An Interview With Marilyn Leuszler

Marilyn Leuszler is an Arts For Colorado board member and an arts activist residing in Trinidad, CO. I got a chance to talk with Marilyn about her time spent studying art in Japan as well as her thoughts on art in public schools and the latest happenings in Trinidad. Here’s our interview:


Can you tell me about your time spent in Japan? You spent 10 years there?

It was unexpected. My husband was a commercial pilot, the airline industry was pretty volatile at that time and his airline declared bankruptcy. He had a job offer in Japan and we thought, ‘Oh that would be fun until things settle down’. We went thinking we’d be back in a year and a half, and then after more airline bankruptcies in the US, he was offered a long term contract and we just stayed. After 10 years there we spent a year in Brussels.

I studied traditionalAasian arts while we were in Japan, earned national certificate in brush calligraphy, studied silk embroidery, Sumi-e (black ink painting) and other traditional arts. It was a great opportunity for me.

We always lived in Japanese style housing. Five years in Yokohama, Kamakura for 4 years. and the last year  in an area that overlooked Mt. Fuji and the Pacific Ocean, right above a small fishing village.

That sounds amazing! Did you learn the language?

I could speak ‘art’ Japanese, but I couldn’t have a political conversation with anyone… I concentrated on the arts instead of the language. I could get around quite nicely though.

Did you grow up in Colorado?

I would say, yes, I did grow up in Colorado. I was born in California and I lived in Utah, in Moab, for a couple of years I lived in Rye (a small community south of Pueblo) then I went to highschool and college in Pueblo. I meandered all over the country and world after that.

So what really got you interested in art?

It was something I’ve always been interested in, and loved. In high school I studied the sciences, I didn’t take any art classes, but I indulged in some tailoring classes. I always envied the art room and things people were producing, but I didn’t take classes because they didn’t count much towards my GPA. I took one drawing class in college, but that was it. Until we moved to Japan, I didn’t have any formal study in the arts at all. I totally dove in head first [when we moved to Japan] and I took my first calligraphy class after a week in Japan. I started with a group of kindergartners because we were all at the same level. It was wonderful. My work was usually worse than theirs, by far! I really spent all of my time studying and teaching English Conversation to pay for my classes. It was a wonderful opportunity and I still work daily in my studio, painting, stitching in silk and writing with the brush.

So, you were an aspiring artist at a young age, but it sounds like you came into it later in life?

Well, art was something that was never looked at as a serious endeavor, so that’s part of — I think — my advocacy today, is trying to change that to where the arts are considered as  important or as closely important to any other academic [subject]. I think it’s a great balance of all of the academic subject matter and I’m pained if I’m not able to paint and create. It’s extremely important too that we teach children from a young age that they can use all parts of their brains. Sometimes the arts helps them with math and science. I find it extremely important and think that we should give it more value in education.

Can you talk more about art in public schools?

It’s difficult, I’ve had administrators ask me “So should we do away with math or science in order to add art”? My feeling is that we should do away with some of the testing procedures. I think STEM should be STEAM. I recently spoke with someone and they mentioned ‘ESTEAM’, adding entrepreneurship to science, technology and math. I loved that idea!

In general, our education system does not teach students to use their imagination very much, to create and to become entrepreneurs. Most students graduate without ever having had a  checkbook, without knowing how to take out a loan. So many things that are vital to success, I think are vacant from our educational system. I think the arts in particular are very important.

I’ve done a lot of workshops with students who are at-risk for any number of reasons; Sometimes their innate artistic ability is phenomenal, but they’ve fallen through the cracks because they have no place to shine in the area in which they are so talented. I would just like to have [art] as yet another opportunity for them. We should have music, theater, and the arts. We should have all these sorts of things available. They don’t necessarily have to be year-round, but just to give them a taste of what’s out there to give them an opportunity to find their own remarkable areas to succeed in. I think we have a grand opportunity to do that.

In our schools in Trinidad for example we have one part-time art teacher K-12, which is appalling. It’s up to organizations to supply arts in schools. I did a program here, Arts In The Schools. We had an after school enrichment program where we offered all sorts of various after school programs.

Do you think it takes a certain amount of private donation or volunteer programs to make STEAM become a reality, or do you think it can originate from the public sector?

