When you’re seven years shy of your centennial, revitalization represents an ongoing challenge. No one knows that better than the Oak Park Art League, which is undergoing another in a long series of revivals, dating back to 1921.

“We’re a gem that people forget about,” says Julie Carpenter, the Art League’s new executive director, who recently took over for Faith Humphrey Hill, leader of the last revival.

Another way to look at it is OPAL (even the acronym is artistic) has always been a pretty lively place. It’s just that, as Carpenter says, the community from time to time overlooks it.

Part of the problem may be the setting — which is charming. A former stable (one horse’s grave marker is still visible near the southeast corner of the structure) redesigned by prolific Prairie-style architect E.E. Roberts, the brightly painted A-frame is serenely set back from the busy street, offering a “front yard,” conducive to outdoor gatherings, not to mention “plein air” painting and sketching sessions.  

According to the league’s historian and archivist, Marcia Palozzolo, OPAL began in what was (and now is again) the Frank Lloyd Wright Studio. They held classes at Grace Episcopal Church but the nude models for figure drawing proved too unsettling to conventional sensibilities, so they made the move to the former stable in 1937, led by Grace Hall Hemingway, an artist in her own right and, of course, Ernie’s mother. 

Carpenter, who has an architectural and art history background, would like to pursue landmark status for the building, which is located close to Oak Park and Chicago avenues, but the setback prevents it from being seen from that well-traveled intersection. In fact, you don’t see it until you’re upon it.

Better signage might help – or better outreach, which is high on Carpenter’s to-do list.

One of those efforts takes place this Friday evening, when OPAL holds its “Spring A.I.R.” fundraiser. A.I.R. stands for Artists in Residence. The artists include the roughly 160 members of the Art League (their goal is to top 200) and any others who call the Oak Park-River Forest-Forest Park community home. The Residence in this instance belongs to two Art League members, who live in the George Maher-designed, 1909 Caldwell House at 531 Linden Ave. The husband is a neonatologist at Rush Hospital. His wife formerly danced with the American Ballet Company.

OPAL board member John Chapin notes that the Art League boasts 4 or 5 doctors among their members, or “left-brainers doing right-brain stuff.” They’ve talked about having a Right Brain/Left Brain exhibit for members, perhaps, Chapin kids, with the whimsical title, “Is There a Doctor in the House?”

The evening will feature tours of the home and its art collection. Wine, hors d’oeuvres and desserts will be available. Tickets are $75, but that ticket automatically enters you in the fine art raffle. Artists will also be on hand for quick portraits.

The event takes advantage of — and contributes to — the synergy created by the Wright Plus weekend, an arts-filled annual outburst on the third weekend of May.

Proceeds from the evening will benefit educational programs, student scholarships and sundry other services for “artists in residence” in Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park.

Not a bunch of ‘little old ladies’

Soul-searching has been a priority since Carpenter took over. An “idea slam” was held with members on April 3. Some of the brainstorms thus far include partnerships with other organizations, such as the recent Historical Society of OP-RF housewalk on May 4, for which OPAL served as a registration point. They’re also eyeing possible connections with the Wright Trust just down Chicago Avenue, and pop-up plein air (outdoor painting) events around town, at locations such as Pleasant Home and Mills Park.

They’d like to link up with OPRF High School, which already has a notable art department. They may offer internships. 

“We can be an extension of the classroom. Parents want to enrich their kids’ lives,” Chapin said.

“This area is saturated with arts organizations,” he added. “We need to be more collaborative.” That means networking options for artists from different disciplines – e.g. architects and graphic designers.

Carpenter hopes to do much more with social media.

“There’s a misperception,” Chapin says, “that we’re a bunch of little old ladies. We’re really not.”

They have consulted with other community art leagues — LaGrange, Wheaton, Evanston, Hyde Park, etc. — to find out what they do differently. One outcome is switching to a five-week schedule for classes and more one- or two-day workshops. Eight to 10 weeks per class just doesn’t work as well as it used to, Carpenter observes.

Figure drawing, however, is one of their mainstays. It has been the backbone, so to speak, of the organization for decades. “Students need it for their portfolios,” Carpenter adds.

OPAL still maintains a satellite gallery at Prairie Title, North and Grove avenues, which hosts six exhibits per year, and a new exhibit opens the second Friday of most months at the gallery on the first floor of OPAL’s main building, 720 Chicago Ave. (halfway between Oak Park and Euclid avenues, north side of the street). The most recent opening, on April 11, featured a talk by Jim Nedza, a former movie studio art director, who did a series of linocuts of Chicago’s architectural icons. The exhibit was called “Poetry and Place.”

This summer they’d like to offer a courtyard series with music, and in general, they want more events, more parties, Carpenter says.

In other words, reinvigorate. But that shouldn’t be hard.

“There is a lot of passion,” she says. “People really care about this place.”

OPAL’s Spring A.I.R. Benefit takes place from 7 to 10 p.m. on May 16. For tickets, call 708-386-9853 or visit oakparkartleague.org.

Getting to the art of the matter

The Oak Park Art League, 720 Chicago Ave., was:

  • originally known as the Austin, Oak Park and River Forest Art League.
  • founded in 1921. It is one of the oldest, continually operating art leagues in Illinois.
  • previously located in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Studio, and in 1932 rented the top floor at the 19th Century Women’s Club.
  • at one point headed by Ernest Hemingway’s mother, Grace Hall Hemingway, an artist herself, who led the capital campaign to purchase a former carriage house and horse stable, built in 1902. A grave marker identifies a carriage horse buried near the southeast corner of the building.   
  • converted to its present use as an art gallery and education center in 1937 by Prairie School architect and OPAL member E.E. Roberts.  
  • used as a private school and dance studio for a period of time by the famous modern dance pioneer, Doris Humphrey. 
  • for close to a century, host to artist lectures, gallery exhibitions, social events, and a creative home for noted Chicago artists, including Carl Krafft, Lorado Taft, Holgar Jensen, George Butler and James Eccles.

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