Artist Suellen Rocca: A Life Story Through Art


Suellen Rocca is one of the six members of the Hairy Who group that graduated in 1964 from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and exhibited their bold, figurative, and often colorful work together at the Hyde Park Art Center in the late sixties. This fall, the Art Institute of Chicago presents Hairy Who? 1966-1969 (on view September 26, 2018-January 6, 2019), the first-ever survey exhibition dedicated to the group. Rocca, whose father was a lighting salesman and mother was a pianist, grew up immersed in the world of art, primarily through her early exposure to the Art Institute. She developed a keen eye for looking closely, and her strong interest in art continued as a student, teacher, curator, and, of course, artist. Below is an edited transcript of my recent conversation with her.


Chicago Gallery News: Did you know early on that you wanted to be an artist?

Suellen Rocca: I knew from the time I was eight that I wanted to be an artist. 


CGN: What kind of art were you making at that age?

SR: As an eight-year-old in classes in Fullerton Hall at the Art Institute of Chicago I had the opportunity to sketch from a live model. We would pay our 10 cents for a drawing board, newsprint, and charcoal and then we would turn in our best drawing. I think that experience is really unique for a young child.


CGN: And as you got older?

SR: I was very interested in the figure in work that I did in high school. I did study art in high school but I also worked on my own at home. I was working on canvas with oil paints.

I also took some classes in the museum at what was then called the Junior School. I studied with Nelli Bar [Weighardt]. There’s an exhibition right now at the Koehnline Museum in Des Plaines as part of the Terra Foundation’s Art Design Chicago. It’s Richard Hunt and his two teachers, Nelli Bar and Egon Weiner. I know Richard, of course, but I remember as a child being in Nelli’s sculpture class and hearing her talking about her student Richard Hunt. She was a wonderful teacher.  Addis Osborne, who taught the Raymond Fund classes in Fullerton Hall, was a tremendous support and mentor for me from the time I was eight through high school. And, of course, I always knew I wanted to study at the School of the Art Institute. Eventually I won a scholarship to go, and one of the most important parts of going to school there was the ability to be in the galleries anytime you wanted.

CGN: It’s hard to imagine what your education would have been like without that exposure. At SAIC, did you see yourself opening up in terms of what you were experimenting with and whom you were exposed to? 

SR: Absolutely. Ray Yoshida was my first year drawing teacher, and he continued to be my most important influence throughout school. He had a wonderful way of having insight into my work and connecting me with material to look at that would allow me to go further. After SAIC, he continued to be, to all of us [in the Hairy Who], a friend, an inspiration and really a peer. 

Whitney Halsted was also important to me—in particular his art history classes and seeing slides of non-Western art and Native American art that he took himself.


CGN: Around that time did you start to develop your own aesthetic vocabulary?

SR: Certainly by the time I was in my fourth year I was making paintings that related very much to the work that followed. For the Fellowship Competition I did these very large canvases that were in some ways inspired by the repetition on wallpaper. One painting called, My Santa Painting, has a repetition of winter scenes and Santa Clauses. That very much related to work that followed. In fact, I think that piece was in the first Hairy Who show. 

CGN: From what I’ve read about the Hairy Who you formed the group partly to distinguish yourselves from a larger group of artists. Can you talk about, from your point of view, how the group started?

SR: Don Baum was the director of the Hyde Park Art Center, and he had a series of thematic shows called Animal, Vegetable and Mineral. Each show had a wide variety of work with only a single piece by each artist. Jim Nutt and Jim Falconer went to Don with a proposal to have a show composed of Jim Falconer, Jim Nutt, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, and me. Don thought it would be good to add Karl Wirsum. We all were in school together but we didn’t know Karl. Our work was very compatible, and showing as a group gave us each the opportunity to show more work.

As a young artist getting to see my work alongside my peers’ work that I was excited and enthusiastic about was so important at that stage of my development. Then, of course, planning and installing the shows was a very creative experience. Together we made a comic book and poster for each of the shows.


CGN: Trying to build an artistic community after graduating from school can be very challenging for some artists.

SR: Absolutely. During school you’re in a community looking at each other’s work. It’s difficult when school ends, because you can become isolated. 

