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Lives & Times Of Valley Folks: Marvin Schenck

Marvin was born in 1947 in San Francisco, the third of four boys born to parents Fred Orville Schenck and Agnes Anderson. Older brothers Gary and Bill were born in 1940 and 1941 and it was hoped the third child would be a girl — it was Marvin. Six years later, in 1953, a fourth boy, Richard, came along as a complete surprise!

The Schenck name was originally from Germany and family lore tells it that a Schenck who was in the Hessian army (Germans hired by the British) was captured in the Revolutionary War when fighting alongside the British. He stayed in the country after the war, the name changed from Schenck to Shank, and the family settled in Michigan where they farmed the land (in the 1930s Marvin’s father changed the spelling of the name back to the original Schenck at the request of his dying father). Marvin’s father’s parents moved from Michigan out west to Washington where they were migrant farm workers and where Fred Schenck was born in 1907. . Later in the 1900s they moved down to San Francisco, where Marvin’s grandfather found work as a stevedore on the docks. “If the truth be told my father considered himself a ‘Heinz 57’ — having many different European backgrounds.”

“On my mother’s side the family was Swedish. My grandmother came to the US around 1910 and got married in New York City. They had a baby girl, Effie, but the marriage did not work out. My grandmother, Hildur Anderson, then left with the baby and moved out to San Francisco to stay with her sister. She met a Swedish seaman, also an Anderson. Albert Anderson, who was from the same rural area as Hildur (indeed they had even met once), was a seaman who worked up and down the west coast on various freighter ships (my family’s first connection to Mendocino County). They were married and in 1913 a daughter was born — Agnes. However, when my mother was just seven years old, her father Albert, who was a first mate by this time, was washed overboard and although he was rescued he had a six-month battle with bronchopneumonia but eventually died. My grandmother never recovered from this loss and for income she would take in kids who had working parents and do housekeeping. They said she could lift a piano with one hand and sweep underneath with the other!”

Marvin’s father did not graduate from high school but his mother did and had gone on to business school and found work as a secretary and bookkeeper. By the time they met and were married in 1936, the year the World’s Fair started in San Francisco, Fred was a streetcar motorman and Agnes was working in the Emporium department store. Fred later was a fireman on a steam engine and then a welder, his main profession. He was also a drummer in a band and played piano. “They had the four boys — my poor mother! The oldest, Gary had asthma and so in 1948, when I was a few months old, my parents sold their house in Bernal Heights in the City and we moved for his health to a little ranch in Penngrove by Petaluma in the North Bay. Both sides of the family had farming heritage although neither of my parents had any experience themselves. I guess they had ‘the call’, as indeed I did many years later.”

Life was not easy on the “ramshackle” ranch, even the turkeys managed to drown themselves looking up in a rainstorm! Marvin’s father worked as a welder in Petaluma while his mother, even with baby Marvin, took a part-time job as accountant for the local slaughterhouse. “My father got a severe stomach ulcer — probably due to the worry, and needed an operation. It was decided that I should go and stay with my Aunt Effie, my mother’s half-sister, and her husband Fred, in San Bruno, south of San Francisco. They basically raised me for the next few years although my parents and brothers would come and visit quite often. When my father recovered they wanted to take me back but Aunt Effie said my parents were in no position to do so. My mother was afraid of Effie - the family lore was that ‘you don’t want to make Effie mad’. I ended up staying there for four years, until I was five years old. Eventually, my father got a job as a custodian for the City of San Bruno and Mom found a job at a real estate office. They sold the ranch and bought a house and I returned to live with them. My Dad thought Effie and Uncle Fred had spoiled me and I had to adjust to being back. Unfortunately the damage had been done and Effie and my mother stopped speaking to each other. My aunt and uncle had no other kids and apart from the odd occasion when I would see Aunt Effie around town, that was it. They never reconciled — it was very sad.”

Marvin has fond memories of his schooling in San Bruno — “when the California Education system was at its peak.” They lived in suburbia but in the early years there were still cattle on the hillsides. He was a good student and when not at school his hobbies included model railways, drawing, helping his Dad with the garden, and raising lots of pets, cats mainly, but dogs too. He was not a very social kid. “I was a geeky kid with geeky kids as friends. I did not do sports although I was physically fit and good at running. From the age of ten to seventeen I had a paper route, following in the footsteps of my two older brothers who had started the routes in the area. I then got a job at an art supply store in my final year at high school. I enjoyed most of my classes, especially art, stagecraft, and history. I got lots of A’s but not in P.E.”

