Kindnesses of Friends

More snow today. I have been sitting at my desk working all day.
One good thing about "snow days" is being house bound so that I get a lot of paperwork, old and new, done.

And - - it is so quiet. Its the kind of soft quiet that helps me think.
Think. Think. Think.

In the quiet ideas have space to flourish and that is always good.

Most of the day I toyed with several new ideas for stories. In the quiet there was mental space to remember  - - - to walk back in time without feeling rushed to get it down on paper - just to wander through a place that does not exist anymore except in my mind.

Out of that wandering I re-encountered two women who were important in my life -

But the truth is, the remembering of these women really began a few weeks ago over a grilled cheese sandwich at the Tea Room in Kensington, MD.  Solveig Eggerz and I had just finished a taping of my show Stories in Time: In Focus at Channel 16's near-by television station. Solveig is a novelist, storyteller and teacher of memoir. She teaches a fine class on that subject and in her current series she is focusing on "telling the story" orally before you rush to the page. I took a six week class with her at the Writer's Center a couple of summers ago that was marvelous and we had just had a coversation about memoir for the show. You can watch the program HERE.

It probably is no surprise that we continued talking about it over our sandwiches.

I don't remember our conversation at the Tea Room exactly until I was describing how I decided to be a painter in 1965 when I was taking classes with Jessalee Sickman, a Washington Artist. Solveig drew back. I knew something had connected with her. She asked me to say Jessalee's name again.
"Did you know her?"
"No - but I recognize the name. When we lived in Washington in the 1950s my mother studied painting with her at the Corcoran Gallery. She often talked about her."

I felt tears welling up in my eyes. I had not expected to ever meet someone who would know Jessalee Sickman and the connection, although slight, brought her picture back to me.

So that conversation has been sitting with me since then. Yesterday on a quiet snow day I had time and space to think about that time and how I came to Jessalee's studio.

The first one that came to mind was a neighbor when we first came to Maryland for Jim's assignment at Andrews Air Force Base.  Pat lived down the block. She had two older boys. She was a painter. Her husband was a Major in the Air Force. They had lived in a world far wider than mine.  When we met she found me a floundering young woman deeply sad after the death of our youngest child. And struggling to take care of three youngsters.

The only picture I have of Pat is a blurry mental image. I remember her as an attractive dark-haired woman who spoke directly and suffered fools lightly. She could be blunt, something new to my more in-direct southern approach to opinions. She was kind to children and animals. And, she had a deep and contagious laugh.

When she recognized that I really needed an older woman as a friend and mentor she reached out to me. From the depths of her own experience she understood that I needed a positive distraction and something to grab on to so she took me to her painting class.

And at some level I understood that I needed something to help me move beyond the overwhelming darkness of grief. 
I had no inclination for painting and as far as I knew no ability for it - or talent as some say. But I was willing.

What a gift! What a wonderful understanding on her part.
by Jessalee Sickman

Her teacher, artist Jessalee Sickman, was an amazing woman - more than I even understood or appreciated at the time.

In 1965 Jessalee had a studio on Eye Street across the street from the Greyhound Bus Station. She rented a three room apartment on the top floor of a three story red brick row house. This was my introduction to the formidable big-city - downtown Washington, DC.

Going to this class was also a wondrous adventure. Pat was confident as she navigated the freeway and bridges across the rivers and she knew her way through the heavily trafficed streets of Washington which were lined with imposing monuments, Federal buildings and department stores. She was an excellent tour guide and she liked telling me about the city. Twice a week we made the trek downtown to the art class. As I watched and listened to her I gradually began to think I too could tackle this world on my own.

Recently retired as a member of the painting faculty at the Corcoran Gallery Jessalee opened her own studio for teaching classes. The large front room was flooded with sunlight from windows on both sides. There was a model stand off to one side and when one was available she would hire a nude model or invite someone to sit for a portrait. As the resident newbie I did not work from a model for over a year and then only because Jessalee insisted I try it. I worked in the smaller separate front room which had two large windows facing the bus station and over-looking the busy street.

Everyday, regardless of the weather, she climbed onto a city bus on a corner of Connecticutt Avenue near her row house home on Jocelyn Street to come to work in her studio. Jessalee was a serious working artist and I am sure her example influenced me from the first. She also was a warm and welcoming person and a marvelous teacher. She opened my eyes to the magic of color, especially when mixed with oil paints and thinned with heady fragrant turpentine.

Artist: Jessalee Sickman
I had never painted anything in my life except walls and my kitchen cabinets and froze at the thought of drawing anything. She started me out by showing me how to spread dabs of different colors of oil paint on a palette and then she demonstrated how to make incredible colors by blending bits of different colors together. I was amazed that black and yellow ochre will make an absolutely gorgeous off-green - it was magic. I spent hours making charts and dabbing colors on large sheets on heavy rag paper.

It did not take long for me to become somewhat obsessed with painting - stretching canvas, preparing the surface and then striking out with images - first still life compositions until she invited me into the main room to try my first large female nude. I still have my "Geneva" rolled up downstairs in my studio. It is a terrible painting but it is a reminding talisman for me - I was going to be a painter.

Jessalee inspired her students to love painting as much as she did. Many of the people who came every week were mature and skilled painters, many from her classes at the Corcoran. For the first time I heard people talking "art" and had an inside view into some of the local art-gossip and critiques of art shows they had been to see. It was a glimpse into a different mysterious world - before I stuck my toe in that water.

There was a back room that was her painting room. While we worked she often retired into her studio and worked on a canvas of her own. A few favored students were sometimes invited in to see her latest work - but the hours we spent there were not about her- she was focused on us and out work. She spoke to everyone, including me, as a fellow artist who was serious about their work.

I was her student for three years. Looking back now I see even more clearly how much I learned from her and how healing it was for me to be there several times a week.

When my children were old enough for me to take on a larger time commitment away from home I decided to enter a local college  - - as an art major.  Jessalee blessed my ambition but I think she thought I was a bit nutty - "you don't have to go to college to be an artist Ellouise."  Maybe she was right - but at that time I was determined to go back to college and get letters after my name.

Today I know it was the right decision for me, particularly at that time. Being in college in 1968 was the catalyst for so much more to come but... those are other stories.

These two women opened the doors for me that led to everything that came after.

Deepest thanks dear friends.

1 comment:

Solveig said...

having heard the beginning of this story, i was so happy to encounter the whole story here!