Roger Foltin’s art can be as grounded as a Van Gogh-like treescape or as astronomical as a nebula, exploding into white, spider-like striations surrounded by swirls of red and brown, blue, green or yellow.
Foltin is largely self-taught, starting in the 1970s when he worked downtown and spent nearly every lunch hour at the Art Institute. He admires Van Gogh, as well as Matisse, Jackson Pollock and definitely Renoir. But he emphasizes that he doesn’t want to use anyone else’s ideas but his own. “I want to be an original.
“I have got hundreds of thousands of ideas in my head: for clouds, different types of scenery, people, even cityscapes,” as well as the nebulae, which are clouds of hydrogen gas that condense and form stars.
“When I do a painting, I’ve got an idea in mind and it expands as I am working,” he said. When I am working, I am THERE. But when I am not working, I feel smaller, like this,” he says, holding his fingers an inch apart.
“If I could be painting every day, in a week’s time I could turn out five to 10 paintings.”
Foltin first started evolving his style growing up on the Southwest Side when his parents took him to a drive-in to see the movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still.
“I was just a tiny kid but I remember it and actually taped it years later,” he said. “When I got some extra money I got an astronomy book and read up on the latest findings.”
Yet his parents actively discouraged his art, to the point of tearing up his earliest crayon prints and belittling him, telling him that artists were “a dime a dozen.”
“I told them one day I will be a great painter,” he said. “It made me determined that they were wrong.”
Since getting out of the Army in 1970, Foltin has worked at jobs ranging from house cleaning, painting, and maintenance, to fast food restaurant assistant manager. His art has always come first. He has never abused drugs or alcohol, because he says they cloud the mind and ruin one’s talent.“If you are going to go out into the cosmic, you’d better have a grip on reality,” Foltin said. “The scenery keeps you earthbound so the next time you go out into the cosmic, you can really expand your conscientiousness. My sceneries are cosmic. I think in terms of quantum particles. I look at the trees and grass and flowers, watch the movement of the wind, the birds out this window having a good old time.”
Along the way, he has caught a few breaks, such as the time he was cleaning out a house and was given the previous occupant’s expensive oil paints. He’s used pastels in lean times and also acrylics (“nice, but kind of like painting with plastic”) but oil on canvas is still his favorite medium. Oils have a spiritual quality, he said, because they are made from elements: cadmium, barium, cobalt, titanium, zinc.
Foltin’s short term goal — and also his long term goal — is to make enough money to keep on painting. His greatest challenge — to overcome being broke — is still a work in progress.
And so the past month has found Roger Foltin selling StreetWise alongside his art in front of the Jewel at 4200 N. Lincoln. He will share the spot with a vendor friend.
Strangers on the street who have seen his art have given him advice that has kept him going: “Keep doing what you’re doing.”
Written by Suzanne Hanney, StreetWise Editor-In-Chief