Art of Diversity: Familiarly Unfamiliar

OttBy Tim Nichols, freelance writer

When you arrange to have an installation done at your house, it sounds like something that might involve a contractor. It conjures up images of a plumber “roughing in” a jacuzzi tub or hooking up a crushed-ice maker. The thing is, plumbers don’t win Guggenheim Fellowships for fine art.

Sabina Ott does. Maybe you’ve been fortunate enough to experience the Terrain Exhibit comprised of “installation art” that’s been taking place at her Oak Park bungalow for the last four years. If so, you’ve been given a window inside this remarkable artist and have begun to see what the judges at the Guggenheim must have.

Originally a painter in San Francisco and Los Angeles, Ott was influenced by surrealism and early 20th century expressionism. When she gravitated to making sculpture and objects, an arousing new aesthetic began to emerge.

She had always loved the novel experiments Gertrude Stein performed with language. “She would take things that we already had concepts for and make them into hybrid sentences that would create a whole new experience of those things.” Ott wanted to adopt the same approach with her objects.

“When I started making objects, I wanted to mix familiar materials in ways that were unfamiliar. So I could create something that was a table, a lamp, a plant holder—but it was also a painting and a sculpture. I was trying to take things and make them unfamiliar, or familiarly unfamiliar in a way that you could re-experience them,” Ott says.

Ott and her evolving philosophy moved to the midwest more than 10 years ago to take a teaching job in the fine arts department at Columbia College. When she got here, she admits, Chicago seemed “complicated.” The neighborhoods “too specific. If you live in Ukranian Village, do you have to speak Ukranian?” Then she went to a party at a fellow artist’s house in Oak Park. “Oh, what’s this? This is great out here!” she thought.

In Oak Park, she found the broad range of people and supportive community she craved. She also found four friends who changed her work forever. Tom Burtonwood and his wife Holly Holmes, owners of the Wot It Is gallery, invited her to do an installation projection piece on their porch and that “really moved my art.” Then Michelle Grabner and her husband Brad Killiam who own The Suburban gallery asked her to make a piece for a place they have in Wisconsin. She made a fountain. Out of styrofoam.

Ott’s multi-tasking objects with their power to transform came to full fruition last year at an exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center. It was the culmination of five years of work and she was particularly proud of it.

“I have this new body of work, so I thought I would apply for the Guggenheim,” Ott says. “I did not think I would get it but I had really good ‘recommenders,’ which is a big part of it.”

Those who see her work, though, know instantly that winning this coveted grant was really all about that work. Guggenheim Fellowships are grants awarded to people in the arts, sciences, and other areas of study for a minimum of six months and a maximum of twelve months, to provide them time in which they can work with as much creative freedom as possible. Those who receive these grants may spend the funds in any manner they deem necessary to their work. Ott was one of just 23 fine artists throughout the U.S. and Canada who was awarded a grant in 2015.

Because Ott wanted to provide the same opportunities to other artists that had been offered to her, she decided that her house was the ideal haven to host their installations.

“The same thing I was doing with my artwork—having the lamp be the table be the painting be the sculpture—is what I wanted to do with the house,” Ott explains. “I wanted it to be a gallery, be not a gallery, be a public art site, be a party space, to have all those multiple functions, to embody a way of life.”

Has Ott actually figured out a way for life to imitate art and for art to imitate life at the same time? The nylon membrane currently covering her front door and windows that breathes you into the house and exhales you back out when it’s time to leave, suggests that she has.

Painter, sculptor, teacher, benefactor, winner of grants. When you learn about her, you start to wonder if there’s anything she can’t do. For example, she can’t build a mountain, right?

Yes, she can: The Guggenheim Grant is allowing her the freedom to embark on her next project: A wild, soaring, unfamiliar mountain built with familiar materials by Sabina Ott. Purchase a rappelling rope, hire a Sherpa and let her be your guide.

To learn more and see her work, visit