I was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1949 as Judith Cornell. When I was seven I witnessed a terrible drowning. The aftermath led to my parents’ divorce and a home filled with turmoil for us four children. Among my two brothers and sister, I was the third child — and the peacemaker in the family. But, of course, emotional harmony and control were out of my control. Only art offered me solace and discourse. Through art I could express my deepest fears and emotions, and a lifelong pattern was born. From that time my family began to refer to me as “the artist.”
Art has taken me on a wild and wonderful ride not only as an artist but also as a design entrepreneur, and as a corporate executive overseeing the creative departments of major corporations.
My work is informed and is transformed by my experiences. It is not a conscious effect, but as time marches on, the subtle connections become clear. What you see when you look at my work is a love affair with exposing our common threads of life. Through a veil of emotional distance I quietly peer into the psychology of our human behavior, drawing from my own life and from popular culture.
The following excerpts are of those experiences in different homes and locations around the world. These were part of an installation entitled "Many Homes Many Lives, Excerpts From the Life of an Artist" that was created in 2011. A series of handmade books reveal each location's excerpts.
Buffalo, New York
Having a birthday on Valentine’s Day made me feel special and caused me to become a horrible romantic, idealizing life around me. The nature of my birth, however, I didn't think was particularly auspicious. I was born on that day because my mother hated living with her in-laws so much that she would have done anything to get out of the house. And she did. In desperation to escape, she induced labor by taking laxatives. It worked, and I was born a little early.
My family was naturally creative. My maternal grandfather was a furniture designer for Kittenger and inventor, and my mother an interior designer. My grandfather and I had a special connection, and I could see how happy the creative experience made him. He would proudly show me his drawings, pulled from ancient drawers in his studio. They were delicate, beautiful. Also, my mother would take me to the exquisite homes she decorated. These trips set the stage for many of my passions: the beauty of the home, high fashion, the creation of unique environments, and ultimately, the pure pleasure of creativity — in life, art, thought and as a purpose in life.
North Tonawanda, New York
My mother had always warned us, “Never go into the canal. The undercurrent is too strong and you’ll drown.”
We lived across the street from the Erie Canal. The day that changed my life was hot and humid. I was seven. A family friend was painting our house, and my mother challenged him to a race across the canal. I was terrified, screaming at the end of the dock, “Don’t go in! You’ll die! you’ll die!” But they jumped in. Halfway across my mother was pulled under. The friend heard my screams and swam to help her. He also was pulled under. He never resurfaced.
Our neighbor saw the commotion and jumped in to save my mother. All I could do was stand there, cry, scream. Her gray face looked so tortured. She went under again, but the neighbor grabbed her and swam back to our dock. She wasn’t breathing. When the ambulance arrived the paramedics couldn’t revive her, and they covered her with a sheet. They declared my mother dead. About 45 minutes passed as I stood over the lifeless sheet. Suddenly her arm flopped out. I screamed, “She’s alive!” and the paramedics (in white uniforms, which I will always remember), searching for our friend, hurried over. They whisked my mother off to the hospital.
The woman who returned to us (finally) was a different person. My mother’s outgoing spirit had not survived the undercurrent. After that day, we were never allowed to talk about what happened. I recoiled into a pattern of repression: Don’t talk about the bad things, hide things that might upset someone. Keep your fears and emotions to yourself.
This, as you could imagine, had a profound effect on my work. In a sense this attitude was the opposite of the free expression demanded of an artist.
Amherst, New York
As a young teenager I loved our home in Amherst with its romantic French windows. The snow would accumulate on the ledges of each pane, and it was absolutely magical to sit on my bed watch the snow while listening to Johnny Mathis and dwelling in the depths of my safe mental world.
Out in the yard was a wonderful and massive weeping willow. I would sit beneath it in the summer and feel so comforted with the branches draping around me. I was heartbroken when we moved. I loved this house, the tree, and the windows, and having my very own bedroom.
