Marylin Chorlton, the Cybis Studio’s Guiding Light

No retrospective of Cybis porcelain could be complete without paying homage to the woman who created the modern studio’s Golden Age. This was Marylin Chorlton, the guiding light who was lost far too soon.

It’s indisputable that without Marylin’s direction there would not have been a Cybis Studio as the world came to know it. Boleslaw and Marja Cybis were uniquely talented artists but by the 1950s the studio was  operating in two entirely different design realms: the elaborate, ornate old-world style of their Cordey line versus the very-mainstream religious/home décor Cybis brand. The problem with the latter was that although they had plenty of in-house talent, too many of the Cybis pieces were not ‘originals’ but instead were cast from the same commercial mold elements that were freely available to all giftware manufacturers. The fact that the materials quality was higher at Cybis wasn’t sufficient to outshine all of the other companies in the market space. It was only after the deaths of Mr. and Mrs. Cybis, and the passing of the atelier into their protégé Marylin’s hands, that the studio found its modern voice and critical success.

Childhood and Family

Wojciech and Jozepha Kozuch were born in the 1880s and first emigrated from Poland to the USA in 1913; their names were later Americanized to Albert and Josephine.  Three of their eventual seven children came with them: three-year-old Stanley, toddler daughter Bronislawa (later known as Blanche), and baby Sophia (later called Sally.)

By the time the 1930 Census was taken, the Kozuch family had settled in Brooklyn, NY on Manhattan Avenue. That census lists Mary (she later added the “lin” herself) who was born in 1922 “in New York” but that birthplace is contradicted by the next Census. Additional children were Stella (age five); John, age two; and infant Helen who was less than a year old and became known in the family as Eleanor.

The family moved several times but always within the Greenpoint/Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. When the 1940 Census was taken they had been living on Oakland Avenue for five years, and it was Marylin –  who at age 18 was now the eldest child in the household – who actually spoke to the census taker. By this we know that her birthplace entry here as Poland is correct, and also that during the past decade her father had become an American citizen.
Marylin Kozuch circa 1940s BrooklynThis photo of a young Marylin is annotated “Oakland” on the back.

In the Boleslaw Cybis Studios

As a teenager Marylin attended Washington Irving High School in New York City. This was one of the finest girls’ schools of the day, with a strong emphasis on the performing and visual arts ever since its opening in 1913. The school’s public spaces were decorated with murals of New York State history by Barry Faulkner, among others, and the auditorium contained a Möller pipe organ (Opus 1668)  that cost almost $11,000 at the time of installation…more than a quarter million dollars in today’s money.

It appears that upon graduation Marylin then entered art school although it’s not known exactly which one. In the early 1940s Boleslaw Cybis came to the school seeking an art student who also spoke Polish to work in his new studio and to also act as an interpreter because his own English was limited.  Thus began a close association that would last until the Cybis’ deaths some 20 years later. Marylin Kozuch was one of his first young studio artists and Boleslaw Cybis quickly recognized her innate talent. However, it wasn’t initially a ceramics studio. In a 1970s interview, Marylin explained

We didn’t start with porcelains. We were a fine arts studio, doing paintings, tapestries, designing furniture. Then Mr. Cybis found that no one in America was doing porcelain. Most American firms had closed at the turn of the century with the Industrial Revolution…..The beginning pieces [at Cybis’ studio] were crude. I don’t want to talk about them. It took about a year and half before we became confident and got all the refinements down.

This photo of Marylin with several of Marja Cybis’ papka angels was taken at the Steinway Mansion studio. At this time Marylin was 18 or 19 years old.

Because that first studio was in Queens it posed no transportation challenge from Brooklyn; but when Cybis relocated to New Jersey in 1942, daily commuting was simply not practical. Marylin left her parents’ house and took a small apartment in Trenton within a convenient distance to the studio’s Church Street location.

It was after the move to Trenton that Marylin met her future husband, Joseph Chorlton. After graduating from college and serving in the US Navy’s submarine corps during World War II, Joe took a position at a local bank which happened to be the same one where Boleslaw Cybis was a regular customer. Impressed with the young man’s affable and outgoing personality as well as his business acumen, Cybis prevailed upon him to come and work for the studio as a salesman. This appears to have been how the young couple first met, even though Joe’s position wasn’t exactly an in-house one; he would load up his car with sample sculptures and travel to all parts of the country to meet with prospective retailers. At this time both Joe and Marylin, who were born in the same year, were in their early twenties.

The story of the Trenton and Princeton studios is told in more detail in this post, but it’s clear that during those two decades Marylin Kozuch became Boleslaw Cybis’ star protégé. With the level of artistic creativity running in such high gear on multiple levels, the challenges must have been enormous but she demonstrated herself to be more than equal to them. When the Cybises died in 1957 and 1958 Marylin was still only in her mid-thirties. As the designated heir to the studio it was now up to her to determine its future.

The assumption of the directorship of the Cybis Studio coincided with big changes in her personal life as well; in 1957 Marylin and Joe Chorlton were married. These wedding photos show the joy and strong  partnership that the couple were always to share.

