Carol Perry and Janice La Verne Baker didn't set out to be artists. They didn't do art as young children and didn't get art degrees. Instead, their creative journeys took a more circuitous route, with many detours along the way. And if you harbor a secret desire to create something beautiful, the story of how they ended up being artists, with their work featured in a new exhibit at the Boxx Gallery in Tieton - may inspire you to pick up a paintbrush, too.
Janice lives in a tiny, tidy white house on a dead-end street in Tieton, just blocks away from the gallery. It also serves as her studio, and the walls are lined with her paintings and drawings. A long white table where the light streams in is covered with dozens of small painted collages. A rescue Chihuahua peers shyly from the bedroom and there's chickens in the yard out back. Janice's wife Ginger lives in the house next door. Janice is neat, and Ginger is a little messy, so they say the arrangement makes for a beautiful relationship.
Janice says when she was young, she didn't even know people went to college for art. "I come from middle class, working class parents. I didn't go to a museum until I was in my 20s." She and her sister were always fooling around with their record player and radio, and making things. "Our grandmother was a dressmaker, so we watched her," Janice says. But her father wanted her to become a nurse, so she dutifully went to nursing school, finding time to sneak in some art classes along the way. She ended up working as a psychiatric nurse for 37 years.
"When I was in my late thirties I woke up one morning, it was that sudden, and I felt like I would die unless I started drawing and painting," she explains. She worked three long shifts a week as a nurse, and began working on her art three days a week as well. She started painting in oil - traditional subjects and landscapes. "Then I started painting from what I call my own inside," she smiles.
Most everything she makes is multi-media. Her paintings often contain drawings, and sometimes color xerox prints are glazed onto their surface. Bits of advertisements, playing cards, and pieces from other artworks can also appear, forming a visual tapestry with a sly sense of humor coming through.
She says she's a narrative painter. "For me, it's all about the story." One component of her work in the upcoming show is a perfect example. It turns out, the small collages on that long table are round beer coasters. She covers the beer logos with miniature paintings, incorporates glued-on collage images from popular culture, and glazes them on both sides, making each a unique, two-sided work of art. "I love working with recycled materials," she beams. They'll hang from dowels in the show, where people will be free to rearrange them to create their own stories. Janice picks up three coasters and launches into a tale. "These ladies are laughing in their fancy bras," she says, shuffling to the second coaster. "They went to the store and ate some eggs." Then the third: "Then they went to this tiny house with the pointy roof," she concludes, chuckling with satisfaction.
Carol Perry laughs from a purple chair across the room as she listens to Janice spin her fairy tale. She's been listening patiently, waiting to tell the story of how she, too, came to be an artist.
She is a petite woman with a big smile, thick silver hair and turquoise glasses. "I didn't know anything about art," she says modestly. She spent years working as a human relations consultant, then switched gears and became an entrepreneur, running a bookstore at Westpark in Yakima called Sunshine and Wisteria. It had a successful run, but at age 52 she decided to sell it, leaving her with time to fill. A friend who was a quilter dragged her along to a fabric store. "I went, and I just started looking at all these beautiful fabrics and they were just calling to me." She started buying fabric and her friend showed her how to cut it and pin it on a board. Soon, she had a quilt. "I just loved it. I had no plan whatsoever. A lot of people have a plan, they draw it all out, but I was just going for it, like I did with my bookstore. Very intuitive. And that was the start."
She sewed quilts for awhile, then one day, she was at a fashion show on Front Street, she recalls. "They were showing all these beautiful scarves, and I thought they're so expensive, and I went to bed that night thinking about this, and I woke up in the morning and thought 'I could make scarves out of leather!'" So she began making the scarves, which she calls "Wearable artwork." They're wider and shorter than a necktie and fasten around the neck with decorative buttons or hidden snaps. Their beautiful details and soft surfaces beg to be closely examined and touched.
Carol makes them out of deer hides because she feels it's a more humane type of leather than cowhide. "What I want to do is preserve the beauty of the animal," she says. "To continue their beauty on into the world in another way." She likes the imperfections in the hides. Most come already dyed in a wide range of colors, and others she paints. She sews them together in subtle patterns, with lines of stitching like flowing rivers. She adds a few carefully chosen embellishments, like feathers, buttons, and beads; and mixes suede with soft finished leather. They're a unique product, and she says she's never seen anything like them. But once you see her put one on, you understand how cool they would be to wear on a black turtleneck at a party or under a jacket like a scarf.
She says she is inspired to create by many things, and finds herself ripping out pages from Vogue or other fashion magazines and pinning them to the walls of her studio. She is also inspired by stories of other artists, and iconoclasts she reads about in the New Yorker or the New York Times. Janice says she's inspired by what she finds on the Internet and reading books about other artists.
But like anyone who's ever begun a creative project knows, inspiration can be a blazing comet, which can burn out after streaking across the sky, or be forgotten amid the mundane chores of life. So how do these women continue making art when inspiration fizzles out? "I use a timer a lot," says Janice. "I set my timer for a half hour and say, 'OK, try.' And at the end of the half hour if you still don't want to, you say OK. But usually that does it for me. You just have to start." She also sets out blocks of time - two or three hours to work intently, and takes notes when she finishes, about what she wants to do the next day. "It's really basic stuff, like varnish panels, gesso panels, basic mechanical stuff. And I'll come into the studio, and just start right to work and I don't have to fumble around."
Carol explains it's best not to force things. "If I really don't feel like it, then I take a break. I take a hike or something, then I come back and I see it differently and I start in and do it." Like the journey of a thousand miles, art starts with just one step. "Once I get started, if I just sit down and do something, that eases into the rest of it," she adds.
She says many people who would like to create art think they need to create something beautiful and perfect on their first try, and when that doesn't happen, they give up. "I truly believe everyone has an artist inside them. It takes practice, failures and mistakes. We need to let go of expectations and just free ourselves to experiment and play."
The show at the Boxx Gallery runs June 3-24. It's located at 616 Maple St. in Tieton and is open Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The show will also feature works by local artists Jay Carskadden, Jackie Niemi, and Nancy Newberry. If you're interested in seeing more of Janice's work, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Carol can be reached at email@example.com.