In the mood for a handmade holiday?

Local artist decks the halls with lotus pods and philodendron

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Lacey Sikora

Karen Gubitz and her husband Nick Sinadinos have a history together that is full of Oak Park landmarks. The two met at Philander's, married at the 19th Century Women's Club and are the owners of an E.E. Roberts home in the Ridgeland Historical District. While Oak Park traditions are hallmarks of their lives together, their holiday decorating is anything but traditional, due in large part to Karen's calling as an artist.

About 20 years ago, Karen's sister gave her a gift of a weekend long basket-making course.

"I realized that weekend that I had found my passion for creating art in a three-dimensional way, and I spent many years learning more about the craft," she says. "I also found that I wanted to share that passion with other women, which I am able to do on weekend retreats at our home, Harvest Hill Prairie, in the country."

Karen is a member of the National Basketry Organization and studied at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. As a fiber artist, she utilizes techniques such as knitting, crocheting and knotting to create sculpture and other multi-dimensioned art using natural materials, many of which she hand gathers herself.

As national arts and crafts shows and local galleries are recognizing her work, Karen and her husband have been steadily rehabbing an old farm about 100 miles west of Chicago. There, they have a large barn that serves as Karen's studio. They've spent years restoring the native prairie and planting trees. Next up, the couple plans to create a natural dye garden as well as a willow patch to provide more supplies for Karen's work.

Karen recently retired from her job as a paralegal to focus fulltime on her art. The timing coincides nicely with the upcoming holiday season, and she's already steeped in the creative process with multiple works to decorate her home in grand style. A friend asked her to consider opening her home to the Oak Park River Forest Infant Welfare Society Holiday Housewalk, and Karen was happy to oblige.

"Doing the housewalk is about sharing what I do with people. I love to share the things you can make with these materials, and if I can do that to benefit this great organization, it makes me happy."

The couple's home is strewn with materials designated for specific holiday projects.

In her living room, Karen will have three Christmas trees, each its own form of sculpture. One tree will be decorated with gourds cut and dyed to resemble trumpet flowers. Another tree will be ornamented with lotus pods, beaded and decorated with hawthorns from hawthorn trees. The third tree will be decorated with philodendron that are dyed a rusty gold to look like flowers.

The trees will stand at different heights, some of them on tree stumps in order to give the room a woodland feel. Right outside the living room, visible through the windows, will be three outdoor sculptures, also elevated on tree stumps and lit to make them an attraction from both the street and the home.

The dining room, with its traditional beamed ceiling, will have a green theme, and Karen is making holiday decorations in the colors of apple and moss. The ceiling will light up with an amazing woven sculpture hanging over the table woven through with holiday lights. The kitchen will have a cookie theme, based on her family's tradition of making cookies during the holidays. The windows will be decorated with wreaths made of dough.

On the stairwell, a grouping of holiday houses invites careful inspection. About the size of typical gingerbread houses, Karen and her family created these houses from all natural materials. Cinnamon dough forms the bases, and architectural details were created from bark, pods, moss and seeds.

The outdoors will not be overlooked.

"We'll light the front porch with Japanese lanterns," she says. "Our front yard will be filled with different sizes of grapevine balls, all lighted up. The large conifer outside the dining room window will be filled with sculptures that look like ball ornaments on a Christmas tree."

For years, Karen's holiday traditions have involved working with natural materials.

"I've always designed my Christmas trees with a different theme every year. I use morning glory vines to create smaller trees that I place throughout the house. I love working on the cinnamon houses. These things are my traditions."

Karen admits that the prospect of the housewalk has kicked her holiday decorating into high gear this year.

"I'm doing the same things I usually do, but more so this year because I want to help the Children's Clinic. I want to give people a great experience and help them see things in a way that they've never seen them before.

"I'm also having fun. Having just retired from my paralegal job, it is a joy to do this fulltime. Days fly by, and it's such an exciting life."

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