Some Place Else

Warming up.

I believe my left hand IS like a musical instrument; it needs to be warmed up each day in order to hit the notes in the way that looks specific to me.  If I’ve been away from the studio, it can take me two weeks before my eye/hand coordination is back. So I’m always looking for ways to warm up my hand.

Pets: Ellie, Ted, and Petey have been my warm-up subjects over the years.

Ellie, was a beautiful black princess, dressed in Laborador mix clothes.  She was a stray that ASPCA came across in downtown Madison, Wi, at the end of a college term.  Pregnant, starving.


Then, Ted, a miniature poodle.  He was my good buddy and studio companion for nearly fifteen years.  I painted the last piece shortly after  he passed away.  That was where he rested quietly while I worked.  When I painted the large Arboretum Walk show, I laid the paper canvases across my studio floor with six inch pathways.  Ted walked the pathways as deftly as a cat.

And now, Petey, a Havanese.  Americans pronounce this name as if it were “PD.”  That’s Petey’s real name.  History.  For 48 years, we lived north of Hwy PD; now in our retirement we live south of PD.  Petey’s forefathers came over from Cuba in 1959-the year I was there for my senior year in high school.  His AKC name is Spanish for “prairie dog” (Perro De las Praderas)

There were the times when pets had enough of my requests to sit still.  No problem.

In the early nineteen eighties, I had been saving a large box of soft dolls and toys that our children had grown out of.  (That is, I was saving them to give to our four when they became parents.   I was thinking grandkids would enjoy knowing what toys their parents had when they were children.)  So these toys and our pets were two sorts of warm up subject matter when my husband was out of town.   I could fill a huge venue of warm-up portraits of Dave and then fill it up all over again with portraits of myself.  (I won’t be doing that.)

Some of the warm-up drawings became paintings, but the real goal was “warm-up!” LAMB evolved into an acrylic painting from several Ebony pencil studies.  I can’t remember all of their names and maybe some didn’t have names.  Can’t remember.  Long ago.

I didn’t work in a linear way.  Some days I browsed sketches of toys and got out my acrylics or watercolors for more finished portraits.

On respites from parenthood and homemaking, my husband watched over the kids.  I liked to get in the car and head out from our medium sized city into the very accessible countryside.  I put my finger on the map, found a small town and drove to it.  After a stroll down the main street, I stopped at the coffee shop.  I had a bite to eat, read a good book and in three hours was ready to return home.

There was conversation and comfort and considerations  that were offered to those who came for food and I came to respect the double duty that the owners and servers provided within their communities.   In 1985 I began carrying sketching supplies to these small towns in order to honor these people.  A suggestion from  Jim Hofstetter of the WI Historical Society redirected me on this.  He said in the places I had visited, maybe, it was a coffee shop.  But I should look for gas stations, bars, libraries, banks, etc, to pinpoint the establishment in each community and honor those places in addition.  For the next two years, I did that.

“Amazing Grace at Katy’s Cafe”

(With this series, I was playing “peek-a-boo” with collage elements.  If I’m not mistaken, the woman walking through the front door is collaged, but not the man’s newspaper.  The period I was traveling was one where farms were being foreclosed upon.  I saw many groups of farmers providing comfort to each other.  I fantasized that my own little people paintings would be hanging on the wall of the cafe also.  My understanding is that this cafe burned down a few years after this painting was finished.)

In each place, I quickly sketched the outlines of the coffee shop or street corner, and later, back at the studio inserted people from memory.  Of course, I changed details of physical appearance.  For instance, in one coffee shop, the weekly card game was going on.  This became “Ken’s Gramma’s Card Game.”  A little boy was wandering safely from table to table.  Ken’s Gramma didn’t have to worry he was okay; everyone knew everyone.  (The little boy’s name wasn’t Ken of course.)  He did wander over to look at my drawing.

“Ken’s Gramma’s Card Game”

I learned something during these two years.  What I initially saw as agape love being offered was more likely “belonging.”  That was comforting and helpful enough to the residents.  I came as an outsider, and  no one paid much attention to me.  That was a surprise. for me, who grew up in a large east coast city and who had fantasized about small town generosity and good will.  People were civil and all that, but no one ever offered me a cup of coffee that I didn’t pay for, inquired as to my own well being, or even showed any curiosity.  That was for those who belonged.  This was interesting to me, because it seemed to me no different from the large city of my childhood.

My idea was to take the show on the road to various small communities as well as here in Madison, WI.  In addition, the shows would be in non-traditional exhibition locations.  I did that also.

