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Harper exhibit honors octogenarian art student

Mary Applegate works in a ceramics class at Harper College. An exhibit showing Applegate's work is on display at the college. (Kate Thayer/Tribune)

Mary Applegate works in a ceramics class at Harper College. An exhibit showing Applegate's work is on display at the college. (Kate Thayer/Tribune)

Mary Applegate carefully molds scored pieces of clay until they start to take shape into a holder for writing utensils.

The octogenarian Palatine artist called this particular project a simple one, compared to the more complicated pieces she’s created during the past six decades or so. Her work – mostly pottery – includes garden sculptures, wall hangings and other items she often sells.

It’s not just a hobby for retirement, Applegate said. “This is my work.”

Applegate, who will only say she’s “almost 90,” was recently honored by her Harper College classmates with a public exhibit displaying her pottery, some pieces dating as far back to her days as an art and education student at the University of Iowa.

As she works, Applegate notes the age diversity in her ceramics class at Harper, but estimates she’s likely the oldest one there.

“I love being around different ages and different ethnicities,” she said, explaining that’s part of the reason she continues to take art classes nearly every day.

After teaching third- and fourth-graders in District 15 for about 26 years, Applegate continues to take art classes during her retirement from teaching.

“It keeps me sane,” she said. “Who wants to be home all day?”

She boards a Palatine Township bus in the morning, works with her clay for several hours, and returns on the bus in the afternoon.

Sam Rosby, associate professor of art, called Applegate an inspiration to other students in the class.

“She still completely cares that her work is the best, and it’s new, and she pushes herself,” he said. “What she does here shows art is something you do over a lifetime.”

Applegate is helpful during peer critiques, which is a big part of Harper’s ceramics class, Rosby said.

Christine Rueger, 19, of Rolling Meadows, said she’s learned a lot from Applegate.

“I’m just amazed at how…sharp she is, and she always has something to offer,” she said. “She just gets ideas from everything.”

Applegate said she’s often inspired, and never wants to do work similar to other artists. Sculpting is her favorite art form because of clay’s malleability, she said.

“You can make it into whatever you want,” she said.

While Applegate said she can’t pick a favorite piece, one she’s particularly proud of is a sculpture of a father carrying a child on his shoulders.

She said while images of mothers and “the Madonna” are popular, Applegate wanted to show an image of a father.

Another piece she noted came from an assignment from a Harper class to build something that represents home. Applegate explained how she created five houses, each depicting a trait she equates with home – her cats, books, birds, music and nature.

Those sculptures are among many that sit in Harper’s Art Exhibition Space. Several already have red dots indicating a sale.

The exhibit with Applegate’s work runs from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays through July 18 in Building C at the main campus, 1200 W. Algonquin Road, Palatine.

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