The Shows


Life happened.  Even though I dearly love autumn leaves, in the mid nineteen nineties I became allergic to them.  I didn’t just get stuffed up; I got dangerously dizzy and nauseated.  So I stayed away and it was a loss to me of several months in the year for 10 years duration.

I was invited by the University of Wisconsin Arboretum to exhibit a one person show in the Steinhauer Trust Gallery in 2003. Here was a golden opportunity to take myself on an autumn walk that would not make me sick.  Twenty four artworks reminded me of the many years of living next to the Arb – the bike rides, the tour groups, walks with friends, the colors.  I could even remember the fragrances and the windy days and the colors.  I remembered what a relief it was to walk freely in autumn without insect repellent, and the colors.  I thought about autumn and how I was in the autumn of my life

“My Inner Child Resists this Fact of Life:

and how easy it had been to say good-bye to summer when it’s autumn.

“Legacy of a Tree”

I was also missing painting large, so I decided to paint this show large.  I discarded old, ugly looking canvases from stretchers and stretched soaking wet sheets of watercolor paper that had been cut off of large rolls.  I emptied the studio of furniture and laid the “canvases” out across the floor with narrow pathways between.

Some of the paintings were exhibited still on their stretchers.  Some, I sanded off the stretchers and framed.  Some never seemed to gel.  I tore those in small pieces and recycled them in a free-form piece called  “Letting Go/Relaxing Outward.”

The show, for me, was an experiment in presentation as it evolves from content.

I know very little about botany and was exhibiting in a location where most of the passers-by were botany experts but probably not as familiar with experimental art.  I was recreationally familiar with every section of the Arboretum and loved and valued it.  Often on walks, I would happen upon indications that an experiment was on-going.  I or my companions would murmer to each other so as not to interfere with the experiment, “Some experiment or other!”  This is the title of one of the pieces.  I imagined what the botany experts would say as they carefully made their way down the corridor of art that was my show.  I imagined that they would murmer to themselves a correct assessment of my show, “Some experiment or other!”

The earliest “Little People” paintings were born as tension relievers while I was working on “Camaraderie and Goodwill” – watercolor paintings of people in small town settings.  I had bits of watercolor paper lying around in the studio and practiced tiny full length gestural paintings of people who were also in their off-moments.  Visitors to the studio picked these up and expressed affinity.  I handed the little paintings to them as a parting gift.  At times, visitors would tell me what the person reminded them of.  The memories came out as their own stories.  I listened and took note and sensed that I had a civic gift to offer as an artist – the paintings would trigger story making.  So after the show was over, I left off the backgrounds and painted people in moments of their lives.

“Board Game”

It was interesting me to to make up my own stories about people I saw from time to time.  I kept pieces of paper in my pocketbook and jotted  drawings/stories down quickly.  The “Little People” paintings were painted one along with the other.  As one painting was drying I moved it to the side of my table and worked on another and then another.  In no time I had a “crowd” of people paintings in a box.

“Single Mother”

I framed them and found a venue. The balance of being part of the crowd and retaining boundaries and independence occupied my thoughts as I was putting the show together.  In my own mind, the frames provided that stability and balance.  Recently, the frames have come off and the balance is there anyway.  A pleasant surprise!!

For each “Little People” show the nature of the crowd changes relative to the paintings chosen to be included.  I haven’t had a “Little People” show as such recently, but I’m not done with this series.  I know that.

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.

After the “January” landscape show I realized that landscape painting served as respite time for me.   I had an understanding about anatomy, movement, and how to achieve “likeness.”  So non-traditional portraiture seemed a good fit for my drawing and painting time which was now shrinking.  Family responsibilities were upon us – parenting four who were at different stages of growth. I decided to paint what was before me – the family.   We could see family as we had known it for so many years, coming to an end.  The kids were heading out, no question about it.

Some days, I asked our daughters and son to sit, stand, or as I put it, “freeze” for me until I could run and get a pencil.  Other days, drawing a portrait provided an excuse to talk a problem over that one of the kids had.  When no one was around and I needed to practice portrait skills, I set up the children’s soft toys from their childhood that had been put away long ago.  These paintings were exhibited as “The Family – In Transition” in 1983 at the pediatric clinic, University of Wisconsin Hospital in Madison.

“Friends and Family” came the following year after “The Family-in Transition.”  The sitters financed materials for paintings and framing, and then became owners of their portraits after the show.  Words are helpful even as they limit.  In the previous show I had thought about “family” and how it would change.  In this show, I thought about “What is ‘family’?” and  “What is ‘friend’?”  It seemed to me in my life the line was blurred.

Many of the sitters came to the opening and met each other and the public.  I stopped doing portraits for exhibition after these two shows.  Modesty aside, I’m good at portraits — more insightful than I consciously intend to be.   Although both I and the sitter gave full consent to the portrait experience and exhibition (title and all), there were pointed surprises, or should I say, surprises that were pointed — surprises that had painful points on them.  What I’m saying is I have a good eye for what’s key even though I don’t know why it’s key.  The sitters did know themselves in their hearts. They weren’t happy to see portrayed in an art show that which I hadn’t even consciously seen and didn’t intend to draw public attention to.   Embarrassing remarks were made to some of the sitters, and I felt bad about that.  I was the one who could put a stop to that.  I still do portraits but they reside in people’s homes and are under their control.

(No pictures to be posted for this series of paintings.)

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.