I was terribly shy during these years. I didn’t know how to make friends. My world was internal. I always felt different from my classmates and assumed they did not have unspoken family secrets. I watched "Leave it to Beaver" and I saw what "normal" families were like. This did not look anything like my family. We were tiptoeing around my mother and watching as our parents grew more and more hostile toward each other. My father started to drink a lot. My mother was emotionally unavailable. Those years after her drowning, we were all on our own. I knew that if I wanted to find happiness I would have to create my own world.
Eggertsville, New York
It was here, in my late teens, that I realized that I could create my own sense of place — wherever I was.
This house (still the family home) had five bedrooms, but my mother had my older sister and I share the big room on the second floor. I sorely missed my solitude, but eventually, my sister went off to college, and I got the room to myself.
On the mantel in my grandparents’ home sat a small bronze Buddha that my grandfather brought back from Korea. It sat there for many years, and I adored it. I would sit in the big English Wing chair next to the fireplace admiring it, imagining offering it incense. I have no idea where that image came from, but it was there in my mind. I was obsessed. When I was 13, my grandfather gave me the Buddha, and it became the center of my life. After my sister left for college, I transformed my bedroom into a Buddhist temple and painting studio.
I still tended to be shy, and I enjoyed being in this marvelous place I had created for myself. Every art project I did was tied into the ongoing creation of my Buddha shrine. An art-class light project became a backlit stained-glass shrine. A paper mache sculpture project became a life-size Buddha. And so it went until all that remained in my large bedroom were two twin mattresses and box springs on the floor, the very large shrine in the center, and an easel and oil paints on the other side of the room. I was always so attached to the other house, I hadn’t realized that you could create your own magic. I grew to love this big room. It became my sanctuary.
In this room I was able to paint my often dark and confused emotions that had been neatly repressed. Once I took one of the paintings to school to show my art teacher. The teacher and the entire class gasped in disapproval at the odd image of a screaming child with a Buddha. I was mortified and I never brought my work into school again. The need to repress my emotions had been reinforced.
I was a tall, skinny and clumsy young lady, so my mother put me in finishing school in my junior year. That remarkably led me into modeling, and I got to wear the best fashions on runways and in magazine ads. I was in fashion heaven. By the time I finished high school, I had become one repressed, fashion-obsessed, Buddha-possessed and generally confused young woman who was a closet artist and increasingy a mysterious personality my peers seemed to find fascinating. I also started to develop some self-confidence, yet with enormous vulnerability.
Buffalo, New York
Much to my mother’s horror, I had decided to go to Villa Maria College, which was like a convent prep school run by the Felician sisters of the Immaculate Heart. I moved from our home in the suburbs to Buffalo with friends. My parents’ marriage had deteriorated. And when my parents divorced, our Presbyterian church kicked my mother out. She had been devoted to the church and never got over being expunged. I could not believe they did that to her knowing about the drowning and the impact on her marriage. I concluded they were hypocrites, and I started to believe the Catholics had it over the Presbyterians.
Two of my favorite movies as a child, were “The Nun’s Story” and “Lost Horizon.” Both idealized the cloistered life. I was drawn to it. It appealed to my love of solitude, and it wasn’t important whether it was Catholic or Eastern. So I started pondering life as a nun. During that time the pope said that nuns could wear shorter habits and modified headdress, which slightly revealed their gray hair. Within days the Villa Maria nuns had all dyed their hair, and one was discovered in the broom closet with the janitor. More hypocrisy. I turned from a devout life to a life of art and transferred to Kent State University in Ohio for my second year of college.
Before moving to Kent, though, I went to Woodstock that summer with my high-school sweetheart and my housemates. There was music, rock ’n’ roll, and, yes, drugs, and a new perspective that I should live life rather than hide myself away. I was newly freed and ready for the world. (Or so I thought).
At Kent I majored in fine arts and minored in philosophy. I learned the art of classical painting. I loved living away from my family and I had become a bit of a rebel. My mother, who heard that I had smoked marijuana, joined a “mothers against drugs” support group. She loved that group. I never had the heart to tell her that drugs never agreed with me, so I was not as she imagined. No, I was quite normal, some experimentation but never a bad habit. Drugs made me paranoid and never played a big role in my life.
