Season o’ Workshops, part 1

Friday: Packed and left two hours later than I planned, though well before rush hour (even a summer weekend rush hour), yet still: three hours to get out of Chicago. Approaching Cleveland and approaching 11pm eastern time and 10 hours of driving, with a planned stop to say hi to whichever Smiths are awake, I think: “I’m going to ask if I can stay.” Exactly one second later, a text: “U can stay tonite if u want”. There are no friends like old friends. Or: great minds…make me smile.

Saturday: Breakfast with both Smiths, and – zip – onto a series of inter-states.  Drive drive drive drive drive. Overcast, a lot o’ construction, a little drizzly till early evening, when the sun came out to highlight the Catskills (and more construction) while I wonder yet again why I live in Chicago.  Off the highway to Route 52 to 209 to Stone Ridge and a quick grocery stop, reach Women’s Studio Workshop at about 8:30 pm, and move into the separate apartment in the Atwood house (with a lovely bathroom and a big worktable: perfect). I’ve now stayed in each of the WSW guest artist places. Move all the PBI stuff into the apartment, unpack clothes, discover that there is only intermittent wireless, and then: crash (there is no other word).

Paper (Kelly).

Sunday: unload WSW workshop stuff, happy hellos to everyone, beat fiber (6 hours), soak kozo, gather materials, make dye samples, get handouts and demos ready, realize I did not think to bring a swimsuit or even shorts, grab a second shower, off to a long loud  meet & greet dinner, start to drive back, turn around and fetch myself a late-night frozen yogurt cone, raspberry fudge swirl.  Oh yeah.

Monday: Up early, more prep, slide talk, everyone shares their previous work, a series of demos, lunch, more demos, marathon papermaking session while kozo cooks, discuss armature ideas, soak more abaca, one last demo, then out to the Egg’s Nest for a nice reunion dinner with Abby, who is teaching a letterpress/ book class.

Tuesday afternoon team Kozo: Kelly, Meg, Arielle

Today: Up very early (class begins at 9), drain and rinse kozo, everyone helps load the beater, a couple more armature and abaca demos, kozo and dye demos, quick delicious lunch, try to fix a not-so-old, but inexplicably odd powerpoint (which goes from recent work to earlier; I can’t remember why), give up, and then: enthusiastic, intense, productive experimentation by everyone all afternoon.  I am impressed; what a great group!  Get more kozo soaking to cook tomorrow; we used nearly all of it today, and finished off all but a bit of the first load of abaca, too. Cobbled together a drying rack thing from a rolling wire step-stool, various clamps, pellons and unscrewed broom handles. Things are looking great in here.  Inventive, intriguing shapes hanging to dry and it’s only the second of five days. I’m writing while eating a cold quick dinner, then am off to de-pulp myself in a second shower, and then a public slide lecture, with the unrepaired backwards powerpoint.

Tuesday afternoon Team Abaca: Ingrid, Arielle, Pamela (actually, everyone is on both teams.  This is just one of the few times I remembered my camera).

And this is the diary of a mad summer workshop instructor; to be continued for several more weeks.

Also Paper (Arielle). And badly focused because I didn’t turn off the fan (me).


I am frantically finishing the packing for my six-weeks-on-the-road, four-classes-in-three-states-tour…I hit that road tomorrow.  It will be SO lovely to be back on the Binne at Women’s Studio Workshop, to see some of Maine, to reconnect with Aimee at the Morgan, and to meet new folks in my classes and Make Things together.  Still, I’m a tad conflicted at leaving, and was sad when I shut my wee studio down for the duration earlier this week.

But  no time, so few words today, but some links:

Jeff Chiplis Is Home!  And Smith has the scoop, along with links to his TV interviews. (I am still coughing badly, so hopefully will visit a stronger Jeff in August).

I meant to tell you about Tatana Kellner’s installation at the Kentler International Drawing Space in Brooklyn, but that got pushed out of my brain by the shock of Jeff’s shooting.  However, she’s just been featured in PS1’s Studio Visit.  I saw and was totally intrigued by some of her flax bread when I visited in March. Have a look!