It was 1980,  and I was fresh out of art school.  My husband and I were busy and on overload with people responsibilities.  One day we shucked it all,  got a sitter and went for a January drive in the country.

My husband drove on automatic pilot as I sat in the passenger seat with a sketchbook in my lap.  In an hour or so, we both relaxed.  I looked out the window, noticing a horizon and recorded from memory that which I had glanced at.  It took a minute or so and when I looked up and out the window I noticed something on the horizon, so I added that to my landscape.  When that was duly recorded as both a tree and a scribble, I looked up for more landscape elements to add.  And on and on. (I had a belief that all of life, at its center, can be represented by its own unique scribble.  You just have to sense the sort of scribble that is before you.)

“Good Winter Driving Conditions”

When I had a composition, I turned the page and started another composite landscape.  And that was how the day went except for stopping at diners.  It was a wonderful day together.  My husband was intrigued with my “method” and at one point playfully challenged me to think fast, driving through rapidly changing landscape, around hairpin turns, up and down hills.  My hand had to move fast!  I laughed as I turned page after page, each drawing more scribbly than the last.

“Joy Ride”

A mid winter day joy ride was the occasion for my first show in Monroe. Wi.

I was still learning and fine tuning my own style.  For the paintings which were presented late winter of the same year (1980), I traced my sketch book drawings on watercolor paper and embellished with acrylic paint and pencil.  (In time, I would leave both tracing and acrylic behind.)

January is my most difficult month, with so little sun, short days, and so much cold.  My goal for the show was, “If I could see the good in January, I was confident I could see the good in any thing I turned my attention towards.”   I wanted to take what I saw as a constructive attitude as a professional artist.  So the show was a way of testing myself.

My earliest memories – after I gained freedom to wander the neighborhood each day – were my visits to construction sites.  There was a post World War II construction boom going on in Washington, D.C.  Nearly every neighborhood had empty lots that were being excavated for new homes.  Conveniently, two houses went up slowly and surely in the woodsy lot across the street from us.  I spent many days and weeks watching the patient, repetitive efforts of the crews of workers.  I got to know each person by name and they, me.  The workers that pulled up in dusty trucks each day were exotic to me and their collaborative work ethic was totally different from my own family of artists and intellectuals.  These guys had a specific job to do; they did it and got back in their trucks and drove away.  Those workers participated in building something, brick by brick, that would last.  That caught my imagination and stayed with me over the years.

I continued to visit construction sites as a mother and took the kids along.  Their earliest memories are also of visiting construction sites.  Then came the angry days of women’s liberation and I found I was no longer welcome at sites; or maybe it was that the foremen were suspicious that I was a construction firm spy, or some other reason.  Anyway, I no longer felt welcome, so I stopped going for ten years or so.

\"Off Site!\"“Off Site!”

(I came across this image, painted long ago, when I occasionally got booted from construction sites.  I could understand; no hard hat.)

Then, in the nineties, I had an idea.  I would take my sketching materials and sit on the hood of my car.  Who would think me a spy?  Out of those visits came the traveling show, “Construction Sights.”

“Dirty Fingernails”  (This was the piece I started that first day sitting on the hood of my car.  I will admit to you, dirty fingernails was a personal trait of mine.  I was often startled by shrieks from adults, “Look at those fingernails!!”.  Were it not for washing dishes, I would still have this particular carelessness.)

“Breakfast by the Jackhammers” (I combined people from a Washington, D.C., coffee shop with those I saw in Wisconsin.  These drawings are on transparencies, reproduced in different sizes and layers to give the collage depth and to simulate the vibrations, of course.)

“After Hours”

I came to know myself better with this show and realized that I see my own paintings as “watercolor constructions” – whether the subject matter was a construction site or a person sitting reading a book.  The collaborative work ethic, for me, involved including all the parts of myself in the effort.

Twenty-six page booklet

Re: paper dolls.  My sister Diane and I played that game in our home with the chaos of our family all around us.  It gave us a way to plan how our world would be when we were grown up.   And as I think about it, we were not far off.

It shouldn’t be too surprising to me that when Katrina hit and there was chaos and crying out and no one hearing (Who could do anything about it??!!) that I sat by my television hour by hour and made paper dolls.  Truly, it was horrifying, and paper dolls helped.  This time, I called them “Paper Dolls for Seniors.”  I colored the dolls with magic markers and some shimmers and then took it to our local copy shop after the residents of New Orleans had been moved to what I believed was safety.

Art has served so many functions in my life, in particular, watercolor, drawing, and collage.   But if something happened to my hands so that I couldn’t make the art objects that I do make, I would find some way to make art.