Q&A with Suellen Rocca
Romeoville artist who was at the center of a 1960s cultural flashpoint
Photo courtesy of Suellen Rocca
In her early 20s as a newly graduated student of art, Suellen Rocca found herself at the center of a movement. Playfully named The Hairy Who, the group was comprised of artists Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, Art Green, Jim Falconer, Karl Wirsum and Rocca. Their work would become the first expression of the Chicago Imagists, characterized as a new form of representational work that drew on references outside of fine art, such as comics, cartoons and popular culture. Rocca’s work has been exhibited worldwide and is included in several major collections. Currently, she is curating an exhibit of the Chicago Imagists at Elmhurst College, where she is an instructor of art. She also curates the current exhibit, “What Came After,” at Elmhurst Art Museum. Rocca lives in west suburban Romeoville.
Who were The Hairy Who?
We were six recent graduates of the School of the Art Institute. In 1966 we exhibited together at the Hyde Park Art Center and were invited to exhibit at the San Francisco Art Institute, The Corcoran Museum in Washington D.C. and the
Center for the Visual Arts in New York. We collaborated on the posters for the exhibits — we created comic books instead of catalogues for the shows and we worked together on the installations. In one exhibit we put 1940s flowered linoleum on the exhibition walls and in another exhibit we hung large bright yellow price tags from the corner of our paintings.
Where did the works fit on the national art scene at the time?
I think what we were doing was unique — different from what was happening in the New York scene and, in retrospect, perhaps somewhat related to artists associated with Funk Art on the West Coast. The term “imagist” was coined by art critic Franz Schulz to describe works by the Hairy Who and other artists who exhibited in small group shows at Hyde Park. They, in a sense, followed in our footsteps during the late 60s and early 70s. These groups were called the Nonplussed Some ( Ed Paschke was a member) and the False Image (Roger Brown, Christina Ramberg and Phil Hansen were members). The Imagists have always been strongly identified with the city of Chicago.
Where did the name of the group come from?
From a raucous planning session for the exhibition, filled with laughter and punning.
What were the central themes that held the work together?
We were all interested in making work that contained imagery, primarily the figure, using humor in our work, and referencing popular culture. The 60s culture was about youth, freedom of expression, the sexual revolution. I think that atmosphere provided the freedom to be ‘outrageous’ in our work. But then it is the nature of artists to always be rebellious.
You were in your 20s when the movement came to public attention. How did it feel to suddenly get noticed?
Wonderful and overwhelming.
When did you first develop an interest in art?
Very early. By eight years old I had decided I wanted to be an artist. I had wonderful support from my family. My mother was a musician and was delighted to have an artistically gifted child. I attended classes at the Art Institute from the time I was eight years old through high school and then received a scholarship to study at the School of the Art Institute. I consider myself very fortunate to have had two teachers in particular who mentored me throughout those years, Addis Osborne in the museum classes and Ray Yoshida during my four years at the School of the Art Institute.
You recently curated an exhibit of the Chicago Imagists at Elmhurst Art Museum. How did people respond?
The museum has such beautiful gallery spaces — the work looked so wonderful! It is thrilling today that so many younger artists and viewers are interested in the Imagists’ work. Locally, nationally and internationally there has been a tremendous resurgence of interest. Recently there have been major exhibitions in Milan, the UK and Berlin.
How has your work changed and developed over the years?
My work has always been autobiographical in the sense that metaphorically it reflects both my external and internal experiences, so naturally this changes as life evolves. I think of my work as a continuum that evolves over time. I make work that is meaningful to me and interests me. I am glad that others find it interesting, too.
The Hairy Who paintings came from a period of social upheaval. How do you see today’s culture reflected in the art scene?
Today, many artists are making work dealing with social and political issues. Art has a long history of being a powerful tool to express ideas about society. Think about Goya and Daumier from the 18th and 19th centuries. One contemporary artist I especially like who has been making work about social issues since the 1960s is Peter Saul.
What inspired you to transition into teaching art?
It is a natural outgrowth of the wonderful teaching I received from teachers who were most important to my development as an artist. For me it is a way of giving back. It is very rewarding to work with a young artist who is in the process of developing their vision.
What do you enjoy about teaching young artists?
I love working with very young children and love the art they create. In the 1980s I developed a program for Museum Education at the Art Institute called Mini-Masters where I had the most wonderful conversations with 4- and 5-year-olds about works of art. I also worked through the Chicago Department of Children and Family Services in a program called Pathways to Development. One program was for adolescents in the psych unit at the University of Illinois Medical Center. It was an art class, not art therapy. I believe that the act of making art is healing and everyone should have the opportunity to create.
How would you advise those who discover a love for art later in life?
Take classes so you can be around others with the same interest. Find a good teacher who will help you develop. Study art history! Visit museums and galleries.
PASSED, 1988 Oil on canvas, 25.5 x 50.125 inches, Elmhurst College Art Collection. Photo courtesy of Suellen Rocca and Matthew Marks Gallery
Favorite west suburban restaurant? Sushi Nest in downtown Elmhurst
High point of your career? Seeing the painting The Art Institute bought for its permanent collection on display in the Modern Wing.
Three words that describe you? Right-brained, passionate, dedicated.
What inspires you to begin a new painting? Experiencing new and different relationships between things, similar to what one does in a dream.
A suburban exhibit or museum you would recommend? The Elmhurst College Imagist Art Collections on campus, along with the Elmhurst Art Museum.
How about in the city? Some less familiar places are the Smart Museum and the Oriental Museum at the University of Chicago, the DePaul Art Museum and the Chicago Cultural Center.
Who would you be most excited to meet? Barack Obama
What do you enjoy most about living in Romeoville? I like the wetlands and cornfields that still exist amongst the highways, subdivisions and warehouses.