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Susann Craig, outsider art collector who also collected adventures and friends, dead at 84

‘You just wanted to be around her,’ architect Jeanne Gang says of the woman who helped found Intuit, Chicago’s museum of outsider and self-taught art, and owned three boutiques.

Susann Craig in her Logan Square loft surrounded by some of the many treasures she collected.
Susann Craig in her Logan Square loft surrounded by some of the many treasures she collected.
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When Susann Craig moved, it sounded like wind chimes.

She had rings on every finger and bracelets that went up her arms.

She covered every surface, shelf and ceiling of her Logan Square loft with paintings, mobiles, statues and geegaws.

At one point, she invited an artist to stay at her mother’s summer cottage and maybe do a little decorating. When the artist left, Ms. Craig discovered she’d painted a riot of flowers and dots and stripes on the walls — and some of the furniture.

“It was like ‘Pee-wee’s Playhouse,’ ’’ said her daughter Amy Coleman.

It became known as the “Oh, my God” room for the reaction people had when they walked in.

Ms. Craig thought it was glorious.

After Susann Craig invited an artist to personalize a summer cottage, her family started calling it the “Oh, my God” room for the reactions it invariably drew.
After Susann Craig invited an artist to personalize a summer cottage, her family started calling it the “Oh, my God” room for the reactions it invariably drew.
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While in the hospital for treatment of breast cancer, she was bothered that patients had to stare up at blank ceiling tiles. So Coleman arranged to have her ceiling covered with a rainbow of silk scarves.

“My 84-year-old mom wanted to celebrate Pride [Month] in her hospital room,” she said.

Ms. Craig died June 28 of breast cancer at a hospital in Santa Monica, California, where she’d been visiting family.

Susann Craig.
Susann Craig.
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Like the beads at the center of the macrame jewelry she created, she was at the heart of many social circles.

“She had business cards made that said ‘Susann Craig, People Connector,’ ” said her other daughter, Jennifer Knight.

Ms. Craig was a collector of outsider art and owner of three boutiques in Illinois and northern Michigan. She sold clothing, toys, gifts, accessories and gourmet candy from around the world.

And she helped found Intuit, Chicago’s museum of outsider and self-taught art. Ms. Craig organized many successful clothing-sale fundraisers for Intuit with items she collected from friends, designers and her own closet.

In the 1970s, she was director of the Dorothy Rosenthal Gallery on Ontario Street. She also taught classes on ethnic and folk art at Columbia College Chicago, where she compiled a directory of Chicago artisans.

In the 1980s, she operated the Susann Craig Showroom at the Apparel Center. One of her clothing lines featured vintage sailor tattoos embroidered on T-shirts. She traveled to Guatemala to have them produced.

Susann Craig — dressed for a walk with her dog Dooley — outside her Logan Square loft.
Susann Craig — dressed for a walk with her dog Dooley — outside her Logan Square loft.
Alden Knight

Walking her dog Dooley around Logan Square, she’d wear snazzy leggings, flowy scarves, chunky shoes and funky glasses, hats and jewelry. Her nearby loft was the first project designed solely by the now well-known architect Jeanne Gang.

”She was a wonderful person, full of positive energy and intellectual curiosity, especially for art and design,” said Gang, the founder of Studio Gang. “You just wanted to be around her. She was a people magnet.”

Susann Craig (right) with students she invited for lunch and a tour of her art-filled home.
Susann Craig (right) with students she invited for lunch and a tour of her art-filled home.
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Coleman worked as a supervising producer for Oprah Winfrey, who used to leave some of her eye-catching clothing on Coleman’s desk with a note saying: “This is for your mom.”

“You would have said this woman can’t be 84 — she’s full of life and enthusiasm and walks faster than most young people,” said Debra Kerr, president of Intuit, which will rename a gallery in her honor.

She saw whimsy everywhere. Once as they walked down a New York City street, Kerr said, “Some trash bags had spilled open, and she found a faded photograph of two men in swimsuits with their arms around each other, and the frame had bits of seashells. And she said, ‘Look at this treasure,’ and she brought it home.”

The thrill was in the hunt, Ms. Craig said in a 2004 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times: “You might find something on the wall of the dry cleaners, and the person will say, ‘My grandmother made that, and she has a bunch more in the basement.’ I’ve found [folk art] people by driving by something on a country road and screeching to a halt.”

She spent much of her youth in Greenwich, Conn., where her father Robert Eickmeyer was a director of the YMCA. Her mother Viola worked as an executive secretary and in a consignment store run by the Second Congregational Church of Greenwich.

“That whole kind of bargain-hunting, thrift-store-shopping thing was probably planted there,” Coleman said.

She studied speech pathology at the College of Wooster in Ohio, where she met Scott Craig, who would become her husband and an award-winning producer of documentary films and TV specials.

They later divorced, but, as graduate students at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, the Craigs would haunt flea markets. Ms. Craig, who was studying art history, didn’t have room for all the treasures she found. Her then-husband suggested she open a store. She called it The Gallery, Ltd.

Later, they bought a cottage in Leland, Mich., where Ms. Craig opened her second store, The Limited, LTD., in what’s become “a thriving tourist hub,” Coleman said.

She named her third shop Lima Bean after a friend’s pet turtle. It still operates in Suttons Bay, Mich.

Actor Jennifer Beals, a friend of Coleman, often visited the Craigs’ Chicago house when she was growing up.

“With her enormous turquoise and coral rings, each one a story, her clothes that seemed to be from faraway lands, her delight, her recognition of all kinds of beauty, her curiosity, her joyful swagger and her knowledge and celebration of art, she was a gateway into a world I knew I wanted to be a part of,” Beals said. “Simply by existing, she let me know that not only was it OK not to look and think like everyone else, it was, in fact, a glory to be celebrated.”

When Ms. Craig’s daughters were young, she took us to leper colonies in Nepal,” Knight said. “We camped under the Great Pyramid in Egypt in Bedouin tents. She used to say, ‘Why would we stay in a hotel when we can do this?’ ”

Susann Craig with daughters Jennifer (left) and Amy.
Susann Craig with daughters Jennifer (left) and Amy.
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At times, her unconventionality could be trying for her growing daughters. Knight remembers the handyman her mother employed who had a big Jesus tattoo on his chest. When it got hot, he shaved his chest — except for the hair on Jesus’ beard and mustache.

There were a lot of times I wanted my mom to be more ‘normal’ like the other parents,” Coleman said. “As I’ve gotten older I’m glad I recognize how special she was.”

Ms. Craig loved the smell of gardenias and liked hanging out with the friends who called themselves “The Grays” for their natural hair color. Sometimes, they’d wear T-shirts that declared “Openly Gray.”

Susann Craig (left) and her friend Jan Petry were part of a group of friends with naturally gray hair who called themselves “The Grays.”
Susann Craig (left) and her friend Jan Petry were part of a group of friends with naturally gray hair who called themselves “The Grays.”
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Ms. Craig is also survived by her sisters Jane Kiernan and Mary Lou Coe and four grandchildren.

A celebration of her life is planned Aug. 9 at The Old Art Building in Leland, Mich. A memorial is scheduled Nov. 6 at St. Pauls United Church of Christ in Chicago, followed by a gathering at Intuit.

Susann Craig wore rings on every finger from all over the world.
Susann Craig wore rings on every finger from all over the world.
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