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A weekly series focused on Bloomington-Normal's arts community and other major events. Made possible with support from PNC Financial Services.

Don't underestimate 2 Illinois artists who spent decades doing something else

A man with curly salt and pepper hair and glasses clasps his hands across his red, plaid shirt. Behind him is a black and white drawing of a sea turtle and script on a white wall in black block lettering. The text reads: One White Pencil. Matt Jagitsch
Lauren Warnecke
Matt Jagitsch, of Sterling, stands in the Armstrong Gallery next to his work called "Sea Turtle." Jagitsch attended art school and spent decades in another field. He returned to art as a pandemic hobby.

Two shows on view now at the McLean County Arts Center scoff at the narrative that successful artists are starving, eccentric and drowning in student loan debt. Some might call Matt Jagitsch and Rick Decorie late bloomers, but their unconventional paths feed into the pace and energy they bring to their work.

Decorie is from Cissna Park, a town of about 850 people 40 miles south of Kankakee. He spent 25 years fighting fires in Danville, and has been taking photographs most of his life.

“The first time I ever picked up a camera I think I was 10 years old. I think I took a photo of my mom,” Decorie said. “Little did I know at the time that, wow, this is something I enjoyed doing.”

Decorie took photos on a 35mm camera while in the Navy. He experimented with different lenses and exposures — then made the move to digital.

A man with grey hair parted in the middle, wearing blue jeans and a collared, striped shirt, smiles at the camera. He stands in front of two black and white images zooming in on the front grills of classic cars.
Lauren Warnecke
Rick Decorie stands in front of two of his favorite photographs. His solo show is loosely curated on the theme of "fronts and backs" of classic cars in varying states of decay. Decorie was a Danville firefighter for 25 years prior to pursuing art full-time.

“I was shooting what I like, things that caught my eye,” he said.

After a while, Decorie’s wife and mother took notice.

“Man, this is good! You oughta try selling it!” they said.

So, he started selling it.

And that is how Rick Decorie became a professional photographer. He still shoots what he likes — things that catch his eye. Those tend to be old, rusted things. He likes classic cars; rough, rural landscapes; broken down barns and metal artifacts abandoned in junk yards.

“It’s preservation, I’d say, mostly,” Decorie said. “A lot of this stuff is disappearing. So, it’s my way of preserving it to see, hey, remember these old cars? Remember these old buildings? I see the beauty in the rust and the broken down-ness of the things. I like to have other people see that beauty.”

Unlike Decorie, Matt Jagitsch went to art school. He attended Eastern Illinois University and shortly thereafter got married, had kids and spent a few decades in the house painting business. Jagitsch lives in Sterling with his family.

Jagitsch came back to art for one reason:

“Plain and simple, COVID,” Jagitsch said. “There was a lot of down time, obviously.”

Jagitsch’s wife is an elementary school teacher who worked at home during the pandemic. She basically told him he needed a hobby.

“I had been away from it so long, once I got going it was all kind of welled up in me — you had this release,” he said.

Rather than dwell on how much time had passed, Jagitsch pressed full steam ahead. He found drawing to be like riding a bike, an atrophied muscle that quickly strengthened.

"I've had people ask me, 'Where do you think you'd be if you'd kept going with this?'" Jagitsch said. "Why would I even worry about that? You can't do anything about that. I'm embracing what I'm doing now and moving forward from there."

If Decorie and Jagitsch share similar narratives as latecomers to the professional art scene, there are a few aesthetic similarities, too.

In the Dolan gallery at the arts center, Decorie picked a decisive collection of images zoomed in on classic cars. For the most part, they are black and white with the occasional red taillight. Decorie categorizes these as “fronts and backs…”

“Which are basically the best parts of most vehicles,” he said.

Jagitsch’s show, titled “One White Pencil,” employs a technique called reverse drawing — white pencil on black paper. It’s something he learned in art class as a kid.

“I was 13 years old the first time I did it,” said Jagitsch. “It’s not a completely rare medium. But it’s unique enough that a lot of people don’t see it all the time.”

Jagitsch’s many subjects — wildlife, portraits, and this writer’s favorite, a sunflower — are captured by this singular drawing technique.

In short, there is a whole lot of black and white going on at the McLean County Arts Center. For those in need of color, the Brandt Gallery is currently host to a fantastic collection by local artists.

Works by Matt Jagitsch and Rick Decorie are on display through Feb. 28 at the McLean County Arts Center., 601 N. East St., Bloomington. Admission is free.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.