Oh, and PS2: Gallery Shoal Creek has just put up a lovely series of web pages on Paper 2, its upcoming September exhibition.  I’m very pleased to be included, and to be heading back down to Austin at the end of the summer for the reception.

…and quirks.

I’m not having the best of times right now; not terrible but not great either.  I’ll be on the road in one week, moving around for six weeks, and I’m way behind on what I need and want to have accomplished before I get in the car.  A large part of this is due to a lingering, very nasty cough left over from whatever hit me when returning from Cleveland that continues to deplete my energy.

But I am so pleased to say that Jeff Chiplis seems to be recovering like the champion he is.  I’ve been following along on Walking Thin Ice; Smith is covering everything thoroughly, and providing all the links to all the information; thank you, Smith.  I’m also checking Jeff’s CaringBridge site daily. It’s the second time I’ve experienced one of these.  They are absolutely great (Smith’s blog has the link).  And I really liked this from Smith: Jeff’s backstory written from a totally Cleveland viewpoint by cartoonist Derf (scroll down to ‘gunning down artists’ – though ‘RIP quicksand Jesus’ is pretty good too. I might have to start following this; have always liked his comics).  I was hoping to time my initial trip east to be able to stop and visit Jeff in the hospital, but if I can’t lose the cough, I won’t; I might be a very bad risk for him for infection at the moment.

This bit sums up how things are for me personally right now: I went out with friends on Tuesday night and had one too many excellent drinks, but got home decorously and safely in the wee hours; remembered to park on the other side of the street for street-cleaning, remembered to finish some little chores for the morning, went to bed, woke fine and refreshed, did the morning’s nitpicky work, then headed downtown for a long important meeting, remembering to collect and bring along all sorts of minutiae.  Got to the office, opened up my hearing aid case, and: It. Was. EMPTY!  So I spent three hours with my hands cupped behind my ears, reading lips, asking for multiple repeats, resorting to written notes when I just couldn’t get it, and feeling utterly stupid.  By the end, I was exhausted as if I’d been digging ditches with my fingernails for days.  Home and the hearing aids were on the passenger seat of my car, carefully wrapped in a bandana after leaving the bar. Sigh.

The reception for Listening (and Premiering Print Portfolios) is tonight; wish I could be there, even coughing and deaf.


I’m racing against time again, completing the prep for all summer classes, gathering the materials I’m providing for them all, making a small piece for a themed winter show that has a summer delivery deadline, shipping off another two pieces, polishing off a couple of writing projects and, as always, dealing with backed-up admin. There will be a couple of lengthy formal meeting-type days thrown in soon, too.  It’s hectic now because I lost nearly a week. The day after I arrived back from Cleveland, Paul’s birthday, I got knocked down flat, nastily sick with a respiratory infection.  I slept for 48 hours straight, and was pretty weak and out of it for the next few days as well, but that did let me finally finish the previous piece about Marilyn, since I had no energy for anything else (I left so much out, though). As soon as I was able to get moving I bought food and got all my hair chopped off, Cecile came and made beautiful iris-stem paper, I took Paul out for a belated birthday dinner, and now, alas, Paul has come down with exactly what I had (sigh).

Yesterday brought horrible news from Cleveland; old friend and highly respected artist, Jeff Chiplis (whose sweet tiny guest house I stayed in on my way back from Vermont Studio Center in 2008), was senselessly shot during a robbery attempt after the monthly Tremont Artwalk. Smith visited him yesterday, and reports that thankfully, he is out of danger, that the damage was able to be repaired, but there will be a long recovery and more surgery ahead. (Another friend reported that Jeff’s condition was upgraded from critical to critically stable late yesterday). My heart goes out to Jeff and his lovely spouse Cynthia. Somewhat ironically, Jeff’s wonderful recycled neon work was just featured at the Butler Institute of American Art; it’s beautiful, witty work that’s been featured in Art in America and shown internationally. If you have any healing energy to spare, please, please send it Jeff’s way.