CGN: Historically, there is a focus on the late sixties when the Hairy Who was very active. That’s the subject of the upcoming exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. But how did your artistic community change after that? Were you still in touch with those artists?

SR: Yes, we’ve always remained in touch with each other. And we’ve continued to support one another by going to each other’s exhibitions, but it’s truly because of our interest in the work, not just out of good will; we are really interested in each other as artists. That connection and appreciation has continued for 50 years.


CGN: What does the Hairy Who mean to you now? 

SR: I’m very excited about the Art Institute’s show, Hairy Who? 1966–1969, and the resurgence of interest in the work of the Hairy Who. When I had a show in 2016 at Matthew Marks Gallery in New York, where I exhibited early work from the period of Hairy Who, it was very exciting to see the response from young artists. The Art Institute is putting the work into a historical context in American art, which is very important. It’s American art, not only Chicago art. I have the greatest respect for the process that the curators, Mark Pascale and Ann Goldstein, as well as Thea Liberty Nichols, co-organizer and researcher, have gone through working on the show. I have enjoyed that we have been involved in the decision making process. 

CGN: How do you view Chicago’s art scene? Do you stay in touch with artists through Elmhurst or SAIC? 

SR: I’ve been introduced to several artists as curator and director of exhibitions at Elmhurst College. A very interesting part of being director is bringing professional artists to the campus and exhibiting their work. I’ve gotten to know some wonderful artists and expanded my own personal community. Like Eleanor Spiess-Ferris, Frank Trankina, Michael Barnes, Mary Lou Zelazny, just to name a few. 

CGN: Can you tell me about the exhibition that you’re curating this fall at the Elmhurst Art Museum?

SR: It’s called The Figure and the Chicago Imagists: Selections from the Elmhurst College Art Collection, running September 8–January 13, 2019. The Terra Foundation’s Art Design Chicago is sponsoring it. The Elmhurst College Art Collection is unique because it’s a museum in the library and students live with the work. But there are renovations going on at the library, so all of the work had to be taken down and stored for a while. That’s why there is an opportunity to do this exhibition at the museum.

The Terra Foundation’s Art Design Chicago also funded Elmhurst College to host a symposium on December 16 called “The Figure, Humor, and the Chicago Imagists.” It’s a full day, so the morning session will be on campus here. The afternoon session will be at the Elmhurst Art Museum. We’re literally across the street from each other. I’m very grateful to John McKinnon, EAM’s great new director, who made the exhibition possible.


CGN: When was Elmhurst College’s Art Collection started?

SR: It was started in 1971 when the library was constructed and they found out there were federal funds available to buy original works of art for a new college or university building. 

The first 10 pieces were purchased under the supervision of Ted Halkin, longtime faculty at the School of the Art Institute, and an important artist as well. During his brief time as chair of the Art Department here at Elmhurst, he was responsible for determining the direction of the collection with the purchase of important works such as Jim Nutt’s Toot-Toot Woo-Woo and Miyoko Ito’s Chinoiserie. 

Ted returned to SAIC, and Sandra Jorgensen, the chairperson of the Art Department and curator of the college, continued to grow the collection through the seventies and eighties. She was a great admirer of the Imagists. It was a very serendipitous time to be collecting, because the Illinois Arts Council had a matching grants program called “Partners in Purchase” whereby Sandra would write a grant each year for the works she wanted to purchase, and if it was accepted, as it always was, the Illinois Arts Council would match the funding. That’s how the collection was able to grow.


CGN: That’s fantastic.

SR: Sandra built the collection. Since 2006, as curator, I have made the collection more widely recognized. It’s both nationally and internationally known. Because of the importance of the collection we have received amazing gifts and donations from curators, collectors, and artists.


CGN: It’s an actively growing collection?

SR: Yes, we recently received a beautiful, very large, early Richard Hull drawing from an estate. And we will be loaning one of our Christina Ramberg paintings to a show that’s going to be at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin. Our Jim Nutt painting Toot-Toot Woo-Woo is traveling. It was in a groundbreaking, important exhibition at the National Gallery. Now it’s at the High Museum in Atlanta, and next it’s going to LACMA. 


