Gratitude

I love holiday weeks because the energy focus changes, becomes less urgent. The inboxes and texts have calmed down. My plan is to both relax and quietly wrap up projects over the weekend, hopefully allowing much of December in the studio: something to be grateful for indeed.

The lovely print above is by Marilyn Sward, done in 2006.  I had forgotten about it until I ran across it this week, carefully tucked away. On the back is a note full of good things that can still make me blush, including a bit about ‘organizing’. I’ve mounted it and hung it on my office wall so that I will never forget so very many things.

Here’s a nice review of Natural Cycles by Sara Burrows that came out this week in a number of North Shore local papers; big thanks to Alicia Bailey as well: I am honored.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

The Student

There are the mountains!

It’s now the end of the first week, which feels simultaneously like six weeks and twenty-four hours.  Yesterday, St. Patrick’s day, when the gorgeous morning fog rolled away, it was spring, and warm, and the mountains re-appeared. Today, we were able to move some of the papermaking outdoors, wearing only t-shirts. Right now, I’m ducking out of the Iron Studio’s ‘pin the pastie on the pinup’ party (though I sent on the paper pasties I made, cast cotton doorknobs embellished with flax, which I forgot to photograph…our one male book and paper person volunteered to take or maybe even wear them): quiet time to sit, relax, and above all to not hear, and to try and write a proper blog.

Our studio (up only five sets of stone stairs).

I am loving it here; can’t tell you how much, and I have only scratched the surface.  Marilyn Sward first told me about Penland soon after I met her, and she constantly urged me to come here (and also to Haystack in Maine, where she was on the board, which I have yet to even visit).  Somehow, I never made it except for a brief afternoon maybe five years ago, when I was visiting Mary while friends were teaching; Mary drove me up the narrow, twisty mountain-climbing roads for an afternoon visit. I was highly impressed and decided I absolutely had to come, but then my life began to segue into the strange period I’ve been slowly leaving behind for two years now. So Penland is somewhere I’ve wanted to be for a long, long time, and now I’m getting the first inklings of understanding why.

Where I live. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places. I have my own bathroom, and only two sets of stairs…

First impressions: it’s like two of the things I enjoy most rolled into one: a residency with all that entails, coupled with teaching that seamlessly and unapologetically melds content with craft.  It’s also in one of my favorite areas of the country. It’s a bustling, multileveled village high up on a mountaintop made up of artists who work or are learning to work in iron, precious metals, glass, wood, clay, fiber, paper, books, painting, drawing, sculpture, installation, performance, food, media and much, much more. I see no pretentiousness, no jockeying: just a community enthusiastically suffused with the joy, energy and intimate knowledge of making and exchanging…and I have so much more yet to learn and to share.

The dining hall and the view from it; Patrick Dougherty has festooned the porch.

Like any village, it has a wide range of ages, which makes it even more enriching.  The span in my class alone is fifty-four years. Artists do not retire. For me personally, there were the usual bumps in the road that come with learning the idiosyncrasies of a new studio while teaching, and the initial oddness of being the deafened person.  But I gave my slide talk yesterday which introduced me to almost everyone, and I learned something: while talking, I heard nothing, and simply assumed that everyone was unresponsive.  Not so; there were plenty of reactions. I had to watch what I was doing, so I simply didn’t hear them. So I’m definitely not only here to teach, I am wholeheartedly looking forward to all that Penland has to teach me. Now, I think I’ll head back to the wee house with my hearing aids on, to catch what I can of the chorus of hundreds of spring peeper frogs…

Nightly neon on the mountaintop, with the almost-full largest moon in 18 years…

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.

Well, that was fast…

mossy

I’m deep into the studio, into my work, making manifest something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, and it’s going slow but well (it always goes slower than I’d like, but then it’s my attention to detail that causes that, and is worth it). 

I’ve had some excellent conversations, getting others’ perspectives on the situation in a micro-and macro sense; unbidden support (some even international) continues to pour in, some of it from surprising, unexpected sources…and I’ve even had a couple of offers.  Healing may be quicker than I thought, as quick as my body usually bounces back from trauma (and is now, as without much conscious effort, I begin to shed the insulating weight I had put on during it all).