All was not well at Kent State. My brother and numerous childhood friends had been drafted during the Vietnam War. Some returned maimed, with post-traumatic stress, or dead. Everyone at school knew someone who went. Our questions began with: Why this war?
I became very involved. Demonstrations began on our campus, and at Berkley and other schools. But, as has been well documented, things went terribly wrong at Kent. After many days of protests, Gov. James Rhodes called in the National Guard. Guard members were our friends, fellow students who joined to escape the draft and avoid Vietnam. These guys went to college with us. They were classmates pitted against friends.
It was crazy. On May 4, 1970, close to 30 Guardsmen were ordered to shoot into a crowd of demonstrators and students passing through the commons to their next class. I was one of them. Four dead, 9 wounded. Innocents killed or wounded severely. They called it a massacre. Guardsmen were sick. It was tragic. The ignorant people of Kent reveled in the killing of these students. I was overwhelmingly disgusted.
I worked out my fear and anger in art. In protest, I made a satin jacket: an American flag on the front and a target on the back. I wore it in town for a month as my statement. (I had previously taken an advanced experimental installation class where my teacher was not pleased with my results. This teacher, after seeing the jacket, told me that if I had done something like that for the class, I would have gotten the lead grade. I told him that I had realized art was always stronger when it came from a place of authenticity, not contrived to fulfill someone else’s idea of creativity.) Then I burned the jacket, left Kent and never returned. I drove to New York, where I became immersed in the New York School artists, abstract impressionists, Pop artists and increasingly present installation art that dominated the contemporary museums. I escaped into the arts. Eventually I went back to Buffalo where I ran into a group of young yogis in the student union at the University of Buffalo.
Oh, yes, back to the Buddha.
After Kent, I was on a mission to find what is true in life. I felt let down by everyone and was determined to explore the one thing that had given me solace since childhood — the Buddha. I went to India, one of many trips there in my 20s. Sitting on the banks of the Yamuna River, contemplating the absolute with brief flashes of what I hoped was the beginning of enlightenment, I found myself. I found peace. I found my guru. And I understood that each of us has a path. Of course, I learned all about karma, and that seemed to put many things into perspective. I traveled extensively throughout India, staying in ashrams and, in the big cities, great hotels. I encountered danger many times, one time entering a village in Bengal on a rickshaw where a Muslim mob was beating and killing terrified Hindus. Frightened, my rickshaw wallah dropped me on a corner, and I had to run to my ashram, narrowly escaping a stick wheeling mob running after me. One year, I came down with malaria, lying sick in my hotel room for days before anyone realized how seriously ill I was.
Other parts of my time there were fascinating. I was amazed at the cottage industries; the incredible handwork embellishing textiles, furnishings, the pichwai paintings that were so exquisitely rendered in Jaipur, Udaipur and Nathdwara.
I discovered that if you made things in India there was a lucrative market waiting in the U.S. I often laugh about this: that I went to India to meditate and came back a materialist. India had become all the rage. Everyone was getting a guru, and Bloomingdales did an entire floor dedicated to Indian home furnishings and accessories. The Metropolitan Museum of Art featured a major exhibition on Indian art and artifacts. So when I returned from my first trip, I was totally and unknowingly in vogue.
I got married to a New York City, American yogi. After nine years of managing a yoga ashram with him in Buffalo then San Diego, we split up. He became more spiritual, eventually becoming a guru, and, well, I became a capitalist, artist and entrepreneur. During my 20s I had created many beautiful things and honed my artistic skills, from the development of products to architectural and interior design, to large-scale sculptural installations.
San Francisco, California
At 29 I moved from San Diego to Los Angeles; then after a couple of years, from L.A. to San Francisco to marry Chris Kindler. We met in Los Angeles. He and his family emigrated from Europe, settling in San Francisco. Chris grew up in Paris. His family had a remarkable story of escape from World War II, near-death experiences, and romantic escapades on trains. Chris’s father, Alexandre, was a jeweler, who along with his partner, opened Faberge in Paris. Rica, his mother, was a beautiful and elegant woman from a wealthy Russian family who had reveled in Parisian society, where she was educated. I loved his parents. I loved eating croissants, cheese and fresh berries in their garden on Belvedere, an island across the Golden Gate Bridge.
