it painted around the building. And that piece opened the whole door.”

He painted a person opening the door to an empty apartment and titled it Missing Family. “Through the window of the apartment you can see the projects,” he says. “All that stuff I had suppressed all those years, it was coming to the surface….My mother was really dead. I had no family. It was real at that point.”

At NYU, Quinn continued to be driven by the abandonment theme but sought new ways to depict it. “If you’re fighting, you get ready for that, you’re ready emotionally, physically. But if you’re just sitting there and boom, somebody hits you in the back of the head, you can’t ever get over that. That’s how I was. I didn’t even know what happened. So I didn’t paint happenings. I painted the result.”

His subjects grew to include portrayals of separation in society at large–thus the four-foot gaps between figures. “I did this piece where there is a woman, and a guy’s hand is around her neck, but you can’t see his arm,” says Quinn. “She still feels the grip of his abuse, the isolation, although he is no longer there.” Sometimes his paintings don’t include people at all–just their clothes: Institutional Uniform shows a suit, a shirt, and a pair of boxers on a hanger and a pair of Timberland boots sitting underneath. “The identity of the person is separated from the notion of the person’s appearance. What becomes abandoned is the person’s identity; what is embraced is the person’s appearance.”

He returned to Chicago largely because he wanted to help the neighborhood where he grew up. “Dr. [Joy] Pilcher, the principal, and the teachers here at Colman really helped me to succeed,” he says. “I figured that the best time for me to give back would be right after grad school.” As nearby tenements–like 4500 S. State–have been demolished, the student population has dropped, says Quinn, leaving the school with unused rooms. So “Dr. Pilcher told me when I came back, there would be studio space for me.”

Late last year, just as Quinn had started to incorporate other themes into his work, he received a call. It was an aunt who had tracked him down to tell him his brother Richard had died. At the funeral, an emotional reunion with his surviving brothers (but not his father, about whom he has no information) answered some questions: according to one brother, the family had been evicted and dispersed. But it didn’t answer all of them. “They all knew I went to Culver,” says Quinn. “Not once did they try to contact me.” On some level, he says now, he “had fallen in love with their absence. But when I saw them, I was not particularly willing to fall in love with their presence.”

During his year in Chicago, Quinn says, he’s found some peace with his past and his family. He’s currently working on illustrations for a children’s book, “Suit Shoes,” to be published later this year. He’s also exploring a drawing technique in which the eraser acts as the pencil. “[Most artists] paint or draw by placing the mark down,” he says. “Not me. I take marks away and make my drawing.” He doesn’t plan to analyze his past forever, nor does he want to exploit his upbringing in the projects: “I have too many other experiences now.”

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