You are here

From Maxwell Street to Milwaukee Avenue

From Maxwell Street to Milwaukee Avenue

Painted Portraits of a Chicago Family in the Shoe Business

August 30, 2015 to January 17, 2016

Howard Schwartz (shown below in his studio) is both an accomplished artist and an avid family historian. He combines the past and the present in mixed media portraits inspired by his family story, a story that, like that of many Chicago families, begins its American chapter with merchants on Maxwell Street. 

Howard's great-grandfather was a cobbler in Poland during the 19th century. His son — Howard's grandfather — followed him into the business and immigrated to America in the early decades of the 20th century. He settled near Chicago’s Maxwell Street Market and worked his way up from a dealer in used shoes to a retailer with a storefront shop. During WWII the business moved to Wicker Park and the next generation — Howard’s father and his brother — assumed leadership.

Chicago artist Howard SchwartzThe fourth and last generation in the business was Howard himself, who from age 11 worked part time at the store and joined the business full time in 1980. Ultimately, he left to pursue a career in art and teaching with his family's heritage serving as a significant inspiration for his work.

Since his youth, Howard has collected artifacts, photographs, and memorabilia documenting his family’s story. As an artist, he draws upon this archive to create richly layered portraits of the past. He has developed a technique of applying an enlarged family photograph to a canvas as a "base coat," over and around which he paints, pours, drips, and collages.

Spertus Institute was pleased to present a selection of his works, alongside some of the artifacts that inspired them.

Image at left

Harry’s Shoes, 2011, mixed aqueous paints and collage on canvas

About Maxwell Street

At the time that Howard Schwartz's family sold shoes on Maxwell Street, the Maxwell Street Market was an open air bazaar spilling over to neighboring Roosevelt Road and Halsted Street, crowded with newly settled immigrants peddling their wares and shoppers seeking the best prices. Although the area had long been an immigrant gateway, European Jews were the largest and longest standing ethnic group occupying the neighborhood. The market was the birthplace of icons ranging from the “Maxwell Street Polish” (a classic Chicago sausage sandwich) to Chicago-Style Blues.

Today, a smaller, relocated version of the market can be found on Sunday mornings at the intersection of Roosevelt Road and South Des Plaines Avenue, where new waves of immigrant entrepreneurs sell their goods and hunt for bargains. More information about Chicago’s Maxwell Street can be found at


Exhibitions at Spertus Institute are supported in part by the Harry and Sadie Lasky Foundation.

Chicago Artists Month logo

Related Links