NOTE: The following is an Op-Ed that appeared in the Ventura County Star in 2010 as part of the ArtsLive Initiative. My father-in-law recently wrote an article about my wife's grandmother, an artist, poet, cake designer and a regal Southern lady. It made me think about her influence on me and the world and so I share this again.
Recognizing the Artist Within
I have been involved with creative endeavors for all of my life but I never really ever thought of myself as an artist or creative person, mainly because my creativity was part of what I did to make a living. I wrote, produced and directed while working for an advertising agency. I also wrote screenplays, newspaper columns, speeches, you name it, but it was just something that I did because it came easily to me. It wasn’t until I met my wife back in 1999 and she introduced me to her grandmother, Gertrude Smith, an eighty-something visual artist from a small town deep in the middle of Mississippi. Gertrude was the epitome of Southern belle charm who had spent her life in the rural country-side raising four kids, working hard and being the dutiful wife who catered to all her husband’s needs. But she had begun a life-long love of visual art as a young girl when her grandmother bribed her to milk the cows with a box of crayons. Being resourceful, she took those crayons to school and sold them to friends and earned enough to buy two boxes. She then drew on anything she could get her hands on and never stopped.
Her artistry had to be suspended since Southern girls in the 30’s weren’t able to seek careers in the arts or careers in anything, for that matter – they married a handsome boy in town and followed him on HIS journey. Working in factories on both coasts during World War II Gertrude did get a taste of the world outside Mississippi but returned with her husband Percy to start a simple life back in their hometown of Collins. She never abandoned her artistry totally and to this day remnants still remain from her younger days. She was never trained. It was just inside her to replicate what she saw and felt onto paper, canvas, mason board or anything that she could find around the house. As a devout Christian she always insisted it was God’s work but as we all know God works in mysterious ways and you could see in her abstract paintings and collages that her art was the means to which she could express her independence, her true self that was hidden to everyone else, perhaps even to her. God may have given her the tools, but it was obvious she was the creator.
It wasn’t until the kids all left home and her husband loosened the reins that she became more serious with her art and began spending more time painting. Percy even converted their cow barn into an artist studio for her. She began attending art colonies and selling her work, but it was local and mostly to friends and neighbors. My wife had always wanted to spend the time to help promote and market Gertrude’s work. When I came along, being another kindred artist, it became a reality and we took on the challenge of inventorying and photographing her works (over a 1,000 filled her studio). We created marketing materials, formed an LLC, got articles in Southern Living and other publications, got her on TV, flew a gallery owner from New York to evaluate and offer advice. She received honors and art shows and she and her art were beginning to gain a reputation around the country – all in her eighties. By helping Gertrude blossom as an artist so late in life, especially after her artistry was stifled for such a long time, I became more introspective about my own creativity and realized that I was an artist, as well, and that I had not allowed myself to “blossom” as I should have if I had known that it was possible. Sometimes when a talent or skill is so innate or natural its importance goes unnoticed by the very person who possesses it. Gertrude passed on a few years ago but her art lives on – I look at it every day as a reminder that I not only need to realize that the arts are a part of me but that I need to let people help me gain deserved recognition. This help comes from all of you who can help promote the artists in our communities. Through patronizing galleries and attending performances or simply by just appreciating the artists that reside here in Ventura County you can spread the word on how they all enrich our lives. Gertrude never forgot the smell of those first crayons she received from her grandmother. I’ll never forget the first book I wrote in second grade. For Gertrude and myself, art doesn’t imitate anything, life is art and hopefully, with a little help, we can give others the same thrill we get when creating our art as when it is experienced.
Rich Burlingham - Writer/Filmmaker and Actor. He resides in Moorpark, CA with his wife and two children and is working on a documentary called Brain Games: The Amazing Story of Academic Decathlon.
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