By Bob Uphues
You may have seen those meticulously painted clay replicas of notable Riverside landmarks — the water tower, Arcade Building, Swinging Bridge, Riverside Presbyterian Church, the township hall and more — on sale at the Riverside Public Library and Riverside Historical Museum. You may have even bought one, or a whole set, to hang on your Christmas tree.
But don't call them ornaments. For their creator, longtime Riverside resident Gretchen McCarthy, that moniker rankles.
"I resent that they call them ornaments because people put them on a tree," said McCarthy during an interview and tour of her studio late last month. "They are works of art and they should be displayed. … They are collectibles."
But now that the holiday season has hit over at the Riverside Public Library, there will be a bump in sales nonetheless.
"People love them, and you know there's going to be a boom whenever there's a new one," said Library Director Janice Foley, who displays one of McCarthy's library portraits in her office. "People will rush in for them."
The library gets its stock from the Riverside Historical Museum, which orders the landmark buildings by the dozen and then reorders when the stock gets low. The local landmarks, which are smaller than a typical commission, are very affordable, too, at $20.
And while McCarthy may be best known for her renditions of Riverside landmarks, she has tackled a wide variety of architectural subjects, including Abraham Lincoln's home in Springfield as well as scores of homes — some in full 3D splendor — in Riverside and beyond.
Heck, she can even create a replica of your own home, like she's done for scores of residents for the past 29 years.
"They are done by one person; there are no molds; each one is individually done," said McCarthy, a School of the Art Institute graduate who had a long career as a designer for Marshall Field's, Wilton and independently before stumbling on her late career as a home portraitist.
"I work now because I love the work," she said.
McCarthy was working as a freelance designer back in 1990 when she'd gotten a commission to create a small two-dimensional copy of the Chicago Board of Trade building. She was carrying the mock up with her when she went to vote at the township hall. Local Realtor Judy Jisa, who was serving as an election judge and was a neighbor, saw the mock up and the reaction was instant.
"When she would sell houses, she would commission me to do these plaques," said McCarthy, referring to the first two-dimensional home portraits that Jisa would present to her clients.
But, she quickly became something of a phenomenon outside of the village after being profiled on the WTTW show Wild Chicago and in a 1991 magazine edition.
"It was such a hit in Northshore Magazine; it went into doctors' offices, and so all these doctors were calling me up," McCarthy said.
And because the Wild Chicago episode would get rerun every so often, McCarthy would keep being exposed to more and more people. Ben Hollis, the host of Wild Chicago, even commissioned her to create of portrait of his mother's home.
"I never took out an ad," said McCarthy, who has maintained a simple rule with respect to accepting commissions — never bite off more than you can chew.
"Never, ever get yourself where you can't do the work," McCarthy said. "You can't say, 'I can do it,' unless you can do it."
It takes about a week, she said, to complete a commission, and she does all the work inside her home, which includes a bright, small, second-floor studio/office. Early on, she experimented with mass producing plaques by creating molds, but she abandoned it because of the byproducts of doing so at her home.
"That stuff was so caustic, it took 10 years off my life," said McCarthy, who shows no sign of slowing down despite that experience.
Instead, she now slices off pieces of white modeling clay and lays over them scale drawings of her subject homes, drawn on onion-skin paper from photographs. McCarthy then pierces the paper with a needle along the lines of the drawing, giving her an outline to guide her sculpting tools.
The homes — in both two and three dimensions — are intricately detailed, down to the flowers in hanging planters and stained-glass windows. After the sculpting is complete, the clay is baked in her kitchen oven for about an hour before it's left there to air dry. The following day, McCarthy begins painting.
If you want to commission McCarthy to do your home, it won't necessarily be cheap, but it's not unaffordable either. Depending on just how much work you want her to do — a two-dimensional plaque versus and a fully in-the-round replica — you can expect to pay between $300 and $1,000. Work doesn't begin until the price is agreed upon.
"You have to trust me," McCarthy said. "It's not art by the yard. It won't leave my house until I'm happy."
But the results, she said speak for themselves.
"All of my clients are happy people," McCarthy said. "They love their families, they love their homes. When they see these, they hold their heart."
McCarthy maintains a website at littlehomemaker.com, and she can be reached at 708-447-2674.