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April 01, 2013
From American Greetings to her quiet studio, Sweeney came full circle
After a rewarding but demanding 35-year career in management at American Greetings Corporation, Joy Praznik Sweeney ’58 knew exactly what she wanted to do in retirement: be a full- time artist. But how to transition from the corporate world to the studio?
Fellow alum and American Greetings retiree Raymond Kowalski ’57 had this advice: go back to CIA for a year.
“It made all the sense in the world for me to get re-acquainted with painting. I mean, they had invented acrylics since I’d left school,” she said with a hearty laugh. So in 1993, Sweeney came full circle, re-enrolling in her alma mater for a year of painting, drawing, ceramics and critiques.
She discovered more than just acrylics. Her year at CIA challenged Sweeney to branch out into new forms, media, and concepts and to launch a second career as an ever-evolving artist.
Early Start In Art
Like so many accomplished CIA alumni, Sweeney started her art career at age five with children’s classes at the Cleveland Museum of Art. By 14 she had progressed to Saturday classes at CIA, where she would learn from future professors Paul Travis ’17, Frank Meyers ’51 and others. And at 16, she enrolled in CIA as an undergraduate, earning a diploma in portrait painting with a minor in ceramics.
“I have been making art for 70 years. I may not have called it art back when I was five but nevertheless, I’ve been working at it that long,” Sweeney recalled. “One of my high school art teachers, Anthony Eterovich (CIA class of 1938) was the gentleman who encouraged me to go to CIA for summer classes and then for college.”
In addition to Travis and Meyers, other faculty influences were goldsmith and design professor John Paul Miller ’40 and ceramicist Toshiko Takaezu.
Creative Thinking Fueled Corporate Climb
Sweeney said she benefited from her CIA education all through her years in corporate America and continues to benefit to this day. “I was extremely fortunate to go to the Institute. We were taught to think about things, to use our minds and be creative. It’s served me extremely well,” she said.
After graduation, she started in the creative department of American Greetings. “I found out I didn’t really enjoy painting the cards. What I did enjoy was thinking of new ideas. So we started a planning department. The thinking skills were more what I used than the actual art skills,” she said.
Sweeney eventually became the creative director of the planning department and rose through the ranks to become vice president of the creative division, the first woman vice president at the company. She was involved in hiring many CIA graduates during her tenure and made a lasting impression on American Greetings Chairman Morry Weiss, who remembers Sweeney as “an extremely hard-working, dedicated executive of American Greetings who contributed greatly to our success.”
Weiss appreciated that Sweeney had an eye for art that millions of people would like. “She had the ability not only to see it, but to help other artists implement that, make that happen. She was amazing in that respect.” Equally important, as the first woman vice president of a major American company, Sweeney was a trailblazer in the corporate world. “She was an outstanding mentor and she opened the door for a lot of women,” Weiss said.
Back To School
Throughout her years with American Greetings, Sweeney kept up with ceramics as a hobby, working in various local studios in her free time. A devoted protégé of Takaezu, Sweeney said she never ventured too far from making “Toshiko pots.” That would change when she re-enrolled in CIA after retirement.
“(Ceramics Professor) Bill Brouillard banged me over the head and said ‘Look, we know you can do this, so try some things you haven’t done before.’ He started me on majolica, which I had never done; then I worked with porcelain. He opened my eyes to doing some sculpture, and taught me how to work with plaster casting,” Sweeney said, gesturing at the diverse works in clay that grace her well-appointed Ohio City studio/gallery.
Sweeney’s ceramics now range from sculptural forms, to majolica vases, ceramic flowers, iridescent fish and her newest endeavor, pendants in the forms of butterflies, dragonflies, lizards and other animals that look like they just crawled right off one of her highly decorated pots.
Her painting is at least as varied and includes classic still life works (“My Dutch master period,” she says with a smile), a suite of cityscapes based on visits to Venice, nature-scapes, portraits and, in just the last four years years, abstract paintings.
“I was trained as a portrait painter, so it was a whole new learning experience for me to create abstract paintings. I had to develop a process of my own,” Sweeney explained, noting her method involves color swatches from The Home Depot, initial sketches of the subject matter, and playing with various paints, marble dust, gel medium, silver leaf, ink and more.
Asked what inspires her to continue exploring new things, Sweeney replies, “I guess that’s the nature of the beast. I have more ideas than I have time. I usually carry a sketchbook around with me and I have a whole file of ideas. When I need inspiration, I look through the file. I’m 75 years old; if by this time I have not learned to do a lot of different stuff, shame on me.”
Despite her busy corporate career, her tireless art exploration since retirement, and extensive travel with husband, John (“to everywhere in the world except Chile and Peru”), Sweeney has stayed involved with CIA. She served on the Advisory Board from 1983–1988 and on the Board of Directors since 1991. She has also been a generous supporter of her alma mater all along.
“CIA gave me a lot and I believe you have to give back. Maybe I picked up that way of thinking at American Greetings; working with Morry Weiss and Irving Stone you learn that giving back is important,” she said.
“I was able to do what I was able to do professionally because of the education that I had. Consequently, once I could afford it, I believed in giving back as much as I could. It’s difficult for me to understand why anyone wouldn’t,” Sweeney said.
Her CIA education continues giving back to Sweeney as she continues experimenting, learning, creating and exploring.
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