Marylin and Joe Chorlton cutting wedding cake 1957wedding gifts 1957Chorlton wedding table 1957From left to right at the wedding table: Marylin’s parents, Albert and Josephine Kozuch; maid of honor Dolores Morka, daughter of Marylin’s older sister Blanche; newlyweds Marylin and Joseph Chorlton; and best man Frank Bruderek, husband of Marylin’s younger sister Eleanor.

The Golden Age

As the 1950s ended, the new directors of the Cybis Studio had a big task ahead of them. One problem was posed by the studio’s insufficient size and inconvenient layout, with three buildings that weren’t even physically connected to each other (not to mention the lack of central heating or cooling in at least one of them!) Clearly a more suitable location needed to be found but there was also the question of what the studio’s artistic identity would now become. Marylin clearly had no intention of continuing the policy of the 1950s which had been to use commercially available molds for most of the studio’s output; from now on, Cybis designs would not only all be original to the studio, but would be copyrighted as such – something that had not been done before.

A few of the Cordey artists and artisans stayed on after that company was sold, but Marylin was also actively looking for new talent. Experienced freelance designers such as Harry Burger and Patricia Eakins became regular contributors to the growing Cybis line. Laszlo Ispanky had done freelance work for them under the previous ownership and in early 1960 he was offered the official in-house position of Master Sculptor. The regular issuance of numbered limited edition sculptures was established that same year with the debut of six such pieces, five of which were designed by Ispanky.

Additional designers and staff were added throughout the 1960s, and in 1964 the studio produced its first-ever illustrated catalog in conjunction with the 1964 World’s Fair held in Queens, NY. Several spectacular Cybis pieces displayed there, such as the Flower Bouquet of the United States and the Crown Crested Cranes, brought the studio to the attention of millions of people who were unaware of Cybis before.

Under Marylin Chorlton’s leadership the Cybis studio went from strength to strength, grounded not only in her talent as a designer and sculptor but also through her commitment to artistic integrity. She was insatiably curious about the structure and design of things, whether it was birds, animals, flowers or people. The natural world was a continuing source of wonder and inspiration to her. As related in the second Cybis Studios post, that new studio location enabled and supported that commitment to accuracy as well as beauty; Marylin assembled and continued to add to an extensive in-studio library of historical and art reference books and resources.

Inspiration could and did strike anywhere and everywhere. At one point during the early 1960s the studio was asked to create a donkey as a gift for President John F. Kennedy. The Chorltons were driving down a rural road one day when suddenly Marylin spotted a burro in a farmland pasture. As related by her husband in a newspaper interview: “She yelled ‘Stop, I want to see his eyes’ and went dashing into the field”, adding that the next thing he saw was his wife being chased by the burro.” (The resulting sculpture, Fitzgerald, is shown in this post.)

Although the early-1970s North American Indians series was actually sculpted by freelance artist Helen Granger Young, the initial research and design drawings for them were by Marylin Chorlton. As part of that intensive research the couple traveled to various Native American reservations, not only so that Marylin could experience the culture and make sketches but also to make sure that everything included in the porcelain sculptures would be 100% accurate and authentic.

Cybis ST PETER being presented to PopeBut there were also sad times for Marylin amid the burgeoning success of the studio. The death of her father Albert in 1963 wsa followed by that of her mother Josephine in early 1966. They had continued to live in the same Brooklyn neighborhood in which Marylin and her siblings grew up. Her mother must have been especially happy to see her daughter personally present the magnificent porcelain Saint Peter to Pope Paul VI at the Vatican in 1965. This was a particularly moving event for Marylin, who related how “The Pope greeted me in Polish, the language of my native land. I was surprised and delighted. Although it was the language at home during my childhood, I had not spoken in Polish for many years.”

When the studio finally moved to its new quarters in early 1969 the future was becoming ever brighter. A December 1968 article in the Arizona Republic described how Marylin Chorlton was “converting Trenton, N.J., into the Staffordshire of the New World.” Indeed, I consider the 1960s and 1970s to be the “Golden Age” of the Cybis Studio; meaning no disrespect to its founders, Boleslaw and Marja Cybis, but the standards of workmanship and of artistic integrity were at their highest during those two decades.

Marylin Chorlton with Cybis Dahlia ca late 1960sMarylin Chorlton with Cybis Little Blue Heron ca 1960sMarylin Chorlton with Cybis Doves of Peace ca 1970sMarylin Chorlton with Cybis Calla Lily ca late 1960sMarylin Chorlton with Cybis Pegasus ca early 1970sThe photos above show Marylin with some of the studio’s limited editions from the 1960s and 1970s. (From top: Dahlia, Little Blue Heron, Turtle Doves ‘Doves of Peace’, Calla Lily, Pegasus)