I loved our home in Pacific Heights; the high ceilings, the exquisite architecture, dark hardwood floors that so reminded me of favorite New York apartments I had visited and that established a standard of elegance for me in design. Rica knew everything about haute couture. She became my new fashion guru. Everything that I had come to know about an elegant home, Rica knew about the world of fashion. We respected and adored each other. I became quite smitten, in particular, with Chanel. I managed to acquire my first Chanel bag in my early 30s and thought this was an outstanding accomplishment.
To me, Chanel represented what was the most exquisite in style. Coco Chanel’s personal story of breaking the rules of fashion and creating her own elegant look was fascinating. She became a role model and, of course, I coveted her clothing even though it was way beyond my budget. But my taste for couture was encouraged in this family, and I loved it.
After moving to San Francisco I was in a total quandary about what to do with myself. I managed an art gallery but wasn’t satisfied and longed to put my creative skills to work. One night I had a dream that I was painting on fabrics on long tables. I awoke in the middle of the night and told Chris, “I know what I want to do.” The next day I began. Within a year I built a textile business in San Francisco, painting on silks and cottons imported from India and Thailand and sold to the trade, eventually around the country through designer showrooms. At the time, painting on fabrics was an innovation, and I gained attention in the local and national home furnishings media for my creations. I eventually designed a line of furniture and accessories that I sold through my own showroom in San Francisco.
Life was grand, creative. I blossomed on a very personal level in this town. It suited me and gave me so much confidence in my own talents, artistically and professionally. I wanted everything I created to have the level of refinement that I so loved in Chanel’s creations. That had become my benchmark.
Newport Beach, California
Because of my businesses, one of my clients asked me to come in as a consultant for repositioning a home-furnishings manufacturer/retailer based in Southern California. They wanted me to gentrify and upgrade a wilted $90 million-a-year company by remerchandising the product offering, creating new advertising and designing a new store prototype. I wasn’t interested at first as I considered myself to be at the high end of the market, not at the mass-retailing level. Eventually, though, I took the yearlong contract, which set into motion a new chapter of my life. This one so broadening in terms of depth of knowledge about people and business. Everything I learned about business up to that point had been by the seat of my pants and hard work.
I had numerous employees within my own company and no trouble managing them. But I wasn’t suited for corporate life, because I was not a particularly politically savvy person. This contract led to two other contracts where I became part of a turnaround team that developed new strategies for failing large home-furnishings companies. I was an executive vice president for product development, merchandising, advertising and store planning, and was responsible for the repositioning concept in these companies. I was exhilarated by the extensive amount of creativity. I loved working with million-dollar budgets in advertising, designing large retail stores, rolling out new merchandising strategies, and designing furnishings to sell in these stores. I was following in my family’s footsteps in this industry.
Unfortunately, I was in far over my head politically. In fact, I was terribly immature that way. I never wanted to become part of the corporate culture and had a certain amount of contempt for it. I was aloof, and my peers saw that. I am not proud of this, as so many people hold this kind of life as everything. But for me it did not have much meaning except for the creative tasks. I rwas forced to grow up during this time.
During my corporate tenure, I was still running my own two San Francisco businesses. I was living mostly in Newport Beach, and this pulled Chris and I into two directions. We eventually divorced. I lost my innocence and my naivety after that and became prey for the business vultures around me. "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times." Like that. I found, during this period, what I wanted to be, and more importantly, what I did not want to be and that was in corporate life. And what I wanted was to return to creating my own art in a more significant way.
