She was dubbed the “Artist Mother of Chicago,” a moniker that initially bristled the late Oak Park resident Sabina Ott.

The second-wave feminist, who joined Columbia College in 2005 as chair of the Art and Design Department and had a reputation for encouraging young artists and bringing people together, wondered if the nickname diminished her own work as an internationally known artist, her husband John Paulett said.

“She wondered if this was saying, ‘I am something less,'” Paulett said, noting that the label took hold around the time Ott was designated artist of the year by the Chicago Tribune in 2016. 

“Within weeks, she understood more and more that being the nurturer of this art community in no way diminished the fierce wonderful artist she was herself,” Paulett said.

Friends, family and artists the world over are celebrating her life. Ott, 62, died last week after a four-year battle with cancer.

Ott earned a BFA and an MFA in painting from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1979 and 1981, respectively, and was celebrated throughout the Chicago area. 

Despite her notoriety as a world-class painter and educator, Ott was known to many in Oak Park for the monthly art shows she curated on the front porch and lawn of her Highland Avenue home.

The Terrain Exhibitions gallery, launched in 2011, brought local artists from around the world to the modest bungalow across the street from Longfellow Elementary School.

Ott also became a regular in the annual Fourth of July parade in Oak Park. Paulett said that they went to the parade one year and loved it so much she joined in. 

“The next year she got a permit and every year [after that] she would commission an artist,” he said.

In 2014, she incorporated the work of Lise Haller Baggesen into the parade. Baggesen had her work displayed at Terrain Exhibitions that year, and her parade entry included a flower garden in the shape of an electric guitar and red, white and blue tie-dyed shirts and banners.  

She said putting it in the parade was an opportunity to celebrate the village’s progressive culture.

“There were all of these friends of mine who have kids who dressed their kids in tie-dye, so people were totally confused, which is great. People would say, ‘What is it? They’re hippies!’ It was really funny,” she told Wednesday Journal in 2014.

Ott encouraged art with her students in the same way she did on her own block. Paulett said that Ott would bring in young artists to display their work at her shows. Two years ago she built an installation at a gallery in Hyde Park – a 40-foot-tall Styrofoam mountain with a cave that people could walk through – and invited young artists to display their work inside, Paulett said.

He said Ott always encourage emerging artists to sell their work. 

“She would not tell young artists they are very good; she would pull out her pocketbook and buy a piece,” Paulett said.

News of Ott’s death prompted stories in art journals across the country and accolades from friends and colleagues.

“She demanded that you let your inner weirdo out and your freak flag fly and be unrepentantly who you are,” Duncan MacKenzie, chair of the Art and Art History Department at Columbia College, said in a telephone interview. “In that space you would find a voice that is unique and valuable and singular and then you can contribute to that wider conversation with your own personality.”

Melissa Potter, an associate professor of art and art history at Columbia, said in a written statement that Ott was “a huge benefit” to students through “her willingness to give rigorous critique combined with her outstanding intelligence and commitment to knowledge.”

“She was a mentor, friend and feminist whose guiding principle of generosity was revealed in all that she did,” Potter said.

Paulett said Ott “lived a great life and wanted to die a good death.”

“I was holding her hand when she died. That’s what she wanted,” he said. “We should all live and die as well as Sabina Ott did.”

Visitation from 2 to 6 p.m. with a memorial service immediately following for Ott will be held on Saturday, July 28 at Drechsler Brown and Williams Funeral Home, 203 S. Marion St. in Oak Park.


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