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Artist of the Month: The worlds of William Marhoefer - The Daily Journal

Artist of the Month: The worlds of William Marhoefer

08/15/2008, 9:20 am
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By Gary Thomas
and Rachael Reynolds-Soucie
For The Daily Journal

What could be more American than baseball? One would think it strange to begin a discussion about a fine artist this way, but in the case of Bill Marhoefer it makes sense.

Marhoefer, of Momence, is not necessarily a baseball fan, but take one look at his current sculptural work and you will see the creative way he uses the iconic sports ball.

Marhoefer, 56, uses 12-inch leather softballs as the basis for his interesting sculptural objects. His most popular subject is the French bulldog -- he owns four real ones -- and he has a wonderful way of instilling a distinct characterization into each one.

He also creates female figures, like one called "Aqua-Dot," a young girl in a blue polka-dot dress wearing long black gloves over her thin hands and slender arms. At first the viewer will notice her elegant pose, but then will be arrested by the weird expression on her face and bulbous eyes on the side of her head.

People have described Marhoefer's sculptures as whimsical, mysterious and even a bit scary. But they've been shown in some of Chicago's most prestigious spaces: The Ann Nathan Gallery, one of the premier galleries in Chicago; the International Expositions of Sculpture Objects and Functional Art; and most recently in a solo exhibition at The Architrouve Gallery earlier this summer.

Last week, he celebrated the grand opening of his own show space, Bulldog Gallery, in Chicago's historic Ukrainian Village. Bulldog Gallery is located in the building where Marhoefer and his wife, Michelle, also an artist, run Broken Art Restoration, which restores broken porcelain and ceramic pieces for galleries, museums, collectors and antique dealers.

Broken Art has another home on Gladiolus Street in Momence. The Marhoefers renovated an 1897 church and turned it into a second studio closer to their home. They are well-known for their specialized trade, and despite a slow economy, there is not an empty spot on the shelves.

But lately, Marhoefer is giving his collection of resin characters more time and attention.

"People love them," Marhoefer said. "I get an incredible response from them. They've been sold into some of the most important art collections in Chicago."

Destined for art

Marhoefer knew he was destined to be an artist from the time he was in kindergarten. There he created a piece in clay that so impressed his teacher she told his parents that they had to encourage his artistic creativity. They did this by sending him to the junior art school at the Art Institute of Chicago.

During high school, Marhoefer was making and selling comic books. This was when the underground comic book movement began. He worked with the likes of Skip Williamson and Jay Lynch, two icons of that world. One can see the influence of this edgy art in his current work.

In 1970 Marhoefer was accepted into the BFA program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and completed his MFA in 1979. After that he taught for a while at Columbia College. During this time his work began to get some recognition in and around the Chicago area.

He continued to create works and show them occasionally as he started his restoration business in 1980. He really became serious about his art after his collection of bulldogs and figures was shown at the Ann Nathan Gallery in the River North neighborhood in 2006. Although many artists "hound her for years" to be shown there, Marhoefer said Nathan accepted him right away. The first piece sold just two days after it was displayed. For about a year and a half, Marhoefer's work sold, on average, one a month -- an impressive rate.

So he decided to step up production of his current collection, which culminated from years of creating figures using small animal skulls as heads. The pieces took a turn one day when he picked up an old baseball on his workbench, inspiring him to create figures using softballs as heads. Bodies and limbs are sculpted from an epoxy resin, a self-hardening material that Marhoefer uses in art restoration to rebuild chips or cracks. He adds other materials such as glass eyes, horsetails for hair and even real fur.

There is evidence of Marhoefer's understanding of Western art history, non-Western art, contemporary art, high art, low art, and everything in between. Marhoefer does not try to make "artsy" things. He simply takes elements of his life -- his upbringing, his appreciation of both fine art and kitsch, and his craftsmanship of art restoration -- and puts them together to create these captivating sculptural objects.

Howard Tullman, the legendary Chicago entrepreneur and one of the biggest collectors of American contemporary art, owns four of Marhoefer's pieces, which sell between $1,200 and $1,500. Thirty of the pieces are currently on display at the Bulldog Gallery.

"I think people like them because it's something they've never seen before," Marhoefer said. "I always think it's interesting when art takes something and makes people look at it in a different way, and I'm making people think of baseballs in a different way."

WHO: Bill Marhoefer

WHAT: Bulldog Gallery

WHERE: 1841 W. Chicago Ave., Chicago

WHEN: Open every Friday and by appointment

PHONE: (312) 226-8200


Do you know an artist worthy of recognition?

Send us a photo of his or her work, along with the artist’s name, hometown and phone number to For more information, call (815) 937-3351.

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Photos Heading

Photo: Michelle Gannon
Bill Marhoefer finishes a commissioned piece, titled "Thing I" and "Thing II," by painting his sculptures Tuesday at his home studio in Momence. (7-22-08)
Photo: Michelle Gannon
Original artwork by Bill Marhoefer entitled "Coco Pop." (7-22-08)
Photo: Michelle Gannon
Original artwork by Bill Marhoefer entitled "River." (7-22-08)

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