Thursday, June 26, 2014

Marilyn Conover: "... the most dynamic person I have ever encountered."

One of the great delights of producing this blog is hearing from friends, neighbours, family members and coworkers of the artists I've showcased. These folks often bring a fresh perspective to the subject and provide a more comprehensive view of the person, for which I am always grateful. One of the more intriguing personalities I've presented on Today's Inspiration was Marilyn Conover (her interview: Part1, 2, 3, 4). Today, you'll get to know Marilyn a little better through the recollections of Peggy Plumb Knapp. I'm betting you'll enjoy Peggy's narrative as much as I did when she sent it to me just over a year ago. ~ Leif

"I just came across your article about Marilyn Conover. In case you are interested, I apprenticed with her in 1961-1962. She is/was the most dynamic person I have ever encountered."


"Having just graduated from college, which is where she found me after my professors chose me for her apprenticeship, I lived with her, Hendrick (husband at the time), Ricky, her son (about 8 or 9?)..."


"... and Suzy, daughter (about 7?)."


"I had my own small studio with a drawing board and everything needed for doing illustration. This was in Westport, Conn. They had just moved there from Marblehead, Mass. I was only at the Marblehead house once for my first interview with her. Her homes were jammed with tchotchkes, mainly American antiquities. She was proud of the fact that she included these things in her backgrounds because most illustrators of those times did not."


"We lived at 377 Main Street in Westport, surrounded by all the famous and mighty illustrators. I toiled there for 8 hours every day M-F. Marilyn drove Hendrick to the station every morning (he was a rep at Cooper Studios in New York) and then painted away all day. Hendrick had also been an illustrator in Chicago, but I never saw any of his work. He was a rather mild mannered man, quite nice and with a sense of humor. So many illustrators lived in Westport when I was there. I visited Bernie Fuchs and others whose names I cannot remember, and did photographic modelling for many of them. Hendrick introduced me to Jon Whitcomb, who did what I thought were just the best drawings of women. It was certainly another age. One could actually make a living drawing pictures!"


"Most of Marilyn's work was with a newspaper in Boston, doing fairly routine B&W art. I'm sure you realize that all the illustration was done via what they called a Bell Optican, a projector that enabled tracings of photos etc. I was never allowed to use it and, of course, it was NEVER mentioned. Some used it better than others. I can still tell today when one has been used, even though there are many other ways in this digital age. There was a lovely portrait of her daughter Suzy - resembling Alice in Wonderland, long blonde hair and all - hanging in the house. I know she did color work but I just can't remember in what capacity it was."


"She would give me projects that I would work on and then she would critique them. This went very well. I learned so much. One would be a B&W ink drawing, another a fashion illustration, another would be full color etc. Each piece demonstrating my great commercial artistic ability... went into my professional portfolio. I still have most of the portfolio she helped me with and I got every job I ever went for; those who hired me were quite impressed since she showed me how to put together a REAL portfolio… not the kind that one came out of art school with."


"Other duties included helping her with her children; I wasn't much help. I had never babysat or been around children. It was a year in hell for a young girl just out of college. The demands were great and I was so intimidated by her that I found it very difficult to cope."

"Her studio was on the second floor and mine was on the first floor in a nice sunporch area. Show tunes played all day long and only once did I have the courage to ask her to play my Ray Charles albums. I never knew them to go out to dinner, movies, or to friends' houses or to have others to their home. They watched television and listened to show tunes constantly. My take on her situation was that she was REALLY good at what she did, but the guys got all the credit. There was a whole group of them that had studied in Chicago and came East to make their fortune."


"Years later Marilyn was with Portraits Inc. in NYC, probably in the '70s/'80s. I have no idea how successful she was or if she liked it. I would think she would have mentioned that to you. I do know that her style never evolved much; what I saw was kind of stuck in that '50s/'60s style. She was frustrated that she could not loosen up. She asked me how I could do it and I can totally remember telling her it was fun. I don't think she ever had that chance of having fun with her drawing. She had to make a living and was always worried about the next gig."


"She visited me once, after I had married and had a family and was living in Onondaga Hill NY. She was lecturing at Syracuse University and laughed at their so called commercial art program. She admitted to me that I was a disappointment, where the children were concerned. (I had fallen asleep at the beach while they were playing in the ocean!!!!!) I did manage to connect with Marilyn in a phone call when I lived in CA. It was a strange conversation... I remember that she was very surprised to hear that I had good feelings about my time with her. I don't think she wanted more contact with me. She had moved back to Marblehead at that time. I think that was a good place for her and she felt comfortable there."


"It's difficult to make judgment calls at this late date and considering I was so young and quite shy (who wouldn't be around her?) and felt quite put upon much of the time. However, my experience there changed my life for the good, in many ways. I am curious if you ever followed up on your conversation with Marilyn. I hope she is still with us. I know her mother lived to a very ripe old age, so perhaps… "

~ Peggy Plumb Knapp

Peggy Plumb Knapp lives in Albuquerque, NM and, at the time of her correspondences with me, had recently closed her gallery so she could devote more time to her commission work. "I now work in my own formula of decorative concrete," wrote Peggy, "and a lifetime is not long enough to explore it all. Life is good and I look forward to the next decade when I'll still be making stuff if my body holds up. Marilyn is still a presence in my life. I will never forget that year!"

Addendum: It was just brought to my attention that Marilyn Conover passed away on June 15.


  1. PenTool4:19 PM

    So sad that Marilyn passed just a couple of weeks ago. Your interviews with her and this one with Peggy make her a very real, 3 dimensional, complicated woman. Very, very interesting read. Thank you for this, Leif.

  2. I didn't know Marilyn Conover previous to your posts, but I definitely enjoyed them - she seemed like a compelling combination of really appealing art and a strong, uncompromising personalit. Sad to learn she just left us.

    (although I think a shout out to Peggy Plumb Knapp here is deserved - reading through this I could definitely relate to her artistic ambitions and lack of inclination for babysitting ;) )

  3. As Marilyn Conover's nephew, one of her sister Helen's three sons, I can relate to all of your comments. We loved Aunt Marilyn. She was always so strong, really caring, and loving to us and her two sisters, Helen and Loraine. We miss her greatly.
    Ron Aarts

  4. Really interesting read. It's a bit of a shame that she didn't come away from her career with a positive memory, but I have met a few people in artistic industries that really got bitter about things at the end, especially how technology was changing things. I do think that she enjoyed reflecting on the good people she worked with though and I think was pleased that there was some interest in that era.

  5. Very interesting I wouldn't have guessed they were traced with a bell opticon. I wonder how much of this older stuff incorporated this tool.

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