More than a few people were surprised when Joe Davis opened a contemporary art gallery in Highwood last April. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that Highland Park’s tiny neighbor to the north–covering about one square mile–had a reputation as a rough-and-tumble bar town. For much of the 20th century as many as 30 saloons did business within a couple of blocks (a fact that locals claim once earned Highwood a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records). Today 35 restaurants stand where the bars once did, and the Town of Fort Sheridan residential development has helped send Highwood’s property values soaring. But with its narrow streets, modest homes, and hodgepodge of tired, mismatched buildings downtown, it’s still another planet compared to the posh suburbs that surround it.

Davis opened Street Level Gallery not in spite of the locale, but because of it. “It reminds me of neighborhoods in Chicago where artists gather and galleries open,” he says. “Highland Park, Lake Forest, and Glencoe are beautiful towns with boutique shops and an aura of being high-end. Highwood has more of a neighborhood feel to it–blue-collar, gritty. And the type of art we sell fits better in this situation.”

Davis’s Highwood roots go back to 1912, when his grandfather settled there. A milkman, William Davis Sr. delivered dairy products to Lake Forest residents by horse and wagon. Joe spent his early childhood in a house in Highland Park just a few blocks south of the building that would become his gallery. When he was in eighth grade, his dad, a plumber, moved the family to Riverwoods. Graduating from high school in 1964, Davis had a “passive interest in art.” His older brother, Skip, now a graphic designer, was the acknowledged artist in the family, and Davis resisted following in his footsteps.

From the age of 14 until he was 27, he worked for Jewel, moving up from bag boy to manager. In his mid-20s he began taking community-college art classes “for fun and as self-enrichment.” Influenced by the work of Chicago imagists Ed Paschke and Karl Wirsum, he concentrated on figurative, realistic works: “whacked out,” maybe, but recognizable.

He left Jewel to become a salesman for a food broker, but after a year, realizing he “needed” to paint full-time, he quit and applied to the School of the Art Institute. His acceptance into SAIC, which requires the submission of a portfolio, was a pivotal experience. Until then art had been a solitary passion: “I didn’t share it or seek encouragement. I had no idea if I was good or bad.” Being selected was a sign that “what I was doing was right.”

After graduation Davis operated out of a Wrigleyville storefront as a fine art printmaker, supplementing his income with commercial illustration work. The part-time gig grew into Street Level Studio (“street level” refers to a mind-set, not a physical location, says Davis), a graphic design company that these days creates corporate catalogs, brochures, and other commercial print materials along with Web sites.

When his grandfather died in 1979, Davis and his wife, Wendy, returned to Highwood, buying his grandfather’s house and setting up the design studio in a space on Green Bay Road. The couple was active in the community: Joe became an alderman; Wendy was on the school board. But eight years later they left for Hawthorn Woods, where they still live. Davis says they relocated because they wanted “more space,” but when pressed admits he wasn’t entirely happy with the town’s political climate back then and at times was at odds with Fidel Ghini, the town’s “Boss”-style mayor from 1969 to 1993. In the mid-80s Davis moved Street Level Studio to Highland Park; he moved it back to Highwood in 1998, into a building he’d bought that once housed a Tucker dealership.

Moving into his grandfather’s house and saving some of his mementos launched a new hobby for Davis: collecting. He says he collects “junk” and “oddities”–a seashell doll, a toy rabbit with hands instead of paws, a pig-shaped advertising button. “I love things that were manufactured and you look at it and say, ‘Why the hell did anyone make that?'”

With the success of the design business, the Davises began to indulge a pricier passion: collecting innovative contemporary and outsider art, including works by Paschke, Wirsum, and Howard Finster. “I’m not in a position to buy a $13 million Monet,” says Davis, but “I’d rather buy a Paschke than buy a boat.” For years they schlepped to River North, Wicker Park, and Pilsen in search of art. When the tavern a couple of doors down from the studio lost its lease in 2000, the wheels started turning. In Davis’s judgment, there weren’t any “edgy” contemporary art galleries north of Evanston. Guessing that there were other art lovers like him in the area, he decided to fill the void.

With its tall windows, tin ceiling, and gleaming terrazzo floor, the 2,000-square-foot space at the corner of Highwood and Waukegan avenues now seems like a natural for a gallery. Actually, it was Santi’s tavern and restaurant for 50 years, then a bar called Moran’s for 15 more. The windows–eight-inch slits when Davis purchased the building two years ago–had been covered with aluminum siding, and the handsome floor decorated with a circular mosaic of flowers in a cogwheel (which Davis borrowed as the gallery’s logo) was buried under decades of grime. Davis points out a bullet hole–the shot allegedly fired by Ernie Santi to break up a brawl–still visible in the ceiling.

His original premise was that the gallery would be a venue for undiscovered Chicago artists, but it quickly expanded to include emerging and established artists from all over the country. Now roughly 50 percent of the work is from the Chicago area, with half of that from the North Shore. “It’s eclectic, stuff that just knocks my wife and I out,” says Davis. “Art that we would want in our home.”

An exhibit opens at Street Level about every six weeks; recent shows have included thickly textured, muted oils by Highland Park’s Peta Kaplan, impressionistic landscapes by Chicagoan Matt Hagemann, and computer-generated art by Doug Huston, a friend of Davis’s from his days at SAIC and presently chairman of the printmaking department there. The gallery has hosted performances by local poet Gerard Wozek and video artist Mary Russell and the collaborative animation/musical productions of artist Marlena Novak and composer Jay Alan Yim. Performances are booked by Davis’s son, Eddie, a composer and sound engineer.

