Quintessential people

Jill Funk: The Angel of Art


by David Rutter | Photograph by thomas balsamo

When you ask Jill Funk when she will finally put away the sculptor’s soft clay and turn the kiln down for the last time, she raises her hands palms out, and flexes the 10 fingers that have shaped art ever since the Great Depression.

She sits a little straighter as she answers. “Never,” she says with a clear gaze. “Not ever, ever.” And then with a whisper. “EV-er.”

You realize after asking that it’s a silly question. There does not seem an appropriate description of life, especially in Barrington, that would not include her and art, each of which defines and creates the other.

Art was never something Jill Marie Blank merely did as a child growing up with an artisan parent in Manhattan. Art was who she was, and most of what she would ever be. “I grew up in a studio,” she says now. “My mother was a designer in New York. Our apartment was like a maze. One of her paintings would take an entire wall in the apartment.”

Jill taught art in her Barrington home for a decade, founded a commercial outpost on Cook Street, and now is headmistress at a rambling two-story home on West Main Street. The Kaleidoscope School of Fine Art trained 55 students a week during most summers for three decades and now, as a nonprofit charitable foundry, teaches 190 students and adults each week throughout the rest of the year.

Jill Funk’s art was never a hobby or pleasant vocational pastime. She was a passionate, professional artist who was classically trained, taught art, and was admired at juried presentations.

She eventually tried to sculpt from stone. Couldn’t do it. “You never break clay,” she says. Her animal statuary is fanciful and gentle. Her statues always smile. Joy is her medium.

Now in its 30th year, Kaleidoscope features 20 teachers, and the students are serious inside their happiness. On one recent day, the room of a half-dozen 3-and-4-year olds was all business while they painted a coyote portrait. The coyotes were all smiling with big toothy grins.

Now at the deeper hued phase of her life’s palette, she remains the Art Angel of Barrington, but don’t tell her she’s important, because the idea embarrasses her. She’s Angel to everyone she knows, because a granddaughter named her that 40 years ago. The name stuck.

Great art teachers are subtle artisans on several levels. They blend into the art and become part of it. They guide and mold, but seldom command.

Jill Funk has done that for 46 years in Barrington, ever since she, her husband, and young family arrived in town. He came to be a vice president at Sara Lee Corp. in Deerfield. She came to found another art school, similar to the successful one she forged in Cleveland.

She and Daniel, her husband, had both been exceptional young artists. “He was a great, great artist,” she says. Both graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art, as did her mother and sister. Her mother, Celeste, had fled back to hometown Cleveland after her marriage fractured. Three of Jill’s grandchildren also graduated with college degrees in art.

There Jill found Dan. They were crazy in love. “We married in May and graduated in June so I could have all my art friends there,” she says.

They survived on $40 a week in those days. She had been the self-trained kid chef who could make any morsel of meatloaf protein last to its final molecule. “One day Dan asked me, “Would you really mind not making meatloaf anymore,’” she said with a gush of laughter. “Meatloaf for four days, and then macaroni and tuna on Friday.”

What seemed so destitute at the beginning of a 60-year marriage is a cherished memory now. That marriage produced sons Rob, Randy, and Chris, plus six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

She is first a sculptor of clay who also turns out to be an inadvertent sculptor of people, too. And not to stretch the point, she has helped sculpt her community. The evidence of her effect on Barrington life stands unchallenged.

Kaleidoscope’s future as a nonprofit means, with community financial support, that it will reach many more students from preschools all across the village to “memory care” programs for seniors and diverse programs for anybody with curiosity. A dozen schools and agencies count on her art instruction.

Kaleidoscope 2016 Fall Gala

Kaleidoscope School of Fine Art will celebrate its 30th anniversary with a fundraising gala on Oct. 14, 2016, at Barrington’s White House on Main Street in Barrington. The Friday night event will mark the second gala for the newly-designated nonprofit community organization. Donations to Kaleidoscope are tax exempt. For more information, call 847-381-4840.

