During two decades as director of art education at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Ellie Lazarus developed unique programs for children and adults.
“She basically is the person responsible for establishing deCordova’s first education program and founding deCordova’s education department,” said Nora Maroulis, deCordova’s deputy director for external affairs. “She was integral in taking deCordova out into the world.”
A longtime champion of arts education, Ms. Lazarus had a robust passion for indigenous cultures and a radiant smile. Colleagues said her transformative ideas regarding arts education for all ages helped establish the reputation of the deCordova, a 30-acre park in Lincoln that is the largest of its kind in New England.
Ms. Lazarus, an outdoor enthusiast who also worked to preserve land and natural resources in Massachusetts, died Feb. 26 in her Ashfield home, 13 years after being diagnosed with brain cancer. She was 65.
After becoming director of art education in 1979, Ms. Lazarus served as interim director of the museum for two years and fine-tuned an arts camp that focused on a different region of the world each summer.
Being director of art education “really allowed her to have a laboratory to do so many things she cared about,” said her brother Fred of Baltimore, who is president of the Maryland Institute College of Art.
Much of her inspiration fcame from her fascination with cultures that took her around the world, he said.
“She loved indigenous cultures,” he said. “I wouldn’t call her a daredevil, but she was very much out there doing her thing.
“It was certainly that interest in cultures and people that inspired her creation of the arts camp.”
Ms. Lazarus also was involved in creating a “gallery on the go” program, which brought the museum’s treasures into schools.
“She was sought out as an expert in museum education and was really a force of nature in terms of her outlook and determination and her ability to really warmly bring people in,” Maroulis said.
Ms. Lazarus was interested in handicraft art, including woodwork, basketry, beadwork, and jewelry, and she collected many pieces during her travels, said her twin sister, Meg Crawford, a landscape designer of Rhinebeck, N.Y.
Crawford said her twin “particularly loved the cultures that were not touched by the modern world,” including those people who carried on ancient traditions and wore native dress.
“She just met every stranger with a curiosity, particularly people from other countries,” Crawford said. “She wished to learn their story.”
Eleanor Lazarus was born and grew up in Cincinnati.
Described by her sister as “extremely vivacious and very self-reliant,” Ms. Lazarus moved to Massachusetts to attend Smith College. After graduating, she received a master’s degree in art history from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
She began her career by working in arts integration programs with a number of organizations in Central Massachusetts.
Ms. Lazarus also loved to travel. She was part of the crew on a sailboat owned by Tom Watson Jr., a friend who formerly was president of IBM, on voyages through the Panama Canal to the South Pacific and to Greenland.
During her trips she explored the cultures of the Galapagos Islands, the Cook Islands, and Easter Island.
“She was fearless when it came to traveling,” Crawford said. “She would rather be amongst native peoples than her own and did not mind living rough.”
In addition, Ms. Lazarus traveled to Africa, South America, and Eastern Europe. “She especially loved traveling to Latin America,” Crawford said. “She loved going to markets.”
Ms. Lazarus wanted nothing more than to share her enthusiasm for art and culture with her students, her sister said. She loved learning about the food and languages of other people and could easily pick up on particular accents.
Ms. Lazarus retired from deCordova in 1999 and moved from Watertown to Ashfield, where she continued to work in arts education.
In 2001, the Massachusetts Art Education Association honored Ms. Lazarus with its museum educator of the year award.
She had served on the board of Art Connection, a nonprofit art donation program in Boston, and also became a board member of the Paris Press, a not-for-profit press based in Ashfield that publishes works by female authors.
Crawford said Ms. Lazarus enjoyed the outdoors and loved canoeing, camping, biking, and hiking. Ms. Lazarus served on the board of the Franklin Land Trust, a nonprofit that works to preserve land and natural resources in Western Massachusetts.
Maroulis recalled visiting Ms. Lazarus in her Ashfield home, an afternoon she said was one of the best in her life.
“Her smile was just beaming and infectious, and told you volumes about what she felt strongly about and how she viewed the world,” Maroulis said. “Her impact can still be felt here in a very palpable way. She was a really powerful force.’’
In addition to her brother and twin, Ms. Lazarus leaves another sister, Elizabeth Block of Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., and another brother, George Rau of Grand Junction, Colo.
A memorial gathering will be held at the deCordova Museum on July 27.
Fred Lazarus said his sister was positive, uninhibited, and had a great laugh. Throughout her years with brain cancer, he said, his sister had a strong desire to remain active.
“She had just a remarkable spirit through this illness that was so indicative of her spirit all of her life,” he said.Melissa Werthmann can be reached at email@example.com.