Marvin’s oldest brother Gary went on to community college and got a job in sales with the Lee clothing company. Second oldest, Bill, went into sales too. “We all had the gift of the gab, I guess. I had seen the California College of Arts and Crafts and really wanted to go there. I graduated from high school in 1965 and attended San Mateo Community College where I would decide which major to take at art college — art or set design for the theater. My parents supported all of this. My brothers had ‘blazed the trail’ and kept them on their toes but I was a good kid, with good grades and so they were happy for me to do what I wanted to do, which was something creative.”

Following two years at the community college, Marvin entered the California College of Art in Oakland in 1967. I had enough money for one semester but then got a partial scholarship and the beginning of a student loan. It was $385 a semester at the time and I supplemented my income with a part-time gardening job at the college for $1.37 hour. Those were the years of many anti-war protests and I was a part of that movement. I marched against the Vietnam War, and following the invasion of Cambodia and Kent State, the CCAC students went on a week-long strike. The printmaking studios became poster factories for the Bay Area marches.”

While at college, Marvin met and married Lou Dell, a painting major. “We ‘eloped’ to the county courthouse and moved into a two-room apartment a few blocks from the college. Our best man and bridesmaid, Adrian and Mary, lived on the floor below us. Several years later they moved to the Sonoma Valley and after visiting them a few times, the bee was in our bonnet about living in the country.”

Marvin graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in printmaking in 1970. He and Lou Dell had been living in the Oakland Hills, working their own organic garden, raising chickens, following the whole back-to-the-land concept. They moved to a place in the Sonoma Valley where they could take this to the next level. Marvin had already started his studies for a Master of Fine Arts Degree at Mills College in the East Bay and in the second year was on a full scholarship and teaching assistantship. However, this was a long commute from Sonoma and, together with the gas crisis that was in full swing, it resulted in him staying over more often than not. “This was detrimental to our relationship and Lou wanted me to quit my studies and get a job. I could not agree to do this — I felt I would never be able to go back. We separated in 1973 and I moved down to Oakland, finishing my studies the next year. We were finally divorced in 1976 or so.”

Following graduation, Marvin got a job at the frame shop at the back of the student store at the California College of Arts and Crafts. He supplemented this with some work at the college’s student wood shop and did handyman work for his landlord, to whom he paid just $75 in monthly rent for a run down old summer cabin in the Oakland hills. In 1976, he and a buddy decided to drive across country in celebration of the country’s Bicentennial. “In Arkansas my buddy decided to stay on with his family there so I carried on alone, in the classic VW bus and with the obligatory long hair of the time. I was in Washington D.C on July 4th and then went on to stay with friends in New York City before visiting some Schenck relatives in Michigan, and then heading back to the Bay Area.”

Printmaking actually led Marvin into curatorial work. “In the summer of 1973 for the World Print Competition, sponsored by CCAC, I was hired with the title of curator which meant basically organizing the jury process for the thousands of entries from around the world. “The Kaiser Corporation in Oakland had given us a huge space and I hired about twenty printmaking students from CCAC to process the entries. We made very little money but it was so much fun. I met a Japanese print collector who was on the board of the Competition and he later offered me a job helping him organize his collection. In 1976 he asked me to be the curator of a show for his collection at the Walnut Creek Civic Arts Gallery in the East Bay after my trip across the country. Having completed that show in October, I applied for the job as exhibition Specialist at the Gallery in November. They offered me the position and this was the real beginning of my career in the museum world.”

“I did many great shows there, coming up with many new ideas and exhibitions. In 1981 I was offered a position as exhibits coordinator for the Scottsdale (Arizona) Center for the Arts. I knew the director there from my job in Walnut Creek and he kind of recruited me. I was looking for a change and Scottsdale was a much bigger operation. I had dated over the years but had not found a soul mate so there were no ties to staying. I wanted that change and it was time. Scottsdale, a few miles east of Phoenix, was a very cool place. The Art Center had been exclusively showing contemporary art and I decided to create a balance between that art world and Historic Western Art (the other major art realm in Scottsdale). It proved to be a big success for the Center.”