She has seen art save lives. It saved Jill Funk’s life when Alzheimer’s took her beloved Daniel three years ago. “He knew me until the very last seconds,” she says. She retreated heartbroken into the clay, the “beautiful, wonderful clay,” for solace with a deeper muse, and eventually found peace.

There were other saved lives, too. Many were children sent to her in desperation because they were unmanageable and teetering on total failure. She gently pulled them up from hopelessness. The art let them breathe again. Be themselves again. If a community’s heart is shaped by subtle magic and lasting grandness, few have been more significant in defining Barrington for 40 years than Jill Funk.

Walk the halls of Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital—which did not exist until local volunteers designed its financial support system 42 years ago. At the base was the Art in the Barn project, a collaboration of Funk and several other local artists. “All friends,” she says.

She sculpted a lamb in those early days. The statue at Good Shepherd still stands in the hallway as a gentle greeter to families; two other lamb sculptures were donated to Lambs Farm. Her lambs, as with most of the animals she creates, are smiling.

Art in the Barn initially gave 90 artists a place to display and sell their art, and its annual juried-art celebration has put more than $7 million into Good Shepherd’s bank account. Now the Barn houses 200 artists and a resplendent regional reputation for a weekend each September. Art, and the money from that art, has saved the lives of patients at Good Shepherd by making it a better-equipped hospital. Jill Funk helped do that.

Jill Funk’s legacy endures because Barrington was touched by this Angel. As for Jill, she is resilient, and contemplates an artful future—one that will be beautiful, because lasting beauty is her life.

Here are some words that others shared about Jill funk.

Sue Abare, Colleague

Jill and Dan Funk, my husband Skip, and I were all artists from Ohio who met in Barrington in the ‘70s. Jill’s works, whether her sculpture, or her masterpiece, Kaleidoscope School of Art, speak more eloquently than any words. I was delighted to begin teaching there from the very beginning. Jill brought to Barrington a new frontier in art, opening a door for children and adults alike. From the little blue house on Cook Street to its present location, Kaleidoscope has been a welcome sanctuary for the creative. How fortunate for all of us Jill opened those doors! Her magnetism attracted gifted teachers and curious students. She inspired us all with generosity and loving kindness. Her laughter and humor makes any day brighter. She gave us all nicknames from Twiggy to Tiger—and to us, she was Angel. She is an artist, mentor, visionary, and friend. She is beloved.

Joyce Buttner, Colleague

I came to know Jill about a year after she opened Kaleidoscope. A friend recommended that I could perhaps help her out as an instructor. We were immediately drawn to each other in a bond of friendship that has lasted through the years, even though I moved from the area and now live in Maryland and run a B&B.

Jill and I had a common love of making art relative and fun for children and hands-on creative pleasures for adults as well. Jill’s contagious optimism and energetic personality were what made the school take off. We saw children gain confidence in their art skills because our approach was step-by-step in teaching them how to see, and then draw what they saw, where they saw it! Having the skill of clay sculpture was a highlight for children and adults—and Jill’s forte. Without a doubt, Jill has had the largest impact on my life, and my family’s life, because she is the genuine real thing. Kaleidoscope was always the happiest place to be!

Emily Calvillo, Artist

Jill Funk has been a most important influence on our family. We first met when our daughter joined the Kaleidoscope School of Fine Art in Barrington for art classes. We knew art was an important activity for our daughter, and soon discovered the joy and character-building aspects our daughter gained from being in Jill’s school environment.

Jill has lived a full life of art as both a prolific artist herself, and also as a fervent benefactor to the artists in Barrington and surrounding communities. She has helped and encouraged hundreds of youngsters find their “creative way”. But the school is more than just for youngsters. Her deep passion to involve the community opens a door to anyone who wishes to experience the joy and therapeutic benefits of being in a creative environment. This has allowed many adults (including me) to flourish and have a space in which to be creative.

I owe my artistic accomplishments to Jill—had it not been for her, I would not have had the same experiences or made the many wonderful connections with other artists. Our daughter is now a professional commercial artist, as well as a fine artist, and our family is eternally grateful for Jill’s influence for nearly 20 years!