There may be other bits of backlash, or unforeseen obstacles down the road, but right now, I’m in my element, and even the most ridiculous news from afar just rolls off, as I realize: It Is Not My Problem any longer; another, even greater weight shed.

shroom

I’m thinking of Marilyn Sward daily…every time I tip a bucket of water into the great floor drains (she loved, loved, loved floor drains), I feel her smiling; every time I share a meal, or freely give or receive a bit of knowledge, it seems as if she is here (and she was here, during her time on the planet).

Now, I’m off on the obligatory residency Home Depot run…here’s a nice & kinda funny review that came in earlier this week.  I am both ‘unidentified artists’ at the end !  And, in another show, I also rather like being ‘borderline creepy’.

parts

gift

a gift that appeared next to the first prototype, and, though I don’t usually post work-in-progress, here is that prototype:

prototype

it just is…

hell1

Arrrgh.  WHAT a week.  That’s all I can say, of course, except that I wish I had cheerful. light or even interesting things to write about for you.  But, as Smith so wisely says, “This is the it it is.”  

On the plus side, an unexpected windfall of time let me get about halfway (at least I hope it’s halfway) through the office sorting yesterday, to get many of the things I’ll need for next semester moved out into the semi-public storage we’re stuck with (though that made me feel very uneasy), and to get four boxes packed to come home (almost all books, of my own making and reference books). The strata goes back further in time from my occupation of this space; bits and pieces are there from my old office, back to the very beginning of the Center.  I’m compiling a small box to contribute to its archives, however little its history is currently valued.  And, I’m finding little personal gems: photos, many many many notes from students and former colleagues, including notes and cards from Marilyn (each accompanied by a sharp little pang)…things that help my current feeling-bludgeoned state by reminding me that no, I truly have not wasted the last fifteen years.

Tomorrow, the Ragdale party.  That will also help, as it always does, by reconnecting me to my much larger, vibrant, open and warm Real Life;  Paul’s been doing that too.  And, in one more week, plus some fiber-beating and the actual loading and moving out, I will have six weeks of my own It.

nightvisitors1

another 3am window…

an article about Marilyn Sward

Sadly, I haven’t finished my memorial to Marilyn; it’s still coming. My slowness is due to a combination of busy-ness, big emotion when I do work on it, and wanting to get it exactly right. But here is a link to an article that appeared in the Columbia Chronicle, with a great photo. Suzanne Cohan-Lange gave Marilyn that cheerleading outfit when she retired as the founding Director of the Center for Book and Paper Arts.

Endings are always Beginnings

Marilyn’s sunset, August 4, 2008

I’m wrapping things up here at Jentel now, using up the last of the ‘good’ pulp by making sheets for the final, final copies of (S)Edition, which will be finished in Chicago, as soon as I can get the cover pulp re-beaten and reworked. I made 22 here. There was significant progress on the new piece, prior to August 5th, but for now, I am leaving it alone; I haven’t been able to give it the focus it needs. 

It’s been a rough few days.  This is the second time someone very important to me has died while I was on a residency.  Masumi’s death, two years ago, was sudden, unexpected, horrible.  In July, I knew as I drove away from Chicago that I would never see Marilyn again, at least in this life, but I had gotten to visit her, to say goodbye.  So, I didn’t anticipate the depth of my grief, having gone through a great deal of it before I left.  On Friday, the day of her memorial, I made a private ritual for her here, as I had done for Masumi, but it didn’t seem to comfort me as much as it did then.  Marilyn was all about bringing people together, and I really, really needed to be with “us”, with the huge community she formed.  Then, Audrey sent me the utterly perfect, poignant eulogy she had written and read at the memorial, and that began to help.

I want to write about Marilyn, but I haven’t been able to.  My experience with her is so very closely tied to the place she built and allowed me to help build, in my own way.  When I try to write about her, I fall into the vast gulf between “then” and “now”.  When I can teach myself to write simply about the incredible “then” that changed my life, that I am forever grateful to have experienced, I will make my own memorial. I need to do it, and Marilyn deserves every reminiscence that each one of the multitudes of people she affected cares to share.

But for now, I will make paper, and go for my sunset walk, watch the huge herds of deer that appear in the early evening, and remember.

The beautiful solitary doe I encountered the morning of August 5th, walking slowly away.