Here is Smith’s page documenting Jeff’s Butler exhibition, to help you.

Remembering Marilyn Sward

I worked with Marilyn Sward from the beginning of the Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts in 1994 at 218 South Wabash, where she was its founding director, until her retirement five years later, and we kept in touch until she left us, almost two years ago. Regretfully, I just missed getting to know her much earlier as the co-founder and director of the Paper Press, one of the two non-profit organizations that combined under Columbia College to become the Center.  When I first came to Chicago to get my degree at the School of the Art Institute, its papermaking classes were held at the Paper Press.  I excitedly signed up for one, but in the first class, which wasn’t on-site, my gut reaction to the instructor was to drop his class immediately. I was always primarily interested in paper as a sculptural material, and instead, I learned to cast with pulp (bought from the Paper Press) in a moldmaking class, and on my own through friends who gave me a huge quantity of dried processed cotton, and that was enough for awhile.

A few years later, Marilyn essentially inherited me as a community book arts instructor. I came to the Center via Artists’ Book Works, the second of the non-profits, where I’d been teaching since earning my MFA. When the new Center was created, my classes simply moved there. At first, except for scheduling, I had very little contact with Marilyn or Audrey Niffenegger, who was assistant director.  I came in on my evenings and taught my classes, and that was it. But my student evaluations were very, very good, and that meant something important to Marilyn; she made a point of talking to me, of asking what else I’d like to teach and of offering everything I suggested, of showing me things and of asking for my input.  I began to look forward to seeing her.  Eventually, she put me on the board, but I honestly was quite ineffective there (no wealthy contacts, for one thing).  Then, my ten-year marriage ended, with a crash that reverberated over the next year and a half.  I left town to go stay and work with friends in North Carolina, to earn money to buy a car and hire an attorney. I went in to tell Marilyn I’d be gone for a while and couldn’t teach.  “I – I’m getting a divorce!” I blurted.  She replied, cautiously: “Oh. How do I feel about that?  Am I happy, or am I sorry?” I thought a bit, and said, “You are mostly really relieved, and a little excited, but you are also a bit scared.” She said, “Well, then, congratulations.  You can do it, I know. Take care of yourself, stay in touch and let me know what I can do.”  Of course, being my independent-to-the-point-of-foolishness self, I didn’t. We talked a few times (I could hear relatively well on phones then) but only about class schedules; I evaded her personal questions (and everyone else’s).

A little while after I came back with my car, Marilyn called me in and said “I want to bring you on board.” She’d found some funding from somewhere within the school, and offered me a part-time job in addition to my teaching. The position had a non-specific title: coordinator. The pay was awful, but I said yes. I believe I was the third person hired at the Center, after Audrey and Kitz Rickert, who was the administrative assistant. On my first official day, I came in and reported to Marilyn, expecting to be assigned a list of tasks.  Instead, she asked, “Now…what do you want to do?  How would you like to help? You can fit in wherever you’d like.” I was astounded at that. I had a lot of gallery experience, and the Center had been mounting some interesting shows, but I thought they could be presented much better than they had been, so I said, “I’d like to run the gallery.” And that was that.  She got me a relatively decent pay raise fairly soon afterward, and with it, the position of Exhibitions Coordinator was originated. I held that post until I was appointed to teach full-time on the academic side in 2001.

