Born in Wisconsin, I grew up on a small family dairy farm typical of the 1950s. The sixth of ten children, although the first girl I found many excuses to escape the kitchen for the barn and fields. Whether pulling wild mustard or baling hay, I preferred to be outdoors. Of all the chores, my favorite was picking rocks. I never could figure out why each Spring there would be a new harvest, certain I had picked rocks from that very same spot the year before. This puzzled me, but no matter; I loved the solid, smooth feel of another stone harvested from warming soil.
My father’s great grandfather and his brother, still in their teens, immigrated from Brandenburg, Germany in the 1850s. They established their homes near what is now Horicon, Wisconsin. A year later the brothers brought their parents over to join them. This is where they remain to this day, headstones engraved in their native German. The path my Mother’s ancestors travelled to this land is not quite as clear. Her bloodline is also primarily German, with a French twist somewhere along the way. I liken my heritage to a crisp lettuce salad with a touch of dressing in a North American bowl.
While it is true my ancestral trail leads back to Europe, its unique history and religious traditions, my modern heart is deeply embedded in North America. My spirit feels it belongs to this land as those ancient stones picked from childhood fields.
There is one area of my life where my pragmatic German roots have surfaced, and this was in my career choice. There were several times I toyed with pursuing art but rejected the idea. Art did not seem very practical. Envisioning my adult life, I wanted a steady paycheck and was anxious to get on with my life. Serving my love of words, justice and a touch of excitement, court reporting was a very logical and well thought out choice. Little did I know that when art really did call, my response would have nothing to do with logic, and all of my carefully crafted structures would go out the window.
Court reporting is a very exacting profession, reporting verbatim every word spoken in the courtroom. It requires mental and physical agility, great precision, and a loyalty to the integrity of the record which I enjoy. What I hadn’t considered was the effect of becoming a receptacle for stories of human pain and violence. By my late 30s I found I wasn’t as tough as I thought. Saddened by some of those stories, painting lifted me up. When I got home from hard days, I would take the armor off my heart, release the structure and paint.
At the time I started painting, there was a double-stressor in our home as my husband had a challenging, socially-based job as well. He saw the front end of the type of stories I would eventually report on.
There is always that special place where hearts and minds join best. For my husband and me, it is exploring outdoors. Early in our relationship we escaped to the woods to reconnect and renew ourselves. This set an important and healthy pattern. Over the course of several years we hiked and camped our way across the many state parks of Wisconsin. This wilderness trail eventually led out of state, westward to Wyoming. He had harbored a dream to backpack in the Tetons. In 1993 we set out on his dream; we flew to Denver, drove across Wyoming and set up camp.
After two forays into the high Teton wilderness I was altitude sick and exhausted; I wanted nothing but a shower, a steak and soft bed. Searching the phonebook, the nearest accommodation I could find was in Riverton, Wyoming, 175 miles east. Bob struck up a conversation with the night clerk the next morning. An avid amateur archaeologist, this night clerk had an interesting display in the lobby, wrote a weekly column in the local paper, had published a couple books.
There are some people you meet in life you barely notice. Some folks cause a single drop, some a ripple, some become a steady flow through your life. Ray, gentle soul that he was, caused an earthquake. Meeting him opened a wellspring, a constant source of wonderment, inspiration and nourishment that has forever changed my life.
We spent hours looking over Ray’s artifacts and asking questions. Ancient Native America had never before crossed my mind. Along that same vein, he pointed us to Legend Rock Petroglyph Site. It was at Legend Rock that this painting story was born.
Legend Rock is home to hundreds of petroglyphs. I had never seen such a thing before! Instantly fascinated by the incredible mix of mysterious ancient carvings, I photographed the entire site while Bob watched for rattlesnakes in the sage. Mesmerized, I returned to those photos many times over the next year. I was fascinated by one particular image and the description provided in a pamphlet which states, “When you look at this petroglyph, the first thing you will notice is that the two shapes are connected by a line. Figures connected by lines are very common in rock art. In this picture, it looks like a leash. Perhaps the leash, in a metaphysical sense, may connotate a connection between the physical and spiritual realms.”
