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Patricia Degener: artist, teacher, journalist

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 20, 2010 - Patricia Degener, a formidable presence in the worlds of art and journalism in St. Louis and a woman whose pronouncements on everything from gardening to geopolitics were delivered fearlessly and with authority and conviction, died Monday at home in the Central West End, where she’d lived for almost half a century. She was 85 years old.

Patsy, as she was called by friends, colleagues, sometimes even her children, excelled in several careers, some of which ran concurrently. But her heart was in her art, with ceramics, a medium in which she displayed extraordinary virtuosity and originality. Her spirit was thrown into it, too, and brought to it a quality of magic as ineffable as it was affecting.

She was born in Washington, D.C., in 1924, where her father, the late Capt. J.P. Norfleet was stationed. Called Swifty, Capt. Norfleet was a career Navy officer. He and Mrs. Degener’s mother, the late Henriette Plangere Norfleet, and their daughters, moved up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Mrs. Degener enjoyed the frequent changes of scenery. In an article in the Post-Dispatch, written when she retired in 1990, she said, "The Navy was like academia in a way -- when you moved somewhere you always knew someone.''

She graduated from Friends Select School in Philadelphia and attended Wellesley College, Wellesley, Mass., for two years. Eventually, she finished her undergraduate degree at Washington University in St. Louis. She moved here with former husband, Glenn Degener, in 1954 when he was hired to teach at St. Louis Country Day School, now MICDS.

Mrs. Degener was a teacher, too, and taught for a while at Rowan Woods School in St. Louis County. But her heart was in urban schools and with the disadvantaged children who populated many of them. She was a member of the faculty of the old People's Art Center, a progressive inner-city program founded by the WPA in 1942. It was the first racially integrated arts program in the city. She also was responsible for running MECA, the Metropolitan Educational Center for the Arts, a federally funded arts program. She taught art in the St. Louis public schools, too, in the famous program initiated and run by the late Dr. Marie Larkin.

Along the way, Mrs. Degener was instrumental in the founding of two arts organizations that continue to play a significant part in the cultural life of this community: Craft Alliance and what was originally the First Street Forum, now the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.  

In 1969, Mrs. Degener joined the staff of the Post-Dispatch as interior design writer, a position she held until 1980. Often, her stories were illustrated with line drawings of the objects about which she wrote. In 1980, she was named art critic. In that position, she was responsible for reviewing major exhibits in galleries and museums, and reported on shows mounted on both coasts and abroad. She was a frank and sometimes acerbic critic, but her observations and reviews were always informed, intelligent and incisive.

She retired from the newspaper in 1990, but certainly did not “retire” in any ordinary sense of the word. All the while that she taught and wrote for the newspaper she continued to make art, and her work was the subject of many memorable exhibitions. She drew with elegance, flair and well-limned irony, but her medium was ceramics.

She started out to be a painter, but chose ceramics when she lived in the Riverdale section of the Bronx early in her marriage. ''After my second child was born,” she told a reporter, “I decided that I was becoming a vegetable. I was trained to paint and I tried to paint, but that was entirely too intellectual with babies around, so I took up ceramics.'' She studied at Riverdale Neighborhood House. Her aptitude for art was such, she said, that she was made a teacher’s assistant.

Martin Schweig Jr. and Terrie Liberman were devoted friends of long standing. Schweig for many years was her dealer in his gallery on Maryland Avenue, and he had great respect for her as an artist and a critic. He also liked the fact that she didn’t place high prices on her art, making it easier to sell in the thrifty climate of St. Louis.

His wife, Liberman, praised Mrs. Degener for her creativity and spunk. “To me, her criticism was very instructive,” Liberman, said. “She couched it in terms of art history.” In addition to mutual interests in art, Schweig, Liberman and Degener were rabid fans of the St. Louis Cardinals, and often attended games together.

In recent years, Mrs. Degener and textile artist Marjorie Hoeltzel became close friends, and as Mrs. Degener's eyesight and health declined, Hoeltzel drove her to and from Trinity Episcopal Church, a church Mrs. Degener attended off and on for years and for which she created the Stations of the Cross.

No shrinking violet, Mrs. Degener was quite forthright, and while she may have couched her art criticism in art history, she usually did not couch other opinions in anything at all.  

“For years I was intimidated by her,” Hoeltzel said, “and never felt we were friends. Even when she told me she wanted to go back to Trinity, I was still in awe of her, because she was so talented in so many fields.” Eventually, Hoeltzel said, she softened. “On the way home from church, I saw her become more lovable, and when she got out of the car and said, ‘Thank you, dear,’ I knew things had changed. I will miss after-church with Patsy very, very much.”

Her long time friend and newspaper colleague E.F. Porter was a match for her intellect and occasionally her cantankerousness. But he described her lovingly, as an imaginative free spirit, and spoke admiringly of the radical, almost crazy quality of some of her work. He mentioned a particularly imaginative vessel upon whose surface Mrs. Degener explored graphically the myth of Europa and the Bull.

Porter and others spoke enthusiastically of a series of mirrors she produced, each one of them a work of art within a work of art. The image was complicated further by the presence of a viewer. When a person came close enough to examine the object carefully, he or she was drawn into the piece and became a living part of the sculptural image.

Mrs. Degener was an accomplished athlete. She loved to ski, and her sons recalled her taking off on old skis with lace-up bindings to ski down Art Hill in Forest Park, where she also cross-country skied. She skied in more conventional resorts as well, such as Vail. She was an avid tennis player. Late in life, she took up yoga. She was nimble almost to the end, bending down to tend and caress the flowers of her garden.

She loved animals and was never without a dog. One was called Swifty, an homage to her father. Among the others were Bear, whom she once brought into the Post-Dispatch newsroom in violation of some rule or another, and most recently, a lively Welsh corgi called Sam, who survives her.

Mrs. Degener is survived as well by a daughter, Amanda Louise Degener, Minneapolis, Minn.; three sons: William Theodore Degener, Cornish Flat, N.H.; James Gerald Degener, San Francisco, Calif.; and Richard Alston Degener, Cape May, N.J.; her sister, Barbara Norfleet, Cambridge, Mass., and six grandchildren. Another daughter, Patricia Hill Degener, died in childhood.

A memorial service will be at Trinity Church, 600 North Euclid Avenue, at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday (April 24), followed by a reception at 6 p.m. at Craft Alliance’s Grand Center Gallery, 501 North Grand Boulevard. In lieu of flowers, the family requests contributions be made to the Patsy Degener Clay Scholarship Fund at Craft Alliance, 6640 Delmar Blvd. St. Louis, Mo., 63130, or to Trinity Church, 600 North Euclid, St. Louis, Mo. 63108.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.