Throughout these times, Marvin continued to do his own work — printmaking and a great deal of painting — watercolors, oils, and later Acrylics. “I met lots of artists down there and, in 1984, one of them, Ká Graves, invited me to the filming of a performance piece at her house that would feature a dinner with everyone in costume. She had arranged for a certain Colleen Conley to also attend — intending this to be a blind date for Colleen and me. Strangely, Colleen had previously been married to a man by the name of ‘Scheck’ — I kidded her that she didn’t quite get the name right the first time. Colleen had been a high school teacher outside of Chicago and was by this time running the art department at Grand Canyon College in Phoenix. We started dating and hit it off. I was working many, many hours - at my job at the Scottsdale Center; teaching part time at the community college; and trying to do my own art, and at some point Colleen said ‘I will not marry you if you still have that job.’ I left the Art Center, did more teaching, worked on my own art, including a one-man show at a gallery in Phoenix, and we were married at a Halloween party in 1986. We had invited many friends to the party without telling them we were getting married that night. The wedding photographs are quite unusual to say the least.”

After a couple of years, they were thinking of making a change. “In 1989, we went to a College Art Association conference in San Francisco with the idea that we’d be open to any opportunities that may arise with regards to a new job for either of us. My freelance work was not bringing in much money due to a recession and Colleen was not happy in her job at the very conservative college. Well, I was offered and accepted a job as the curator at the Hearst Art Gallery at St. Mary’s College in Moraga in the East Bay. Colleen got a job as educational director at the Richmond Arts Center soon after. We stayed at those jobs for nine and ten years respectively, living in Oakland’s Maxwell Park district, and having our son, Nathan, in 1993.”

In July 1997, Marvin and Colleen were heading to the Mendocino Art Center on the coast to see a friend’s one-man show and drove through Anderson Valley. “About five years earlier, Colleen had taught at a workshop at the Art Center and prior to that, in around 1991, both of us had stayed at the Albion River Inn, again passing through the Valley but not really taking it in. However, on this occasion, as has happened to many people before and since, it just hit us. We had been looking to move to another place for Nathan’s schooling and even when we lived back in Arizona we had talked about the idea of a bed & breakfast in the country. On this occasion we saw that the Philo Pottery Inn B & B was for sale. When we got to Mendocino, I found a copy of the local real estate guide and checked it out. The inn was more expensive than we wanted to pay and we’d researched this option before, finding that you needed eight rooms to be successful — the Inn had five or so. Anyway, we took the guide back to Oakland and looked at other properties in the Valley. We were looking for a retirement business opportunity, perhaps a property near to the main road at which we could have a gallery for our art.”

“At one point many, many years earlier, before I was born, my Dad saw an ad for Anderson Valley property and with a friend he drove up here to take a look, just after World War II. Apparently he was gone all day and when he returned very late at night he told my mother that it was nice country but too far and isolated. Anyway, I made a reservation at the Boonville hotel for the following weekend and we came back up. We met with Bob Matthias of Rancheria Realty and told him what we wanted. He showed us this house at the corner of hwy 128 and Clark Road. It had been on the market for some time and was owned by Doc Hand. It was originally Bobby Glover’s parents’ house, built in 1927 after the original one on that spot burned down. It had been left somewhat abandoned by Hand and there was a re-possession note on the door. The place was a mess but we loved the view, the barn as a gallery location, and the property’s possibilities. We looked at other properties but none matched this — the gallery idea was a big part of our thinking. I figured out all the work that needed doing and made an offer. I heard from the realtor that Hand tore it up!”

That would seem to be the end of it and Marvin and Colleen started looking elsewhere, within a 150-mile radius of the Bay Area. In the end they decided that Anderson Valley was where they wanted to be and, by late summer, “I made a revised offer. After much haggling and Hand asking for more money but throwing in his Ford Bronco and 1957 Harley Davidson motorcycle, we completed the purchase. We would put lots of money into the house over the next fifteen years, all of the profit from the sale of our house in Oakland and plenty more besides. We would come up on weekends, working on the place, and then in November 1998 I got a job as Director of the Mendocino Arts Center and moved up at that time, camping at the property with the dogs. Colleen stayed in Oakland with Nathan. It was tough and then when we decided to sell our house down there I had to spend weekends working on that place. It sold quickly when it was listed and Colleen moved up too, and also found work at the Arts Center, as Educational Director.”

Following cutbacks at the Center they both left the end of September 1999, although Colleen later went back on a part-time basis. Marvin became the part-time curator at the Grace Hudson Museum in Ukiah in March 2000 and went full-time in 2001. “I have been there ever since, working five days a week, sometimes more, although last year city staff went to a four nine-hour day schedule. That gives me a three-day weekend and time to spend on my acrylic landscape paintings. There is also still plenty of work to do around our place and the gallery idea is still in our future. Meanwhile Colleen was a director of the Mendocino Art Council for two years before being hired by Mendocino County’s Public Health Department to run grant-funded programs at the Anderson Valley School District such as after-school art programs, assisting the Community Action Coalition in it’s dealings with the methamphetamine problems in the community, plus the work to keep the second Sheriff’s Deputy in the Valley and the setting up of the Teen Center. And apart from one semester in Mendocino, Nathan has gone through the school system here in the Valley and graduates high school next month and will be attending Columbia College, Chicago, in the fall to study audio recording and music.”

