More than 30 years ago, park district commissioners in the village of Hanover Park applied to the Illinois Arts Council for an artist in residence for their newly established Art Studio and Gallery.
That artist, Susan Matthews, came to them fresh out of Ohio State University, with her master's degree in fine arts, specializing in drawing and painting, and she has never left.
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She grew from artist-in-residence to the park district's arts coordinator, heading up its array of cultural activities, including art, music and dance programming.
But her biggest accomplishment may be the art gallery, which she collaborated with commissioners to locate right in the middle of the park district's community center.
That's right. Nestled amid its basketball courts, tennis courts, workout facilities and offices, is the Community Art Gallery, whose exhibits are booked nearly one year in advance.
Its tag line reads: "Come discover art."
Now, that copacetic relationship has come to an end with Matthews' retirement at the end of last month. However, she will not be forgotten.
The gallery, whose shows featured the works of local artists as well as more accomplished ones, will be named after Matthews, at the suggestion of Parks Commissioner Jon Duesing.
"She's been the driving force behind our gallery program -- and the arts in general," Duesing said. "If it had anything to do with arts, Susan was involved. Naming the gallery after her just makes sense."
Matthews has enjoyed her work.
"The gallery program has probably been the most fun," Matthews says. "It's amazing how many fabulous artists have proposed shows. We've also been able to showcase the work of hundreds of area students -- and the creativity of their dedicated teachers -- through the years."
The latest show is a good example. It features a mural and paintings by artist Paulina Engel of Roselle. Matthews described the mural as something of a first for the gallery, with its exuberant natural forms and subtle whimsy.
Reconnecting adults with an interest in art that may have dated back to a high school class also drove Matthews. While she programmed lessons for hundreds of children and young adults each year, it was drawing adults back to the art studio that gave her so much satisfaction.
"Sometimes it took a little courage, but art classes have a way of focusing your mind on the effort of the moment and you soon forget yourself," Matthews says. "Time flies by, and you achieve what they call 'flow.'
"Your brain chemistry actually changes throughout the class -- for the better," she adds. "You are not in the same mood at the end as you were when you walked into the classroom. By making those creative acts part of your schedule, your entire life is enhanced."
In a letter to park commissioners announcing her retirement, Matthews thanked them for their support and collaboration in promoting the arts.
"Together, we established a thriving gallery program unlike any other in the area," she told them, "fostering the careers of many local artists and providing hundreds of local students and teachers with a venue for their creative output."
She added that the Hanover Park Park District provided her with wonderful opportunities to achieve what she had set out to do as a young artist.
"In a time when students of the arts often have to veer away from their callings as they enter the real world," Matthews said, "I was lucky enough to find my way here."