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From steel mills to painting murals

Pete Cortese paints mural Charter School Dunes. | Jeff Manes~for Sun-Times Media

Pete Cortese paints a mural at Charter School of the Dunes. | Jeff Manes~for Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 28, 2013 6:19AM



“My soul can find no staircase to heaven unless it be through the Earth’s loveliness.”

— Michelangelo

Pete Cortese is an artist who paints breathtaking murals from here to Louisiana. He lives in Hobart with his wife June in the house he was raised in; they have raised three children. His brother-in-law is Indiana University Northwest professor emeritus Ron Cohen.

Cortese, 58, has a work in progress at Charter School of the Dunes on U.S. 20 in the Miller neighborhood of Gary.

It was priceless watching the students stop by and marvel at this modern day Michelangelo as he depicted the Earth’s loveliness at the lagoon near Marquette Park, the dunes and Lake Michigan.

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Italian?

“Yes, Calabrese,” he said. “My grandfather came from Italy about 1915 to build the sewers in Tolleston (neighborhood of Gary). He came to this country by himself when he was 19. World War I was going on. My grandfather’s father got hold of him and told him to come back to fight for his country.”

Meaning Italy?

“Yes. He obeyed his father and fought on the front lines for like three years. Out of 200 in his group, only 15 came back.”

Then what did your grandfather do?

“He came to America and opened up a liquor store and an Italian grocery store at 6th and Wisconsin in Hobart. I’m named after my Grandpa Pietro, but my name is spelled Peter. A lot of Petes and Joes and Tonys in my family.”

Sounds like the Manes famiglia, they came from that region of Italy, too.

Where were you born?

“In Gary, but my parents moved to Hobart when I was a baby. I graduated from Hobart High School.”

Did you play sports for the Brickies?

“Yes, I played football for Don Howell. We went 9 and 1 my senior year, but (Hammond) Gavit went 10 and 0. Merrillville beat us 6 to 0 in our first game. Then, we reeled off nine straight wins. In the last game of the season, we knocked out Valparaiso when they were 9 and 0. Valpo ran a single wing.”

That was back in the day when there was a point season.

“Yeah, by Gavit going undefeated, they advanced and our season was over. That was before they had the class system; we beat a lot of schools that were much larger than we were.”

College?

“I went to the American Academy of Art in downtown Chicago. But, I ended up hiring into the mill in ‘77 because being an artist wasn’t enough to support a family.”

Which mill?

“U.S. Steel in Gary. I worked in the pipe shop, but was laid off in ‘81. I rehired into the transportation department as a boss in ‘94. We transported all the raw materials to the furnaces.

“I continued to enter my work in art shows. I’ve painted since I was 13. In 2000, I left the mill for good. I’ve done my art full time ever since.”

Your murals?

“I probably have murals in about 15 or 16 states across the country.”

Do you oil paint?

“Acrylic and water colors, mostly.”

How do you contract these mural jobs from afar?

“I have a website: ‘Pete’s Murals.’ A lot people find me on Facebook by typing in ‘Murals by Pete.’

What are some of the local schools you’ve painted murals for?

“The Crown Point and Hobart grade schools, Lake Station, River Forest, Winfield... At Eisenhower school in Crown Point they are the Eagles, so I painted the whole cafeteria in birds. I also painted Eisenhower with a flag when he was a general. I’ve done everything from underwater scenes to farm scenes.”

Any charitable work?

“I donate some of my work to Tri Kappa and Phi Beta Psi. Those organizations will raffle off one of my paintings and donate the money toward things like cancer research.”

I love this project you have going on at Charter School of the Dunes. So much flora and fauna. Bufflehead ducks, redheaded ducks, mallards, monarch butterflies, various herons and salmon, belted kingfishers, sandpipers...

“I’ll get U.S. Steel and the lighthouse which was built in 1912 in there eventually. It’s part of the story.

“Jeff, the children love it. It’s wonderful to have the opportunity to give them a chance to enjoy the arts. If I can just touch a few, I’ve accomplished something.”

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I would love to see some of the libraries and schools in small towns along the Kankakee River hire Cortese to paint murals depicting the fascinating history of the Grand Kankakee Marsh.

Pete Cortese might have used his hands to bat down passes on the gridiron and to turn wrenches in the pipe shop of U.S. Steel. But when it comes to his incredible art, it’s like the great Michelangelo once said ...

“I paint with my brain, not my hand.”



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