When I arrived to Chicago from New York in 2008, Sabina Ott adopted me as part of her massive network of fans. She had an uncanny ability to become an intimate friend in short time, and offered devoted mentorship, critique, and exuberance for the community she defined through her unique combination of West Coast “wild child” and Midwest socially-engaged curatorial practice.
After a long stuggle with cancer, she died in the early hours of June 26, 2018. In her Zava’ah, an Ethical Will in the Jewish custom, she wrote, “Live to give. The only reason we are here is to give.” Ott believed art is a gift to the world. As her studio practice evolved, she became a curator who offered hundreds of artists opportunities at a historic moment in Chicago’s community practice movement. Her community is at a standstill with the loss of such a charismatic thinker and maker.
Ott was born in New York City in 1955, and grew up in Los Angeles. She received her BFA and MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute, where she studied with Karen Finley. In a Facebook tribute, Finley writes, “We [Sabina and I] were inspired by the possibility of the imagination.”
Her career took off exponentially in the late 80s. Over the next four decades, she exhibited her work internationally with solo and group exhibitions at LA County Museum of Art, the Corcoran, the San Francisco Museum of Art, and galleries in Brazil and Australia. A voracious reader, her painting, sculpture, installation, sound, and video works were imbued with metaphors drawn from epic poetry, utopianism, and surrealism. Her most enduring influence was Gertrude Stein, whose defiance of basic syntax and semiotics inspired Ott’s colorful, immersive environments featuring words as sculptures and inspirational texts. Her work, called “social, democratic, and celebratory” by her friend Chris Kraus garnered many prestigious awards including the National Endowment for the Arts Individual Artist Fellowship (1990), the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship (2015), and the 2015 Chicagoan of the Year in Art (2015).
Ott’s baroque sense of “overdoing it” was brought to life in her 2015 solo exhibition who cares for the sky? at Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago. Ott built an 8,000-cubic-foot polystyrene and spray foam mountain (with assistance from SpaceHaus), that maxed out the gallery space while creating an intimate invitation to participate. Inspired by Gertrude Stein’s only children’s book, The World is Round, gallery-goers could climb atop the mountain, as well as enter its cave-cum-gallery featuring 100 artworks made by her beloved artist colleagues. The installation merged her studio and community practices in what was arguably her magnum opus.
Ott arrived in Chicago in 2005 to become the Chair of Art and Design at Columbia College Chicago. In 2011, she founded Terrain Exhibitions with her husband, writer and educator John Paulett. Terrain featured installations and interventions in the front yard of their Oak Park home, and later through two city-wide biennials. Terrain combined a home-grown local aesthetic with a serious conversation about art in Chicago. DePaul Museum curator Julia Rodrigues Widholm explains:
Terrain brought art to people where they are, outside of art institutions. Yet Terrain also created space for artists to test out ideas in new works that have since made their way to art institutions. Edra Soto first tested out her Graft project at Terrain. It now graces the façade of DePaul Art Museum. Cauleen Smith’s ode to Gwendolyn Brooks’s Conduct Your Blooming, a series of banners created for the Oak Park Fourth of July Parade, is now in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. For curators, artists, viewers, neighbors, friends, Terrain’s impact is that it was the spark that ignited new relationships, new ideas, new artwork, new possibilities.
In her academic career, Ott directed two graduate programs: one at San Francisco Art Institute, her alma mater, and another at Washington University. In 2016, Ott was lauded with College Art Association’s Distinguished Teaching in Art Award. She offered mentorship in the form of energetic critique for students and modeled risk-taking in her own studio practice. Her unorthodox approach to making contributed significantly to a changing art world, championing more inclusion of women artists and artists of color.
In 2019, Ott will be featured in a solo exhibition at Chicago gallery, Aspect/Ratio. Her gallerist, Jefferson Godard, offers some insight into the artist’s work, “Whether large-scale mahogany panels of painstakingly crafted encaustic roses and dripping colorful landscapes, enormous voluminous installations of pastel coated forms or arresting geometric studies pierced with her gaze, Sabina Ott strives to bring the outside world into her work.” The installation will include a 3-channel video shot and edited by her longtime friend and experimental filmmaker, Dana Duff. The video immerses the viewer in Iceland’s awesome landscape. Reminiscent of who cares for the sky? Ott takes the viewer back to caves, a fitting primordial symbol of life and the place where humans first made art.
In her last days, Sabina Ott hosted a huge happening called Lust for Life, which once again brought her community together through Terrain-style festivities. In the face of her illness, friends from far and wide packed Ott’s home for an epic celebration of her life. Close friend and Chicago painter Phyllis Bramson attended the event and reflected on its impact: “The party gave back to Sabina, as it was honoring a life well lived and so many showed up to tell her so.” That final event was also her gift to the art community she loved, a community that inherited her generosity and boundless passion for the world.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.