A Distant Learning
Have you ever fallen down the rabbit hole of Google Maps? I sure have.
I was traveling, digitally, the other night to my childhood haunts: the street of my family’s first little home in Syracuse, New York (the house is still there!), and other places I grew up. We moved about every four years, and they weren’t little hops, but sweeping migrations across the country. America, post-WWII, was a mobile society and we were certainly part of it.
The sweetest stop I made was Sitka, Alaska. A historic town at the edge of the Pacific, where I spent fourth and fifth grade. On the satellite view, I saw white snowcapped, spruce-clad mountains, islands of them, adjoining a sea of midnight-blue. Once you were in Sitka, there was no easy way in or out, no highways to take, surrounded as we were by ocean and colossal, precipitous wilderness.
I clicked on Street View to zoom in closer. Suddenly I was back, in a virtual world of gloomy skies and pendulous rain clouds, just as I remember it. I was 11 again, pedaling around on my bike, breathing in the salty sea air, and the smell of damp ferns and fir trees.
When my dad took a job with Alaska Lumber and Pulp, Alaska had just become a state. Everything about Sitka was strange and new. Its location, the native Americans who still lived there (the name Sitka comes from a Tlingit word meaning “People on the edge of Baranof Island”), and the seaplane my Mom, brothers and I arrived by.
Sitka was a place of loggers, hunters, mavericks – descendants of Russian, Swedish and American pioneers. We would go on to make wonderful friends there with our Japanese neighbors, schoolmates, and my dad’s co-workers. (The pulp company was owned by Tokyo investors.)
My brothers and I thrilled to all the little deprivations, like the way milk came to us by ocean barge, frozen in blocks. Or walking back and forth to school in the dark. (Step off the beaten path and you could run into a bear!)
Google helped me find our old ranch-style house on the banks of Swan Lake. Spanking new and cranberry red when we moved there in 1961, it had not weathered the decades well. I imagined the rooms inside and remembered seeing my mother eagerly open a large package in the kitchen. It was a painting she had made, in oils, of a still life.
Mom was taking a correspondence course in painting. That day, when I watched her remove her artwork from the protective padding, after its long travels across the mainland and back, was when I first became aware that my mom had a secret life.
While we were off at school or tucked in bed, I realized she was hard at work. Her supplies taking over the kitchen table, Mom studied her reference pieces and mixed her colors and glazes, trying to bring her scenes to life. When she finished one, as soon as the paint dried, she’d wrap it up in a big package and mail it to her instructor, back in the states.
Weeks later it would return, corrections made on a tissue folded over the painting, with additional suggestions typed on separate pages.
Every painting arrival day was exciting. Mom would absorb the comments and go right to work on the re-do.
Whether her muse was Famous Artists Schools (many of its teachers belonging to the New York Society of Illustrators) or another outfit, I can’t remember. I wish my mom were still here to ask.
To my 11-year-old eyes, the lessons seemed formidable: extensive corrections, along with B&W images and her next assignment (invariably another still life).
But more than that, it didn’t make sense. Our new home was a scene of glorious mountain peaks, lonely rugged beaches, and teeming tidepools. Its tiny downtown beckoned with a vintage Russian Orthodox church, Tlingit village and fishing fleet, and the slippery piers where my buddies and I fished for bullheads and patrolled the harbor for killer whales.
Amazement all around. And nobody seemed to be painting it. My mother’s curriculum centered on her still lifes – bottles and baskets, weeds and gourds. And the occasional New England covered bridge.
Because the basics come first. She accepted that and was grateful to be learning, however cumbersome the format and inconvenient the wait. The cycle of mailed lessons and critiques meant so much to her. Sitka possessed no fine arts community, not that we knew of. There were no nearby cities to visit. No museums or galleries, university, or community college to take art classes from.
So the USPS was our lifeline. It brought Mom the lessons and critiques she craved from her art school. As for my brothers and me? We pounced on each new issue of Classics Illustrated and Jack and Jill.
Mom painted on the kitchen table through those Alaskan winters. The isolation was splendid and exotic and just a bit devastating. We were thousands of miles, and worlds, away from my mother’s childhood home in New York. I knew she ached with homesickness, for her mom, for Syracuse.
Mom kept up her long-distance study after we returned to the states. She ventured into watercolor and took me along on her Plein air classes and workshops with watercolorist Jerry Baum in southern Indiana. Later, she painted beside John Carter, after my parents’ move to Texas in 1972.
In her dedication to grow as a painter, Mom worked with many teachers. Her pictures and sketches began to find customers. Eventually, Mom became a beloved teacher herself, inspiring watercolorists young and old.
And so it’s in the spirit of my mom that I’m announcing the new semester of my online art course, Make Your Marks and Splashes: A Natural Approach to Children’s Book Illustration. The course is self-study and self-paced, and the live session version begins this Thursday, September 17. You can find more details about the program here.