BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
From eye-popping murals in Joliet and signage at the Lincoln Park Zoo to the children’s Play Scape at O’Hare and now a show of outsized paintings in vibrant color at this month’s Other Art Fair in Pilsen, Julie Mathias thinks big.
Living bankside for the last two years next to London’s Tate Modern, Mathias drew inspiration from the abstract expressionists on display nearby to fill her flat with her works, sparkling with reflections from the Thames. While there, she watched as young children ran down the steps to the Tate every day, filled with joy that husband John had taken on a London assignment.
Now celebrations are in order because both Julie and John are back in Chicago. A graceful gamine, Mathias leaves friends awestruck with her ability to raise five children, including two sets of twins, while taking on work and volunteer projects for institutions such as the Latin School, and filling huge canvases layered in color, toasts perhaps to her favorite artist, Morris Louis.
Taking a break from settling back into her Near North home and setting up for her Pilsen show at Mana Contemporary, she told us not only about her art but also the serendipity of having those London years with John, who opened Jenner & Block’s office there.
“I have always worked big and whenever someone wanted a large canvas, I would do it for them. When I was at Syracuse University, I found that the Abstract Expressionists particularly moved me. I studied interior design in school and learned about scale and proportion—creating large canvases for our walls in London, one 25 feet long and in three sections, seemed just right. I am very interested in mechanics and color theory, and I often create overlapping grids of color,” she shared.
“I prefer doing site-specific paintings. This perhaps relates back to my mural days,” she continued. “Art responds to its surroundings, and color is key. I believe color choice should be contextual, and I feel that art is best served when it is proportional to its location, something I learned really in the days when I worked at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in interior architect soon after I came to Chicago.”
Mathias added, “In London I loved the fog, beautiful grey days, and the wet sidewalks. The rain enhanced those subtle greys. That’s why you so often see the color yellow used by architects in modern London.”
After graduating from Syracuse, Mathias started her own mural company in Joliet, encouraging local children to help her execute a mural filled with flowers in a local community garden.
Her close friend Dianne Campbell told us recently: “I’ve always been in awe of Julie’s creativity, fresh thinking, and kindness. Color is her thing and she loves how color transforms space. In the ’70s it was outdoor spaces: she created large-scale murals on urban buildings. I got to help paint one, a Black History mural celebrating the contribution of African Americans in a variety of fields and remember the thrill of Julie’s vibrant colors and bold design.”
“It’s great to have Julie back in Chicago and, encouraged by the response to her paintings in London, playing with and exploring color in new ways. I can’t wait to see what she does next,” Campbell says.
Growing up in Michigan, Mathias learned from her mother, a talented and productive sculptress and ceramicist who, at age 98, recently had a show in South Haven, that art should always be fun. “Her advice to all is to eat raisins and have a positive attitude. She has always been an admirer of the Bauhaus and the works of Maholy Nagy and maintained a studio in Santa Fe as well. She just volunteered to help out with my Chicago show,” Mathias says.
Following her mural work in Joliet, she moved to Chicago and discovered, on a visit to the Lincoln Park Zoo, that there wasn’t signage describing many of its inhabitants. She founded the design department at the zoo with director Lester Fisher and through a grant from the City of Chicago, she implemented the animal identification signage that is similar to what it is there today.
Mathias then joined Skidmore, Owings & Merrill as an Interior Architect, working in all phases of the architectural design process from programming clients for building design to completed interiors with art on the wall.
For those who know Julie and John’s incredible children, all Latin School and Dartmouth graduates, here’s an update: Alice is a comedy television director and producer who splits her time between Los Angeles and Portland. She has been the recipient of five Primetime Emmy Award nominations for her work on Portlandia and Documentary Now! Most recently she directed the new Netflix comedy series I Think You Should Leave and is an executive producer of a new HBO comedy series Los Espookys, which will premiere in June.
Marian is a NYC filmmaker who will be shooting her first feature length film later this year. Her graduate thesis film at NYU Tisch was screened at the Cannes Film Festival, and she has most recently been a selected participant in the Cannes Residence program in Paris.
Pete is an executive in the investment division of a large international media company that operates in about 50 countries around the world with holdings in publishing, television, music, and educational programs. He splits his time between New York and Europe. Teddy has his own graphics design firm in Los Angeles and works extensively with augmented reality. He has most recently been a guest lecturer at Yale Art School, where he received his MFA two years ago. Johnny is an associate in the San Francisco office of a national investment banking firm.
Teddy, Pete, Johnny, and lifetime friend Casey Gibson continue to record and perform with their rock band (Filligar). In recent years they have been designated as cultural ambassadors by the U.S. State Department, which has sent them on performance and educational missions to Azerbaijan, Kuwait City, Guyana, Yekaterinburg, Mexico, Vladivostok, and Tajikistan.
Mathias provided great advice for people given the opportunity to live abroad: “Create a new life for yourself and develop new tools. I took walking tours, hiking with friends in Dorset, the Orkneys, Hadrian’s Wall, and along the Cornwall coast. I found volunteer opportunities such as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution that patrols the coast of England and is privately funded. I also worked with the Royal Horseman Society that uses big Cobb horses to provide equine therapy for kids. They often take inner-city kids out to the country to learn to take care of the horses. Often our job as volunteers involved hoisting 100 bales of hay, but it was all very fun and we loved that the kids befriended the horses!”
The Other Art Fair Chicago, a leading artist fair for a new generation of art buyers, returns for a second edition at Mana Contemporary May 16–19, 2019. Presented by the online art gallery Saatchi Art, The Other Art Fair showcases work by 120 talented independent artists with artworks hand picked by a Selection Committee of art world experts. For more information, visit chicago.theotherartfair.com.