Gene Dawson, Barrington Township Supervisor

Jill and her late husband, Dan, have been friends for many years. We became acquainted when they approached me about helping them start their business. As an instructor at Harper College teaching Small Business Management, and being from the Barrington community, Jill and Dan felt comfortable with me assisting them.

Jill is a special person both as an individual and a community person. Although we started out with a business view, we soon became friends. She exudes knowledge of her craft and business, and is a warm and giving person. She cares about her students, her teachers, and above all will offer opportunities to those who may not be able to pay. She has impacted me by being herself and totally genuine.

If I were to describe Jill to another person, I would say two things: she is thoughtful and she does things with a purpose. Recognizing Jill as the Quintessential Person is not only a highlight in her life, but a highlight for us to be privileged to know her.

Jackie Jackson, Art in the Barn Founder

When you think of Jill Funk, think fun; think joy; think art—every facet of art. Teaching, selling, starting an art school, helping start Art in the Barn, the main fundraising tool for Good Shepherd Hospital. Think gathering artists to show their works in the hospital when it was first built so patients and staff could enjoy art on the walls. She went on to start Kaleidoscope School of Fine Art for children and adults in the Barrington and surrounding area.  

Doug Jennings, Board Member

I have taught with Jill at Kaleidoscope School of Fine Art since 1987. In 2014, I joined the KSOFA Board of Directors and have served with Jill there. Before I met Jill Funk nearly three decades ago, her reputation in the Barrington community as a beloved and gifted art teacher preceded her. As I have taught with her at Kaleidoscope since then, she has proven worthy of all the admiration and endearment she inspires. Each time I begin an art class, I look to her example (of which I have observed first-hand) of unflagging enthusiasm, encouragement, kindness, and devotion to her students and her craft.

Christine Johansen, Student

I’m better known as “Mona” around Kaleidoscope. The name Mona was given to me because of the Barrington parade my friend McCall and I participated in as Mona Lisa and Leonardo da Vinci. I have known Mrs. Funk since I was in 4th grade. Not only has Mrs. Funk been my teacher, she has been my inspiration, friend, and the one of the most important people in my life.

During my teenage years, she taught me how to sculpt wonderful things while putting up with me sneaking out the door to get scones and coffee from Yvette’s with McCall only minutes before class started as she was walking down the stairs. She will always be my “oh perfect one”. I have looked up to her my entire life. Because of her I’m a better person, so I can’t begin to thank her and Kaleidoscope enough. I will forever be in their gratitude. She is the most wonderful person I have ever met. Thank you Mrs. Funk for being in my life and being so wonderful.

Kristen Markus, Colleague

I spent seven years across the desk from my dear friend and mentor Jill Funk working in the Kaleidoscope School of Fine Art office. There I watched her quietly change lives through the magic of art.

Jill is someone I admire greatly. Her vision was to create a special place where everyone could belong, gather, create, learn, and share. Her fierce belief that art is for everyone led her to create Kaleidoscope’s Scholarship Fund, and she worked tirelessly throughout the years to raise money for students who could not afford classes. Jill’s enthusiasm and big heart have been the powerful force behind the success and longevity of Kaleidoscope.

I remember meeting Jill for the first time—her sparkling blue eyes, warm smile, and whimsical humor made me feel immediately at home. My job interview ended in a hug, and it was as though I had known her forever. Jill always encouraged, believed in me, and made me believe in myself. Thirty years after founding Kaleidoscope, Jill continues to make the world a bit more magical, and definitely a far more beautiful and better place. Kaleidoscope has always been so much more than a business for Jill, it is her life’s work.

Jennifer McHugh, Board Member

I walked into Kaleidoscope Art School 10 years ago with my then 4-year-old daughter who loved all things ‘art’. What I found was a vibrant, joyful, and nurturing place that eventually became a second home to my three daughters. The school is a reflection of Jill and her dedication to providing real training in the fine arts. Because of Kaleidoscope, what began as raw interest for my daughter developed into a honed passion with her artwork solicited and featured for Prairie Middle School events, and the Kaleidoscope gallery. Barrington is so fortunate to have Jill and her school in our community. I know my daughters feel that way as they all fight to be the first to view the latest Kaleidoscope class schedule as soon as I bring it in from the mailbox!

