From the start, it was Mary Sue Fenner. Her interest in Sievers Looms and weaving became the spark that further motivated Walter Schutz to move forward with his plans for Sievers School. Now 45 years later, with 44 of those years teaching 52 classes to hundreds of students here, Mary Sue has retired from teaching at Sievers.
This is how Mary Sue’s and Walter’s correspondence began.
Walter wrote, “It took no time for us to get together and immediately, Mary Sue was up here. Sitting in the middle of the mess as the building was being rebuilt, we set up the outline of the first year’s classes. Mary Sue knew other possible teachers and from this list we began the remarkable staff we have today.”
After Mary Sue visited Walter in July of 1978, he wrote her saying, “…I am greatly impressed in what you can do. I feel that you would be just ideal for the School and I am looking forward to talking about it some more with you. I feel you would fit into the operation just perfect. If you have any ideas of any kind, please let me know – goodness knows I need a lot of help.”
Mary Sue wrote back saying, “I enjoyed talking with you and am a good promoter on things I’m interested in – especially weaving! I would like to do two or three classes for you next summer, basic weaving and textile printing. Some questions we will have to work on would be – cost, ($50 for 5-day workshops?) hours, how many days for each session. I wonder if we should award certificates to each student (‘you just completed a course at Sievers Loom School…’)? Students could buy yarn that I supply or we could send out a list of supplies which the students have the option to bring along. Is there a place to purchase yarn on the Island? If we decide to run a textile printing class…the exposure to the school will attract fiber artists other than weavers. Questions to answer: lunches, time of classes, certificates, informal show at end of class for visitors and promotion of following classes, prices and what supplies would be included.” A month later Walter wrote, “We are on the same wave length on all of this and I do so hope we can get it going next year – I’m sure we will. It may be a good idea to talk to as many persons as you can, not about weaving but a lot of other subjects. Out of all of this we perhaps can, after a time, get up a nice set of courses. This is getting to be exciting!” In March of 1979, Walter wrote, “…we will have to get together as soon as possible…to decide upon the wording of the fees, description of the courses, etc., etc., etc. I am so looking forward to this meeting. So, Mary Sue, this is the close of my report to the Co-Ordinator of the Sievers School! This is fun!”
We have copies of many, if not all, of the almost weekly letters written between Mary Sue and Walter, leading up to the first class in June of 1979.
Mary Sue later said, “We didn’t have it together at all! But the students from the beginning made Sievers what it was. They were exceptional and adventuresome. And they came, and they came back and sort of set the spirit of the school.”
Not only was Mary Sue instrumental in establishing Sievers School, she taught the very first class here, Floor Loom Weaving, June 25-29, 1979. There was one student enrolled. While her student was learning to weave, the student’s husband assembled a Sievers Loom on the deck of the teacher’s cottage (see photo below) to take home. As a side note, Walter wrote this on Sunday, June 24, the day Mary Sue arrived to stay in the Teacher’s Cottage, “Okie picked up all his tools and supplies. Fixed faucet. Turned on water heater. Will be back in a week or so to finish heating system. Mary Sue Fenner of Green Bay first person to live in the Woodshed.” (During the week she was here, the stove and refrigerator were installed and the kitchen sink went in.)
About that first year, Mary Sue wrote, “My favorite memories of Walter came from my first summer teaching at Sievers in 1979. With few students that first year, the evenings were long. I asked Walter if he could teach me how to spin and he said “Sure”! Walter found a bag of wool, a drop spindle and a “Learn to Spin” book. We both looked over the illustrations, read a little bit….and we were all set. By the end of the week I had mastered the art of drop spindle spinning. Every evening, Walter would come outside onto the deck and tell me stories as I spun. By the end of the summer I had a bag full of yarn. Later, I wove the yarn into fabric and created a jacket. Every ball of yarn represented one of Walter’s stories to me. His spinning lesson taught me more than spinning wool into yarn. It made me realize how important his phrase “happiness is in your hands” really is.
From that first Floor Loom Weaving class, Mary Sue went on to offer these classes: Children’s Weaving Workshop, Textile Printing, Basic Weaving Fundamentals, Tailoring Techniques for Handwoven Fabric, Basic Weaving for Men Only (this was a weekend class including the four Young Brothers, builders of the Sievers Looms), Exploring Twills, Weave, Cut and Sew, Sew a Patchy Vest and One-of-a-Kind Jacket
Eventually, Mary Sue’s husband bought her a spinning wheel and she began to spin more, eventually making many handspun, handwoven jackets. She sold some, made more and as you can see from her presentation at the 2010 Sievers Gathering, over 99 were on display when she shared her work in a remarkable trunk show.
Ann wrote this about Mary Sue, “Following each introduction of Mary Sue over the span of 44 years, she would say, ‘I spin, weave or sew every day’. Making art and wearing art are certainly her passions; especially designing and creating handspun and handwoven jackets, often accessorized with handmade jewelry, painted tights and shoes. Mary Sue valued the creative skills of her students and was always very sincere in praising their accomplishments. Her positive personality and fiber art talents made Mary Sue’s classes so enjoyable. Thank you so much for being the first instructor, planning classes and choosing teachers. The common thread you shared with Walter Schutz became the mission of Sievers School. Each of you would say ‘I’ve always been the kind of person, if I believe in something, I can make someone else believe it, too’. Together your personalities and goals were a perfect match.”
Mary Sue, putting it all together…
Many end-of-class “Fabulous Fashion Shows”…
Lots of weaving, cutting and sewing…
So many happy students…
One of her students noted this in the Sievers studio journal, “Meeting Mary Sue is an emotional experience I will never forget. I have never met an artist who is so open, bubbly, enthusiastic, willing to share, fun, human, both inwardly and outwardly beautiful, qualified and encouraging.”
Mary Sue once wrote us saying, “In 1978, I crossed Lake Michigan on a ferry to meet Walter. I had no idea how my life would be shaped and my love for teaching would continue for 43 years. You all have made my passion a reality. Thank you for your kindness and support. Sievers has always been my “claim to fame”. Telling us of her retirement, she said, “I have always been proud to say I was the first teacher at Sievers. I’m surrounded by Sievers memorabilia and will always be your #1 cheerleader.”
We can’t thank Mary Sue enough for all she’s done for Sievers School through the years. Our admiration, respect and forever friendship has always been hers…from the start.