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The artistic talent of Suellen Rocca (born Suellen Krupp) was recognized early on when her third-grade teacher recommended that she enroll in members-only art classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. These were multilevel fine art courses in which students drew from live models and were encouraged to keep diaristic sketchbooks. Rocca entered the School of the Art Institute of Chicago at just 16, having won a scholarship. She studied with Ray Yoshida, who became an important mentor and lifelong friend.
Soon after graduation, Rocca joined forces with five other recent graduates of the School of the Art Institute to form the Hairy Who in 1965. The six artists—Jim Falconer, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Suellen Rocca, and Karl Wirsum—decided that the best way to find success was to exhibit their work together, and as the Hairy Who they began mounting unconventional displays of bright, bold graphic work in the mid-1960s. Over a period of four years they transformed the art landscape of Chicago, injecting their new and unique voices into the city’s rising national and international profile.
The only Hairy Who artist to graduate with a minor in printmaking, Rocca’s drawings, paintings, and prints feed off one another, and she considers her works in all media to be of equal value to her art-making practice.
During the Hairy Who years, Rocca’s visual vocabulary expressed her personal taste as much as her experiences as a newlywed and young mother. She employed signs and symbols drawn from everything from the rebus-like pictograms in kindergarten reading primers to the jewelry trade catalogs in her husband’s family’s store. Often characterized as “picture writing,” Rocca’s work maintains a sense of immediacy. In both its grid-like arrangements of repetitive glyphs punctuated by onomatopoeic words such as ohh, ahh, and eek, and the centrally located imagery framed by decorative borders, Rocca’s intuitive and nebulous compositions stand apart from other Hairy Who work.
A 2018 exhibition at the Art Institute—the first-ever major survey dedicated solely to the Hairy Who—explored how the group’s distinct aesthetic transformed the art landscape of Chicago.