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The Good Life

04 March 2015 Written by  By Sherry Cummings
Published in March 2015 Articles

The Brentwood Artist Of The Year Describes Her Art And Her Life

“All of this activity and notoriety would have been unexpected to anyone who had observed the course of my life because for years I was an employee of the Phone Company and housewife to a fellow employee . . .”

I have been creating art for nearly a decade. I’m co-founder and treasurer of the Art Guild of the Delta and president of the Brentwood Art Society, which has honored me by making me Artist Of The Year. I teach classes — a workshop at Trilogy in Rio Vista, weekly watercolor classes at Trilogy Brentwood, and private lessons in my house. Art is my life. All of this activity and notoriety would have been unexpected to anyone who had observed the course of my life because for years I was an employee of the Phone Company and housewife to a fellow employee, Richard Cummings. The two of us worked together for 15 years without anything of a romantic nature taking place. We kept our distance because of the principle against romantic involvement with fellow-workers. Finally, Richard couldn’t stand it any more, I guess, and asked me on a date over a voicemail message. The first date went great, and we both decided we had found our life partner.

We were in our 40s. We knew what we wanted and knew we were ready for this.

We didn’t want to tell anybody, but within a month we decided to get married. We couldn’t keep it a secret any longer, so we began breaking the news, starting with our boss. We went into her office, closed the door, and sat quietly while she finished a phone conversation. She hung up and complained because she had been dealing with two sales people who were mother-and-son. “I don’t like having people who are related working together,” she said.

Richard had a reputation as a practical joker so when he said, “We’re getting married,” the boss decided that it was, of course, a joke and said, “I know you are lying.” But then she saw that, in an unconscious gesture, I had put my hand on Richard’s arm, so she began screaming with delight. When we came out of her office, we saw our fellow workers gawking at us. We didn’t say anything because the boss wanted to make the announcement at the next morning’s staff meeting. Our co-workers greeted the announcement the next day with dead silence. Finally, one of the guys said, “This is incest. This isn’t right. We are family.” Then he thought about it and decided it was right after all. Everyone we knew understood that the two of us were right for each other. Our first date was March 1996, we were engaged April 1 (no fool’n), and were married September 21. It was a wonderful marriage; it lasted for nine years.

Back Story
I was an Air Force brat and was born in Pittsburgh because my father was stationed in an American air base that used to be in that area. The Air Force moved my father to Japan, where I lived until I was five years old, when we moved back to Sacramento’s McClellan AFB.

I guess I began doing art from the moment I picked up my first crayon. My mom told me that my kindergarten teacher told her that she thought I had some genuine artistic talent. She had given the class the task of drawing a picture of a cow, and I was the only child who had included udders on my animal. The teacher was impressed that I had noticed something that the other children had obviously missed. Throughout childhood and youth I continued to do art and took every art class I could. My artistic talents blossomed in college when I experimented with art of all kinds, learning the elements of perspective and various media including pencil, ceramics, and all kinds of paint. There was no type of art that I didn’t try to put my hand to.

In 1964, Dad retired and moved back to his hometown of Bakersfield, got a job with the phone company, spent the next two decades as a splicer, and, when I was in the ninth grade, he retired again. After graduating from Bakersfield High, Dad got me a job at the phone company. There was no time to enjoy my position as a graduate because commencement was on Friday, and I started working on Monday. I was enrolled at the local community college so I didn’t work full-time but then discovered that I was making more money working part-time for the phone company than my friends were making who were working full-time. I began working full-time myself and when my schedule was just too hard I dropped out of school. At that point I lost my artistic drive. Only occasionally would I try something for my own enjoyment. I ended up in a department they called High Demand, working with large accounts including a number of institutions of higher education. The phone company went through a number of divestitures and reorganizations. After Ma Bell ceased doing business, I worked for AT&T, followed by Lucent, Expanets, and finally ending up employed by a company called Avala. Even though I kept moving from one location to another as the business was moved among various departments and passed from one corporate identity to another, the job itself remained constant, except at one point I grew tired of Sales and moved into Sales Support. I worked for Avala a couple years until they consolidated and my job was gone.

We had moved to Brentwood in 2001 when my husband was promoted and assigned to the Dublin office. I was in a work-from-home situation. Most homeowners note how much less expensive Brentwood properties are than, for example, comparable places in Walnut Creek or San Francisco. However, we paid twice as much for a house in Brentwood that was half the size of the house we had sold in Visalia.

