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John David Mooney

John David Mooney

Chicago-based artist | Mooney Studio | Class of 1994

An ode to the old Architecture Building — specifically the top floor, “with its large painting studios and its windows slanted to the north sky in the Beaux Arts Parisian style” — from a visionary who spent much of his youth there ...

“I did not teach in these studios; as a graduate student, I taught in the Art and Design Building on Peabody Drive,” says John David Mooney (MFA ’94). “I did not attend classes in this building. But these studios and that building had everything to do with my becoming an artist. And it was in those studios that I learned how to paint.

“I was from Champaign and attended Holy Cross Grade School. When I was in third grade, the fourth-grade teacher, Sister Evelyn Marie, was completing an additional master’s degree at the University of Illinois, and asked my parents if she could paint my portrait for her thesis. This scenario consisted of my sitting for a portrait on Saturday mornings in the Architecture Building’s top-floor studios.

“There was a method in her madness, in that she was giving me the opportunity to follow the development and construction of the painting. It was a large painting consisting of me seated with a view of the room. She had me paint part of the chair and the floor. It didn’t stop there. Sister Evelyn convinced my father that I needed a full-scale professional paint box filled with the best oil paint and brushes.

“So, Folletts on Green and Wright and 610 on Daniel Street became necessary stops on Saturday mornings to buy more tubes of paint or the best French charcoal.

“I was now set up to paint the still lifes, which had been arranged for art majors to paint. But students never showed up on Saturdays, and I had the freedom of the whole studio, painting one still life after another. By the way, that same metal paintbox is still in use, and occasionally I reach for a rare tube of ‘Rose Madder’ acquired in that period. 

“After the semester finished and the portrait was completed, I continued painting on Saturdays, riding my bicycle to the Architecture Building. Often the art professors, finding this little boy painting all alone, would offer me their crits. And years later, several of these same professors invited me to teach advanced art majors alongside them.

“This experience was made even richer every two years when the survey show, American Painting and Sculpture, was held in the hallways and gallery of the Architecture Building. Can you believe that the best and most recent art from New York and other galleries would arrive in Champaign-Urbana biannually? This beat the circus coming to town.

“There was only one other survey show in America, the Carnegie-Mellon Biannual in Pittsburgh. And there were very few periodicals or journals on contemporary art at that time. This series of exhibitions and accompanying catalogues reversed that for me, and I made a bee line on as many afternoons as I could to experience, feel, touch and even smell this art. Some paintings were so recently completed, the paint was still wet.

“All of this took place in the Architecture Building, which housed both the studios in which to make art and the exhibitions of American Painting and Sculpture, the most exciting and challenging art of its time. And this art wasn’t constricted to the gallery space, as it overflowed into the corridors and hallways. Can you imagine that?

“How grateful I am that the University of Illinois made all of this available to me. These encounters and experiences truly provided my formation. And, I wasn’t even registered in a degree program; all of that would come later.”