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.