Cybis display room at Brielle Galleries 1976By the mid 1970s the studio had built a very select network of high-quality retailers in locations throughout the United States, including the nationally-known Brielle Galleries on the New Jersey shore. The two “Cybis rooms” there were the ones that customers first encountered upon entering; visible in this 1976 photo are more than a dozen limited editions (including several Shakespeare portraits) and several of the Limnettes® series of plaques designed by George Ivers.

artists Marylin Chorlton and Lynn Klockner at 314 Church StEver mindful of her own apprenticeship in the field of porcelain art, Marylin instituted a policy whereby each new artist would first spend a certain amount of time working in every other segment of the Cybis process before settling in to his or her individual specialty; for example, a newly hired sculptor would work for a time in the mold shop, and as a finisher, and as a painter. Soft-spoken and self-effacing but with an unwavering commitment to artistic quality and integrity, Marylin Chorlton created an atmosphere that was a joy for the artists to work in. In every communication that I’ve had with anyone who worked there during those two decades, certain words keep recurring: “a great place”, a “fun place”, “camaraderie”, the sense of being “a family.” Each of the employees felt valued and respected, with the artists sharing their visions and ideas for designs and looking forward to each day as well as spending time together socially after hours. Such an atmosphere can only exist in a workplace when the person at the top provides inspiration, guidance and pride in equal measure. Completely knowledgeable about every stage of the process, Marylin nevertheless took such delight in it that she would also describe it on several occasions (with blue eyes twinkling) to newspaper reporters as being “the zenith of mud-pie making.”

Recognition came not only from the retail marketplace but from government: the list of Cybis sculptures that were selected for Presidential Gifts of State and other official presentations during the ’60s and ’70s alone totals more than two dozen. Marylin and Joe Chorlton were continually involved in philanthropy, participating in numerous charity events for organizations and educational institutions in person as well as by donating or creating special sculptures for benefit auctions.

Marylin and Joe Chorlton in 1975By no means was life all work and no play, as shown in this 1975 photo which was taken near their home in Point Pleasant, New Jersey. Joe Chorlton shone in his role as the most public face of the Cybis studio but their life together was truly a full partnership; he was accurately described in a newspaper interview as being his wife’s “biggest cheerleader and fan.” Their relationship truly was a ‘bicycle built for two’!

The Legacy

Chorlton tombstoneThe “what-if” game is always a sad one to play, especially when contemplating what the Cybis studio’s history might have been had it not lost that guiding light on February 22, 1977… forty years ago today. The unexpected diagnosis of an aggressive and advanced cancer struck at the heart of everyone who knew her. Her loving husband and four of her seven siblings were there to say a final goodbye; after funeral services in Brooklyn, Marylin Kozuch Chorlton was buried in her family’s plot on Long Island. The set of three beautiful stones was designed by Ginny McCotter, a longtime Cybis artist who worked closely with Marylin ever since their very first days at the studio in the 1940s.

Not long afterward, her husband established a memorial scholarship at the nearby Mercer County Community College. The Marylin Chorlton Scholarship Fund is a scholarship award for a student majoring in the visual arts. It was not only her studio that contributed to it; Morris Zale, founder of the Zale’s chain of jewelry stores and a longtime friend of the Chorltons, donated $3250 to the Fund in 1981. At some point after 1983 the scholarship was renamed the “Cybis Art Award” and is still given yearly to an outstanding continuing visual arts student with a minimum 3.0 GPA.  Recent winners have been students majoring in photography, graphic design, computer animation, and advertising design.

The loss of Marylin Chorlton was a heavy blow for the Cybis studio, and during the ensuing ten years there were a number of changes in its corporate structure and well as in artistic direction. There was no longer a single unifying vision and the output of the studio increasingly began to reflect that fragmentation. By the end of the 1980s all of the Golden Age artists were gone, although a few others remained on a part-time or as-needed basis.  The studio would continue on a drastically reduced production level for another decade before suspending new retail introductions in the early 2000s. Joseph Chorlton passed away on March 5, 2011.

There is a Latin phrase, Genius loci, meaning “the spirit of the place.” For garden designers, to “consult the genius loci” means that one should draw inspiration from the natural elements already present and thus create something that harmonizes with what already exists, rather than to impose something incongruous upon that piece of land. But to the ancient Romans genius loci meant, literally, the deity that actually dwelt upon, nurtured, and protected the site. In art and iconography it was sometimes personified, similar to the manner in which the seasons are depicted in Greco-Roman sculpture.

Marylin Chorlton was the genius loci of the modern Cybis studio….its guiding light artistically and also its protective spirit. Under her wings the studio flourished as artists and artisans were encouraged to blossom into their full potential,  just as her talents had been developed during those early years in the 1940s. Despite the studio’s commercial success, Marylin never lost her sense of wonder, enthusiasm and abiding love for the soul of her craft. On the second page of the studio’s 1979 catalog is this portrait sketch, drawn by artist Tony Trezza and accompanied by the simple but perfect dedication…

Marylin Chorlton portrait sketch circa 1970s

where Beauty lingers, know that “she is here.”


(My sincerest thanks to the family of Marylin Kozuch Chorlton for their generous and kind assistance and sharing of personal photographs.)

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