Maria DeCaprio-Sunta has been recognized as Greatest Person of the Day on Huffington Post, a feature that spotlights ordinary and extraordinary people in Patch communities whose acts of courage, determination, volunteerism and compassion have made a difference in their towns. These are people who inspire and energize others to strengthen their communities and improve lives.
The first thing you notice about Maria DeCaprio-Sunta’s home is the artwork. Each wall is carefully adorned with her own creations and those of her friends. She has so much art that she changes out the paintings for the season.
“When I go into someone’s home and they have bare walls, I just don’t understand it,” she says.
But her home isn't the only place DeCaprio-Sunta’s artistic touch is felt. If you drive through Palos Heights, you are likely to come across a project she worked on.
There is the Art Garden, the new mural on Harlem Avenue, murals in the Palos Heights and Palos Park recreation centers, the McCord House, her show on Channel Four, Palos Fine Arts and the DeCaprio Art Gallery at Moraine Valley. Not to mention the dozens of local students who have taken classes in her basement.
“I can’t really make a difference at the national level, but I think I make a difference in my community,” DeCaprio-Sunta said. “I have been given this gift and I feel a need to spearhead these projects.”
She was always an artist in some ways. She remembers taking to art at a young age while growing up in Palos Heights and busying her hands with craft projects as a girl. After college she went to work in the corporate world and found herself cherishing the moments when she had a paintbrush in her hand.
After she and her husband Jack Sunta had their daughter, Vanessa, she became a full-time mother. Yet a yearning to make an impact outside of her home was always there, and it was through art that she found her voice.
Her brother, Robert DeCaprio, died unexpectedly 20 years ago. He was always viewed as the artist in the family, and DeCaprio-Sunta recalls marveling at his talent. After his death, her art began to take on a different dimension.
"I kind of feel that his life was all about the arts," DeCaprio-Sunta said. "I feel a little bit of his spirit with me when I do these things."
DeCaprio-Sunta still works on the same draft table that her brother used to paint. After his death, her parents donated money to establish the Robert F. DeCaprio Art Gallery at Moraine Valley Community College. The space features rotating exhibits throughout the year.
When Palos Heights Mayor Bob Straz identified a former ComEd-owned transformer lot one block off the Harlem Avenue business district as a spot that should be a community focal point, he formed a committee to bring the project to life.
At the center was DeCaprio-Sunta, who not only had the artistic touch but an ability to persistently see a project through to completion.
"I find myself trying to get people enthusiastic about projects," DeCaprio said. "You have to get very creative on how to solve problems."
When the garden was completed, DeCaprio-Sunta designed the entrance sign. She was also instrumental in the mural recently unveiled along the Harlem Avenue business district. She sees all these projects as a sign that with a little effort, a community can come to embrace the arts.
"I get so upset when people talk about the absence of the arts in the south suburbs," she said. "We have so much going on around here, you just have to look a little harder."
For many, DeCaprio-Sunta has become the go-to person when there is a project in need of energy. Pat Sheppard, the city's deputy clerk, works closely with DeCaprio-Sunta on the Art Garden Committee.
"When she commits to something she stays with it to the very end," Sheppard said. "She just has so many connections and an enthusiasm to bring the arts to everyone."
Sheppard and DeCaprio-Sunta already have begun talking about future projects. In 2009, DeCaprio-Sunta was awarded the Studs Terkel Humanities Service Awards for her work in bringing the arts to the Palos area.
Walk down the stairs of DeCaprio-Sunta's home in Old Palos Heights and you enter an art classroom. Student work hangs on the walls and long tables sit waiting for the next class. For the past nine years she has taught painting classes to everyone from young children, to eager seniors.
Her work has evolved as well. She began with a focus on watercolors that captured the beauty of the natural world. Over the years, she has expanded into abstract pieces and mixed-media works that combine painting with photographs, torn paper and other techniques.
DeCaprio-Sunta estimates she has completed well over 400 works and can't go more than a few days without picking up her paintbrush. While she gains personal satisfaction from the quiet work of her personal projects, the community projects are where she has found her greatest medium.
"I was determined to take my role at home to another level," DeCaprio-Sunta said. "And that was finding a way to contribute to my town."