Not that the gallery was all I did, by a long shot: at Marilyn’s Center, we all answered phones, gave impromptu demonstrations, doled out advice about all sorts of things, helped make big sheets of paper, cleaned, went shopping, worked on parties and benefits and openings, stocked supplies, found tools, repaired tools, painted walls, solved all manner of crises, stopped to look at all sorts of artwork, contributed to the schedule, dreamed up events, observed classes, consulted with current students, talked to potential students and instructors, pasted donated papers onto the foyer walls, went to lunch with visiting artists and dropped whatever we were doing to give tours when people came by, whether they were scheduled or not.  That was Marilyn’s policy, it was what she did herself, and it was sheer, utterly productive chaos. We worked damned hard, and we had fun, a lot of fun. We invented things constantly.  At one point, Audrey said, “Hey! Let’s have a national Biennial! We can see what’s being done out there by bringing it to us!”  We did, and quickly.  When I was awarded my first residency, Audrey and I both broke into a spontaneous whooping dance in the office while Marilyn was on the phone with a renowned international personage; she said, “I’ll call you back!” and joined in.  And she immediately gave me time off for the residency.  She was wonderfully flexible about such things; she knew the work would get done, and more importantly, that it would be done even more enthusiastically by artists who were not only permitted but encouraged to put their art first. It worked the other way, too, of course.  We were cheerfully expected to accept the unexpected in turn, and we easily did.  Once, everyone but me went to a Book Arts conference in Alabama; by then, I was dealing with horrid, very wrong hearing aids, and didn’t want to go to a crowded place where people would constantly be talking, so I volunteered (ok, pleaded) to stay and hold down the fort.  An hour after I got to the center alone, an entire class of grade school kids showed up for a tour and workshop Marilyn had scheduled that she’d forgotten to add to the calendar.  So, I dropped everything, put on the phone answering machine, and quickly put one together, and they left happy, already planning to return. In a similar circumstance, Audrey once sighed, “What I really need is a direct pipeline to Marilyn’s brain,”  and then we collapsed into somewhat hysterical laughter. But we all accomplished a great deal, and laughed a lot, too.

Marilyn was absolutely personal. She could cut deals and juggle figures with the most exhausting bureaucratic types, but there was not one whiff of corporate attitude in the workplace. She gave us time off – often without our asking – for unlikely things; even for teaching elsewhere. When Audrey’s cat and then my kitten died, we were each mightily upset, and she told us not to come in till we felt better. She gave one of us time off for “a romantic idyll.”  More importantly, when a young student worker, who anywhere else would have been considered to be the most peripheral, expendable employee, became ill with severe depression, Marilyn dropped everything and went to her house to check on her, communicated constantly with her parents, got her medical help, and stayed in close touch with her throughout her entire ordeal.  That student is now an amazingly effective, respected teacher, and an accomplished professional in her field.

Excerpts: Marilyn’s hand notations in Suzi Gablik’s “The Re-Enchantment of Art”. She gave me her copy when I took over one of her classes.

Marilyn loved the Center, absolutely.  She traveled constantly and she was known and highly respected worldwide, but the crux of her success was in her uniquely personal approach. The least known of ‘her’ people was just as important to her as any celebrated art-world maven; no one received preferential treatment, because everyone was treated superbly, respectfully and always, always personally.  The Center was like a huge, fabulous ongoing party to her in many ways; she believed in it wholeheartedly and it was something excellent she wanted to share and share alike with everyone. Some of us had fancier titles, bigger degrees, wider ranges of skills, but there really was no experiential hierarchy; we were all in it together. It was truly the most collaborative environment I have ever experienced, and absolutely no less professional nor effective for its unorthodoxy; in fact, it was moreso. In the single instance in which someone from ‘her’ crew had to be fired, which happened shortly after she retired, Marilyn made an exceptional effort to stay in touch with the person, and they remained good friends for the rest of Marilyn’s life.  That awed me.  Not long after I began to work at the center, there was a bit of a turf-war incident that involved me.  I didn’t see it coming, and when it blew up I fully expected that as the newest person with the least ‘tenure’, I would be let go.  Instead, Marilyn heartily defended me.  When I asked her why, she said, “Because you care. You care about your students, you care about the Center, and you care about what you do. That’s what we need here.”