CGN: What is your own art practice like now? 

SR: My studio is at home. I continue to make paintings and drawings. I have a show opening on September 14 at Matthew Marks Gallery in New York of drawings made from 1980 to the present.


CGN: What inspires you to make art? 

SR: Everything! Really, I emphasize to students that it’s so important to always be looking at things, to go to museums and see not just contemporary but ancient art – art from all periods and places all over the world – and to make personal connections with them. I believe—I’m sure many other artists do too—when an artist looks at a work of art from any period or culture and feels a connection with it, is drawn to it, it becomes a part of them and comes out in a very personal way. 

When I try to explain this to students I think of an artist like Gauguin, who was influenced by so many diverse works of art from different cultures. I also think it’s a tremendous gift as an artist to have that long history of, in a sense, your ancestors who made art.


CGN: That’s true.

SR: When I’m just functioning in everyday life, I see things as everybody else does, but when I’m working on a piece, I see things in a different way. For example, we all know that things that are far away appear smaller. You don’t really know that as a young child, but you learn it quickly. Sort of magical, isn’t it? Lately, I’ve been very interested in that change in scale. When I look out the window of my second floor studio to the house across the way, I see a chair. It looks like a little, tiny chair. The chair from my childhood 1950s doll house furniture sitting on the windowsill next to my drawing table is exactly the same size. I like thinking that they actually are the same size as they visually appear.  


CGN: How has your experience as a teacher influenced your practice as an artist? 

SR: I received so much that was important to my development from my teachers Addis Osborne and Ray Yoshida that it seemed natural to me to give back as a teacher. I wouldn’t be who I am without them. 

Teaching is part of being an artist for me. I’ve taught students of all ages, from preschool to college. I enjoy working with very young children because I really like their art. At the Art Institute in the eighties I directed a pilot program, called Mini Masters, for four and five year olds. I would select a few works and take the students to visit them in the galleries. The children were amazing! Their insights were extraordinary, their visual acumen, their attention to detail – they saw things because they weren’t jaded. They really, really looked. 

And they would get so into the experience of the work itself. For example, we looked at a big J.M.W. Turner painting and we talked about the boat and the storm. One child said that he could actually see the boat moving! Not just an image representing moving, it was really moving!


CGN: Can you tell me about your experience at Art Resources and Teaching (ART)?

SR: ART was originally the Chicago Public School Art Society. It was started by Ellen Gates Starr, who was the co-founder of Hull House with Jane Addams. Ellen went to Europe and collected these engravings of “famous” paintings to put up in the halls of the CPS.

When I joined as a teaching artist in the mid-eighties, the name had been changed to ART. At that point their mission was to give free programming to public elementary schools. Each of the teaching artists brought in slides and a slide projector and had a conversation with the children about the art. 

When we first met with the teachers who were going to participate in the program, many would say, “Oh no, I’m sorry. I really don’t think my class would be interested in looking at slides of works of art.” But the kids loved it. I remember a teacher came up to me after one session and said, “You know that boy that was raising his hand and practically falling out of his seat? He usually never says anything in class!” Kids really responded. 

I was a teaching artist for several years and then I became Education Director. I would observe our teachers. I got to go to so many different neighborhoods and schools, I met so many interesting principals and really had a kind of experience that even people working in CPS don’t get, because they’re usually focused on one particular school. I had some very heartfelt, meaningful experiences. 


CGN: What advice do you have for younger artists who are just starting their careers?

SR: I’ve emphasized a lot about looking at works of art and how important I think it is to look at self-taught artists, indigenous art, ancient art, contemporary art – all types. I have heard that students now sometimes think that just looking at an image of something is the same as the original. Certainly, looking through books was important to me, but it’s only an introduction. And now, sure, use a phone, use whatever to look things up. But then you must go to exhibits, go to galleries, go to museums, look at work. The actual thing is A-ha!


Top image: Suellen Rocca, Chocolate Chip Cookie, 1965, Oil on canvas, two panels, Each: 84 x 60 inches; 213 x 152 cm Overall: 84 x 120 inches; 213 x 304 cm. ©️ Suellen Rocca, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery