Liz Maugans Liz Maugans
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Liz Maugans finds her self-portrait on the wall at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland and smiles. Drawn in black and white pencil on a pale yellow background, hers is a face among friends.

In real life, her deep smile and wide-set eyes give her an approachable glow. She wears a loose white shirt, white pants and sandals, projecting the aura of a summer-chic prophet. 

A small red sticker dots her purse strap: “I am a Cleveland artist.” 

Staring back at her in long rows of 8 1/2-by-11 sheets are the self-expressions of almost 400 Cuyahoga County artists. There are photographs, pencil drawings, mirror selfies and something like a death mask with a morose-looking face molded into paper. One person photographed his face, cut it up and positioned the rectangles in space. Another drew himself as a cat with orange fur, black-frame glasses and a paw over his mouth, giving the impression of an upscale, contemplative Garfield. 

Off to one side is an oil painting of Cleveland Arts Prize winner William Gould, who died in April at age 87 before he could see his self-portrait on the MOCA wall. 

Maugans assembled the collection and named it: Artist’s Trust: A Portrait of the Artist in Cuyahoga County

“This is my life as an artist,” Maugans says, her eyes searching the visages. “To appreciate what I know is happening behind every closed door of an artist, how thoughtful they are, how important they are in so many ways. To dream, to teach, to inform, to protest.”

She began collecting the works back in March, creating 2,500 postcards and mailing them to local galleries. She posted on Facebook and talked it up everywhere she went. In a flash flood of creativity, the submissions poured in over the next 10 weeks.

For her penciled portrait, Maugans worked on several versions but settled on the one in the top row near the center of the wall. She looks out determined, her lips closed. Dark block letters cover her eyes, a message to the chorus that surrounds her: “You All Mean So Much.”

Just how much is more than an artistic exercise for her. 

In May, the 50-year-old announced she is stepping down as executive director of Zygote Press, the nonprofit artist workshop and gallery she helped establish 21 years ago. She wants to spend time on her own, making art and advocating for all those individual artists on the wall and those striving to get there. 

She began sketching the lines of that decision late last year, when grant funding for individual painters, sculptors, filmmakers and other artists in Cuyahoga County was suddenly tossed into question. Thanks to a tax on cigarette purchases, Cuyahoga County ranks among the top public funders of art in the United States, distributing about $158 million over the last decade. Most of that funding goes to major institutions such as the Cleveland Museum of Art. A smaller percentage supports projects such as Rooms to Let in Slavic Village, an event that turns vacant homes into artistic canvases for one weekend each spring. The smallest corner of the public funding, about $400,000 this year, goes to individual artists through the Creative Workforce Fellowship program.

But in November, Cuyahoga Arts and Culture, the agency that awards the grants, tried to shake up how the money was being doled out. In the past, artists viewed the fellowships as primarily based on the merits of their work, regardless of its purpose. The new plan was to shift the funding focus toward a program that emphasized “social change” art. Some artists questioned why a program they loved needed to change. Their fear was that the organization was trying to dictate the substance of their work.

Like a splatter from Jackson Pollock’s brush, Maugans sprung into action, emerging as an unofficial artist spokeswoman. She spread the word on Facebook, spoke up at a December CAC board meeting and organized a forum to keep the conversation going. When offered her first chance to show work at MOCA in a regional group show, Constant as the Sun, she gave up her valuable exhibit space to Artist’s Trust

“I think it is in response to a lot of the events that Cleveland artists have experienced directly leading up to this show,” says Maugans.

Spend a few moments looking over the wall and you will be awash in the affirmative power of Maugans’ gesture. We are here, the artists seem to say, and we are important

She hopes that statement will endure after the exhibit ends Sept. 17 and has created a website (theartiststrustcuyahogacounty.com) featuring the portraits and artist’s info. 

“This is really exciting to me,” she says. In many ways, it points toward her future. After she formally steps down from Zygote in December, Maugans will devote herself toward advocating for a larger role for independent artists in Cleveland’s public sphere. In her work as an artist and what she calls an “arts irrigator” — part administrator, part activist — Maugans wants to change the relationship between Cleveland’s artists, artistic institutions and the public. 

“I have about 20 other ideas in working with this chorus concept,” Maugans says, examining the collection of faces. “There is this sort of individualized power, but then there’s also this heft and this potential, like energy.”

A tiny studio, barely the size of one of Maugans’ collages, tucks into the basement of her Bay Village home. 

