By Dawne Belloise
It’s pronounced “Mary–oh,” a name her mother gave her, which is an abbreviated combination of her mom’s first and middle names, Mary Osterbind, hence Maryo. In the Gunnison Valley since 1995, Maryo Ewell is a fervent community builder and to her that means, “people and neighbors working together to make a meaningful place for everybody and also working with people different than yourself. Ideas like this are really crucial as everyone talks about how fragmented we are as a society. It seems like creatively working together would be an important way to start bridging differences.”
Influenced by her parents’ work when she was growing up, Maryo bridged those differences by being involved with various arts organizations, the Gunnison Community Foundation, the Resiliency Project and other valley organizations and projects. “Right now I think the Resiliency Project in Gunnison is one way I’m trying to bring people together,” she says. “But also my whole career since college has been working with arts organizations, all of which have been in positions to fund projects or organizations doing bridging work.”
Raised in Madison, Wisconsin, her parents were both involved in theater. Her mom was an actor and producer in community drama, mostly produced by the Women’s Club of Madison. Maryo’s dad was the playwright and writer-in-residence for the College of Agriculture at the University of Wisconsin, with a very unique program to help people in the state develop writing skills. Maryo explains, “In the 1930s, the college hired a painter-in-residence whose job was to help rural Wisconsin residents to paint. He got thousands of rural people painting,” which led to her father getting hired in the 1940s to replicate the program for writing. “Writing clubs sprang up all over Wisconsin. His first job was to help all the little towns to write their state centennial stories and my dad wanted to name me Centennianna after his job and the centennial,” she laughs, and was relieved that her mother intervened and later told her to be grateful she was given the name Maryo that she complained about.
Maryo felt fortunate that she was able to tag along with her father on his trips to rural towns throughout the state, where she was able to listen to the stories people would tell, “Traveling with my dad was the most memorable part of my childhood.” A lot of those stories told in the workshops stuck with her, as did the perks of midwestern hospitality. “I remember a lot a people delivered pies while we were on the road,” she recalls.
Another major influence in her childhood was her mother’s activities with the Women’s Club. “It was a troubled community with a lot of people arguing. My dad thought that if people could be brought together to talk about their interests and work together on something, a creative project exploring faith, that it might begin to draw the community together.” This was accomplished through the Women’s Club, which invited every faith-based group to work together on a pageant called Man and His God. “Each group was invited to write a scene for the play or provide a choir or dance troupe and they’d work together to create it.” Maryo recalls that every organization of faith participated. “As a child, I thought it was cool, and fast forward to what I believe and what I’m trying to do now, it was really seminal.”
Maryo attended Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia, studying perceptual and social psychology. After graduating in 1970, she continued on to Yale for Organizational Behavior. She feels that it all came together for her in a Community Health class where her professor believed that a healthy community is one where people value the creative and spiritual health of everybody who lives there as much as they value physical and mental health. “At that point, it was like a lightning bolt hit me and I knew that’s what I wanted to do, to help create that kind of a holistic, healthy community,” she tells. Her first job out of grad school was with the New Haven Arts Council in Connecticut, after which she went on to work for the Illinois Arts Council, then the Colorado Council on the Arts (CCA), and that’s how she arrived in Colorado, living in Boulder and working in Denver in 1982.
Maryo came to Gunnison to work with the Gunnison Arts Center (GAC) as part of her job for rural outreach when she was with the CCA. Her path had crossed with local (and now prolific and much-loved writer) George Sibley several times in Colorado. Sibley was living in Fort Collins at the time. Maryo’s supervisor, who had to cancel a scheduled meeting with George, gave Maryo lunch money to take George out on his behalf. “We were friends in a common interest in community arts. At this particular time there was a reception at the Gunnison Arts Center and that’s where romance began to bloom,” she smiles. A couple of years later, Maryo was able to work remotely from Gunnison, staying in the valley for three weeks at a time and then returning to Denver for a week. In 1995, she moved up full-time. “Eventually, I had more stuff here than I had in Boulder so I said, what the heck, let’s move.”
She worked with the CCA until 2003 and after 10 years of common law, George and Maryo decided to officially tie the knot, with the added benefits of George’s teaching position at Western State College (now Western Colorado University)
Maryo was consulting for arts projects management and research projects, which she describes as, “piecemeal but all interesting.” When a revived CCA was renamed Colorado Creative Industries, Maryo was hired on as a contract worker. “In a way, I was doing my old job but in 2010, the state passed legislation to form creative districts,” and she was asked to take the lead in building the creative district program for the state. She designed the entire program. She had also been president of the board at the Gunnison Arts Center. When the Community Foundation of the Gunnison Valley was ready to expand its staff in 2013, Maryo was hired to be the program director to manage and expand their nonprofit programming.
“The Resiliency Project was started by the then-Gunnison County manager Russ Forrest in 2020 when he realized how long the COVID pandemic was going to keep people isolated from each other and how joyless we were as a result,” Maryo explains. “So he asked me, as part of the Community Foundation, to work together with his park district, the immigrant outreach office and the Gunnison Chamber of Commerce to build social ties and joy in this terrible time. We did a number of things starting with crafting signs with a message.” In this program, people could call to request a message that would be printed into a personalized sign with encouraging messages. “In the middle of the night, we’d put it on the designated person’s lawn,” she smiles.
Music Cruises was another of the projects Maryo worked on. “Gunnison had lots of concerts and musicians who lost gigs,” she says of the musical dry spell created by COVID. “We got a flatbed trailer and pulled it through different neighborhoods so people could have music. It was a music cruise through town.” It was an uplifting, successful event and people began to ride their bikes along with the flatbed to follow the music. Maryo’s job was to follow the band around in an electric car with a bullhorn in her left hand, reminding people to stay 6 feet apart, and throwing Tootsie Rolls with her right hand.
Maryo retired this past August 25, which was also her 75th birthday. When asked what she’ll do with all her free time, Maryo grins and admits, “I’m sure there’s not going to be much free time in retirement with the kind of person I am. The job may be done but the work is not, so whatever shape it takes, I want to be involved in helping to build that healthy community, the one I got the vision of in that grad school public health class. I’m deliberately not writing any job description for what’s going to come next but I suspect it will involve volunteer work for the Resiliency Project, and probably volunteer work for the Creative District in Gunnison. There’s at least one writing project I’d like to do and there’s the County Health Coalition that I’ve been working with…and who knows what else,” she smiles. She’s already joined forces with the Rotary Club’s community service projects and she’s still part of Resiliency Project. She is on the Employee Assistance Program team for the county-wide Health Coalition, which will be rolling out this spring. “It will enable employers to purchase a variety of services, such as mental health counseling and financial and legal advice for their employees and their families at a super low cost,” she explains.
Meanwhile, she’s looking forward to summer gardening, a great love of hers, and she and George both enjoy their time skiing and hiking together when they can and occasionally traveling. However, Maryo admits that traveling is not really in her plans, “I want to use what I’ve learned and what I can do just to be part of the community I live in now.”
There’s a Percy MacKaye quote from 1912 that Maryo feels is the organizing principle for her life and work, “True democracy is vitally concerned with beauty and true art is vitally concerned with citizenship.” And she says emphatically, “I passionately believe in the democratic ideal and to me, it is creative thinking, creating shared beauty and joy, and building ties among neighbors and that is fundamental to American democracy.”