Remembering Marilyn Sward

People doing searches for Marilyn often get directed here, so I’m giving this post its own page.  It was originally published on 9 June, 2010. Entering her name into the blog’s ‘search’ box will bring up other, briefer mentions.  Thanks for visiting.


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 non-credit 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!!!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.

3 thoughts on “Remembering Marilyn Sward

  1. Hi Melissa…just found you blog and saw the tab for Marilyn. I was a librarian at the John Flaxman Library at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for almost 30 years and just recently retired for family reasons but I had the great pleasure of working with Doro Boehmen, Special Collections Librarians – Joan Flasch Artist Book Collection, I actually knew Joan for years – she was equally special and dear, but I digress, and one of the last functions I took part of was in help to receive and accession Marilyn book collection which was donated to us by her husband. It was a wonderful experience to touch and smell books that held so dearly by someone with such unique qualities. I’m sure you’ve been to the collection but it might be a nice place for you to wander over some time and revisit some of your memories. Take care.

  2. Gosh, I am speechless and sad at the same time, because I had been searching for her phone number and I couldn’t find it. I loved Marilyn because she taught me art and introduced me to the art community. I worked for Polaroid Corporation and taught at her place every year! She loved her students, her work, and mother nature. I met Barbara Crane, Peter LeGrand, Chuck Shotwell and many others through Marilyn. And lastly, a SHOUT to MArilyn… “We love you and we will see each other again!” Nelly Smyser-De Leon

    • Hi Nelly – I remember you; I took one of those Polaroid transfer classes. It’s very sad that Marilyn is no longer (physically) with us.

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