A poster on the wall depicts a young girl sitting on a living room couch rendered with sparse, crude lines. Fingerprints and ink leavings from the printing process float around her. Wearing a ruffled Sunday dress, she leans over a piece of paper, grasping a crayon or piece of charcoal in her right hand and the paper in her left. Loose hair falls over her carefully detailed face, obscuring her identity. The 1959 Fairfield Porter print is titled Child Writing (Lizzie Drawing).

Underneath all that hair, Maugans likes to think, could be her. After all, a similar photograph exists of her at 5 years old, sitting at a coffee table, wearing a similar dress, tongue out in concentration, drawing away. It was her moment. 

“I felt like it was waltzing into a dream,” Maugans says. “I knew right away that it was an epiphany, that that’s what I wanted to do.” 

One of four children, Maugans and her fraternal twin sister, Jennifer, were born into a straitlaced Lakewood household. Her father shuffled balance sheets and made capital outlays as chief financial officer of Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co. Her mother, a stay-at-home mom, later became a real estate agent. 

At Lakewood High School, Maugans played tennis and basketball. Her sister played sports too. But even in that, Liz and Jennifer took opposite approaches. Jennifer enjoyed offense, Liz defense. Where Jennifer was interested in science, Liz took to art.

Yet they shared a single-minded intensity for their individual passions. Maugans loaded up her schedule with arts classes. On Saturdays, the teenager whizzed across town on the Rapid to the Cleveland Institute of Art, where she took a portfolio preparation class. When one of her art teachers spoke glowingly of Kent State University, Maugans enrolled. As a printmaking and painting dual major, she found mentors in painter Craig Lucas, who died in 2011, and printmaker Noel Reifel. 

In the lead-up to her senior year in 1989, Maugans got a chance to mix her family’s left-brain organization skills with her own right-brain artistic abilities. Kent State’s graphic design department had taken over the former exhibition space to build a computer lab, leaving nowhere on campus for her class to exhibit their final projects. So Maugans organized a small group of students who pooled their money — $50 each every month — to lease and renovate a vacant industrial building about a mile and half off campus. They overhauled the two-story structure, turned it into a workspace and gallery, and ran it themselves. Then, Maugans summoned her teachers for her final project review in the gallery she’d created. 

“Because we were not on campus, there was a really great, liberated DIY-but-do-it-together mentality that I think really got in my blood,” Maugans remembers.

Maugans stomps cheerily up the stairs at 78th Street Studios, announcing her presence before she gets through the door. 

“Hello! Hello!” she calls out as she enters the Rust Belt chic Hedge Gallery. Hilary Gent, the gallery’s owner and a local painter, and her dog, Jack, are waiting. Earlier this year, Gent began representing Maugans, whose latest show, Too Much Information, hangs on the whitewashed walls. 

At MOCA, Maugans surrendered the space to others. But these works represent Maugans on her own, processing her world. 

As Jack retreats to his dog bed, Maugans crosses the creaking wood floor to a pair of collages hung side by side. 

The left one is called Keep Going. Maugans stamped those words in a triangular, three-line arrangement that leaves the final “G” dangling on a line by itself. Sometimes the black letters are full and vivid, resembling an arrow pointing ahead. Others barely have enough ink to complete the characters or have letters overlaid, obscured or ghosted. Using discarded paper from Zygote’s communal print shop, it weaves a simple-yet-sweeping palette of yellow, black and amber. 

The mashup confronts a constant of Maugans’ life — the desire to get organized and the struggle to balance everyday responsibilities like raising her three kids with making art and making a difference. “I’ve got this sort of load of energies and taking care of people and making sure that I got dinner on the table tonight,” says Maugans. “Hopefully it works out most days. Some days it don’t.”

Near the top, a pink circular cutout of a hamster wheel breaks free of the color scheme. The theme has been spinning in Maugans’ head a lot lately. At Rooms to Let in May, Maugans turned an entire room into a “wheel,” with mulch on the ground and walls plastered in images of hamster wheels. On a pedestal in the room’s center was Jane, a live hamster in a cage.

Below the wheel is what looks like a page ripped out of an orderly journal. Dating back to 1890, the ledger carefully tracks the details of the female owner’s life: recipes, the weather, newspaper obituaries. Maugans’ own datebook articulates a similar maze in pen, names, dates and lines that grow and grow until entire pages are dark with responsibility. She identifies with the woman’s attempt to catalog and harmonize that world, to keep going in service of something greater.

“I want to try to get as much as I can accomplished,” she says. “The more people that touch your life, the better your life will be.”