In the community, Marvin has been a founder and organizer of the annual Open Studio Art Tour that takes place for the tenth time this coming weekend, May 26th — 28th. He has also been an active member of the Anderson Valley Historical Society Board for about six years now. He likes a number of things about life here in the Valley. “The beauty of the Valley is quite something — it’s a gorgeous place; the climate is close to perfect; the people are great! Our interest in art links us closely to the art community; it is such a rich area culturally. We love coming back here if we have gone away on a trip or just to work. Dislikes? Well, it would be nice to have a D.S.L. Internet connection, satellite is slow but not as bad as dial-up of course — other than that I have no gripes.”

I asked Marvin if he had ever thought about leaving once he had moved here. “Not really, although I never say never. There is a draw of family in the Chicago area and with Nathan now going there for school who knows what the future will hold. Having said that this place is so special and we have no serious thoughts of moving.”

I moved on to various frequently discussed Valley issues or topics of conversation.

The Wineries? “What works agriculturally and financially has changed and the wineries now bring in the visitors and their money. I know several very nice people in the wine business here but I would not like to see it get too exclusive like it is in Napa. The tasting rooms here seem very welcoming.”

KZYX radio? “I am a big supporter, I listen all the time, and it was a big plus when we were thinking of moving here. I was a big supporter of community radio in the East Bay.”

The AVA? “I subscribe and am very glad we have it. I don’t always agree with it but enjoy the Valley news sections, particularly the interviews with Valley folks.”

The School System? “It’s very good and they have done a great job educating my child. The teachers are dedicated and hard-working and do amazing things with the resources they have.”

I asked Marvin for a visual image or memory of his parents. “My Dad loved to work on repairing televisions. I remember him doing this, always with a cigarette in his mouth. I did a digital story on him for a workshop I took and called it ‘Where were you, Dad?’ I think that sums it up. We did very little together… My mother was really great, very hard-working. When everyone else was out, she and I would sit together in the kitchen, drink coffee, and talk. She was a real sweetie. She passed in 2000 at the age of 86, living long enough to see this place. She really liked it here and wished she’d had a kitchen like the one here (the existing 1950s version before the remodel) in the house in Penngrove, although my brothers couldn’t see why I bought it.”

I posed a few questions to Marvin.

What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing? “Making art, listening to music, and admiring the landscapes of the Valley.”

What annoys you; brings you down? - “Current politics.”

Sound or noise you love? “Birds singing in the garden.”

Sound or noise you hate? A cat scratching at the window to go out when I still want to sleep

your ‘last supper’? “Colleen’s tacos.”

If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation over dinner, who would that person be? “Grace Hudson, the artist for whom the museum is named — I know quite a lot about her but it would be very cool to talk with her.”

If you were sitting at home and a fire broke out in the building, what three things would you make sure you took with you? “The painting of the family farm in Sweden; a painting by August Gay — the biggest influence of my own work, and a family photograph album.”

Where would you like to visit if you could go anywhere in the world? “Sweden and Ireland — to see family stuff.”

Favorite hobby? “I have been into model trains since I was about eleven and I still am.”

Profession other than your own you’d like to have attempted if you were given the chance to do anything? - “When I was younger I thought I might like to be an archeologist. In later life I think I would have been a good vet. I have a real rapport with animals.”

Profession or job you’d not like to do? “Selling insurance.”

Something you would do differently if you could do it over again? “Well it would have been awfully nice to have pushed my own art more rather than putting so much energy into helping others show theirs. The museum world has been remarkably rewarding but very time consuming.”

Something that you are really proud of? “Nathan.”

Favorite thing about yourself, your best quality? “That I love animals… And that I have a really good eye for visual things.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “I believe that I have done lots of good work for artists and in preserving history. Perhaps I’d like him to say ‘You’ve really helped many artists — and you have shared your own talents. You have left the world a better place’.”

(To read the ‘stories’ of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at The next interview will appear in this newspaper’s June 13th issue. (These interviews are published on the 2nd and 4th Wednesday of the month.) The guest interviewee on that occasion will be long-time Valley resident Barbara ‘Bobbie’ Jean Hiatt.)

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