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Sabina Ott. Photo: Phil Dembinski.

Sabina Ott (1955–2018)

Sabina Ott, an artist and educator who was nicknamed the “artist mother of Chicago,” has died at age sixty-two after nearly four years of cancer treatment. In addition to being an acclaimed painter, sculptor, and installation artist, Ott was a longtime professor of art at Chicago’s Columbia College and the founder of Terrain Exhibitions, an alternative gallery space run from her front porch and yard that encouraged and exhibited the work of local artists.

Born in Los Angeles in 1955, Ott completed her BFA in painting at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1979 before receiving an MFA in painting there in 1981. She went on to stage her first solo show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, after which her work was featured in more than one hundred solo and group shows around the world. She earned a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2015–16 and recently finished a public art commission for the Chicago Transit Authority.

Influenced by various movements and artists—Gertrude Stein was perhaps her most recognized and profound inspiration—Ott became known for playful works that fostered a sense of community and invited public engagement. She was also known for being a champion of Chicago artists and an advocate for feminist causes. In 2014, she founded Terrain Biennial, a neighborhood-wide biennial in Oak Park. In 2016, she built an eight-thousand-cubic-foot, scalable mountain of polystyrene, plywood, industrial spray foam, and paint for an exhibition at the Hyde Park Art Center. Ott was interviewed by Chris Kraus about the exhibition for artforum.com in 2016. “You begin, but don’t know how it’s going to end,” Ott said of the work. “The mountain has an illusion of solidity, but it feels very temporary to me, perhaps even still growing, and in a way, that’s a beautiful thing.”

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