Alayne McNulty, Program Director

I am the program director at KSOFA. I began working for Jill Funk as an art instructor and an art supply manager in 2001. Jill hired me just as I was graduating with a Master’s of Arts in Art Therapy from SAIC. I thought it would be a great little “first” job to pay the bills after leaving graduate school, but it has turned out to be so much more. It is now a beloved career, thanks to Jill’s vision for her art school and her heart for the community. I have learned so much working first for her, and then alongside of her.

When asked, she gladly imparts her wisdom and experience teaching art and directing her dream art school. She is our matriarch and driving force to make Kaleidoscope the best and able to continue to be a precious gem set in the heart of Barrington. Jill has relentlessly sought to build upon her dream of quality art instruction and creative expression for everyone. Her eyes are always open to see how the school is doing what we can do to always improve.

Jill takes great pride in the joy and accomplishments of all the students from age four through adulthood. Kids enjoy a complimentary art show at the end of the summer session and you can hear their excited voices pointing out their masterpieces to moms, dads, grandparents, and others. Adults also get a special opportunity to exhibit their works each year in June. All of Kaleidoscope’s students feel the care and guidance of Jill and her team of nurturing instructors.

It’s almost impossible to go to a restaurant in town with Jill without a wide-smiling student coming up to the table to greet her. She guides all who work for her to find the best way to teach each individual. Classes are not just a list of numbers or a chore to check off a “to do” list; instead, each student’s art education is a passionate pursuit. Students are really cared for. Our mission is to enrich the lives of individuals through the visual arts.

Maria S. Milik, Student

I have known Jill since my senior year in high school, where I apprenticed at her school, Bay Crafters, in Bay Village, Ohio.

I have a special place in my heart for Jill. Thirty-two years ago, I was a senior in high school and looking for a place to do in internship in the art field. Jill had a school of art not far from where I lived. I approached her and asked if she would mentor me, as I had plans on continuing in the art field in college. Jill gladly accepted the challenge and taught me more in a few months than I had learned in my four years of school. I fondly remember her teaching me how to frame artwork and how to carefully handle fine art. Because of Jill, my love for art continued. After finishing college and a Masters in Art History and Museum Studies, I moved to Barrington for work. I was so excited to see that there was an art school in the town. Imagine my surprise when I walked into Kaleidoscope and the first person I saw was Jill! Seeing Jill not only brought back fond memories of my childhood, but also incited the passion for art that I had loved so much. I am currently a student at the school and I always look forward to seeing Jill each week. Her smile and her love for life is infectious. Even after many years, Jill continues to mentor me. She is truly an inspiration!

Carol and David Nelson, Friends

We have known Jill Funk for 35 years and met when our oldest child first took a clay class at Kaleidoscope. Each of our three children followed with numerous art classes over the years and our house became filled with wonderful clay creations, paintings, and drawings. Some of their fondest childhood memories are those of stopping at the Town Shop and then crossing the street to go to Kaleidoscope to spend time with Mrs. Funk and her wonderful staff. 

We all marked our calendars for the day that you were allowed to call in for registration. We knew how important this special place was to our children and we wanted to be among the first families to sign up each fall.

Jill’s impact on our children, and thousands of other children, has been profound. She created a magical place where they were made to feel talented, valued, creative, and welcome. The children were always greeted by Jill’s huge smile and her warm, cheerful demeanor. She made them feel that they could do anything artful—that there were no limits to their natural endowments. Jill spread her gifts to all children evenly. Everyone felt special and artistic. And Kaleidoscope was a safe place where the children could go all on their own, developing confidence and independence. Thank you, Jill Funk!

Marie Peppler, Student

Jill taught me in Clay Sculpture every Friday after school from 3rd to 12th grade. In the summers when I was in high school, I worked as a mini-camp helper all summer as well.

