Margot McMahon, left, and Jeanne Gallo discuss the sculpture in McMahon’s backyard. | Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer

Healing and Good. That’s what three Oak Park women imagine as they work toward something positive after the loss of their friends, Leslie Ann Jones and Tom Johnson.

Jeanne Gallo, an event planner, has lived on the 500 block of Fair Oaks since 1996. Jones and Johnson, both attorneys, moved across the street 14 months later. Neighbors not by chance, but by invitation when Jeanne’s husband, John, also a lawyer, gave the real estate tip to Jones — the two had worked a case together and Jones shared her and Johnson’s desire for a home in Oak Park. The neighbors became very good friends and their sons grew up together. When Jeanne needed knitting blocks, they were on her front porch the next day, courtesy of Jones. Mention an interesting read or challenges with your child and a book would appear. 

The women found a common bond serving as Hephzibah Children’s Association board members, Gallo from 2000 to 2007 and Jones from 2000 to 2015 (and on its Trust Board from 2003 to 2018). Gallo said Jones was a quiet leader and “passionate about the kids.” As a baseball coach, Johnson regularly included a Hephzibah player on his team, something fellow coach John Gallo adopted.   

Oak Parkers (left to right) Margot McMahon, Kenna MacKinnon and Jeanne Gallo, created Art Heals in memory of their friends Leslie Ann Jones and Tom Johnson to benefit art therapy services and install a public artwork by McMahon, shown behind them, both at Hephzibah Children’s Association. (Credit: provided)

“Tom and Leslie were not ‘we’ and ‘I’ people; they were ‘us’ and ‘them’ people,” Jeanne Gallo said. “[And Leslie] was always doing things for other people and for Hephzibah.”

Hephzibah is a many-faceted agency focusing on children. A group of youngsters from across the state live at Hephzibah Home on North Boulevard. These are children who have experienced severe and complex trauma in their lives. Hephzibah also offers foster care and adoption services.

Artist and author Margot McMahon met Jones and Johnson through her husband, Dan Burke. Jones, Johnson and Burke worked in the same building for two decades and they lunched together for 30 years. Their children became friends and the families traveled together to Michigan and Wisconsin. The women shared an interest in community art. Both were on the Oak Park Area Art Council board in the mid-1990s, Jones inviting McMahon in. They subsequently started the Public Art Advisory Commission with the Village of Oak Park, which paved the way for art projects including outdoor sculpture and murals on the railroad embankments.  

But the unthinkable happened. In April 2020, Jones and Johnson were murdered in their home. The case remains unsolved though Oak Park police say the investigation is active and ongoing.

Forms of Nature, a public sculpture by Oak Park artist Margot McMahon, is expected to be installed at Hephzibah, 946 North Blvd., Oak Park, by late spring. (Credit: Margot McMahon)

Their friends grieved. They tried to cope during quarantine while the pandemic raged on and there was a lack of connection. But worse, for Gallo, when she did interreact, people would ask about the investigation or talk about the crime. By fall of 2020, she had enough after an encounter in a parking lot.

“Someone I know saw me, came up to my car and started asking all these questions about Tom and Leslie,” Gallo said. “Lots of people like to give me what they thought happened. I got in my car and it was this moment where I was like, ‘I don’t want to do this. I don’t want this to be the way Tom and Leslie are remembered.’” 

Gallo contacted McMahon, who is also her friend, along with Kenna MacKinnon, immediate past president of Hephzibah’s board. By winter, the three met at McMahon’s Oak Park art studio to hash out what could be done to change this conversation. Art Heals was born, a two-part project: create a public artwork and a fund for art therapy, both at Hephzibah. 

McMahon created the sculpture, Forms of Nature, three 10-foot-high by 4-feet-wide, ash-tree sections, carved to represent the Oak Park community – the arboretum, human life and animal life – and the interconnectivity among them. Bronze leaves adorn one section, all cast from trees on McMahon’s block. The reliefs are expected to be installed at the front of Hephzibah, 946 North Blvd., Oak Park, by late spring.

McMahon found healing in sculpting. She said she knows it is the kind of art “that meant a lot to Tom and Leslie.” It doesn’t have symbols or words that divide and has a secular spirituality to it. On the top of the animal-life relief, “there are two birds in flight and for me that is Tom and Leslie.” 

As the community views the sculpture, McMahon said they will bring their own life experiences. “They are going to see something completely different from what I ever imagined and that’s part of the communication,” she said.

Using artmaking in therapy is also about communication and is crucial to those in Hephzibah’s care. Its art therapy program serves more than 100 children annually. Three art therapists and an intern use the modality to reach those at Hephzibah Home and some in foster care. Both individuals and small groups benefit.

“We serve really young children — it really is the best way to reach them,” Juliet Yera, director of development at Hephzibah, said of art therapy. 

Lucy Scott, LCPC, clinical coordinator at Hephzibah, said, “Most of the work is about identifying and communicating how you’re feeling and what you need.” 

“To help a child express their experience, it’s better to do it through sensory material. Art making is sensory, it’s visual, it’s tactile,” she said. “…And particularly our children who have been affected by complex trauma, they are at different developmental levels and you can really see that reflected in the art. You can really see what a child needs through their exploration and art making.”

Contracts with Medicaid and DCFS support much of what Hephzibah does, but art therapy is not included.  

That’s where Art Heals comes in. According to Yera, “The Art Heals fund will help sustain the program,” which includes funding for therapists and supplies. Scott said there is always a need for supplies such as paint, glue, paper, slime and sand tray figurines. She dreams of items like digital cameras for mindful photography walks or equipment for pottery. 

“For me it’s important that something good comes out of something bad…” Gallo said of Art Heals. “It’s a small thing to do, but it feels right.” Her measure of success is that Jones and Johnson are remembered for the good they’ve done at Hephzibah, that the children there continue to benefit from the couple, and that there is lasting, meaningful public art in front of Hephzibah. 

How you can donate

You can help support Art Heals, click here.

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