Civic practice artist Frances Whitehead to receive honorary NIU doctorate

Frances Whitehead
Frances Whitehead

NIU will bestow an honorary doctoral degree this winter to Frances Whitehead, a civic practice artist and professor of sculpture and architecture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Whitehead will earn her honorary doctorate during the Graduate School commencement ceremony, scheduled for 4 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 13, at the NIU Convocation Center.

Self-described as a “civic practice artist,” she began working professionally in the 1980s, calling attention to scientific, political and ethical challenges in rural and urban areas.

A 1978 graduate of NIU’s Masters of Fine Arts degree program, her sculptures have garnered support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Tiffany Foundation, the United States Department of State and the Illinois Arts Council.

Barbara Jaffee, an NIU associate professor of art history, calls Whitehead a visionary leader in a field that she was instrumental in creating.

“She is a remarkable force for good, someone who has adaptively reused her NIU education as a visual artist to imagine and to realize solutions to problems in the realms far beyond what are considered the traditional boundaries of her expertise,” Jaffee said.

Whitehead’s work is visible throughout Chicago, where she has lived since 1985, but her efforts are not limited to her adopted hometown. Among her civic initiatives are Slow Cleanup, a phytoremediation program for abandoned gas stations throughout Chicago; climate-monitoring plant programs across the United States and Europe; and an urban agriculture plan with the city of Lima in Peru.

She also has taken her work on the road, having exhibited at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, the Vinnistu art Museum in Estonia and the Centrum Rzezby Polskiej in Poland.

The 606. Photo: Jerzy Rose
The 606. Photo: Jerzy Rose

“It is NIU’s honor and privilege to award Mrs. Whitehead an honorary doctor of humane letters. She has inspired and transformed communities through her tireless efforts, and she is truly deserving of this recognition,” said Lisa Freeman, executive vice president and provost.

In 2001, Whitehead founded ARTetal Studio, a collaborative social initiative focused on transforming disturbed sites by integrating art and culture to drive environmental awareness. In 2008, Whitehead launched The Embedded Artist Project in partnership with the Innovation Program of the City of Chicago to bring artistic perspectives into city government and planning.

Other notable projects include the “Water Table,” a living sculpture comprised of more than 3,000 Carolina Gold Rice plants that function as an open greenhouse in the courtyard of an elementary school in Charleston, S.C.; and the “Phenologic Garden,” a climate-monitoring plant program with sites throughout the United States and in Europe.

Currently, Whitehead serves as the lead artist for The 606, a rail infrastructure adaptation project in Chicago. The project aims to transform an unused rail line into a recreation trail and park system.

She also serves as adviser to Re-Imagine, the environmental art program at the Schuylkill Center in Philadelphia, and she is working with the European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST) action “Investigating Cultural Sustainability.”

Frances Whitehead: PossibilityRich Holly, dean of the NIU College of Visual and Performing Arts, calls Whitehead’s work is a testament to her compassionate and influential nature.

“We are so proud of the meaningful work that Frances has – and is – accomplishing,” Holly said.

“Frances has an uncanny ability to build a community and influence the sensibilities of others relative to sustainability and culture. Because of her successes, the world needs for her to be more visible and involved. That we’re able to honor one of our alumni in this manner, and for all the right reasons, is humbling and heartwarming.”

Whitehead grew up in Virginia, where her extended family still lives

In receiving an honorary degree from NIU, Whitehead joins a cast of other noteworthy individuals.

The list includes former U.S. Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert; Argonne National Laboratory Director Eric D. Isaacs and former Argonne directors Robert Rosner and Hermann Grunder; author and physician Abraham Verghese; historian Arthur Schlesinger; U.S. Sen. Paul Simon; poet Gwendolyn Brooks; astronomer Carl Sagan; U.S. Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth, then the assistant secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand; John Sall, executive vice president of the SAS Institute; Layli Miller-Muro, founder and executive director of the Tahirih Justice Center; and Leland A. Strom, former chairman of the board and CEO of the Farm Credit Administration.

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