Suellen Rocca was eight years old when she began making the trek from her family’s home on Chicago’s North Side to the Art Institute of Chicago, where she took art classes for children.
“From that point on, I just knew I wanted to be an artist,” said Rocca, curator and director of exhibits at Elmhurst College.
On May 16, Rocca will return to the museum’s affiliate institution, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she took a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1964, to accept an honorary doctorate of fine art. The award recognizes her achievements as a member of the pioneering artists’ group called the Hairy Who.
Hairy Who members emerged from the School of the Art Institute in the 1960s to create brightly colored, gleefully insubordinate and often weirdly humorous work that upended many of the art world’s more sober conventions. The group’s work proved deeply influential to later generations of artists. The other members of the Hairy Who—James Falconer, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt and Karl Wirsum—will receive honorary degrees with Rocca at the school’s spring commencement at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre.
“It is a tremendous honor,” Rocca said. “The School of the Art Institute was very important to my development as an artist.”
Indeed, Rocca said that while she was a still a grade-schooler, she made it her goal to one day attend the school. She was inspired by her frequent visits to the Art Institute and to the instruction she received there.
“I practically grew up in the museum,” she said. “I knew from the time I was quite young that I wanted to be an artist, and the School of the Art Institute was the place to be.”
Rocca, though perhaps best known as part of the Hairy Who, has continued producing a body of work over the last several decades that displays her ongoing artistic evolution.
Her work will be the subject of an exhibition at New York’s Matthew Marks Gallery in late 2016 or early 2017. The gallery will also publish a monograph on Rocca’s work.
In 2013, 25 drawings and paintings by Rocca were featured in a solo exhibition at the Illinois State Museum in downtown Chicago. More recently, she was interviewed by the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art for their oral history collection.
As curator and director of exhibits at Elmhurst, Rocca oversees the College’s acclaimed art collection. Rich in work by artists of the Chicago Imagist movement—a group that includes her Hairy Who colleagues—the collection has been celebrated as one of the best of its kind.
Rocca’s stewardship of the Elmhurst College Art Collection has helped make the work of her Chicago art-scene contemporaries more accessible to wider audiences. Now, an honorary degree from her alma mater will bring even broader recognition for her own work.
“I feel very fortunate,” Rocca said.