If you ask local portrait artist Peter Hagerty his favorite color, he's quick with an answer. "It's Chicago blue," he said. "You can do a lot with it. It makes good backgrounds." The self-described "Chicago guy" is displaying 18 of his works this month at the Glen Ellyn Public Library.
Hagerty's artistic passion is blended with a mission of social consciousness, drawing attention to individuals, both living and deceased, who deserve recognition for what they have done for Chicago.
Among his subjects are Cardinal Francis George, radio personality Wally Phillips, author Studs Terkel and newspaper columnist Mike Royko.
"My commitment to society is to do something positive with an exhibition like this," Hagerty said. "I'm trying to educate people for them to appreciate their Chicago roots and recognize all these wonderful people who've come before them. We're standing on their shoulders."
Born in Chicago, Hagerty is a self-taught artist who grew up in Glen Ellyn. He received a degree in social work and for the past 12 years has been employed in that field by Edward Hospital.
"These are all Chicago people who need to be remembered," Hagerty said. "I'm not going to sugar-coat this image of what Chicago is. It's not a bad thing to make the viewer a little uncomfortable."
One of Hagerty's subjects is Betty Howard, who on May 29 was killed when a stray bullet from a gang-related drive-by shooting ripped through the wall of a real estate office and pierced her heart.
"Betty was a special education teacher on the South Side of Chicago, active in her church, who did all kinds of volunteer work," he said. "She was an innocent bystander, a victim of Chicago gun violence."
Hagerty also pays tribute to individuals from the suburbs, such as Sandra Jorgensen, an art professor at Elmhurst College who died in 1999.
"Bill Slavin was a past instructor at College of DuPage," Hagerty said. "He discovered that Glen Ellyn used to be an epicenter for ballet schools and famous ballet instructors. He put together a book about the history of ballet in Glen Ellyn and published it."
Another Hagerty portrait is of Albert Rifkind, the former owner of Wheaton Jewelers who was a Holocaust survivor.
"There's an interesting story about him," Hagerty said. "He survived the concentration camps because the guards would come and give him extra bread to fix their watches."
Other notable figures depicted in the art exhibit include St. Frances Cabrini, Roy Brown, Von Freeman, Burr Tillstrom, Earl Pionke, David Hernandez, Harriet Monroe and Gwendolyn Brooks. Hagerty also included whimsical portraits of Garfield Goose and the Chicago pigeon.
Robert Lacy of Wheaton is a library patron who recently stopped by to admire the exhibit, which is titled "Chicago: The Workers." "They're all familiar faces," he said. "The artist did a pretty good job."
"The Garfield Goose has been the most commented on," said Hannah Rapp, young adult librarian. "Mostly people say, 'I recognize that, I remember him.'"
Hagerty said the next portraits will be of Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert and Jane Byrne.
"I went into this with the idea of trying to educate people a little bit, but what I quickly found was that the viewer was educating me instead," he said. "If I spoke to someone about the Garfield Goose, they'd tell me it brought back a memory for them and they'd tell me something about Chicago or the neighborhood where they grew up. So it wasn't so much me educating them as it became for me an art therapy project."
While speaking to someone about his painting of Bill Veeck, Hagerty heard tales of childhood trips to Comiskey Park. "That was one of the most moving interactions I've had with my art. So I thought to myself that I must be on the right track with the project," he said.
Glen Ellyn Library circulation supervisor Laurie Gornik said patrons have been very interested in the various exhibits and programs.
"We have a different artist every month. It gives them a place to show their works and it certainly brightens our walls," she said. "It's been bringing together the people of the community. We're getting to be more of a gathering place, just like our library motto says: 'so much more than books.'"
The Glen Ellyn Public Library will host an artist reception with Hagerty on Sunday at 2 p.m. The exhibit is on display on the library's second floor through the end of the month.