I always painted in solitude; it was my therapy. Imagery of torn-up money played a prominent role in the work during much of this time. A series called “It’s just Money” mocked Southern California values; while other works, more conceptual, concealed the inner turmoil I had dealing with people and what I perceived as my own vulnerabilities in the hostile environment of corporate life. I was too sensitive for this environment, and it took a serious emotional toll on me. Later, after years of reflection, I did a series of work entitled “Consume” that spoke to this period of my life. One installation called “Wants More than Has” features a manikin holding a small Vitabone while looking at two encaustic paintings of giant Vitabones.
Laguna Beach, California
California was in a depression. Businesses were suffering. I had shut down my two San Francisco businesses a few months after the 7.1-magnitude Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989, suffering significant losses. I moved full time to Southern California. I also had a dear friend, Paula, who, like me, was newly divorced and worked in the home furnishings industry. She also had suffered many of the same challenges in that male dominated industry; the sexual overtures of the business owners, the jealousies of male peers, and plotting female underlings. We became like family, and she was a great solace for me as we shared the dramas of a life that looked so great from the outside. I became a consultant again so I could remain aloof from the internal dramas of a company.
I found a lovely office in downtown Laguna Beach, a block from the beach, and moved nearby. I consulted for the Singapore government to build its own marketing strategies for retailers and manufacturers who did not understand how to develop brand equity. The government saw that they were knocking off everyone else’s products in manufacturing and that the best retailers were imported, not generated in Singapore, like Chanel, Gucci, and Prada.
I believe I was the only brunette in Laguna Beach at that time. In some ways, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Everyone kept telling me I looked like Louise Brooks, the 1920s film star. That made me laugh. Of course, it was my blunt haircut and the intensity of being a dark brunette. (Eventualy the hair color changed to the now blonde.) Paula and I were living in a town where everyone pretended to be something more than what they were. Their values were so different from my East Coast values but, ironically, I enjoyed the superficiality of it all as a mental respite from my own judgmental attitude. I’ve always joked about being a complex intellectual who wanted to become a high-maintenance superficial woman.
While living in Laguna, I had to come to grips with the death of both of my parents within a year. My father died first after a prolonged illness, and I couldn’t directly deal with it. My mother unexpectedly died of heart failure in her sleep. A “good death,” but it shook me to the core. She was 67. The week before her death, we had had a very cathartic conversation, reviewing our lives. I felt our relationship had reached a level of depth and resolve that I greatly appreciated. She seemed like she was mentally recovering from the damage of the drowning accident. She had clarity, and I finally was able to talk with her about the drowning, how she felt, how it made me feel. It was within this conversation, that she told me the story of my birth. We laughed about how “shitty” it was.
After returning from her funeral in Buffalo, I went into a state of mourning. I pulled all the drapes and shades, sat in the dark with candles for close to a two weeks. I ventured out only to walk the dogs and pick up groceries. It was like a rebirth. I was able to give up so much of the guilt I felt about the drowning, that is, that I could not have somehow stopped it. I began to accept myself for the person I was. I saw myself, I think, as I truly was and started to put the dramas of childhood into perspective. I emerged with a sense that I could create, not just art, ideas, objects, furnishings, advertising, and marketing concepts, but I could create a new life. It’s like walking up to a blank canvas and deciding what it is that you want to create and then going about the doing of it. I also thought quite a bit about all the things I had accomplished and how the journey was always more gratifying than the result. I went into that dark house a moth and emerged a butterfly into the light of personal acceptance of my life and the person I had become.
New Orleans, Louisianna
New Orleans was the final showdown with corporate life for me. I took a consulting job with a national company based there and moved into a lovely home in the Garden District, a block down the street from author Anne Rice. Our dogs were in love. It was a magical, crazy and terrifying town. There is a richness of texture from so many cultures merging into that city set to a soundtrack of the blues. I was in love with that texture, but there was so much violence there it was not safe to walk at night or even take your dogs out in the early evening. Neighbors were being attacked or murdered by kids stupefied on crack riding by on their bicycles. The Army was training its medics on the city’s gunshot wounds. Everyone was on high alert.
