A significant artist, especially recognized on the West Coast and in Chicago, Sabina Ott was tireless in nurturing the next artistic generation. She did it when she would see a young artist’s work, unfurling her roll of $20s and buying a piece instead of just saying she liked it. She did it by launching Terrain Exhibitions, which in 10 years’ time, has become an international neighborhood art showcase. She did it by not agreeing to show her art unless it included an up-and-coming artist. She did it by bringing her heart and soul to Columbia College Chicago, becoming the first full professor of art there. 

Sabina Ott

And even posthumously, Ott will be able to nurture young artists at the school on Michigan Avenue in Chicago and beyond. More than 100 of Ott’s works have been donated by her husband, John Paulett, and have been eagerly accepted into their archives to be preserved and used in the Columbia College curriculum. 

“She has had a profound and lasting impact upon the way we educate young artists and the way painting, both materially and conceptually, is enmeshed in our curriculum,” said Duncan MacKenzie, Columbia College’s Chair of Art and Art History and a colleague of Ott’s for more than a decade. “In seeking to locate this archive at Columbia I was, personally, concerned with helping to support Sabina’s legacy and establishing a center for learning.” 

As her countless honors attest, Sabina was a singular voice who moved through many different artistic modalities, constantly rising to match the trajectory of art and culture,” MacKenzie, of Oak Park, added. “Her enthusiasm for being on the edge and her later shift toward aggressive acts of generosity in the context of extending her practice as a platform … for other artists, is an amazing trajectory and one I think generations of international students will learn from.”

The school hosts researchers onsite and online who will be able to access the collection.  

“The Sabina Ott artwork will serve to educate, inform and inspire generations of researchers, both locally and from across the globe, to study her work,” said Heidi Davis Marshall, head of Columbia’s archives and special collections, and an Oak Park native. “With the ability to interact with primary materials, students learn how to use them in support of their own research or as a creative springboard to new ideas to incorporate into their own work.” 

Ott came to the Chicago area in 2005 when she was hired to head the Art and Design Department at Columbia College. She remained at the school until her death at age of 62 in the summer of 2018 after a four-year fight with cancer. 

Paulett, an author and retired Fenwick teacher who is about to begin teaching at DePaul College Prep, said he has a very high opinion of Columbia College and said the people there were very good to his wife throughout her health problems. He believes she would have chosen Columbia for these works if she could.

“About a month before she died, Columbia appointed her Chair Emeritus, and at the graduation that May, it was one of happiest days of her life,” Paulett said as he recalled her smile that day.  

Ott was no stranger to honors. She was named Chicagoan of the Year in Art in 2015 by the Chicago Tribune. She received a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her art is in collections from Hawaii to New York, including at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Whitney Museum of American Art, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. And she has exhibited from Australia to Oak Park.

The works now in the hands of Columbia College include paintings, drawings, a sketch book, prints and mixed media with encaustic. She was also a sculptor and installment artist. Ott self-described, according to Paulett, as an abstract expressionist. He said of the works going to Columbia that many are large, as big as 8 by 10 feet, and colorful. All the works were completed from the 1980s to the 2000s, with a significant number from the 1990s. They had been safely packaged and stored in the couple’s Oak Park basement for years, but Paulett had never seen them until recently.

During their 12-year marriage, Ott would not hang her own art on the walls of their house on Highland Avenue. “I hung two pieces,” Paulett said. But the walls in their Oak Park home were “really covered in art,” he said. “Most of those were very young artists.” 

“People would come in and say, ‘What is the value of your collection?’ and I’d say, ‘I value it in the way Sabina nurtured those artists,” Paulett said. The Tribune named Ott Art Mother of Chicago. “She was a stunning artist, but she affected careers all over the place.” 

This philosophy carried through with Terrain Exhibitions. While the front of their Oak Park home was the sole exhibition space when Ott launched the concept in 2011, as the concept grew, Paulett said Ott never exhibited her own work, leaving room for other creators. Some 100 artists used the home as their canvas over a seven-year period — wrapping it in nylon, lighting it in neon “Eye Witness,” subsequently sparking “great dialogue,” bathing it in light, blocking out the light.  

Terrain Biennial, created by Ott in 2013, carries on. According to the website, “This act of radical decentralization takes art from privileged urban centers and brings it into everyday spaces where it is most needed and least expected: yards, front steps, windows, porches and roofs.” The next exhibition takes place Oct. 2 through Nov. 15, which is Sabina Ott Day, “to honor her life and legacy.”

From the group of works stored in the basement, Paulett chose to keep two for himself. He now lives in Skokie; the Oak Park home sold on June 1. But Ott’s legacy continues at the couple’s former house near Longfellow School. Paulett left a painting of Ott’s for the young couple who bought the home and happily have it on the living room mantle. They told Paulett they are always going to keep it there “as part of Sabina’s presence.” A tree planted in Ott’s honor, where Terrain Exhibitions began, also grows in the front yard, always stubbornly holding on to a few leaves into the winter, something that reminds Paulett of his wife. 

A little something of her on display out front after all.   

Join the discussion on social media!