Then she turns toward the collage beside Keep Going, a collection of anguished, frenetic color called You Syria. The circles and dots, fingerprint-like swirls and geodesic meshes are a mental map of the Middle East, she says. It was inspired by reports on public radio about the Syrian civil war and the Islamic State. She was working on the piece while attempting to recruit an Iranian artist to Zygote for a residency. To communicate with him, she had to send letters to Switzerland, where they were forwarded on to Iran. 

“It took 18 months to get him here,” Maugans says. “I couldn’t even send mail to him in his country.” 

Hung next to each other, You Syria and Keep Going reflect the twin sides of the Maugans’ personality: one introspective and organized, the other passionate and outspoken, the artist and the activist. 

Maugans has been finding ways to intermingle her inward-facing art with her outward-looking activism going back to the foundation of Zygote Press. While teaching at the Cleveland Institute of Art in the mid-1990s, Maugans met Joe Sroka, a printmaking student. He was about to graduate, and Maugans was about to leave CIA for a job at Cuyahoga Community College, leaving the two without access to the school’s printmaking shop that supported their craft. 

So they set out to open their own. 

Maugans sent out a questionnaire to 20 other studios throughout the country on how a community print shop could work. She and Sroka teamed up with printmakers Bellamy Printz and Kelly Novak to lease space in the red-brick Buckeye Carbon Ribbon building at East 72nd Street and St. Clair Avenue. They launched the studio at a party in November 1996 that drew about 300 artists. They smashed a bottle of Dom Perignon over one of the presses like the christening of a ship. Since both Maugans and Sroka are fraternal twins, they named it Zygote Press, after the two fertilized eggs that bore them into the world, and a new chapter in their artistic lives.

“We knew people were hungry for something,” say Maugans. 

The early days were rocky with a shoestring budget. But in 2006, Zygote moved to its more unified current spot on East 30th Street. Maugans’ husband, John, a building tradesman, helped construct the print shop’s new home, just as he did the old one. Maugans became executive director. Under her leadership, Zygote became a one-of-a-kind destination, a place where artists could gather and work. Its budget increased from five figures to six.

Maugans was the beating heart of the place, Gent recalls. “She was always there buzzing around,” she says. “She was usually creating while she was doing eight other things. I always found that incredible, because the work that she was pumping out was always good.”

Maugans attracted resident artists from throughout the world who stayed in the little apartment above the shop, including an exchange program with artists from Dresden, Germany. Zygote drew artists outside of the printmaking discipline, such as Gent, Amy Casey and Douglas Max Utter. 

But Maugans didn’t stop with Zygote. In the aftermath of the Great Recession, local galleries were struggling. So in 2010, Zygote organized a series, called Strategic Arts Leadership Talks, for small and midsized arts organizations to discuss how to get through the tough time. One thing that came up repeatedly was the need to communicate, recalls Michael Gill, a former Scene and Free Times arts writer. 

Maugans, with her talent for bringing artists together, was well-suited to do something about the problem. 

Pairing her organizational skills with an activist’s zeal, Maugans received a project grant from the Ohio Arts Council to create a guide to Northeast Ohio galleries. Gill was hired to edit the magazine, which launched in 2012 with 10,000 copies distributed to 28 participating galleries. CAN Journal and the Collective Arts Network was born of their efforts. There are now 98 member galleries with the journal published quarterly. 

“The idea was generated among peers,” says Gill. “She was one of them. It wasn’t some publisher who showed up and said, ‘Hey I’ve got an idea, why don’t we do this.’ ”

That same year, Zygote Press won a prestigious Cleveland Arts Prize. 

“I’ve seen a lot of artists that they’re kind of a me-first type person,” says Dana Depew, an artist who met Maugans back in the early 2000s while putting together a show at his Asterisk Gallery. “She is very unselfish, where she’s thinking of the whole.” 

Yet, Maugans never stopped creating, squeezing out moments for her own work like colors from a tube. She would sit in the pews at Lakewood United Church of Christ on Sundays, draw portraits on the programs and screen-print her drawings. “It’s the one place that nobody wants anything from me,” Maugans says. 

On the wall at Hedge is a set of similar subtle prints, small by Maugans standards, with pared down meshes and rounded shapes. “It comes from a reflective side,” she says, “it comes from a quieted-down side.” 

She arrives in front of a piece in the corner, an explosive release of red and orange. Her face creases with a big smile and a belly laugh as she introduces the medium-sized smattering of paper and color, which she proudly dubs “punchy.” It’s called I Need A Big O. 

