Mary Applegate has worked in the ceramics studio at Harper College for more than 30 years, but last week she experienced something of a first: Her classmates and teachers threw her an opening reception at the start of her own one-person show.
Her fans filled the gallery space in Harper's Art Center on Wednesday and cheered as Associate Professor Sam Rosby described Applegate's work.
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"It's called a retrospective, but it's really a body of work," Rosby said of Applegate's more than two dozen sculptures and ceramics pieces on display, all hand built out of clay. "It's a continuum, that is new and fresh and builds on her use of pattern and surface in her work."
That's high praise for the Palatine artist who, at 89 years old, shows no signs of slowing down. A former third and fourth grade teacher at Marion Jordan School in Palatine, Applegate has found the fountain of youth in her ceramics studio that she works in every day.
She describes how she loves the daily interaction with her classmates -- who range in age and background -- and of the satisfaction of creating art.
"I just love working with clay, and particularly in hand building," Applegate said of the primitive method of building clay pieces by hand, rather than throwing them on a wheel. "I have a vision of how I want something to turn out, and by working by hand, I get to see that vision develop."
Applegate always included lots of hands-on art projects in her teaching, as some of her former students at the art exhibit remembered.
"I just remember how much fun we had in her class," said Lourdene Duquaine Schutte, who was in Applegate's fourth grade classroom at Marion Jordan and now lives in Las Vegas. "She brought so much creativity to her teaching."
It wasn't until Applegate retired that she began taking art courses. She took her first at the Art Institute of Chicago, and when the school put students' work up for sale at the end of the semester, one of her pieces sold.
"It was the first thing I ever sold," Applegate recalled. "I thought, 'They bought it.' How wonderful."
She began taking art classes at Harper in the 1980s, while also teaching continuing education courses. By her own admission, her work has evolved over the years, but she continues to explore what intrigues her.
"Two loves shape my work in clay," she said. "Love for the natural world and love for designing and using pattern."
Her exhibit includes large garden art pieces, as well as slab constructed sculpture and functional ware, including an eclectic group of teapots. It continues through July 18.
"She just has this natural way of enjoying nature," said Joan Brinkworth of South Barrington, a fellow ceramics artist.
Another classmate, Sharon Kiss of South Barrington, describes Applegate as "inspirational" to those around her.
"If I'm that productive and creative when I'm her age," Kiss said, "I'll be the happiest person on earth."
For her part, Applegate does not like to talk about her age, saying that she hopes her work stands on its own.
"I live in the moment," she said. "I enjoy what I'm doing so much, I don't like to think about the years."