My latest artistic endeavor involved painting a chicken on a piece of wood. I was cradled in the timelessness of it—making folk art in the old Norse style, the old way. Imagine the chance to find a little corner and have four uninterrupted days. Add a best buddy of half a century and an excellent restaurant next door and Jo Sonya, the inimitable and renowned leader of the group we joined. I’d heard about her for years. I found her warm, direct, a natural teacher, and fully aware of who she is—undoubtedly the best rosemaling painter in the country.
Those four days in Boise were bliss. Anne flew in from Houston; I flew in from Salt Lake City. When we found each other in the crowd of painters, we embraced, the women we are slipping into the girls we were. I knew she would be unchanged, as open and self-possessed as larkspur.
The first thing we did was look over the paints. Their names describe them: oak moss, smoked pearl, antique green, gold oxide, purple madder. I’m not one of those artists who likes to rename brown cinnamon, but I liked oak moss and smoked pearl, partly because the colors were so dreamy.
The present and the past seemed to exist side by side as we set up. Memories floated in of the California desert, El Camino Real, graduation, that crazy trip to Lake Esther (Lancaster recast). And then we’d be talking about our dogs. We got out our brushes—sable ﬁlberts, rounds, a liner, a Kolinsky detailer. I had my usual jar of kitty litter along to stand my brushes in—they stay put. Anne was amused and I realized I’ve always been as comfortable with her as I am with summer.
Somewhere in the process I got thinking about my zany history of making things—the barometer in a coke bottle, the sled from a packing crate (that went badly), paintings on rocks stained with berry juice, and then my cabin and still lifes and landscapes of every view it afforded.
Our chicken tines (Norwegian for I suppose basket—pronounced teen-ahs) were beautifully made by hand of steamed and sveipped wood held together with wooden pegs. They would become our black hens, emerging a brush stroke at a time. An old nursery rhyme was the inspiration:
Hickety Pickety, my black hen,
She lays eggs for gentlemen:
Gentlemen come every day to see
What my black hen doth lay.
Whatever it is about making something, especially art, it takes over. There is nothing else, no phone calls, no agenda, no giving in to interruptions. At some level you must know that you decorate yourself when you decorate a chicken on a piece of wood, painting yourself in peacock blue scrolls and red flowers and new-green leaves and yellow teardrops, painting yourself out of fatigue, of uncertainty, of overwhelm.
To make: Old English, an ancient word; to bring into being. And with a friend good for a lifetime: an ally, an enabler, a sympathizer; one who greatly influenced the being I became.