Many Chicagoans came to know Christopher Drew from his artwork, which he hawked rain or shine on the streets of the Loop -- until he was arrested while protesting the growing restrictions on its display and sale.
Charged with violating the city's peddling law, Drew found himself in more trouble than he imagined when he audio-taped his own arrest, only to be additionally charged with violating the Illinois Eavesdropping Act, a felony. Facing 15 years in prison, Drew's case drew national media attention.
It was a fight he enjoyed because "the [cause] was important," said his lawyer and friend, Mark Weinberg.
All the while, Drew was fighting another battle: lung cancer. He took on the disease with the tenacity of his battles with City Hall and the State's Attorney's Office, but his health deteriorated after a year of treatments. On Monday afternoon, May 7, he died peacefully at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital with his wife, three close friends and a priest at his side. He was 61.
Ironically, the day after his death, a federal appeals court further enjoined the enforcement of the eavesdropping law, ruling it likely violated the First Amendment. The timing of the court's decision is significant because protestors at the upcoming NATO summit plan to record the actions of law enforcement.
Drew would have been among the protestors, said Deborah Drew, his wife of 14 years. "He would have been handing out his 5 by 7 inch cotton patches of 'activist art' so the protestors could display them on backpacks and clothing," she told me, adding that "Chris pushed the [favorable court ruling] from heaven."
[For pictures of Drew's artwork, go to www.facebook/FreeSAM]
Born Oct. 9, 1950 in Detroit, Drew grew up in Minneapolis and attended the University of Minnesota.
He moved to Chicago in the early 1980s and launched the Uptown Multicultural Art Center, Deborah Drew said. Housed at the American Indian Center, the project engaged Drew in teaching free art and computer classes. "Chris loved to create art and was a natural teacher," Deborah recalled.
He adopted the motto: "Never become an artist to make a living. Become an artist to make a life!"
"For all his incredible passion and unmatched intensity, he never allowed [these emotions] to interfere with his ability to work well with others or fight fairly and respectfully," attorney Weinberg reflected.
"Chris was a dedicated teacher, street artist and activist," Deborah Drew said. "He taught artists the skill of using art as a tool to reach hearts and minds through illustrations detailing their fight for the 1st Amendment right to free speech and expression."
Christopher Drew was a real Chicago character -- in the best sense of the word. If Studs Terkel was with us today, Drew's oral history would surely be a chapter in his next book. And Studs would proudly don one of Drew's art patches.
His work lives on in the struggles for justice and freedom of expression.
In addition to Deborah Drew, Christopher is survived by his parents, three sisters and a brother.
A memorial service is in the works and will be held at the American Indian Center.