The company I worked for was very dysfunctional and those there feared me because I was brought in by the venture capitalists who had purchased the company. This time I was more politically sophisticated. I knew I had walked into a hornet’s nest. At night I could not sleep because of the violence in my neighborhood, and, by day, I worked for a company and with people I disliked and who feared me. I resigned within the year to move back to the West Coast; to the Northwest, a place I had visited often and grown quite fond of. It was beautiful there, and the values of the people were more aligned with my own.
New Orleans, though, will always have a piece of my heart. I did so love the complex texture of the city that had become my temporary home. Beignets in the French Quarter on Sunday mornings at Café du Monde while listening to an extraordinary blues musician on the street. I reveled in the hunt for antiques and incredible architectural remnants of old plantations.
It was in New Orleans that I purchased my first Santos. I have collected quite a few of them since. It seems that one of the things I have greatly enjoyed throughout my life is collecting. The Santos collection ties me back to Villa Maria and the rituals of the church that I was drawn to. But I have also enjoyed collecting art — from the New York contemporary artists of some renown, to the local artists from the cities where I have lived. This is a personal pleasure that I share with my husband Kyle Johnson, who I married after moving to the Northwest.
In New Orleans I reveled in the arts. I quietly painted, drawing from the savory mix of inspiration and terror. I always felt that this short time in New Orleans provided a subtle flavor that finds its way into my art even now.
Finally, I was done with corporate politics, creating a new life in a new place, a remarkably safer place. Much too provincial in most ways for me, but after the danger of New Orleans, I was grateful for it. My home filled with antiques, fine furnishings and contemporary art, appeared so out of place in the Northwest, whose idea of architecture and decorating was so different. My influences from New York, San Francisco and New Orleans were sorely out of place in this new environment. For work, I had launched a business called JK Villa, designing home furnishings and accessories, and licensing their manufacturing and distribution throughout the U.S. through retail stores. My lines were based on artifacts that I would photograph and document in Italy; like a metal dog-head finial from a gate in Rocca d’Orcia, Tuscany, that became the inspiration for a line of metal chairs and lamps using the greyhound as accents. It was a tremendously creative time for me.
I began to paint furiously as well. At the time I was focused on the environmental issues of the day and horses, reflecting the fact that I had taken up dressage and hunter-jumper training. I loved training with the horses, but I had to quit after a couple of years due to a bad fall. The horse, however, continues to weave its way in and out of my work.
It was a surprise to me when friends wanted to buy the works. A shift was taking hold. That is, I began to see myself more and more purely as an artist. I began to have regular private shows of my paintings. Surprisingly, all the work sold. This work was done entirely in acrylics and a clear voice had emerged.
After Kyle and I married he encouraged me to give up everything else to concentrate on art. That was hard at first, but gradually it took hold of me. That people were eager to buy my work drove me to full acceptance. I rented a studio in downtown Kirkland. It was on a retail street, so I sold work directly from the space. Gradually I encouraged other artists to exhibit in the retail space while I worked in my studio in the back. Lacking room, I moved to a much larger space down the street, where I established a full gallery showing numerous artists’ work. I took a studio overlooking the lake a block away. I had accidentally become an artist and an art dealer. This was not my intention but I was thrilled that I did not have to change a whole company culture to express my creativity. The simplicity of just being an artist and selling art was a welcome relief to the high-stress jobs of my past. I realized I had been painting and creating my whole life, and that there was so much value in the myriad things I had created in terms of how these experiences informed my own art.
I eventually moved the gallery to Seattle, across the lake, to be in a more urban environment. I also started to search out representation of my work by dealers in other cities, so as not to be perceived as just a Northwest artist. While that is true in terms of where I currently live, it did not represent the major influences I had received from so many other homes and my East Coast upbringing and orientation.
Two years after moving the gallery to Seattle, I made the tough decision to close it. Even though it had expanded in size and stature, I could not spend the time required there, because I had become so busy with my own art.