“This is self-explanatory,” the gallery description says. But she explains anyway, like a comedian who, not quite being able to land the joke, laughs so hard that you crack up too.

“I was thinking about when all the world is removed from your brain,” she says, “whether you’re doing it through smoking some weed or sitting on a beach with sand between your toes and looking out at the sunset or just losing yourself in the embrace of fantasy or sex or whatever.

“I love wit, in all my work,” Maugans continues. “I love when there’s silliness going on. I like when I can try to make people laugh with my work.”

She thinks back to some of her earlier etchings. “I’m reflecting on what it’s like to have kids or what it’s like to be around aging parents or whatever it is,” she says, suddenly serious. “And to try to take these private painful things and to expose them for the beauty of what they are, for the authenticity of what they are, for the honesty of what they are.”

In her artist statement, Maugans points to Too Much Information as a mile marker. 

“I’ve witnessed loss, divorce, transition, change in relationships and marriage, and politics transition in the world around us,” she writes. 

In the latter half of 2016, Maugans began working on a new collage. Hung near the center of the gallery, she called it Be. A colorful, abstract mashup, it is more directed than all the others. Orange boot shapes dance across the canvas in a drunken circle. Green, orange and red paint bleeds down in long lines, while half-circles, sunsets or cartoon mouths seem to stack on each other. On the left, a dark gray cylinder swirls upward like a DNA tornado. In the center at the bottom, a single piece of text is sheltered from the chaos under what looks like a striped hat and underlined in orange: “Be.” 

The base of the collage is a misprint, which Maugans flipped upside down and reused.

Maugans worked on the piece as her world was taking a similar turn. In November, Maugans received a call from her friend, Sean Watterson, owner of Happy Dog and a Community Partnership for Arts and Culture board member. The Creative Workforce Fellowship was about to change. She needed to be at a CAC board meeting. 

At the meeting, Maugans learned that CAC was severing its relationship with Community Partnership for Arts and Culture, the local nonprofit that had previously administered the individual artist fellowship. Its favor was instead aimed at National Arts Strategies, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. The new program was, according to executive director Karen Gahl-Mills’ prepared report to the board, “designed to empower artists for social change.”

Maugans, who had received a fellowship in 2013, was shocked by the news. She understood what the fellowship meant to the artists who received it, not just monetarily but as validation. “I can’t tell you what a reward that was for me, to be appreciated on a conceptual level, on a formal level, on an aesthetic level,” Maugans says. 

To her, the proposed model, which seemed to emphasize “social change” and “community change” as the primary measures of artistic worth, was a disquieting precedent. Rather than offering a frame for deserving artists, as in the past, this model felt like the funders were choosing the paints and the brush, and then guiding the artists’ hands through every stroke and splotch. Meanwhile, the powerful artistic institutions, which get the lion’s share of taxpayer money from CAC, didn’t seem to need such close supervision.

Maugans and other artists rallied against the changes throughout November and December. Even after National Arts Strategies pulled out of their agreement with CAC, roughly 150 artists and culture figures voiced their ire at the changes to the program during another December board meeting. 

At the meeting, CAC voted to set aside funding for individual artists. However, it hasn’t revealed what the program will look like yet. The board approved six general guidelines for the undefined program: a “broad definition” of an artist, flexible funding, a cohort model, a commitment to identify emerging artists and artists of color, learning opportunities and “supporting excellent art that actively engages and impacts the community.”

“We feel it’s necessary as a public agency that any work that we fund here also has an element of connecting whatever it is back to the community that pays the tax,” Gahl-Mills said in a January interview with Cleveland Magazine. “That is bedrock to all of our grant making. It has been since 2011.” 

She argued it’s the same that her organization asks of the art museum, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum or small organizations doing fairs and festivals. “It’s what we will ask of artists as well,” she said. “We think excellence and community fit well together.”

Her organization ended a relationship with its vendor who was managing the program, not with the artists it supported, she said. “I think what’s been hard is many artists have conflated ending a relationship, a contractual vendor relationship with, You think I didn’t do what I was supposed to do, and people feeling angry and concerned that we were criticizing them. And, boy, that’s something I feel terrible about,” she said. “We would never want to be criticizing artists for the work they were doing in the community.”

Trying to capture the momentum from the board meeting, Maugans and Watterson hosted a 90-minute forum around arts funding at the Happy Dog at Euclid Tavern Dec. 28. 

