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Chicago’s Contemporary Art Workshop, co-founded by the late John Kearney (all images copyright Robert L. Segal)

CHICAGO — Two weeks ago, news began to spread of the death of John Kearney, a fixture in the Chicago art world for more than seven decades. He was 89 years old.

Born in 1924 in Omaha, Nebraska, Kearney studied art at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. Even a short description of his life suggests a vanished era: he served in the US Navy during WWII, received a Fulbright Award to Italy in the early 1960s, was a visiting artist four times at the American Academy in Rome, and was a prolific sculptor whose work is in public and private collections across the US, including the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.

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2008 photo of John Kearney

In 1949, Kearney was one of the co-founders (along with Leon Golub and several other artists) of the Contemporary Art Workshop, an organization dedicated to providing affordable studios and exhibition space for emerging and mid-career artists. The Contemporary Art Workshop closed its doors in 2009, but not before helping hundreds of Chicago and Midwest artists find their footing. Many of the artists who were helped in more recent years by Kearney, his wife Lynn, and the Contemporary Art Workshop took to social media to express their sorrow at his passing and to express their enduring gratitude to him. Painter Joanne Aono, for example, said:

He was a terrific sculptor and a kind man. Together with Lynn, they were amazing supporters of the Chicago art community. Since posting the news on Facebook, I’ve been amazed by all the artists that credit the Kearneys with giving them their first show or immensely aiding in their success. I was among the last of the artists to have studios there. Also residing there at the time were Fraser Taylor, Norbert Marszalek, Karen Appleton, Kate Lewis, Neha Vedpathak, Amy Honchell, and Russ White – quite an impressive group. I am forever grateful to Jack and Lynn for introducing us. I’ve developed lasting friendships with these artists.

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Giraffe, 2008 sculpture shown in Kearney’s studio in 2008

And Norbert Marszalek told Hyperallergic about his experience with the Contemporary Art Workshop (CAW):

I guess I always knew about the CAW. They had a long history. When it came time to move my studio, I was fortunate enough to get a studio space there. That’s when I met Joanne Aono and many others. It was very inspiring. We would all meet and visit each other’s studio, have group or one-on-one discussions. Sometimes the talk got heated, which was good. I personally grew as an artist during my time there.

John and Lynn had a good thing going. They offered exhibition space for emerging artists to get their feet wet. I had some thoughtful conversations with John (Jack), and Lynn for that matter, regarding art and the art world.

Such eulogies indicate that John Kearney leaves a legacy both physical and emotional: the sculptures that can still be seen in public spaces in Chicago, and the fond memories of those who were touched by his generosity of spirit.

Philip Hartigan is a UK-born artist and writer who now lives, works and teaches in Chicago. He also writes occasionally for Time Out-Chicago. Personal narratives (his own, other peoples', and invented)...