In the decades he spent selling carpet, Steve Rebora would tell customers about colors, floor plans, price per square foot, and the merits of a tight weave.
But on weekends and at night, he drew cartoons.
So it was a sweet turn of events that when he retired at 65, he was able to focus on his art.
He shaped whimsical, cartoon-inspired figures out of pine and painted them jaunty colors. Some of his later pieces featured a slightly subversive rabbit who occasionally pulled a magician from a hat. He also crafted wooden birds with birdhouse bodies. He wound up showing his work at Chicago galleries.
“When my dad retired, he got back to his passion,” said his son Mark.
“He never stopped drawing,” said his daughter, Carrie Rebora Barratt, deputy director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. “He always had this creative spark and the ambition to be a working artist.”
After nearly 20 years of enjoying a second career as an artist, Mr. Rebora, who had been in failing health, died Friday at Illinois Masonic Medical Center, his son said. He was 83.
His family plans to incorporate his work into a final send-off. “Instead of a wake where we all stand around and cry,” said his wife, Joyce Kuhlmann Rebora, “we’re going to have a celebration of his life at the Vale Craft Gallery,” 230 W. Superior, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m on July 14. Many of his pieces will be on display.
His father, Stephen Rebora, was a talented artist from Genoa, Italy, who created painstakingly detailed drawings for patent inventions, right down to each screw and bolt.
Young Steve went to Queen of All Saints grade school and played softball and baseball at Sauganash Park near Peterson and Kostner. He graduated from Loyola Academy when it was still located at 6525 N. Sheridan Rd. on the campus of Loyola University.
He played basketball for the University of Notre Dame in the early 1950s. The Muncie, Indiana Star Press called the 5-foot, 10-inch point guard the “midget on the roster.” He earned a bachelor’s degree in fine art from Notre Dame.
He met his future wife, a fellow artist, when they were set up on a date. “He was a lot of fun,” she said. “At one point, we went in the den and there was some paper, and we started drawing. I thought, oh my gosh, that’s the first boy I dated that can actually draw.” In 1958, they married at St. Athanasius Church in Evanston.
He served in the Navy from 1955 to 1959, at one point as an officer on a destroyer off the coast of Japan, said another daughter, Ellen Urquiaga.
Returning home, “He was trying to be a cartoonist, but we needed the money” as the first of their six children started to arrive, his wife said.
Mr. Rebora began work at a carpet company. “He was a really good salesman, even though it was the last thing he wanted to do,” she said. Eventually, he bought the company. He supplied carpeting for many institutions, including Loyola University’s Stritch School of Medicine, Carrie Rebora Barratt said.
They raised their kids in the Sauganash neighborhood, where he volunteered as a Little League coach. And he played so much softball, “he jammed his fingers constantly,” said Ellen Urquiaga.
The Reboras later moved to a house near Grace and Lincoln, where they created art in an in-home basement studio. Mr. Rebora kept it meticulously organized, with nuts, bolts and screws separated by size in baby food jars.
“As a cartoonist many years ago, I was inspired by the work of Al Capp (the creator of L’il Abner and Daisy Mae), Walt Disney and other animators and draftsmen,” he said in a biography for Studio b. Gallery in Three Oaks, Michigan.
In addition to Studio b. and Vale Craft, his work was sold at Folkworks in Evanston and Chicago’s Joy Horwich gallery.
Besides mischievous rabbits, his lighthearted art sometimes featured angels, snowmen and Santa Claus figures, said Peter Vale, owner of Vale Craft Gallery. “They really make people happy,” Vale said.
About the worst thing Mr. Rebora ever told his children was, “You guys are a bunch of balloon-heads.’’
One of his kids’ favorite quotes from him — delivered after they lamented whether they’d ever find a job or solve a seemingly intractable problem — was, “You don’t gotta do nothin’ right now.”
After the grandchildren started arriving, he bought a cottage on Diamond Lake near Cassopolis, Michigan, where the family gathered in the summers. He entertained them with juggling and he could tell jokes for hours.
His daughter Susan died before him. Mr. Rebora is also survived by two more sons, Anthony and Stephen, and 11 grandchildren, five of them artists.