In our travels, Kyle and I made new discoveries about my artistic path. For years now, since my work had become public, it tended to reflect outward; safely commenting on what was happening outside of me. I was reluctant to open up my own inner world to scrutiny. A trip to Zihuatanejo, Mexico, changed that
Kyle and I happened upon an expat there who ran a private museum of sculptures by leading Mexican artists focused on the great women of Mexico. She took us on a private tour, and we came upon one work that enthralled me. It was an interpretation of the bus accident of Frida Kahlo’s youth. At that time I was barely aware of her life or art. (This was some years before she was popularized by the U.S. film industry and became the darling in every museum’s collection.) In Mexico. I consumed everything about her.
What amazed me was her total ease with sharing the pain in her life through her art. I had been repressing what was difficult for a lifetime. Her work showed me the power of opening up, allowing one’s inner life to come through in the art. I always felt like I would be standing naked in front of the viewer by doing this. Vulnerable. But Kahlo’s work possesses a great strength because she was not afraid to do exactly that. And after this trip I began to feel more comfortable revealing my own emotions in my work. I also stopped worrying about other people’s perceptions of my work.
Every other year Kyle and I go to Venice, my favorite place in the world. I would move there in a heartbeat, if the opportunity arrived. The scale of the buildings, the fact that you can walk everywhere or take a vaporetto is a large part of its charm. But the architecture and the art are unbelievable. The city’s secrets, which beckon you to uncover them, get better the farther you roam from The Basilica di San Marco, where the tourists flock.
On a trip some years ago, I was researching the iconic paintings of the Italian Renaissance, and had been in Florence where I first discovered the works of Fra Angelico in the Convento di San Marco. The cloister was filled with the artist’s faded frescoes. A fresco had been painted on the wall in each cell, surrounded by unadorned creamy ivory washed walls. I felt at peace, uplifted by the simplicity and the gentleness of these paintings created with great tenderness and grace. This place captured the idealistic view I had of a convent as a young woman. And I wanted to capture this feeling in my own art. This discovery led to a distinct iconic composition and soft color palette that has dominated my art ever since.
Upon arriving in Venice from Florence, I continued my research, and was determined to see every painting from this period that I could. I also discovered the work of Fra Fillipo Lippi and other masters of this period. The extreme delicacy of hand and palette filled me with an odd sense of finding my home after a long journey.Oddly, I was drawn to panels bearing the often-painted solitary saint mysteriously holding artifacts of great symbolic importance.
I had been working in encaustics, and as a result of this exposure my first body of work in that media that felt truly significant to me was "Defining Truth." This work played with the idea of a solitary figure embedded under wax, creating a veil of delicacy and mystery so like the Italian work that was my inspiration. It reflected a more psychological approach to the cultural experiences around me. My narratives tend to draw upon my own complicated nature, the alienation I felt as a child, and my attempt to find the common threads that prevail in our human experience.
The composition, the palette and the mysterious delicacy of the Italian Renaissance painters became the solution for the ongoing development of my own artistic language. In "Defining Truth," the solitary figure of a young girl stands looking out asking the question: Why do you not take care of me? Why do you not see my pain? I wasn’t aware of this when I created the work, but the unconscious suggestion of a young girl, alienated, alone cries out in this work, which in retrospect is autobiographical.
Sun Valley, Idaho
Kyle and I found the most adorable log cabin in Sun Valley, Idaho. Both he and I had been going there to ski since we were in our early 30s. It had always been a second home to us before we even met. It is the place we go to relax, enjoy our friends and the incredible nature that abounds there. We tend to spend more time there in the winter, but the summers are glorious. A gallery there handles my work, so I am never far away from my art and the creative process.
One year, a few days before Christmas, I left our bed sleep walking, a problem that has plagued me the past dozen years or so. In the pitch black of night, I walked right off the second-floor landing into nothing, into air, and I spilled down 15 stairs to the floor below. I woke up midair and realized I was about to die. It was peaceful. I was not frightened. I don’t remember the impact, but I was terribly hurt. It was a miracle that I survived, or at least was not paralyzed. It took me six months to recover. Interestingly, since I was a young child I had become quite fearful of impending danger. But after this fall, I lost that fear. I saw this as a great breakthrough and wondered how it would impact my art. And, of course, it had to.
