Betty Jane Nichols turned 88 yesterday. A full set of piano keys.
I grew up with the fragrance of turpentine, as Mom was (and still is), an oil painter, as was her mom, Hildegarde Paulsen. I also do oil painting, but not as passionately as I write....and certainly not as profitably. But there's no doubt that the creative spark was nurtured, if not fully inherited from Mom. I got my engineering mind from my dad, for which I am eternally grateful, but I probably would have been a bit of a stiff without such a strong artistic influence.
Growing up in the San Francisco Bay area, Mom was actively involved in the San Francisco art community...though a bit less bohemian than most of her colleagues. Surprisingly enough, there have always been some Republican artists. However, despite my parents' conservatism, there was always a curious tinge of lurking subversiveness....or something....in the Paulsen side of the family.
Grandma was an old school artist; her work is reminiscent of Vermeer or perhaps Coreggio. Mom started out that way, as well, obtaining her training as a medical artist, drawing internal organs, hunan and otherwise, with immense precision. I have one of her nearly photograpic still lifes from that era hung on our staircase wall. Some time in my early childhood, she became more experimental, both in media and content, doing some rather impressive and large works. I'm pretty sure my existence was not to blame for this, but that's not entirely out of the quesiton. I only met grandma once, when I was about three years old, and I barely remember her. However, I imagine she might have been outraged by Mom's non-representational paintings. Or not. After all, she was a Paulsen.
Like my dad, (who passed away in 1993), Mom was (and is) extremely well read and literate....and played classical piano in addition...hence the reference to the 88 keys. I endured piano lessons for a while myself....needless to say none of it "took." Early on I realized I didn't have quite enough talent to make it as an artist, and so followed my dad's engineering footsteps as they showed more promise of resulting in a "real job." Without a doubt, Dad's solid engineering career helped subsidize Mom's artistic endeavors; she was probably never neurotic enough to become a famous artist....but did approach the fringes of both (neurosis and fame) at times.
We had a nice chat over the phone yesterday, and she reminded me of all the picture frames I'd built for her during her most productive "eras"....a sufficiently left-brained activity that allowed me to contribute to the "cause." Actually, during that time I achieved ONE artistic coup. Dad and I were remodeling a building in El Segundo that we'd bought in hopes of creating an art studio and store. It wasn't a blazing success, as El Segundo was not a hotbed of culture...but it was a fun adventure anyway. After our remodeling job, we had all kinds of leftover construction materials. Taking a cue from Mon's latest foray into sculpting, I built this rather largish freeform scuplture from plumbing parts, leftover hardware, scraps of wood and a toilet plunger or two. I placed the sculpture lovingly in the back patio of the store. The next day it was stolen. What greater compliment can an artist have than to have his work stolen?
Mom is now living in a retirement home in Portland near my sister and brother in law. She teaches oil painting classes to the other residents, and seems to be having a blast doing it. I haven't seen any of her "post retirement" paintings, but I'm pretty sure she's not teaching her students how to paint daisies....but I hope she's not teaaching them to paint internal organs.
But then again...she is a Paulsen.
Causes Eric Nichols Supports
Free Burma Rangers, Partners Ministries (Thailand), Literacy council of Alaska, Access Alaska.