Another Goodbye: Barbara Lazarus Metz

Yesterday I sadly received the news that another friend, mentor and stellar book arts personage has left us: Barbara Lazarus Metz. I first met Barbara at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago when I was a grad student.  I was teaching assistant to Joan Flasch, another Chicago book arts legend, when she passed on at far too young an age. Barbara, as Joan’s friend and fellow bookbinder / book artist, helped organize the bookbinding studio in the aftermath.  Barbara was one of the founders of the legendary Artists’ Book Works, which was located in one of the two storefronts of her building on Irving Park Road.  I participated in some of the shows there, but didn’t get to know her very well at that time. So, I was extremely surprised to get a call from her shortly after my graduation: “I want you to come teach bookbinding at ABW.”  I remember replying, shocked: “…Me?  Teach binding?! But I’m…I’m a book art weirdo.” She laughed and said, “But you are a book art weirdo with skills.” Cautiously, I went, I taught, I liked it, the students liked it, and that was that: I began teaching regularly at ABW, then the Newberry Library, then other places. A few years down the road, Artists’ Book Works and Paper Press combined to become the Center for Book and Paper Arts, so it is directly due to that one fateful call from Barbara that I met Marilyn Sward, Judith Hoffberg (they were great friends), Bill Drendel and so many, many others.

Barbara was also an extremely active curator and exhibit organizer, and as the new Center’s exhibitions manager, I worked closely with her on a number of excellent shows.  One of the most memorable was a miniature book show: there were over 600 exquisite tiny books in the small original Center’s gallery.  Installing was exhausting, but I learned so much from Barbara about displaying books that couldn’t be handled to their very best advantage, things I was able to adapt to countless shows later.

Barbara was enormously feisty and could be prickly, and in later years I found that, unknown to me at various times, people were wary of me because of our association, but she always treated me very, very well. We had fun and laughed a lot together, even during a sweltering week painting her entire large kitchen ceiling in four separate layers to make a rather odd faux finish. It was that feistiness that drove her to get things done…and she got a LOT done.  Her life was rich with accomplishment, friends, opera, world travel, gardening (her backyard garden was lush and lovely, and we traded plants several times), her family and grandchildren.

There’s another thing I owe to a sudden call from Barbara.  During my divorce, when both my financial situation and general direction were extremely precarious at best, she called because she had found a deal with a local distributor: a fantastic price on a Kutrimmer, if two were ordered at the same time.  I absolutely shouldn’t have; but she convinced me, “You need to equip your studio!”  So we went in on them together and I still have that machine, good as new.  It not only immediately earned back the (rent!) money I spent on it, but has paid for itself many times over, each year I’ve owned it.  After that, I made a vow to myself to acquire one piece of equipment yearly, no matter what. If not for one of those calls from Barbara, even my sweet home studios may not have happened.

In June 2008, at the very same time we all received news that Marilyn Sward’s departure was immenent, Barbara suffered a sudden brain hemorrhage while traveling in Turkey. It made her last years difficult in many ways, and lately she’d been living in Minneapolis, near one of her children (who were marvelous at keeping her widespread friends informed about her). Fittingly, the last time I saw Barbara in person was due to her unexpected e-mail popping up in my inbox. It was just at this time of year: was I going to the Ragdale holiday party?  She was not allowed to drive anymore, and wanted a ride. I picked her up, and we had long talks on the way there and back. She was quite open and frank about her brain injury, and laughed heartily about the more absurd aspects of the ways it affected her.  After the party, I took her to Whole Foods at her request, and then carried her groceries up to her apartment, and we talked awhile longer.  She was excited (as always) about an upcoming trip: yet another adventure.  Today, I am finding immense comfort thinking of Joan Flasch, Marilyn Sward, and Judith Hoffberg all welcoming Barbara to that big ongoing party and eternal adventures together.  The annual Ragdale party is this weekend, and I will quietly toast them all, these strong, lovely women I and so many others have been so, so privileged to know.

Barbara’s memorial page.

Some of Barbara’s marbling on a card from a few years ago:

(As for me, I have been sick, sick, sick with a flu for the past six days and am just now poking my head up, even more monumentally behind on things).

7 thoughts on “Another Goodbye: Barbara Lazarus Metz

  1. oh, wow. so much loss. but your tribute to barbara, as well as to all of your friends, is touching and frank, thoughtful and heartfelt, almost eerily so. it’s remarkable how good you are at it! to be so generous in grief. thank you for sharing, always, and i agree–i hope that she is enjoying the party.

  2. Melissa. I wrote to you a way ago that I had found your page and replied to your Marilyn page. I knew Joan very well, worked with her at the “tute,” and also knew Barbara. I taught her first letterpress class at ABW. Many years ago. I knew Judy through ARLIS (Art Librarians Association) and had work with her on a few project through that group. Marilyn I knew briefly and more by reputation. All four women are major player and creative beings. Barbara’s work is one of the first “home town” feminist work that I responded too. She was unique. I actually live for a while around the corner from her when she occupied the ABW buildings and adored her apartment and garden. Beautiful sanctuary hidden along Irving park. The Flaxman Library has all of Barbara’s book and especially her fabulous collection of pop up book. It is wonderful to think of those four meeting up again – trying to see who gets the last word in during one of there chats. That’s the hard part…each one of them strong and individual. A good tribute…thanks

  3. i like how honest you are about someone who was a complex and strong female, not necessarily the sort of woman the culture expected… i didn’t know her, but i got a sense of her from your writing.

    and i am glad you are getting better, just in time for feasting and, as always, the “wrong” (but necessary) kind of paperwork.

  4. Oh Melissa, thank you for the comfort in your words, reflections of those strong, vibrant, accomplished and real women who knew how to mentor so many – in so many ways!! My heart is heavy from the loss, all while being flooded with memories from the first time I met Barbara while studying photography down at SIU with her son Ken. She came down and taught us paper making, marbling, bookbinding and box making…and that was it, I was smitten with both the book arts and Barbara! I have too much to thank her for in this reply and will be sending her and Marilyn love through as much vibration as I can from here to the other side…thank you, miss you, love you.

  5. Thank you all…I think people who are dynamic / influential in our lives need to be written about and experiences shared, and this is the space I have to do it in. I wrote this in 2008:
    “I will make my own memorial. I need to do it, and (she) deserves every reminiscence that each one of the multitudes of people she affected cares to share.”…and I still believe it.
    Of course, ultimately, I am writing about myself and how I was affected, which is the best we can do…

  6. Dear Melissa,

    This is Hillary Barbara’s daughter and I am in tears after reading this amazing tribute to my mother. Your honesty and deep understanding of who she was and the role she played in your llife has moved me deeply. As I hope you know we are doing a “celebration, memorial, remembance” (pick your word) for her on 28 April at Colulmbia Center for Book and Paper Arts, I am hoping you will attend and even more importantly would be willing to read this wonderful “rememberance” of her during the memorial service part of the afternoon. It would be such an honor to her and make us all very happy.

    Feel free to write me back directly via email at And thank you again for your warm and touching words. I only wish I had found this earlier, yet I’m thrilled to have found it now. I will be forwarding the link to my bothers as well.


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