Margaret Klimek Phillips grew up in Chicago and was a scholarship student at the School of the Art Institute, graduating with a degree in art education in 1953. She taught in New York, got an MA at Columbia University, and returned to SAIC, where she was a faculty member from 1966 to 1992. She reinvented the children’s program there, chaired the faculty senate during its tumultuous early years, and championed the radical idea that art teachers at all levels should also be working artists. She never stopped producing her own work, often oil paintings with deceptively calm images that turn perspective on its ear. She wrote that painting is “scarcely worth the effort” unless it’s associated with learning; she wanted art to “challenge our preconceptions” and “encourage a state of risk.” Her friends–and they were many–saw her as passionate and tough, gregarious and private, generous and challenging, a woman who “lived larger than life.” When she died, a little over a year ago, she left an extraordinary bequest. Her will instructed each of a dozen of those friends, all artists, to select another artist to be a beneficiary of her estate. Each selected heir would receive a no-strings-attached gift of nearly $29,000.

The checks were cut last month for a roster of painters young and old–as Phillips had hoped they’d be. Peter Butterfield chose inspiring octogenarian Fred Berger; Mykl Ruffino picked thirtysomething Friese Undine, who works a day job at the Museum of Contemporary Art box office. Mel Theobald chose Gennady Troshkov, who lives in Moscow, and Bruce Thayer named Norbert J. Freese, a Michigan artist he says is underrecognized. Eleanor Spiess-Ferris chose Nancy Rosen, who knew Phillips; Barbara Crane selected Judith Geichman, who’d studied with her; Angela Paterakis chose Olivia Petrides, an artist who, like Phillips, is also an outstanding teacher. Elizabeth Rupprecht chose Mary Lou Zelazny, who says Phillips was a role model; Sophia Pichinos chose Brent Wall for his Phillips-like spirit; and Kathy Cattong chose David Lefkowitz for his imaginative renderings of nature. Jennie Kiessling chose Wyoming artist Ronald D. McIntosh for his rigorous technique and challenging vision. And Barton Blankenburg chose Elizabeth Tyson.

“I got a call from him in August,” says Tyson, who teaches a course at the Art Institute but pays the bills by working as an office manager for a restaurant group. For most of the recipients, the news came as a bolt from the blue, like winning the lottery without buying a ticket. But Blankenburg, who knew Phillips for 20 years and dined with her weekly, decided to conduct interviews and look at work by several artists. Tyson was suggested to him by the former dean at Robert Morris College (where Tyson and Blankenburg are adjuncts). Blankenburg was intrigued by the indirect path she’d taken to art: “She got a BA in international studies, and somewhere along the line was bit by the painting bug,” he says. “That would be something Maggie could appreciate.” He was impressed by the dozen exhibits Tyson’s had since completing her MFA in ’99, and it didn’t hurt that she was female: “Maggie was strong about opportunities for women artists.” But the deciding factor was the growth Blankenburg saw in her work over the past year. “I thought about Maggie’s values and I said, let’s take a chance on a young artist,” he says. Tyson says she’ll donate some of the money to charity, but “for me it means being able to afford to keep working [as an artist]. My husband’s an actor and I’m a painter. It’s been hard.” Phillips’s estate has issued a handsome limited-edition catalog of work by those chosen, edited by Theobald (there’s a copy in the Ryerson Library at the Art Institute); her heirs and their selectors will meet at a dinner in her honor next week.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.