Davis no longer makes much art himself, except for some occasional assemblages (like the porcelain glove mold he covered with newspaper crossword puzzles, Day-Glo plastic watches, and a mink cuff, titled She Has Nothing but Time on Her Hands). But Welcome Man–his 1976 acrylic portrait of a grinning guy in a sky blue bowling shirt trimmed with white polka dots–appears on the gallery’s mailings.

A while back Lenny Innocenzi, owner of Buffo’s restaurant, a block north of the gallery, noticed the benches decorated by Gallery 37 students that are scattered throughout O’Hare. Inspired, he teamed up with Davis to launch a public art project in which 24 local artists used wooden benches as canvases. The benches were placed throughout Highwood’s business district last summer. Eighty-five-year-old Highwood artist Emilio “Babe” Galassini decorated one with cherries, strawberries, carrots, lemons, pears, garlic, and pumpkins–sponsored, appropriately enough, by the Nite ‘n Gale restaurant, where it still sits out front. (Galassini’s intricately painted wood-and-papier-mache chicken and goose eggs are on display at the Highwood Public Library.) Another Highwood artist, Peter Demma, created a bench out of concrete and cedar; it weighs over 500 pounds and rests in front of Davis’s gallery.

In conjunction with the bench project, Street Level held “Highwood City Limits,” featuring work by 35 area artists. Kaplan and Highland Park fiber artist Kathy Weaver were among them; Highwood residents represented included Galassini, Highland Park fireman Jack Grande, glass artist Dreiske Arnold, Gurnee elementary school art teacher Frank Fitzgerald, and Donald Ugolini, who was a body shop repairman at Fort Sheridan before retiring. Although Ugolini mainly does landscapes, his painting of the Virgin Mary in a black bra and nylons, made partly from Bondo (the pasty substance used to fill dents on cars), was one of the show’s highlights.

Most of the benches were auctioned off last November, fetching $350 to $800 each. The proceeds will go toward Highwood’s next public art project, which looks like it’ll take place in 2004. The reason Innocenzi and Davis aren’t trying to do it sooner is that the business district is currently undergoing construction: it’s getting an upgraded infrastructure (new storm sewers, curbs, lighting) and cosmetic improvements (brick sidewalks, landscaping) and may still be torn up come summer. “We’re at the mercy of the city,” says Innocenzi.

As property values rise, Davis would like to see the vintage buildings that remain in Highwood’s business district upgraded, not torn down. But he’s not naive. “There needs to be a change in town, but I’d like it to stay interesting, with a relationship to its heritage,” he says. The current mayor, John Sirotti, shares Davis’s view, as do lifelong citizens Gabriel Viti and his son, Gabriel Jr., owner of an award-winning French-Italian restaurant a block west of the gallery. The Vitis have been buying up much of the town’s commercial property and renovating it. Three years ago the duo rehabbed the 1922 Tudor-style building kitty-corner from the gallery, and Viti Jr. is planning to open a wine bar there this summer. According to the elder Viti, “We don’t want Highwood to lose its identity. We just want to refine it.”

Several restaurants have asked Davis to hang art from Street Level on their walls, and patrons of every place from Carlos’ to Las Tres Hermanas have discovered the gallery as they walk off their meals. But Davis would like to have other galleries as neighbors too. “They don’t all have to be contemporary–although that would probably be helpful because it would draw people from downtown,” he says.

The town does have an artistic tradition to draw on: the Italian immigrants who arrived here in the early 1900s were artisans and skilled craftsmen–stonemasons, woodworkers, and bricklayers, who helped construct the mansions that sprang up along the lakeshore. They were also artists. The best known was Aldo Piacenza, who came to the U.S. around the turn of the century and eventually operated a coffee shop across the railroad tracks from where Street Level Gallery stands. At the age of 65 he began making birdhouses and paintings that paid homage to the villages, churches, and mountains he knew as a child in Italy. A few years before his death in 1976, the Hyde Park Art Center exhibited 200 of his works in a show curated by imagist Roger Brown; now the Smart Museum, the Milwaukee Art Museum, and the School of the Art Institute all own Piacenzas.

But not everyone shares Davis’s vision of Highwood as an art mecca. Last month KL Fine Arts–a more commercial gallery featuring work by artists like Andy Warhol and Louise Nevelson–moved to River West after seven years in Highland Park. Co-owner Jeff Kraft says part of the reason for the move is that while suburbanites happily trek downtown to look for art, “making a day of it,” most Chicagoans won’t drive up to the suburbs just to go to a gallery. “It was like pulling teeth to get people to come to exhibitions,” he says. “It’s nice to have a gallery exist in Highwood, but the reality is that people say they want certain businesses in the area, but they don’t necessarily support them.”

Yet Davis says he’s pleased to get the occasional city dweller venturing up to his gallery. And though Street Level isn’t self-supporting yet, he expects it will be any day now. Davis doesn’t have huge financial expectations; he says if it sustains itself, it’ll be enough. His graphics business is “driving the train,” he says. The gallery is “a love.”

“I’m trying to set an example so maybe people say, ‘Some nut opened a gallery–maybe it’s a good place to be. I’ll do something there myself.'”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Saverio Truglia.