Compelled by nerves and a constant twitchiness, an anxious Michael Hopkins awkwardly ambles a well-worn path in the hallway of his pristine, all-white Arlington Heights third-floor condo as he talks about his artwork.
"I am sorry about the pacing," Hopkins says.
The distraction of talking about something other than art causes him to lose his balance and brush against one of his Japanese-inspired paintings hanging on the wall. Hopkins suffers from spontaneous intracranial hypotension, a rare ailment caused by the leaking of cerebrospinal fluid around the brain and spinal cord. Doctors have never been able to tell him how he got the condition. He doesn't know how long he's had it, though its been for several years. It affects his memory, balance and nervous system. He can't remember when he developed the problem, if it happened after a head injury, or what he just told me about his life and art.
"I'm more nervous than I was before," Hopkins says.
His unease is amplified by the knowledge that one of his drawings is being considered for inclusion in the world-renowned Glore Print Study Room in The Jean and Steven Goldman Study Center at The Art Institute of Chicago. The 53-year-old artist says he has been obsessed, consumed, for decades by his goal to have his art recognized alongside some of the world's greatest artwork.
On Thursday, his dream came true.
"I'll remember that, don't worry. That's one of those things that is indelible," Hopkins says after receiving word, noting that art is the one constant his brain still understands. "That, I can still do."
Art has been Hopkins' passion, his life, for his whole life.
"I've always been an artist since I was a little boy," Hopkins says, pointing to an old black-and-white photograph of him as a preschooler drawing on a desk with a chalkboard lid. As a child, he lived in Rolling Meadows, Arlington Heights and Mount Prospect. He graduated from Forest View High School and continued his art education at Harper College in Palatine, where he says he was inspired by instructor and artist Ben Dallas, whose studio is in Chicago.
"I'm happy for him," says Dallas, who reconnected with Hopkins since the artist was diagnosed with spontaneous intracranial hypotension. "One of the things I've always respected about Michael is he doesn't apologize for making art. He is driven. He's not social or political. He's aesthetic. Art is his life."
Hopkins uses a cane outside his home. Doctors made sure that he no longer has a driver's license. He can't even ride the bicycle parked near his front door.
"I'm getting better," says Hopkins, who notes that before his fluid leak was diagnosed and he got proper treatment, he couldn't even do his art.
"I literally wasn't able to function. I was a vegetable. I wasn't able to talk," Hopkins says. "My dad was going to put me in a nursing home. It was that bad."
His art, as it was before the brain ailment, is a process that sometimes works and sometimes doesn't, he admits. The piece donated to the Art Institute was created before his disability, but Hopkins says his ability to create art remains the one constant in his life.
"It hasn't affected my art. I'm very surprised I can still make artwork," says Hopkins, who adds that some of his new art is great, and some not so great, just as it was before the ailment.
"Like Ellsworth Kelly, Hopkins is a careful observer of the natural world, and uses these observations as a springboard for abstraction," says Mark Pascale, curator in the department of prints and drawings at The Art Institute of Chicago.
"He compared me to Ellsworth Kelly? Wow! That's high praise," Hopkins says.
When he forgets that part of our conversation and I repeat the comparison to the influential modern abstract artist, Hopkins gets the thrill all over again.
"We have followed his work for many years, but recently saw a group of drawings in brush and ink, or gouache, of insects that show tremendous refinement," Pascale says of the work from Hopkins' "insect" series chosen by the institute.
"I was doodling around and I drew an insect and I loved it and just kept doing them," Hopkins says.
"I think a lot of Michael's work deserves to be in museums the quality of the Art Institute," Dallas says.
"On behalf of Harper College, especially the legacy of its art department, I would like to congratulate Michael on this significant achievement," says Perry Pollock, chair of the art department for the college. Pollock taught with Hopkins at Harper and one of his works hangs in Hopkins' condo. "As one of his fellow Harper alumni and someone who has always had immense respect for his work, this is a particularly satisfying bit of news."
Before his diagnosis and going on disability, Hopkins also taught art through the Arlington Heights Park District, and worked in patient rehabilitation at Northwest Community Hospital and as a clerk at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library to supplement his art career.
He's turned his dining room table into a Zen garden art display. His bedroom is "my drawing room," Hopkins says, sitting at the table the dominates the room.
"I can sit down and draw for two hours without pacing. That I can do. When I'm involved, I'm all there," says Hopkins, whose latest works are black acrylic paintings on white canvas stretched over small boxes, with the paint spilling over the borders and marked by the covered edge of a box cutter. "It's still the same. It's not therapy. It's still hard work. If I'm not doing good work, I won't show anybody. What I'm more proud of is I keep trying."
Art is what he does.
"It's not a desire. I have to do art. I have to make artwork, so I do," Hopkins says. "Some people just have it in them. You are an artist and you do it. I think I'm one of those people. I'm lucky."