Back in the 1960s, an elementary school-aged Randy Kaden peddled his artwork and advertising concepts to the merchants of his South Side neighborhood near 79th and Pulaski.

“People were surprised to see a kid walk in there selling advertising ideas,” said Kaden, now a 16-year resident of Riverside. “They probably didn’t know what to do with me, and some let me come up with some stuff for them.”

Those opportunities begat more work as a teenager, the money from which was put aside for art school. It was a period Kaden looks back on fondly.

Now, several decades later, after years in the corporate rat-race and times of tragedy, Kaden has returned to his artistic roots. Two years ago, he embarked on a solo, commercial art career that has seen him become a coveted resource in the local community and beyond.

Kaden’s murals now adorn the walls in several restaurants and businesses and he has also called on his corporate advertising background to create other promotional materials for local merchants.

This new chapter in Kaden’s career began in much the same grass-roots style of his first foray into the business as a child. When his 23-year run at Chicago ad giant Leo Burnett came to an end, Kaden once again began pounding the pavement in search of clients.

“My [longtime] involvement with the Riverside Arts Center meant I was part of a network within the community and there was some awareness of who I was and what I had to offer,” he said. “But often, it was just a matter of going door-to-door [to businesses] with my book and knocking on doors and showing my work. Sometimes there was no interest, sometimes they were very intrigued. But things have taken off nicely from that point.”

While computer-created signage is often the norm these days, Kaden is glad some establishments still see the value in traditional hand-painting.

“With today being all about having things created instantly, there is something to be said for the lost art of creating a sign [by hand]. It adds personality and feeling,” he said. “It’s the earliest and most primitive form of advertising.”

Some of Kaden’s first solo work was done for caffe De Luca, an Italian coffee bar/restaurant with locations in Forest Park and Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood. For it, he painted menu chalkboards with various seasonal themes and painted Venetian street signs on a brick wall in the Forest Park location.

Recently, Kaden has completed several projects for Parallel 42, a new wine and cheese cafe in Riverside. He has created colorful sandwich boards and done the artwork for the menus. In addition, he has painted what the restaurant calls fun boards, essentially murals highlighting the cafe’s offerings from other countries; there is one for Spain and another for France. These boards include script and images that reflect the specific regions.

“People come in and are amazed by these, they just stare at them. They can’t get over the amazing artwork,” said Jennifer Beranich one of Parallel 42’s co-owners. “People also love the menus he has done for us, which incorporate images of the village.”

Beranich said her restaurant will continue to use Kaden for all of its in-store signage and eventually hopes to put him to work on print ads. She has learned that, in addition to artistic ability, Kaden brings marketing savvy and business sense developed during his time at Burnett, where he held the title of art director.

“I wouldn’t consider anybody else,” she said. “He’s so creative. All we have to do is give him a little idea and where we want to go, and he comes back with five or six concepts. It’s hard for us to choose which one because they are all fantastic. He’s creative and he hits the mark.

“His background is great because he comes from a business where you need to come up with artwork and concepts that are visually impressive and revenue generators.”

While at Burnett, Kaden worked on major accounts like McDonald’s, Miller Lite, Kellog’s, Allstate, Proctor & Gamble and Harris Bank. As a result, he traveled the world, to Paris, Hong Kong and South Korea. There were times he jetted off to New York for a meeting and then quickly turned around and went to L.A. But he’s not missing those days.

“Advertising was fast-paced and it was fun, but it was more of a young-man’s game. I had those experiences, but it was time to do something closer to home,” he said.

Now, a portion of Kaden’s work is done right at the Riverside house he shares with artist/girlfriend, Bernadette, and her teenage son. Much of the concepting and some of the actual creation of Kaden’s commercial projects occur in his basement studio or the garage.

“I truly enjoy working outside in the garage,” he said “It’s those days that I’m thankful for the gift that the Lord gave me. I’m outside surrounded by the sound of birds and the world around me. I think back to what it was like running for the train and getting downtown. Now, I’m sipping a cup of coffee and working on art, and it’s great when you know you have a whole day of doing that ahead of you.”

Kaden prides himself on his attention to detail and said he spends a “great deal of time” in the prep stage of any project.

Typically, he begins by spending quality time with those who have commissioned the work. He believes familiarity is a key to coming up with ideas that truly reflect the people and the business.

The artwork usually begins as a drawing, and Kaden said he occasionally uses a computer to set type. Once concepts have been given the OK, the artist will sometimes use an overhead projector on-site to turn drawings into larger images. The painting is done with various tools, like brushes, rags, sponges and crunched paper, in order to achieve different textures.

Currently, Kaden is working on an ambitious project at the offices of Higgins & White, a food ingredient company in Brookfield. There, he has been commissioned to create multiple murals for the company, one of them a floor-to-ceiling golf course scene in an executive’s office. When complete, the work will be 15 to 20 feet wide and curve around two walls.

“It’s the biggest piece I’ve done yet, and it’s a challenge,” Kaden said. “But, [a mentor] once told me that ‘the success of a painting is measured by the struggle.’ You’re constantly facing new challenges and having to work your way out of jams, and when you do, it’s refreshing.”

While Kaden seems to relish these everyday struggles and challenges, no one should have to endure the emotional hardships he has faced during his life.

In 1992, his girlfriend was killed in an explosion in Chicago’s River North district. He eventually pieced his life back together and entered into another serious relationship. However, in 1997, his fiancee succumbed to cancer after a three-year fight.

Kaden said creating art became an important escape for him during the toughest of times.

“Art has always played a healing role in my life,” he said.

With this in mind, Kaden has played an influential role in a charity called Jen’s Kids. Named for his late fiancee, Jennifer Wallace, who was an art teacher, the organization uses art therapy to help children faced with long hospital stays.

Kaden is also active in the local community. He was a trustee at the Riverside Arts Center for several years, is a volunteer scenery painter for local school productions and was instrumental in the design of a Riverside’s new village flag.

In the future, Kaden hopes to spend more time creating murals, and already has a few local residents lining him up for work in their homes. One family has requested a cloud mural on the ceiling, another has asked the artist to paint the Wrigley Field outfield on their son’s bedroom wall.

Of course, Kaden might want to keep the latter project hush-hush if he runs into anyone he grew up with near 79th and Pulaski.

“I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Sox fan,” he said. “But I’m looking forward to the opportunity to recreate a classic ballpark.”