I started writing, “When Art Calls You Home” in March 2011 after an email conversation with my aunt, Janet Riehl. When I realized my response was going to be more than a quick reply I saved the email as a draft and planned to complete it sooner rather than later. Then Life Happens, and in the Whirl of Everyday Living it’s hard to find a Quiet Moment to collect your thoughts and reflect on the Big and Small Moments that brought you to where you are Today. That’s when I realized the place for me to write my story, as it unfolds, is here, at Turquoise Tangles.
“When Art Calls You Home” (Part 1)
I grew up in a household that encouraged Creativity. While my dad built and repaired things in his workshop I’d hang out alongside him, hammering nails and gluing bits and pieces of wood together just for fun. The best Drawing Paper when I was growing up was the flip side of pale green or manilla colored drafting paper that my father’s high school students used. After the students used one side and received their grade they didn’t want their drawings anymore. That made the paper Fair Game for my brother, sister and I to draw on in a seemingly unlimited supply. Life was good.
My mother is a firm believer in children making their own pictures on blank paper and not being confined to staying within the lines of a coloring page. How I love her for that philosophy even now. A few years ago my neighbor, who knows me well, gave me a sign that reads, “Always color outside the lines”. It sits in my kitchen where I see it everyday and smile a quick grin as I reread these beloved words. That philosophy still suits me best.
Junior High was the first time I could sign up for an Art Class that was held five days a week. Like many Art Teachers, this one was a character. After the Ho Hum Safety of a K-6th Elementary school, the transition to Junior High was A Big Scary Deal. Mr. Zulaf made it fun. An Adventure. You never knew what he was going to talk about in class or have you working on. We came into the room ready for whatever he threw at us. I still think of him whenever I recycle aluminum cans for cash because Recycling and the Environment were often worked in to discussions in his classroom. In 8th grade Art Class I did a painting that he encouraged me to enter in a contest. I painted it from an Evergreen Heights photograph of my grandparent’s side lawn overlooking the Mississippi River from atop the bluff. The photograph was taken in the fall, when the leaves were changing color. It won an award, a certificate, that I have around here somewhere. I gave the framed painting to my grandparents as a gift. It still hangs in their front parlor, on the same high nail, over 25 years later.
I kept taking Art Classes in high school. They were fun and helped balance a course load that also included higher math, some science, mandatory P.E., English and an attempt at a foreign language (which I abandoned after one and a half years). I was lucky enough to have three talented art teachers in my four years there. When Mrs. Scott retired, Mrs. Moore was hired. Ms. Holloway was there all along and she was the coolest (and youngest) of the three. I remember she sometimes taught wearing ripped jeans that were “dressed up” with a blazer. It was the 80’s after all. I completed every art class the high school offered. Luckily, there were quite a few – drawing, painting, photography and various levels of each one. How I loved spending time in those Art Rooms filled with creativity, laughter, encouragement, friendships, color, music and a Sense of Adventure as each new project began.
When it was time to decide What I Wanted To Be When I Grew Up it seemed natural for Art to be part of the plan. My whole life, until my teen years, I’d planned to be a teacher like my mother, father, grandmother and aunt. I played school with my little brother. Amazingly, he went along with it for years. When I got the Art Bug I was adamant I didn’t want to be an Art Teacher. Even with the example of so many wonderful teachers in my own life. It was seeing the apathy and goofing off around me in Art Class that cinched my opinion. At the time, I didn’t consider the one or two gems that made all the frustration worth it. I wouldn’t have wanted to grade art either. One of the artists I know, Lizbeth Ogiela-Scheck, said of herself, “I don’t teach Art. I teach Creativity.” That says it best. I am thankful I had teachers with the same motto who encouraged me to ask questions, think outside the box and color outside the lines.
The two avenues I considered for college majors were Art Management and Art Therapy. The first combined Art and Business with an eye toward Gallery Work. The second combined Art and Psychology and was only offered at two schools in Illinois – SIU Edwardsville and Millikin University in Decatur. I visited both schools. The smaller size of Millikin appealed to me most. It was also closer to home. In all my 17 year old wisdom I decided to pursue Art Management. I had enough Self Awareness to know that in a therapy situation I would have too much trouble separating my own emotions and strong empathy for others from the case at hand. I’d carry it around with me.