“It shouldn’t be coming from the top down,” Maugans said in an interview shortly after the forum. “It should be coming from the communities themselves in the drafting and crafting of what that program looks like.”

Maugans spent the spring drafting and crafting her own ideas. One was to form a political action committee or guild that could advocate on behalf of independent artists. Another was to lobby for cabinet-level cultural affairs positions in city and county government, while finding ways for tourism organizations such as Destination Cleveland to talk up working artists. She conceived the MOCA piece. And in the May issue of CAN Journal, she announced her departure from Zygote to pursue those ideas further.

“It’s very exciting for me to think how this union [of artists] can have a bit more power and voice in our city and in our county,” Maugans says. “Because currently, we don’t have much.”

Similarly, Maugans envisions Artist’s Trust as more than an art piece. Since the online database will stick around after Constant as the Sun closes Sept. 17, it could be an organizing tool, a way for artists to link up with each other and for the public to find them and see their work. She is in talks with Gordon Square Arts District to take on that project. She’s also thinking about ways to build up community residencies and an “artist’s trust fund” that could finance interesting work. 

Maugans also joined a 13-member committee assembled by CAC to study ways to support artists. “I’m actually participating in the conversations, which is more than I have before,” she says. 

Maugans gazes at Be, her orange “booted feet hearts” dancing over the page, the sun-stencils setting — or maybe rising. Maugans doesn’t need to be told to make “social change.” She’s already chosen to. 

“It was really driven with just [those] two words,” she says. “ ‘Be,’ in terms of: You are what you make. You can’t take somebody and tell them that they have to be an agent of social change.”

It smells like dirt. 

Leaving her Subaru parked on the curb, Maugans ducks into Cleveland Roots, a community greenhouse at West 41st Street and Roberts Avenue in the Clark-Fulton neighborhood. Brightly colored posters hang on clotheslines strung around the greenhouse, waving in the breeze as kids dash underneath. 

Drawing from Thomas Jefferson International Newcomers Academy just a few blocks away, as well as schools in Lorain and Oberlin, 16 teenagers are in the middle of a two-week summer camp in the greenhouse. The kids are researching food — how it’s made and wasted — as well as gardening and sustainability. They are translating that research into art with a papermaking machine on loan from the Morgan Conservatory and type settings from Zygote. 

It’s a diverse group. Four of the girls are observing Ramadan, which has sparked all manner of conversations. “This project is youth-led, so they come up with what they want to do,” says Maugans.

It’s lunchtime. In the back, a slow cooker is loaded with rice. The kids are finishing up their morning projects and have started milling around, chattering hungrily. One breaks out an electric guitar, and a small knot develops around the amplifier as they wait for the food to be ready. Tote bags, silk-screened with a logo of the student’s design, are laid out to dry in the greenhouse.

Spearheaded by Maugans, a small group of local artists created the pilot Reimagining Youth Summer Media Workshop program, made possible by small grants from the Cleveland Foundation and Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, along with support from Metro West Development Corp. 

Maugans and Claudio Orso, a printmaker and managing director of Apollo Outreach, help the kids through the papermaking and printing process. A filmmaker, Rian Brown, assists as they make stop-motion animated videos about their favorite foods. The program is for and run by young artists. 

“The kids are really building this incredible community,” says Brown. “They’re taking charge.”

Maugans does a tour through the greenhouse, showing off the colorful prints, the long rows of leafy vegetables growing in sunny plots out back and the cooler full of food under a dim lightbulb. She pulls up a folding chair at a white plastic table. More bags, silkscreened by teenage hands, are drying on it.

“There is this sort of 3,000-feet-up-in-the-air-in-a-helicopter where you miss out on the people that are on the ground, and the significance of what’s really happening,” Maugans says. “It’s not just about virtuosity, and us teaching kids how to make a really great picture on the wall. They’ve learned to create paper, set the letterpress, silk-screen,  and how to garden and compost. It’s a huge permaculture that’s happening.”

Her point is clear: The kids are the ones setting the agenda, choosing for themselves what to make. They can pursue social change through their documentaries, prints and stop-motion animations — if they desire. But they make the choices about their art, not Maugans or the teachers. 

The guitar whines in the background, breaking from a collection of discordant notes into a song. 

“For me, all of the experiences I’ve had at Zygote have made something like this possible. My experiences, my connections, my philanthropy with neighborhood development corporations, with arts organizations, cross-disciplinary organizations, youth,” says Maugans. “You put that all in, and you can sort of see how this is beyond Zygote.”

She breaks into a toothy grin. “You know?”  

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