She gave credit where credit was due, always. My fondest personal memory of this was at an incredibly intense benefit auction we pulled off at the HotHouse. People had donated various paper doll creations, and my job was to make them look as attractive to bidders as possible. I made stands for many of them, and then I had one insane afternoon to install them, while transforming an empty nightclub into a formal gallery and auction space with a crew of volunteers.  I was still deep into my ongoing early hearing aid woes, but Marilyn took that, as she did everything else, in stride.  She gave me her clunky early cell phone, but I couldn’t hear anything on it. All day, I needed to report in or request things from the next folks who were shuttling hundreds of items back and forth. Jamie Thome, who was a grad volunteer then, would call, put Marilyn on, I’d tell her what I needed, and then hand the phone to Jamie who would repeat Marilyn’s answer to me and then hand back the phone and we’d do it all again.  The benefit, in spite of a spectacular snowstorm just as it began, was a huge, crowded success.  At the end of the evening, a very tired and happy Marilyn was giving an extemporaneous talk at the microphone, and she glanced over and saw me sitting in a quiet alcove.  She beamed, flung her arm out towards me and simply said, “Ladies and Gentlemen…Melissa Jay Craig!”  I sat there exhausted and smiling to a standing ovation. My name was on the programs, so I’d already been credited in the traditional way, but she wanted to be sure I felt it.

Marilyn would sit next to someone on a plane, and suddenly, weeks later, we’d receive a donation from her seatmate.  She would meet someone in a one-day workshop, or a talk at a conference halfway round the world, and that person would end up in Chicago, earning a degree at the Center or teaching a workshop.  She loved to bring people together, to match people and projects up, to be a catalyst.  She was always coming up with opportunities to promote both the Center and everyone around her.  She wasn’t perfect in that, mind you: she didn’t always call things exactly right. At one point, she sent me off on a whim to what neither of us realized would be a full-scale formal academic interview, for which I was woefully unprepared.  It was humiliating, but when she apologized, I told her not to, because the unpleasant experience was also most curiously instructive, and therefore valuable.  She took that comment sincerely, as she did most everything; she truly, truly listened. (And years later, I used that experience to help build a class on academic teaching).

In 1996, when Suzanne Cohan-Lange, the founding chair (now emeritus) of the Center’s parent Interdisciplinary Arts Department wanted someone from the newly-created Book and Paper Arts MFA program to team teach in a class called Connected Images, she told Marilyn, “Find me a bookbinder who isn’t like this (her hands two inches from her face, making sewing motions).” Marilyn once again said, “Melissa Jay Craig!” and that began my association with the degree program.  Up until that time, I had only a vague awareness of the college’s involvement other than as the source of paychecks, or the place I sent student aides to with paperwork. We were essentially an outpost, both geographically and in other ways, and quite free to invent our own style of operation. After Connected, I started thesis advising and then creating and teaching other classes in the MFA program. When she retired, Marilyn hand-picked me to teach a core course of hers called Visual Environments.  It became one of my favourite courses of my teaching career, and I taught it every fall till it was pulled from the core curriculum under new management in 2007. But I am not going to write about the academic side, except to say that when I won the college’s Excellence in Teaching award in 2002, Marilyn was perhaps even more pleased than I was. She was the same about Audrey’s wildly successful first novel, and about Stacey landing a big contract for her letterpress business. If it happened for us, it was as if it happened for her.

Marilyn was unfailingly generous in many, many ways, from the dish of candy always kept full on her desk for anyone who passed by, to credit and praise for things well done, to her authentic interest in you becoming a better you.  There was no guile, no manipulation, no covertness. It was the most genuinely open professional environment I’ve ever, ever experienced: a freeing, highly productive paradigm, that allowed the flow of of the working environment, our personal artwork, our lives, to shift and fit together beautifully. When I became intrigued with working with paper and began to ask questions, she was honestly excited and utterly free with advice; she never failed to ask what I was doing with paper next nor to point me towards interesting work, research or processes. When I bought my first beater from Mark Lander, she actually jumped up and down, and cheered, “Hooray!!! I knew we’d get you eventually!!!”  She made sure I met every papermaker who came through, and urged me to attend their lectures or sit in on their classes.  Last summer, well after her death, when my bronze beater basically fell into my lap everyone who knew her said to me, “That was Marilyn!” or “Marilyn is dancing right now!” And I freely admit, while driving back to Women’s Studio Workshop with the beater in my car, I said aloud, “Thank you, Marilyn,” and I meant it.