Mrs. Funk (never Jill to us kids) was an amazing part of growing up. My mom chose to send me to art class not to learn about art (a nice bonus that fills our house, office, everywhere!) but for Jill. Kaleidoscope was such a unique place to grow up. There was no deadline or test or grade. No ribbons to win. Just a supportive place to relax and learn. I remember learning how to form a perfect eye out of clay and how to solve riddles and see everyone that came to class as equals. Jill’s kind leadership and supportive examples allowed us to learn some art skills, but mostly unwind and be kids growing into adults. As I look back, she is one of the more influential people in my life. Even if I was busy at school, I came to learn that those two hours at Kaleidoscope were worth much more to my sanity and self than just the time invested. I came to need the time there to stay balanced and creative. As a summer student helper, she empowered us to help the teacher and that really pushed me out of my comfort zone into painting—or mostly cleaning up the paint! Jill influenced a creative side of my life that is still with me here in D.C. I bought my first house recently just for the sewing studio I could put in the basement. If I’m stressed at work, a couple hours down there sets me straight and when I think about it, that all comes back to the good habits I learned there.

Kolleene Rathmann, Student

I met Jill when first attending her art school, Kaleidoscope, at just four years old. Although Jill was not my first teacher, she was truly the one teacher I strived to learn from. It took me close to 10 years to be old enough to take her clay sculpture class, but it was well worth the wait.

Jill’s gentle and kind soul is what I love most. Her heart is full of life and love that radiates to everyone around her. She is a woman of grace, compassion, and creativity. Jill is a mentor, the hippest grandmother, and a perfect role model. Through Kaleidoscope, she created a safe haven for students to escape and explore their creativity. The impact Jill has made on my life is something I deeply cherish. It has been 22 years since I first stepped foot in Kaleidoscope, and I am truly honored to have had Jill to look up to all this time. Congratulations Mrs. Funk on a successful 30 years!

Susan Smith, Colleague

Jill is my friend and mentor. We have worked together at Kaleidoscope for almost 16 years. Jill’s gift to me and to the community is art for the soul, seasoned with humor. Her compassion for people and her art advocacy is what has laid the foundation of this wonderful art school called Kaleidoscope—her home away from home where she encourages her students and the staff with a positive attitude, creativity, and wisdom. Jill has a remedy for whatever unwelcome life-intrusion may come. That remedy is art (and laughter, too). She displayed amazing love and support during a difficult time in my life when both my parents sustained traumatic brain injuries. Jill encouraged me to embrace my art, as she has often done to get through her own difficult times. Jill has walked through her own trials and come out stronger, ready to help others by sharing her heart. I am so grateful for Jill Funk. My life is enriched because of this remarkable lady!

Val Zaba, Art Teacher

One of the joys of moving to Barrington Hills in the late ‘80s was finding Kaleidoscope Art School. I began teaching there and soon after, my children were old enough to attend classes. In those days there were literally lines of moms down the street hoping to get their children into the morning preschool classes and afterschool sessions for the older ones.

My children, Audra and Zach, remember the whimsicalness of the Kaleidoscope house, and the orphaned clay animals nestled in the garden in front. They remember the excitement and mystery of going down the backstairs to the clay room and the magic of creating something there. But their greatest memory was the community project they helped with for the street art show, one summer. Lipofsky’s department store had burned down, leaving an empty lot and blank wall. With the help of the Kaleidoscope staff and the Barrington Arts Council, a plan was devised. The wall was to be primed and blocked out for the participants of the fair to paint it.

Today, my son, Zach, is a lighting and sound director for the band “Turkuaz” and daughter Audra is a food photographer in Chicago. Their involvement in the arts in Barrington and the classes at Kaleidoscope were important factors in their interests and career choices.

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David Rutter is a regular contributor to Quintessential Barrington.

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Publisher’s Note: Quintessential People™ is a heartfelt collaboration between our publication and portrait artist Thomas Balsamo. Our goal is to share exceptional images and words that ring true about some of the finest, most inspiring people in our community. For more information, contact QB at publisher@qbarrington.com, or Thomas Balsamo (Portraits By Thomas) at 847-381-7710, or visit www.portraitsbythomas.com.