Catching up with artist Mitch Markovitz

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, October 31, 2019

Artist Mitch Markovitz poses in his Indiana studio with his latest work, a poster to commemorate Chicago Railroad History Month. Kevin P. Keefe
“Write about what you know” is standard advice for aspiring fiction writers. Maybe the same can be said for artists. “Paint about what you know.”

A version of that wisdom seems to have applied more than 40 years ago when Mitch Markovitz embarked on a career that, to my mind, is one of the most successful and satisfying in all of railroad art.

Mitch certainly knows his subject, courtesy of years of work in train service on Chicago & North Western, Milwaukee Road, Amtrak, and South Shore Line. I can’t think of another artist of his caliber with similar industry credentials. He’s been around railroads and railroaders enough to know the business cold.  

But to call him a “railroad artist” would sell him short. His work transcends the genre. His paintings are a distinctive mix of styles and influences, some impressionistic, many quite graphic, others betraying his passion for 20th-century typography. Nearly all of them show some of the influence of his two heroes, Norman Rockwell and Edward Hopper. Not to mention that of his father, Bob Markovitz, who was a career freelance illustrator in Chicago advertising. 

Mitch’s art is seen beyond the confines of the railfan world. He’s done numerous commissions for transportation companies, railroad executives, and related associations and special interest groups. His work has been exhibited in several museums and galleries, including three works at the Milwaukee School of Engineering’s Grohmann Museum, the nation’s leading repository of industrial-themed art. The museum’s director, James Kieselburg, is happy to have Mitch in the collection.

Markovitz's 1985 Electric Railway Illumination, a 20x30-inch pastel depicting a South Shore Line train in the rain, is in the collection of the Grohmann Museum in Milwaukee.
“I might call his style atmospheric, and at times, quite precisionist,” Kieselburg told me. “It engages the viewer and oftentimes evokes a sense of nostalgia, of a bygone era. Additionally, his command of perspective is unmatched in his field; trains and locomotives jump from the paper or canvas, demanding the viewer stop in their tracks, pun intended.”

Mitch began stopping me in my tracks more than 30 years ago, when I first noticed his work for Mike Schafer in Passenger Train Journal. I’ll never forget PTJ ’s memorable front-and-back cover of June 1988, showing the Broadway Limited ’s 1938 streamlined observation car on one cover, speeding through northwest Indiana, and — flip the magazine over — the 20th Century Limited ’s counterpart tail car. Who was this guy with the fresh, contemporary, audacious style?

Fortunately, I gradually got to know Mitch, mostly through our mutual love of the South Shore Line. Mitch grew up on the southeast side of Chicago and I was raised near South Bend, so we both fell under the spell of the big orange cars. Earlier this week, I took the opportunity to catch up with the artist at his cozy little studio behind his house in the little Nickel Plate town of Knox, Ind.

Some phenomenal work has come out of that cramped little space with the PRR-style STUDIO station sign out front. When I arrived he had put the finishing touches on a giant poster to commemorate Chicago Railroad History Month, done for the Blackhawk Chapter, NRHS.

The watercolor Parlor Car through the Dunes (2009) evokes the style of Insull Lines posters in the 1920s, an approach Markovitz often takes in his work.
The poster is classic Mitch in his graphic mash-up mode. A Burlington Zephyr and the Alton Limited heavyweight observation car (carrying the Chicago flag on its railing) dominate in the foreground, but there are plenty of other elements to catch your attention. South Shore and Illinois Central trains skirt the 1930s-era Michigan Avenue skyline. Elements of Chicago Union Station and Grand Central loom in the background. Down in front is the 4-2-0 Pioneer, the original locomotive of the city's first railroad, the Galena & Chicago Union. It all adds up to sweet home Chicago.

The poster stands in stark contrast to another Mitch painting I encountered for the first time recently, Electric Railway Illumination, a pastel painted in 1985 and recently donated to the Grohmann Museum. It’s my latest favorite Markovitz, a moody, haunting depiction of a classic-era South Shore train at night in the rain. I asked Mitch for some additional thoughts about it.

“My intent with this work was to capture the feeling of going to the train on a rainy evening to pick up dad or a guest, and to evoke the general condition of many commuter trains in that era” he says. “Plus I wanted to show the difference in color and intensity of incandescent and fluorescent lighting.” For me, the effect is riveting.

The juxtaposition of these two styles got me wondering about how Mitch would categorize his work. I wasn’t surprised that, like most fine artists, he’s reluctant to be pinned down. He tossed off an explanation with a laugh. “Call me a negligent photo-realist.”

Whatever the label, his approach has won him a legion of fans, especially around Chicagoland. Mitch estimates that nearly 80 percent of his subjects have some connection to the city or the region, reflected in the sources of so many of his commissions. But if you want Mitch, be ready to give the artist free rein.

This untitled painting of a Soo Line train at a station was commissioned by the family of a boy who lived in a small town in northern Wisconsin who would talk his way onto the train and ride until meeting the opposing train.
“When someone wants me to do a painting, I’ll interview the person and ask them what they want the painting to say, but that’s as far as it goes,” Mitch told me. “If you want me to do a painting, you have to want me to do it my way. Anything else means in effect that you’re doing the painting, and I won’t sign it.”

Given Mitch’s wide-ranging imagination, I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

My time with the artist was too short and before long I had to point the car north for the drive back to Milwaukee. We’d covered a lot of ground — his fascination with railroad uniforms, his work as a percussionist in the Valparaiso Community-University Concert Band, stories about the South Shore’s “old guard” management of the 1980s — and I could tell we’d only scratched the surface.  

With his big Chicago poster finished, Mitch appeared ready to move on to the next project. Whatever it is, it will have to meet at least one of his three criteria: “It doesn’t matter what the specific subject is, so long as it challenges my creativity, or it’s something I’m curious to know more about, or it’s someplace I want to visit.” I’ll look forward to going with him. 

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