That’s a tough one. I do think its a combination of things. I’m big on data collection and evaluation processes. I think we need to have more studies that can show that success is greater for students who participate in the arts. I don’t see very many current studies going on for that sort of thing. We tend to embed ourselves in a certain process or program, and I think STEM is one of those. I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with that, I think it’s phenomenal were approaching things in that manner, but I think we left a piece out of that by leaving out the arts.

I think its a matter of school administrators, public educators, local support, parental support, Its a matter of private/public grant funding — I think its a major combination of all of those things.

How did you get involved with Arts For Colorado?

I’ve been an Arts For Colorado board member for about 6 months now. I’ve been a member of AFC, R.A.N. and Americans For The Arts for a number of years as well. I’m always looking for organizations that promote the arts, in whatever manner. Since I live in a small town in a rural area, I’m especially interested in how to further arts in the rural communities in our state. Also I became involved as an artist with creative industries for some time now. I’ve been involved in the state level of that sort of organizational entity for probably 15 years now.  It was kind of a gradual but sensible progression from local artistic endeavors to state and national ones as well.

Tell us about what’s happening in Trinidad?

Well it’s been really exciting. We applied for and received ‘Emerging Creative District’ status in 2012, and in 2013 we became a certified Creative District and really started moving things here. We also became a Colorado Main Street candidate, which ties in very closely with creative districts. Early January we’ll be presenting to city council our draft to develop a certified local government that deals with historic preservation. In Trinidad, we have the largest collection of Victorian structures east of the Mississippi. Maintaining those buildings is paramount to what we see as our next more sustainable economic development tool. The arts culture and preservation of our historic buildings is super important.

Over the past years, it’s been interesting to watch what arts culture has done to the community. The change is palpable. Theres a different feeling in the atmosphere, you can sense it. People are coming out of the woodwork asking ,“What can I do to help” and “How can I take part in this movement”. We’re asking, “How can we take some of these old, vacant, boarded up buildings and do something artistic to make the place more welcoming and a better place to live. We’re gathering so much community support for some of these programs and projects, that didn’t really exist before.

There’s also a great joining of forces between nonprofits, and city boards, and other organizations where everyone is working towards the same goals. It’s very exciting to watch that happen.

What do you think prompted that in your community?

I think it was our success in gaining Creative District status to be perfectly honest. I think that was the first really big step. The arts have been almost at the pinnacle, maybe four times since I moved here 15 years ago, but it just never really made it. We had tremendous local government support this time along with business community and citizen support, local support. everyone was pretty much on board to try to make this happen. And when we did, that was the impetus to continue moving forward. We [also] work closely with DOLA (Colorado Department of Local Affairs) and Downtown Colorado Inc.

Were bringing back our Urban Renewal Authority that formed in the 1980’s, but dwindled. We’re talking about working with our local building department, to not necessarily ease, but tweak our building codes to make it more inviting for investors to come in and buy one of these older buildings. Currently our codes state that we have to bring our entire building up to the national building code, which is severe. We’re looking at allowing stages of compliance, so they’re not obligated to spend the money to bring the entire building up to code.

Again, it’s really interesting to watch because I think the arts, and arts and culture in general, have been the impetus for all of this movement. It expands into economic development, sustainable business practices, better data collection and evaluation. Real estate people are interested. It has spread to the entire community, but it all started pretty much with the arts. it can be extremely successful as a tool and as an engine for economic development.

Where do you see Arts For Colorado in 5 or 10 years and what sort of work do you envision doing?

I’d love to see it expand and become more well known within not only the arts community, but in Colorado in general.

I think part of that is our marketing plan, social media, and just getting the word out and gathering more people who are supportive of the whole philosophy. I think that’s really important. Most of our local organizations don’t necessarily work at the state level as far as legislative advocacy or promotion. Most don’t ever even contact their representatives, so they don’t make their viewpoints known. I think the goal of Arts For Colorado and the job they do is extremely important. So much of the funding certainly comes from that level, so unless we get out there and push for it, we’ll never see it.

One attitude here in Trinidad is that we don’t need outsiders, and we can do it ourselves. Yet, I have found that any state support we get, whether its through creative industries, Main Street organization or DOLA — or whatever it happens to be — is vitally important. There are people with the expertise and the ability to help with things that we may not be well versed in. I see that changing and I think that Arts For Colorado could certainly be the lead in legislative advocacy for the state, arts programs, arts education and nonprofits — all of these things. Hopefully in 5 years it will be exactly that, and very well known.