By Bob Uphues
Ruth Freeark, whose passion for the arts and arts education led her and her husband to establish the Riverside Arts Center, died at the age of 92 on Oct. 7, 2018 at her daughter's home in South Lyon, Michigan.
A sculptor in her own right, Freeark's lasting artistic legacy in Riverside is the arts center, founded in 1993 and celebrating its 25th anniversary this year at 32 E. Quincy St. in downtown Riverside.
"She lived and breathed art," said Kim Piotrowski, an artist and Riverside resident who joined the Riverside Arts Center as board president in 2010. "It's a big loss for the community, but she laid the seeds for the arts center, and it's always going to grow. Artists are attracted to the safe and nurturing place Riverside Arts Center is."
Born to John and Olga Nelson in Chicago on May 8, 1926, she graduated from Hyde Park High School and earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of Illinois.
While there she met her husband, Dr. Robert Freeark, through his cousin, who was Ruth's sorority sister, and the two married in 1950 and moved to Wilmette.
According to Ms. Freeark's daughter, Kim, she threw herself into progressive political causes, like open housing legislation and the Civil Rights Movement. Ms. Freeark traveled with a group for the voting-rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965.
Around the same time, Ms. Freeark became involved as a student and later as a board member of the Evanston Art Center, where she was the exhibits chair.
Her experience at the Evanston Art Center, said Kim Freeark, was so important that when the family moved to Riverside in 1975, she wanted to recreate that same kind of place.
Ms. Freeark's taste in art and architecture was decidedly modern. The family's old farmhouse in Wilmette was furnished inside with mid-century modern pieces. When she and Robert decided to move to Riverside, they got a bargain on Fairbank Road property where the original home had burned down.
The couple hired architect John Vinci, a disciple of Mies van der Rohe, to design the family's new home. Surrounded by 19th-century Victorians and Prairie School masterpieces, the Freeark's glass-walled brick-and-steel jewel box was something of a shock.
The reaction was "universally negative," said Kim Freeark.
But over the years, the home grew on folks and the natural landscaping done by Ms. Freeark herself softened the hard edges of the design.
"Now everyone says, 'It's my favorite house,'" Kim Freeark said.
Dr. Freeark purchased the property at 32 E. Quincy St. in 1988 as an income property, but Ms. Freeark also used a portion of the building as her art studio. A couple of years later, artist Jennifer Taylor and her husband moved to town.
Taylor had been searching for fellow creatives in Riverside and the two were introduced, with Taylor contemplating renting studio space in the building. But she couldn't afford it.
Instead, she offered to help Ms. Freeark turn the building into the community arts center she'd wanted to create since moving from Wilmette to Riverside in 1975. They reached out to other like-minded folks and the Riverside Arts Center began to take shape.
Ms. Freeark was named president of the board, and Taylor served alongside her as vice president.
"Before you knew it, the place was up and running," said Taylor. "All the friends I have are because of the Riverside Arts Center. It was a seed that grew like an oak tree."
At first, the Freeark family loaned the use of the building to the arts center. Later, they donated it to the organization and through some rough financial times during the mid-2000s, the Freeark family remained indispensable benefactors. In time, the main exhibition space would be dubbed the Freeark Gallery in honor of the family.
"It wouldn't be here unless it was for Bob and Ruth," Taylor said.
In 2008, Ms. Freeark held her one and only exhibition – surprisingly collage and not sculpture – at Riverside Arts Center, called "Opinion Pieces." The work was characteristically progressive and politically charged commentary on the administration of George W. Bush on the eve of the Barack Obama era.
"I really liked it," Ms. Freeark said at the time of collage as a medium. "It has an immediacy to it."
Ailing health in recent years forced Ms. Freeark to spend less time at the arts center, though she still supported it financially. She moved to South Lyon, Michigan, living with her daughter, Kristine. She was wearing her Riverside Arts Center T-shirt when she died, Taylor said.
Dr. Robert Freeark preceded his wife in death in 2006. She is survived by her daughters, Kristine (Robert Zucker) and Kim Freeark (the late Henry Ryan); her brother-in-law, Fred Freeark; her granddaughter, Katherine Zucker; and many step-grandchildren in the Ryan and Zucker families.
The family has planned a celebration of Ms. Freeark's life for Saturday, Dec. 8 at 11:00 am at the Cheney Mansion, 220 N. Euclid Ave., Oak Park.
Memorial donations are appreciated to the Riverside Art Center, 32 E. Quincy, Riverside, 60546 (riversideartscenter.org) or to B.R.A.V.E. (Bold Resistance to Violence Everywhere), an organization of youth activists sponsored by the faith community of Saint Sabina Church, 7800 S. Racine Ave., Chicago, 60620 (thearkofstsabina.org).