That brings me to the most difficult thing to understand about her in a cynical, competitive, overtly corporate world, in the same-old, same-old way of doing things. Marilyn simply, truly saw the best in every person she encountered; and as my colleague Stacey Stern once said, she reached in and pulled that something out of you.  She expected the best of everyone, and that’s what she got.  She also fervently believed in the power of positive thinking; she believed that what you put out into the world was what would come back to you, and said so often.  I realize this can sound naïve, even simplistic, to people who never met her;  it also has prompted some snide comments that we who knew her are like a cult.  But I am here with many others to tell you that it worked for her, and worked wonderfully well.  Her life was definitely not without its hardships, difficulties and tragedies, but she overcame them all, even at the end, when both her courage and generosity of spirit let her openly share even her dying with us. We loved her.

I will never, ever forget my last visit with her, in hospice at a huge hospital. I went alone.  When I approached the businesslike concierge to ask for directions to her room, the woman’s face lit up; she knew of Marilyn from all the visitors she’d had, and she said, “Oh, it is so wonderful of you all to come.”  I gulped, smiled and nodded but thought, “Oh, no, it’s entirely the other way round.”

I won’t write about our last conversation; I hold it close, and I am still trying to do as she advised that day;  I will be trying for the rest of my life to more fully evolve into the person Marilyn saw.  I’m not there yet, but I do  know I am a better, and decidedly richer person for having known her.

Thank you, Marilyn. I love you.

L to R, Top:  Stacey Stern, Me, Christine F., Pamela Paulsrud. Bottom: Marilyn Sward, Linda Barrett, Audrey Niffenegger, Kitz Rickert. Spring 1998 or 99, in Elyn K’s installation at the old Center.

Though there is now no longer anyone there who worked with her, the Center for Book and Paper Arts has generously acknowledged Marilyn Sward by mounting a four-decade retrospective of her artwork, curated by two of her dearest friends, Audrey Niffenegger and Pamela Paulsrud, along with an alumni of the degree program, Stephen DeSantis. If you are in Chicago, and so inclined, you can go and meet a bit of Marilyn yourself.


I’m back in Chicago now, as of late this afternoon. I was so immersed in images, in the flow of images throughout space, that I did not feel wordy enough to blog or even post to Facebook; but I had a mighty fine time.  I stayed with old poet/ artist/ publisher friends Smith and Lady K in their airy aerie, the third floor of a big old brick Victorian on the edge of Tremont. It was comfortable, easy and fun, and thankfully as odd as ever, too – and therefore the perfect antidote to the hard but lovely work in the gallery. (Smith even put up images of the show faster than me!)  And, once again, I slowed down and stayed an extra afternoon and night; good for me. I thank you both hugely.

John and Bruce with the Premiering Print Portfolio show.

I want to thank Pam for doing the show with me, and for patiently and supportively answering hectic text messges while she was up in the woods with her family, and I also absolutely thank the great crew at the Morgan: Tom, Bruce, John, Spencer, Susan, Lauren and everyone else. Each time I go back there and experience more of the place I am more and more impressed in multifaceted ways.  It’s bustling along, and it has the same excellent feel to it as Women’s Studio Workshop, or of my time working with Marilyn Sward at the original Center. Just like at WSW, everyone gets together for a shared lunch each day, things click and work – a lot of work – gets done and yet it’s relaxed, friendly, always incredibly interesting and funny at the same time.  I loved having my work there for a number of other reasons, too, and these admirable aims are one of them:

Last (for tonight) but decidedly not least, I loved working within and interacting with that space.  It’s a fine example of Cleveland’s post-post-industrial gritty elegance, and that is forever my ‘hood, it’s bred in the bone; the Morgan and all its excellent goals and practices are its unique future, and they’ve let me be a part of that.  Between the Smiths and the Morgan, I did a lot of thinking about my Cleveland origins and how my past plays into my own future as well, but that’s Another Blog.

The kozo garden has doubled!  Plants that were up to my waist last year are now over my head – and there are dye plants, herbs and strawberries, too.

Oh! And here is the show.  See what I mean?

This wee hearty kozo plant is now in my back yard.