Yesterday my dear friend Marion Coleman died. While I have known the end was near for months, I have been unable to articulate my sorrow until now. Marion was my fourth close friend to fight and lose the vicious battle, that is cancer. The one thing I have learned, other than cancer sucks, is how important it is to gather the goodness each one brought into my life, and to cherish it. By carrying their richness, they live on, in my heart.
I met Marion in 2003 at a SAQA regional meeting. It was the first meeting for both of us, and in Sacramento which means we both had made an effort to be there. I thought to myself, who is that exquisite tall black woman?! She shared later she had spotted me that same day. I continued my observation for about a year, until I asked her to mentor me on my Tall Girl project. I knew it was going to be a difficult story to tell, and that I might need someone to prod me, and had witnessed her to be an articulate, smart, gifted, get-things-done woman!
She asked me to write a business plan to define my goals for the project. She was the calm voice of reason when I needed it; and instrumental in my finding the way through the jungle of my repressed stories. She encouraged me by saying how much my story would help others, and challenging me to always aim higher. As a result I was able to secure six venues for the exhibit, including the National Quilt Museum. We talked then about doing a collaborative project of our own. We, women of two very different worlds had a lot of similarities which needed airing and sharing. It is our job as elders to tell these stories she would say.
In 2014 we met over lunch in Berkeley to discuss the particulars of that project we had spoken of years earlier. The time was ripe to finally start. It was to be an autobiographical project examining the contrasts and parallels of our lives as two tall aging women; one African American, one Caucasian. She had grown up in the Jim Crow south and I, in her words, in an affluent white suburb of San Francisco. One would think we had nothing in common, and yet we shared an incredible number of similarities, both as kids and as adults. Meaty subject matter, this one!
We were both approaching our 7th decade, which brought its own unique set of challenges. Since she was a year older than I, we set my 70thas the deadline, which bought us another year! She chose our working title for the series, Defining Moments: Stitched Perspectives on Becoming A Woman. She said we needed to each design a solid 25 museum-size pieces. Sure, twenty-five large pieces in three years’ time… I can do that! (what? are you nuts?!) And so, we began.
Early on, I learned that we had very individual ways of working. I, of the spreadsheet tribe, mapped out all my ideas and designed the work in chronological order. She was deadline driven, and made the work as it came to her, in between other projects, designing public art, solo exhibits, curating Neighborhoods Coming Together, and mentoring youth. Some of her work went in and out of the series, and yet it all came together in the end. Because all of her work was narrative, it fit together like pieces of a puzzle.
People kept asking me… how many has she completed? Is she going to finish? What if she doesn’t get them done? And so on. I never lost faith. I just recognized she had a different style of working than I did, and that it would all sort out, as it did.
Our 25th piece was to be a true collaboration and we tossed out all sorts of ideas via Skype. (We both disliked the 90 minute drive in traffic which stood between us.) When it became too painful for her to work, she was unable to finish the project, let alone our grand finale, #25. I designed my own #25 Homage, in honor of her, my friend, my mentor, my project partner. She told me the piece made her cry.
In the end she had stitched thirteen pieces and we still have a robust exhibit, which makes its debut in July at Visions Art Museum in San Diego for a 3-month run. Even as she lay gravely ill, she graciously allowed me to take possession of her work so that our committed exhibits will still be seen.
In the last month I have been designing the catalog for our exhibit. I called her frequently with questions: details that if one were dying would not seem terribly important. Yet she was always so kind and patient, even thanking me for pulling it all together for our exhibit. How does one even wrap their head around that? It is just who she was, the epitome of grace and kindness. I just feel it so important that her work continues to be shown.
Marion was the most generous-of-spirit woman, and particularly artist, I have ever met. There is so much professional jealousy in this field (although how professional is it to be jealous?) She believed when one succeeds, we all succeed. There is enough for everyone. She always shared calls for entry for exhibits, public art, grants, internships, fellowships, etc. She taught me so much as an artist, as a woman. I will always reach higher and push through the fear because of her.
She made me laugh when talking about grants though. She would say I should apply for this grant or that grant. I HATED the idea and would say, no, if I need money I will just go to the bank (a white privilege response if there was ever one). She would say…Girl, they are just giving away money and you need to get you some! Finally, I relented and applied for a couple of grants and actually got one! Oh, happy day. They were just giving it away, just like she said!!!
Five years ago, I asked her about her end goal for her art, and she said she wished to be recognized as a NEA Heritage Fellow. Well, talk about manifestation! Last September she was recognized as a 2018 NEA Heritage Fellow, one of NINE in the entire country. Beyond this extraordinary achievement, was the timing, when she was so gravely ill. She gathered together her nearest and dearest and flew to DC, and on to NY to accept this great honor, bestowed on her. It gave me such joy for her end goal to be met, and for her to live to experience it.
I haven’t spoken much publicly of her illness these past 15 months, out of respect. It was her story to tell. But, now, be prepared for shameless self-promotion of Defining Moments and the ongoing exhibition of the exquisite artwork of my dear friend, Marion Coleman. She lives on through her art.
My deepest sympathies to her kids Mel, Lisa, Eric and Tina; to her sister Sharon for taking such extraordinary care of her these past four months. And to her two grand-girls, siblings and stepmother. And to all the people whose lives she touched. She was loved and admired by so many. How blessed we all were to know her.
She and Nyls are together again. RIP dear one.