With his exhibit “Over 50,” which runs through July 10 at Oak Park’s Narrow Gallery, Robert M. Proce pays tribute to the dignity and grace of an older generation. Having worked so long in the painter’s medium, Proce knows well both his craft and the age group he depicts.
“The ages range from 50 to 102,” says Proce, 75, whose parents hailed from Calabria and Pomarico. “Actually, I’ve completed 65 portraits to date, and hope to reach 100 by sometime next year.” It’s a prolific level of creativity that would put artists half his age to shame; “Because of space restrictions, I can only fit 48 paintings in the exhibit.”
The series came about exactly five years ago, when Proce asked a friend and his wife to pose for profile portraits. “That week it occurred to me to do a series of paintings of only seniors, as they fit that bill being 65 and 67,” he recalls. ”Youth is always glorified, and I thought I’d do something to bring attention to only seniors, as we are always ignored or worse.”
Indeed, Proce renders his subjects with poignancy that captivates the eye. His portrait of Rev. John Carolan, for example, depicts the pastor emeritus of St. Catherine of Siena-St. Lucy Parish in a mystical pose. Clad in a Kelly-green robe against a starry backdrop, Carolan stares to the left, away from the viewer, as though beholding a fire-flash of light.
As Proce puts it: “I want to give all these wonderful people who posed for me a presence, a face for all time — for them to say, ‘I was here!’ Photos fade, are thrown away after a generation or two, but the paintings in this series I hope will remain for all time, never to be sold or separated.”
Part of the inspiration for the series goes to Proce’s wife Joyce, who also has Italian parents. Married for 52 years, they’ve lived in Oak Park for 46 years in the same house. They have five grown children and seven grandkids.
Growing up in Chicago’s Austin-Cragin, Proce found his artistic passions almost by chance. “What stands out as pivotal is when I went to a local college after graduating Lane Tech High School,” he says. “I wanted to be a biochemist but I flunked math, chemistry, and biology, and that just devastated me.” But his science partner noticed his outstanding lab sketches. ”So I took a basic art sketch class at the school, and the minute I started to sketch the live model, I knew that’s where I wanted to be.” He enrolled in the American Academy of Art in Chicago, “and every job I had after that was art related.” (He’s served as an art director and lettering artist, for example.)
Still it took time to fully embrace painting. “I only started when Joyce and I quit our business in 2006,” Proce says. “I’ve been teaching myself to paint, and it’s a curse and a blessing. The frustration is when you know what you want to do, but don’t possess the skills to do it yet.”
And the blessing? “It’s when you finally get it right,” Proce notes. “That high you get when you finish the painting is tremendous.”
“Over 50” runs through July 10 at the Narrow Gallery in the Oak Park Arms, 408 S. Oak Park Ave. Viewing hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. For more information, call 708-386-4040.