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Rogers Park Portraitist Celebrates 50 Years of Painting Chicagoans

 Joe Steiner, 74, paints the faces of Howard Street from his studio above Lost Eras.
Joe Steiner, 74, paints the faces of Howard Street from his studio above Lost Eras.
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DNAinfo/Benjamin Woodard

ROGERS PARK — Portraitist Joe Steiner has painted the people of Chicago — including himself — for 50 years.

He's worked out of studios throughout the Far North Side, including in Uptown, West Rogers Park and, for the past six years, in a small room above Lost Eras on Howard Street.

Steiner lists his phone number on a flier at the sidewalk below, offering to pay models $10 an hour.

"I get calls almost every day," he said of people wishing to pose for a few extra bucks. "It gives them a real esteem to be painted. And I think I paint them with a lot of dignity — at least that's what people say."

Steiner has amassed hundreds of portraits over the years. There's one of Shorty, nicknamed the "King of Howard Street." There are several of a young, black-haired college student wearing a red dress, whom Steiner calls his "muse."

There are nudes, too, because sometimes his subjects feel more comfortable without clothing, he says.

Over his lifetime of portraiture, Steiner has met all kinds of people.

"When you're sitting across from people for three hours, they get bored and want to talk," Steiner said. And, sometimes, "it can be a little bit scary."

While in Uptown, a man with a cane and fur-collared coat confessed he was a murderer, but was never convicted despite his guilt.

The encounter didn't stop him from doing what he loves.

"I'm compulsive about it. If I don't do it, my wife says I'm not happy," said Steiner, adding that he intends to paint "as long as I can lift my hand."

Not even a lack of subjects hinders his work.

"When I don't have something to paint," he said, "I paint myself."

Curly haired and 25 years old, Steiner painted his first self-portrait.

Now he has as many as 80, 35 of which will be on display from May 28 through June 21 at Logan Square's ARC Gallery, 2156 N. Damen Ave.

Leslie, Steiner's wife of 29 years, said the showing — called "Reflections: 50 years of self portraits" — would be a milestone for her husband's artistic career, which has given her "a different way to look at the world."

"I see things differently. I notice colors differently," she said. "We'll be at the beach watching the sunset, and I'd say, 'Look at the purple in the water.' I'm just much more conscious of visual things than I ever was before."

Steiner said he got his start in the '60s as a street-sketch artist in Old Town. He charged $2 per portrait.

Many people have graced his canvasses since.

"As an older person, it's something I can still do — and as well as I did," he said. "I think painting keeps me young."

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