Looking at that petroglyph image I noted there is a crack across that leash. The mystery of the crack captured my imagination. Which came first, the petroglyph or the split? Was it as difficult to make and maintain that connection with the spiritual self then as it is now? Although not an artist at the time, I asked the question, “I wonder if you could paint something like that?”
Inexperienced at painting, I cut out a simple stencil, placed it on my paper and brushed several earth-colored watercolor washes over it. “Bridging Time,” my first petroglyph painting, was created in December of ’94. My creative muse re-awakened, I began to explore various media and subjects. I tried acrylics and oil, pencil and pastel. Rocks became my favorite subject matter; however, petroglyphs had disappeared from my artistic radar. That is until my Muse became insistent and made itself heard.
In 1996 while on a walk, an image popped into my head, and it stayed there. Much like one of those songs that get stuck in your head, it was persistent. After several days I surrendered and painted it. A simple cross-hatching of lines painted in petroglyph style, “Four Ways Weaving,” represented the need for me to interweave the spiritual and physical realms to live a whole and effective life.
From that point on rock art became my sole artistic focus. Watercolor remained my medium of choice, this time not for ease but because it worked. It was not my goal to create perfect replications of the image but to portray the spirit of the site. For this purpose transparent watercolor was perfect, as it allowed one layer to be seen under the next, subtle suggestions in mysterious messages of the ancients.
Once my focus was clear, I became very curious about the people who created the original images. It was then that I began to read. As I was inspired by petroglyphs from Wyoming, I searched out books written about the Plains Indians. Devouring a variety of titles, at first enchanted, then horrified, my eyes were opened. I still remember where I was sitting, tears streaming over the final pages of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Appalled at the atrocities perpetrated on those who belong here, I was also a little angry. How could I grow into my late thirties so ignorant of this history?
During the process of this research I also learned the importance of these sites to the Native American people, that to some the sites are considered sacred. By the time I wondered if I should really be creating paintings inspired by these images, my heart was captured. Stuck between worlds of cultural considerations, science and spirit, I was compelled to trust my heart and paint.
The thing about court reporting that causes me the most challenge is I cannot affect the outcome. A neutral figure in the courtroom, I am powerless to give comfort, witnessing painful dysfunctions in our modern world. The painting gives me balance, it gives me voice. This is how they weave together, court reporting and painting rock art. A karmic pattern of my soul, I am a record-keeper.
My passion is deep and strong. The Native American lives that were disregarded, lost in the creation of this country, were real. Their tears were as salty and wet as yours and mine. They loved their children and their land; many lost both, their loved ones and the land beneath their feet.
My perspective is not only of an artist, but also that of a woman. When I enter a cave or sacred site that has been vandalized, my discomfort is primal and visceral. There is a reason ancient people venerated places where the outer landscape enters the inner realms of Mother Earth. To see these sacred places vandalized echoes disrespect for the feminine in her many forms.
Most people are horrified to see these sites vandalized. It is extremely expensive, and oftentimes impossible, to remove or correct the vandalism without destroying the site. One of my personal tasks as both an artist and woman is to do what I can; I paint my own re-creation of a site that has been vandalized, without the harm, thereby doing what I can to remember and honor the original site and who created it. This does not, of course, restore the physical site, but it does reinforce a love and respect for the ancients.
Most people think I am painting about the past. Actually, this is not true. In fact I am painting for the future. Certainly the past is important. We must always remember what has gone before us. That is after all the ground on which our current lives are born. But for better or worse, what is done is done. We really can’t change that. But what we can do is to start from right now, honor the memory of those Old Ones, and consciously shape our future. To that end I do my best to be aware, do my work with respect, learn, and help build bridges of understanding for the benefit of our grandchildren and their grandchildren.
This is my perspective as an artist. And it is my prayer every time I visit a site, and every time I paint, to create something of beauty and meaning that will have positive impact on our modern world.
Slow down. I invite you into the paintings, relax your mind and drift into their earthy pigments. If you were able to communicate with the Ancients, what would they say to you today?