In 2005, life seemed to change in a terrible rush. I lost my husband. He was in hospice at the end. The hospice personnel lived up to their reputation as “Angels On Earth.” Richard spent his final moments surrounded by people who loved him. He was mobile until the last day. At the end he continued fighting to stay with us until, as the most difficult act of my life, perhaps, I bent down to him and told him that it was time to let go. And he did. Life continued to change because two months later I was laid off. In retrospect, the layoff was a good thing because it gave me time to complete the grieving process. I had no idea what I was going to do. Clarity came when I was visiting my brother, Scott, in Sacramento. “You need to get back into your art,” he said. I knew in that moment that he spoke the truth. Einstein nailed an important point when he noted, “One of the strongest motives that lead men to art ... is escape from everyday life with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness....”

Back Into Art
I am a backyard gardener and had filled my yard in Brentwood with raised beds in which I had planted irises. I loved the colors and when the irises were blooming, they filled the yard with overflowing colors of every hue. Those beautiful flowers became the subjects of my initial return to the world of art. I would take a picture of some beautiful iris, zooming in close so that the entire viewfinder would be filled with color. I would then alter the pictures in Photoshop, adding digital brush strokes to make them resemble oil paintings.

I would sell the finished products at shows, such as Brentwood’s Art Wine and Jazz Festival and similar venues in places like Dublin, Danville, and Porterville. I found there was a market for these beautiful pictures, and I did a satisfyingly brisk trade in them. After a couple years, in 2007, I began to search for other outlets for my artistic passions. I decided to unpack my brushes, buy some paints, and begin to create original pictures. One of my motivations was to demonstrate my ability to transform a blank canvas into a pleasing objet d’art. Acrylics had been my go-to choice up to that point, but I wasn’t completely satisfied with my original efforts with the media so I turned to watercolors. It was an unexpected and somewhat courageous decision because I hadn’t done anything with watercolors since college because I had found them difficult to control. When I began using them, however, I discovered water colors to be perfect for my purposes and, almost from the initial strokes, loved the way in which the medium worked with me.

My style of art had changed, but the subject initially remained the same. Following master Monet’s famous lead, I painted irises. Since I was starting with a blank canvas, I was able to pose the image in any way I wanted to, and was free to create compositions and proportions in any way that suited my fancy. Many people, including myself, had thought my digital irises were lovely, but the composition and colors of the flower in my very first painting was truly breathtaking — far richer than the digital pictures had been. In a single layer, watercolors, of course, have a “watery” quality, but as I apply multiple layers of color the image begins to acquire rich deep effects. Something almost magical seems to happen because the surface of the canvas begins to take on an opaque quality. At the beginning, this was absolutely thrilling and seven years later the transformation still remains deeply satisfying.

After doing a number of irises, the theme for my next group of pictures was called “Beach Babes” — depicting mature women who were obviously not permitting wrinkles, sags, and excess weight to prevent them from fully enjoying the world. The series began with my first vacation following my husband’s passing. We were staying at a Marriott Hotel on a beach in Kauai. I was on a balcony cleaning my camera and noticed three women on the beach below our room. They were the opposite of the shapely scantily clad sirens you normally associate with Hawaiian beaches. It had obviously been a long time since any of those women could have worn a bikini to good effect. They were simply enjoying the moment — the warm sunshine, the small waves lapping the shoreline at their feet, and the pleasure they were taking from their shared company. In a flash of insight, I realized that the candid tableau captured the truth that life is at its best when we simply enjoy the moment itself without trying to make an impression. The picture was warmly received. A number of women saw in the picture the feeling I was trying to communicate. One woman said, “Okay I want to know where you were hiding when you took the picture. That’s me; those are my sisters.” I did a second one with two women on a beach, followed by one showing a solitary figure. I did Beach Boys with three “boys,” and then painted a picture of three of my babes doing a breast cancer walk dressed in their pink shorts and hats just crossing the finish lines. It had obviously been a long time since any of the three were last on a treadmill, if ever, but this was their moment of happy triumph. I remain busy about my art. My studio is in my kitchen, and I usually have three to six paintings going at a time, sitting flat on the counter so the watercolors won’t run. If Richard were still alive, he would have been furious, and would have consigned me and my art to a room in the basement.

They say that good things come out of bad things. Someone recently added to that the important corollary that the best things sometimes come out of the worst things. Richard’s death plunged a knife into my spirit creating a wound that is no longer fresh but not yet completely healed. We had planned to move back East. We had  planned to travel. If he had survived me I might never have picked up a paint brush with serious intent for the rest of my life.

But his absence drove me to create these beautiful images — wonderful things that came out of a horrible thing, just as the wisdom said.

I’m not done yet. My plan is to do a series of paintings around the Delta. Perhaps some dragons, which I love. My heart and mind is overflowing with ideas.

I’m planning to create some beautiful things. So it really is all good.

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