Through working at several arts organizations on the North Shore, Judy Fenton of Highland Park has assembled an extensive network of connections and built her art collection of local artists.
Photography by Jon Cancelino
For the past 15 years, Judy Fenton has been involved with the arts on the North Shore. Serving in several positions at the Suburban Fine Arts Center (now called The Art Center in Highland Park) and currently working as the Director of Education at the Evanston Art Center (EAC), she has met some of the area’s most respected artists. Working and socializing with these visionaries, she grew familiar with their work and has decorated most of her Highland Park house with their pieces.
Her love for art didn’t start here, but during her childhood in New Jersey. With New York City in close proximity, she would often catch a bus into the city and visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Frick Collection. With such easy access to some of America’s best art collections, her appetite for art grew fast. She graduated college as an art history major, but due to the economic climate at the time, had to forego her passion for a job as a writer on a government project. Writing was another interest of hers and she used her artistic eye in taking photographs for the project.
After relocating to the North Shore and once her three children were older, she decided to return to work. She landed a part-time position in public relations for the Suburban Fine Arts Center, which eventually transformed into a full-time position encapsulating both PR and overseeing the educational programming. It was through her work here and at the EAC that she developed so many relationships with artists and her collection began to grow. “I really like owning art where I know the artist because it’s like owning a piece of them,” she explains. “You know that they have put themselves into their work. If I like that artist and know the backstory behind the piece, it adds to its meaning.”
While she was working in Highland Park, the director of the Center introduced her to renowned Chicago artist Ed Paschke who had always donated pieces of his work to their annual benefit. It was the purchase of one of his pieces that truly made her feel like an art collector. He was showing four pieces at the Center’s art gallery about 10 years ago and Judy and her husband, Rick, really liked one of them (pictured behind Judy). “I thought, ‘I have to have an Ed Paschke.’ I just happened to like this one and there was no way I could buy one of his big paintings—he was way too big of a name by then,” she explains.
When Judy would pick up his art for exhibits, he introduced her to other artists who had their studios at 317 Howard Street in Evanston. Through this network, she met two other local artists—Jeff Goldstein and David Gista from whom she has also bought art. Jeff’s piece “Roamin’ Joe” currently hangs in her dining room. She points out Ed’s noticeable influence in the painting along with the apparent evidence of Jeff’s background in carpentry.
Her relationship with David was even further solidified when she started working at the EAC where he instructs. In explaining one of the three pieces she owns of his, she mentioned that she stayed at his Parisian apartment while visiting Europe. Here, she saw his collection of books that often serve as muses for his library-painting series. “The Ladder” is a mixed media exaggeration of an infinite library and is spotlighted with sunlight on the staircase to Judy’s second floor.
One of his other pieces hangs in Rick’s office. David mimicked a photo of Robert and John Kennedy during the Cuban Missal Crisis by using a crème brûlée blowtorch on thick watercolor paper. During the interview, Judy brought him into her office at the EAC to explain the piece further. “I drew with the flame as my brush,” he analogizes. “The yellow color is watercolor paint. Ultimately, it was created with water and fire—playing with the paradoxes.” In her den, hangs his image of miners. He explains that he recycled an old painting and added texture by systematically dripping paint on it. “It’s almost as though the people are emerging from the painting. It’s very much about using the material and making the material alive,” he says. For Judy, it’s this firsthand knowledge that really adds meaning to her art collection.
She also invited Jerome Acks into her office, an emerging artist she hired to teach at the EAC. She tags Jerome’s piece, “The Missing Corner," as the most conceptual in her house. “The stretcher was made without the corner, but the missing corner doesn’t really affect the image at all. Instead, it’s using a different support to make that image,” he describes. Whether it’s transmitted through the materials used as it is in David’s work, or the actual image in Jerome’s, all of Judy’s collection conveys some sort of a concept.
Her living room is lined with more work by her friends and colleagues. Across from the large picture window hangs Tim Lowly’s interpretation of seeing through the eyes of someone with cerebral palsy. Not only did its photography-like detail attract Judy, but it also brought to mind for her one of art’s main concepts. “Vision and art are so intertwined,” Judy explains. “If you and I are looking at an object and we both see red, are we seeing the same red? How do we know that? It’s really something to wrap your head around. This is an interpretation of how other people see.”
The work of several other artists also resides on the first floor. Judy has the inside story on an etching by scientist Bert Menco. Bert used to date famous author Audrey Niffenegger; after they broke up, he drew this rather violent picture of him putting a stake into her new boyfriend’s head. His identity is made clear with the waving Dutch flag paying homage to his heritage. “He was clearly not happy,” Judy chimes in.
Not all of her connections originated at the art centers. Her husband’s law firm partner is author Scott Turow, and through him, Judy got to know his ex-wife, artist Annette Turow. Judy purchased a piece of hers several years ago at a Glencoe gallery, liking the use of texture and the feeling of raw emotion it emitted. Coincidentally, Annette initiated the Youth Fine Arts program at the EAC that Judy currently leads. “The connections all come full circle,” she explains. “It’s such a small world.”
As she walks around her house, she doesn’t see the artwork of generic artists, but instead of fellow community members, coworkers, and friends. “Our collection is eclectic. It’s made up of what we like and whom we know,” she says.