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Sterling: Her work of art

Artist reveals city’s secret identity, uncovering a city rich in culture and innovation

STERLING – “We learn so much as children from art – story-telling, problem-solving, building ... We are imaginative. Then the rational side takes over as we grow and become more analytical.”

So says freelance artist Mackenzie Hopping, who applied her very artistic imagination to a very analytical research project that is bringing a little-known aspect of Sterling’s history back to life.

From May 19 to Aug. 4, Woodlawn Arts Academy will host “Sterling’s Lost Identity,” an exhibit that showcases artists and works from the town’s past.

Hopping, 35, an acrylic, oil and mixed media artist, set out to research and learn about Sterling’s past connections to art, ultimately working nearly a year and a half on research and production.

“When my husband [CGH general surgeon Dr. Jake Hopping] and I moved here 2 years ago and people found out I was an artist, they would say, ‘You need to go to Dixon for art. They have the art history.’ After awhile, I became discouraged by this statement,” she said.

“As an artist who has studied a lot of art history, it didn’t make sense that one town would have an art history and a neighboring town wouldn’t. Artists work together – within and throughout communities. Therefore, I set out to find Sterling’s art history.”

In addition to visiting local venues such as Sterling Public Library and the Sterling-Rock Falls Historical Society Museum, and photographing Sterling’s existing historical sites, the mother of a 5-year-old, Josephine, also visited the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, her alma mater, and Washington D.C. (where she lived as a child) twice.

There, through her visits to, among other places, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the American History Museum, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and George Washington University, Hopping discovered a large piece of Sterling that most residents likely know nothing about.

What she learned through her extensive research is that from the 1860s to the 1920s, Sterling “was a thriving art community where artists from even Chicago would come to lecture or paint.” But with the rise of the steel mills all of that changed, including a large part of Sterling’s early identity.

Hopping has titled her show “Sterling’s Lost Identity” for that very reason: “I feel like [Sterling’s onetime culture of arts and artists] is a missing and forgotten piece of our history.”

Three artists in particular form the centerpiece of her exhibit, but are by no means all the exhibit will showcase:

• Grace Redfield (Boynton) Logan, a painter and art teacher whose father was an early founder of Sterling. Logan, who attended suffrage meetings with Susan B. Anthony, used her art skills for social activism, particularly women’s issues.

• Carl N. Werntz, a painter, fine arts photographer, illustrator, cartoonist and educator, left Sterling during high school and eventually founded the Chicago Academy of Fine Art, where Walt Disney one day would be a student. Werntz traveled extensively throughout the world to learn a variety of arts and techniques that he would then incorporate into his own school and its teachings.

• Raymond K. Perry was an illustrator for the Daily Gazette attending art school, then went on to become a comic book illustrator and watercolor artist. 

The exhibit also will feature photographs of places such as the Music Academy, which was on the third floor of what is now D&E Furniture downtown. It was once the largest opera house west of Chicago; American military and patriotic composer John Philip Sousa played there.

The Masons building, an architecturally beautiful turn-of-the century building on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, also will be featured.

A patents display will highlight local industrial design patents for barbed wire, the pencil clip for a compass, a beer-pumping apparatus, and a casket-lowering device, among others.

The subtitle of Hopping’s display is “Imagine. Create. Innovate,” which underscores not only Sterling’s past art history but also its present and future need for art as the lifeblood of a town’s identity and survival.

“The artist often has the vision, or the imagination,” but as Werntz once said (and Hopping agrees), “Artists will not survive if they don’t learn business.”

“The more I thought about it, the more I realized how much art helps grow a community,” she said. “And a lot of productivity happens when combined with business.”

Innovation ultimately means “business people and artists coming together,” she said.

She hopes those who view the exhibit “are inspired by our history of art and how it still applies today,” she said.

“Grace’s fight for women’s rights still applies today, Carl’s fight for teaching and learning art in schools as children and young adults still applies today, and Perry showed us the importance of imagination, of enjoying reading, and its importance.”


"Sterling’s Lost Identity: Imagine. Create. Innovate," an exhibit on the town's history of art and innovation created by local artist Mackenzie Hopping, runs May 19 through Aug 4. at Woodlawn Arts Academy, 3807 Woodlawn Road in Sterling.

An opening reception begins at 5 p.m. May 19, and Hopping will give a presentation from 8 to 9 p.m. July 27.

The exhibit will be open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday and from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday.

Call 815-626-4278, go to or find the academy on Facebook for more information

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