My coursework at Millikin consisted of the core classes everyone had to take in English, History, Science, Art History and an assortment of studio art classes that included Life Drawing, Photography, Ceramics and Sculpture. I also took some Commercial Art classes. The first two, offered at night during my sophomore year, taught Old School Cut and Paste Techniques using illustration boards, overlays and blue pencils to make blue lines that wouldn’t reproduce in the final printed piece. It was the early 90’s, when computers were just beginning to multiply in homes and businesses and emerge in the World of Desktop Publishing. There was no email. People still wrote actual letters on paper and sent them through the mail. My junior year was the first time I used Macintosh computers to create graphics in Adobe Illustrator, manipulate photos in Adobe Photoshop and create page layouts in QuarkXPress. I immediately Fell In Love with ease of Apple’s icon based operating system. My parents started to Breathe Easier, figuring that pursuing my studies of Commercial Art meant there would be a job in Advertising available after graduation.
Then there were the Business classes required for my Art Management degree. The combination was similar to a Business Administration minor, but it wasn’t called that. I had fun gauging the reaction of my business classmates when they found out I was an Art Major. They’d say, “But you’re like us.” Obviously, in hindsight, I missed my chance to have asymmetrical purple hair, dress all in black and sport multiple piercings in unusual places to fulfill their Art Major Stereotype. Not that any of those things ever occurred to me. Well, except wearing all black. That I do sometimes still. After all, it’s supposed to be slimming. I also missed my chance to learn about painting and printmaking. Both of those courses were taught by the Drawing Teachers. I shied away from their other courses from an insecurity in my drawing ability that I carry with me still. The vivid canvases and layered screen prints were appealing, but not enough to get me over my fears and into a class to give it a Beginner’s Try. Can’t go back and Be Braver. But I can still learn those skills. Whenever I’m ready to Try Something New.
The summer before my first sculpture class, my father took me to my Grandpa’s Workshop at Evergreen Heights for a Welding Lesson. He showed me how to turn on the oxygen and acetylene tanks with the proper pressure and light the torch. He wanted it to be familiar to me when I got back to school in the fall. I loved gas welding. Fire. Sparks. Building Something New. It took finesse and knowledge. I preferred brazing to straight welding and wasn’t frugal with the brass rods. I’d flow the golden, liquid metal across the steel structure for Art’s Sake, long after the connection would have held. To paint a clearer picture, I should add that the building renovated as a Sculpture Studio, shared the other half of the building with a Dance Studio. This meant that after class, when it was time to clean up and call it a day, I’d tromp into the girls bathroom, with goggle marks on my face, where the soot wasn’t, in my hand me down high top tennis shoes (from my little sister), wearing a fireproof green jacket with my brown hair pulled back into an extremely high ponytail to keep it out of my way while welding and stand at the sink surrounded by lithe and lean ballerinas in their pastel leotards, tights, toe shoes and perfect buns. No joke. No pictures either.
I made the decision to earn enough credits for a BFA (Bachelor of Fine Art) degree instead of a BA solely on the fact it meant I didn’t have to take any foreign language courses (after giving up on learning French in high school). In addition to completing at least 60 Fine Art credits, I was responsible for one person show my senior year. A Show Of My Own. My mediums were metal sculpture and commercial/computer art. By my senior year, the sculptures I was working on incorporated found objects, like rake tines and plow spikes, with cut and formed sheet metal. Many of the found objects came from my grandfather’s Treasure Trove of Too Good To Throw Away Objects from the Evergreen Heights Barnyard. He joined me there, in his overalls and work boots, in the fall of my senior year to approve each selection I made. He preferred I take the rake heads that were smashed and unable to be reconnected to a handle, over the specimens in better condition with hope of being repurposed as a rake again someday. I understood and respected his reasoning.
My Senior Show was held the spring of ’93. It was A Special Day. One of The Big Days in my life, ranking right up there with my Wedding Day (to a fellow Art Major) and the Very Special Days my children were born. Friends and family came from all over to attend my Art Show. It was a mix of found object metal sculptures sitting atop white wooden pedestals and commercial art pieces created on the computer that were matted and displayed behind glass. There was a table laden with refreshments and a bouquet of fresh flowers to greet the gallery guests and invite them to join the party and stay awhile longer. So many overlapping memories of that day remain with me. However, they are mostly blurs of color and quick impressions all these years later. One memory is Crystal Clear though. It’s the Highest Compliment I received that day. It was straightforward and to the point like the man who said, “You have good welds.” Those words coming from my Grandpa, Erwin A. Thompson, meant the world to me. Then and now. Excellence was expected. The show was a success. I was One Step Closer to college graduation.
© 2011 Janean Baird, Turquoise Tangles
Meet my aunt, Janet Riehl, and my grandfather, Erwin A. Thompson at:
Learn more about Lizbeth Ogiela-Scheck and Dreams 2 Create at: