For a South Side kid like Mitch Markovitz, trains were everything. Clattering in the distance and whistling through the night when you were falling asleep and marking off day parts when you were awake.
The glory days for passenger travel were fading in the 1960s, but Chicago was always a transportation center. Engineers would toss giant pieces of chalk, kids left pennies and nickels in the track beds to go back and collect later when they were squashed and everyone was repeatedly warned to stay away from the tracks. No kid could, not completely. Too many good shortcuts through the prairies that were criss-crossed with tracks. (Other kids from other places may have been watching helpful movies in school about the dangers of drugs, but South Side Chicago kids were seeing movies about the dangers of train accidents).
"We would try to get on a moving train," he said, gasping at the idea. And the model trains, the train tables, were elaborate.
But even then Markovitz had a unique perspective: His father was a commercial illustrator in Chicago who worked at Tree Studios, once a coveted row of workshops behind the Medinah Temple that is Bloomingdale's now. Naturally Markovitz was focused on the excitement and pizazz of trains, like the Illinois Central Electric Suburban Service (the IC) trains that crackled along the city's main thoroughfares and, of course, the posters. “I studied posters for a good portion of my life,” he explained. “I can remember being on a Boy Scout hiking trip in 1963 and seeing South Shore Line posters in the waiting room. I didn't realize their value in 1963, but I thought the entire world revolved around the Illinois Central.”
Markovitz's art and railroad preoccupations only deepened over time even though the two are not naturally compatible. “In the era of the South Shore posters, the artists used a distinct kind of lettering and I developed my affinity for typography, typesetting and printing by making fake railroad tickets.” (He also had a friend who discovered a complete cache of South Shore Line posters from the beginning in the early 20th century).
Markovitz studied at the American Academy of Art in downtown Chicago near the Art Institute, which is well-known for producing great illustrators including Bill Reinhold and Alex Ross, famous for their work on comic books; John Tobias, co-creator of the Mortal Kombat video series and Kanye West, who must have taken drawing and art composition in his freshman year like everyone else, before he became a world-famous music producer and rapper. Markovitz also attended the Chicago Academy of Fine Art (and eventually the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee). But he didn't work as an artist much at first.
Instead, Markovitz got the job that was "one of his lifelong childhood ambitions," being a train conductor. "I met my wife on the train, it's an occupational hazard," he said. Markovitz also worked on the Milwaukee Road. And when graphics became very important for every business in the 1980s, he got the job he was supremely and perfectly qualified for. Markovitz was promoted to advertising director and chief illustrator for the South Shore Railroad where he happily worked for the next 17 years.
While he was still working on the railroad, the Northwest Indiana Forum hired him to be the Founding Artist and Art Director for his original “Just Around the Corner” series of posters depicting life in Northwest Indiana. That led to a book “Moonlight in Duneland,” full of classic art from Shore Line posters. He also did a “Subway Series,” in the 1990s that was exhibited at the New York City Transit Museum. Recently he's done a series of posters for Atlantic City, N.J. and Starke County, Ind.
The artist Markovitz admires the most is Norman Rockwell, because, as he said, "You have to step inside the painting in order to make it successful." And so, he is successful. Northwest Indiana, he says, is where he always wanted to be. "Our vacations were in Michigan City and the Dunes. I always wanted to be exactly where I ended up."
The exhibition of Markovitz's work “Postcards from my Sixty-Two and a Half Year Vacation,” that opens today at the Indiana Welcome Center will feature artwork spanning his entire life and career, including those hand-drawn tickets, original paintings and posters from the South Shore Line series.