A number of years ago, a good friend who was boarding her horse on a ranch in Camus Prairie, about 40 minutes from Sun Valley, introduced me to the rancher who was training her horse and other show horses as well as wild prairie mustangs. On a particularly beautiful day in the dead of winter, in a whiteout, I photographed the horses. Handlers would entice them to run back and forth in front of my camera. It was an amazing shoot, because the backdrop was stark white. In the images, the horses look like they are floating in clouds. These became the fodder for "Memories," a body of work that references many of the things I have loved throughout my life.
I have not mentioned before this how photography has played an immensely important role in my art. Since college, having taken photography, I have always photographed. Initially, extensively in India, and then throughout my travels. These images inevitably would become fodder for my creations. For example, after shooting the palaces of Rajasthan in India, I created a collection of textiles based on the architectural designs carved into the walls. This collection won the Roscoe Award for Product Design. (Image above left)
Other awards came as a result of my original documentation in photography that later were interpreted into products. This carried over to my art, but more specifically. I would set up shoots and work from the images to produce paintings. Eventually, the photo itself became a direct part of my mixed-media work with encaustics. I have also done complete bodies of work using just the photographs in large-scale images. “Consuming Youth” and “Don’t Hate me Because I’m Beautiful" are two series of staged photographs. Other purely photographic series include “Surface,” a heartbreaking documentation of the graffiti in Venice. The photograph has always served as the spark that inspires my art. Thus, the models I choose, the compositions of staged photographs and the research documentation all are a critical part of my artistic process.
One night I had this dream: I am lying naked in a canoe floating on choppy water. All of a sudden my boat runs into another canoe. I look over and I am also lying in that boat. The two canoes continue to bump gently, and the water begins to calm. The boats float side by side and finally drift to shore. I closed my Seattle gallery the next month. I had been living the two lives of an artist and a dealer, and could no longer do it. The dream was prophetic; the two coming together and gently becoming one.
I have often had dreams that were either prophetic or enlightening. Many paintings were visualized in a dream. The image of a woman floating in a boat has been a recurring one in my work. I feel it represents coming to the safety of shore. The woman always has her eyes closed as if she is dreaming; a blissful state. I wonder if it goes back to my mother in the water: My desire to bring her back safely.
I did a painting years ago, based on another dream: Two young women are standing, balancing a long plank on their heads. On top of the plank, and in the center, is a delicate vase holding a flower. If either woman moved the vase would fall. So they just stand there looking askance at each other, afraid to move. There have been so many dreams and so many subsequent works of art. I have dreamed of walking into whole exhibitions of marvelous works that I had never seen before and upon wakening would realize that the works were mine. I just had to produce them.
After moving to Seattle, my life as an artist truly took shape. I was increasingly recognized by my peers and collectors locally for my work. I was honored with prestigious awards such as Poncho Artist of the Year. But most important, I was sought after by galleries around the country. Over the past 15 years I have been welcomed on the national stage in the arts, and I have been deeply honored by this. My work has evolved into numerous media and moved beyond two-dimensional narrative works to three-dimensional conceptual installations.
I have never given up early images such as the bird and the cage. They come from my time in India when my guru told me that the Americans were like a bird in the cage; they polished the cage but never fed the bird. The bird represented the soul, and the cage the body. I expanded on the symbolism to use the cage to represent our concept of our body, our identification of ourselves by the trappings we were born into or our limited concepts of ourselves. The birds in my work often become the antagonist and protagonist or like a voyeur in the narrative. Like the bird and cage, I use many iconic images as a symbolic language: the envelope, the clear bottle, the open box, and so on.
I am now working on what I hope will be my most important body of work. It’s called “Undaunted.” I have developed a new media composed of polymer derivatives, much like a flexible transparent rubber. I mix this media with altered images in large two-dimensional works that become three-dimensional installations.
I am ever grateful to my dealers and collectors around the country who continue to follow and support my art, and I hope they will enjoy this major body of work as it emerges in 2015.
I also have discovered that I have three great loves in my life: my family, my wonderful friends and supporters, and the great mystery that is creating art.