I have been an artist my entire life, so it’s difficult to say what my early influences were. I simply loved to draw. I know for sure that my first external influence was Mrs. Richardson, my first-grade teacher at Munich American Elementary School, Munich, Germany in 1971. Mrs. Richardson must have been a thousand years old, and actually retired the next year and moved back to “The States.” It was “art time” in her class, and we were painting landscapes with tempera paint on white construction paper. The subject was the view from our classroom window. Like so many children of that age range, I had painted a band of green at the bottom of the page for the grass, a band of blue at the top of the page for the sky, a cloud and the sun hanging in mid-air between them, and a tree that sat smack on top of the grass and didn’t quite reach the sky. Mrs. Richardson came up behind me and gently directed my attention back out the window. She pointed out that if I looked really carefully I would notice that the sky came all the way down to the ground (what I later learned was the horizon).
Eureka! That was one of those snapshot moments that has never faded from my memory. My first artistic breakthrough!
After that, it’s all a blur until Junior high school. I always took art classes for my electives, and they were always my favorite classes. Then, my Junior year in high school, I wandered into Linda Holler’s classroom. She was a great influence on me, and I still visited her when I was passing through Cumberland. By that time, I’d figured out that there were basically two kinds of kids who took art electives in high school: the kids (like me) who just loved art, and the kids who had already been kicked out of every other class in the school and this was their last hope of not getting expelled. Linda was a great artist herself, but she was also a great teacher. She was the kind of teacher who really made a difference in the lives of her students. I was not a kid in danger of being expelled, but I was in danger of becoming lost; right on the brink of the desert. She not only inspired me as an artist but she also inspired me to become a teacher. She was a great friend at a time when I really needed one. That by itself was priceless, but she also inspired me artistically. I did some of my best work in her class.
I didn’t get started on my college career in earnest until a year after I graduated from high school. Of course, I majored in art. My first art classes were taught by a young lecturer by the name of Brent Funderburk who was into his second year as a teacher at Mississippi State University. Brent is a really wonderful watercolor artist and greatly influenced my style. Brent taught me about making beautiful art. It is one thing to get an image down on the page accurately, but it is quite another to make it beautiful. He once told me that he could see that my primary objective when creating a piece of art was to make it beautiful; that I loved beauty. It is interesting to me how sometimes someone else can accurately describe what I’m all about in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to verbalize, and to do it so accurately. He
was right, and it has made the road on my journey as an artist smoother to know that about myself. I also learned nearly everything I know about color from Brent. I think of him every time I am able to put some colors in a painting or drawing together in a beautiful way, or when I finally get a color combination that says “Yes!” Most of us take color for granted, but I have learned over the years that not everyone has a good understanding of color, or an appreciation for it either. I suppose that is what Brent really taught me: to appreciate color; to not take it for granted; to use it wisely, on the one hand, and with reckless abandon on the other; to be daring with color; to be subtle; to respect it. Brent also taught me about light as a subject for painting, which goes hand in hand with color. Once, I was in a gallery in downtown Bozeman looking at an oil painting of a group of horses in a field. I noticed that one horse, a black one, had bold strokes of a bright red on his belly and neck; light reflecting up from the ground. It was beautiful. The painting was more “realistic” because the artist had used this unrealistic bright red as reflected light. I am nearly as grateful to Brent for teaching me to appreciate that as I am for teaching me how to use it in my own work. Brent is now retired but was the head of the art department at Mississippi State for many years.
Two other teachers that had a great influence on me were Marita Gootee and Linda Seckinger. Marita is still teaching photography at Mississippi State. I confess that I’m no photographer, and am surely one of Marita’s greatest disappointments as a student. But I learned a lot from her about having fun as an artist, experimenting, and not being so serious all the time. I greatly appreciate that about her. Linda came into my life almost too late. If not for her I would never have learned about stone lithography, for which I would be a much poorer soul. Had she come to Mississippi State even a year earlier, I would most likely have gotten my emphasis in printmaking instead of drawing. I absolutely loved lithography, and sorely lament the lack of access to a litho press for the past thirteen years. Someday…
By far my greatest influence while working on my BFA was Mike Dorsey, who at that time was the head of the art department. He taught all of my advanced drawing classes. Like me, he loves drawing. We are kindred spirits in this way, both having a great love for the immediacy of paper and pencil. Before Mike Dorsey came into my life, I was on the road to some sort of hyper-realism that would have been almost cartoonish had it not been for his intervention. Mike showed me how to play on the page. I remember countless skirmishes where I was on the verge of destroying a drawing on which I was working, either by throwing it away or by ushering it into the
surreal world of realism gone berserk. Tight is what some people would have called it. Too tight. Tightly wound. Mike intervened and showed me how to “loosen up” without losing the essence of my style. Many times he would convince me that a work was finished when I felt that I hadn’t even gotten started. Several times he insisted that I simply walk away from the page, and if I came back to it later (much later, he insisted) and still wanted to throw it out or (worse yet) keep heading in the direction that I was going that I could do whatever I
wanted. Of course, he was always right. I am forever grateful to him for that. He also convinced me that drawing is a finished art form, and that it was perfectly OK for me to stick with my beloved pencils. Thank you, Mike. He is now retired from being the Dean of the School of Art at East Carolina University in North Carolina.
My favorite period of art is split between the Italian Renaissance and the French Impressionists and Post Impressionists. I think it is interesting that those two are my favorites, and they are so opposite: the Italian Renaissance painters were highly realistic and “tight”, while the French Impressionists and Post Impressionists were realistic but very “loose”. In the works of those movements, I can see the natural me with a tendency toward realism and “tight” drawing, and the me after the influence of Mike Dorsey with a tendency toward a
looser style. Both movements represent an ideal for me, neither of which I have ever achieved. I like that–something to strive for. (My favorite artist of the Post Impressionist movement, and my favorite artist overall is Vincent Van Gogh.) I have never really been inspired by any art movement since the Impressionists, but there are a few artists that I have appreciated over the years. I love the work of Russell Chatham, originally from the Bay Area of California, but he lived in Livingston, Montana for several decades so I was able to visit his gallery regularly before he moved back to the San Francisco Bay area. Perhaps what I love about his work is that it is so much like the Impressionists. I confess that I love his paintings far more than his lithographs.
An artist that has had a great influence on me, and someone who has unwittingly set the bar, so to speak, for me as an illustrator is Chris Van Allsburg. I used to read his books to my daughter when she was a little girl. I loved the stories, and so did she, but I really got the books from the library because I loved the art. In my wildest dreams, I aspire to be a children’s book illustrator. Maybe someday. For now I leave that to my husband, Jonathan Aspensen.
Because I truly believe that art is really all about telling stories, I also consider C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and J.K. Rowling to be great influences on my artwork. If it is true that a picture paints a thousand words, what kind of awesome paintings (or drawings) would they have created if they had been artists rather than authors? I venture to guess they would have been too beautiful for anyone to be able to look at; impossible to describe; unbearably beautiful. I have read The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit, and the Harry Potter series so many times that I have lost count. I aspire to paint and draw as well as they wrote. I believe that the work of J.K. Rowling is the modern response to the muse that must have inspired Tolkien and Lewis. I don’t know why it is that such great visual literature comes out of England, but we Americans could really learn a lesson from their example. The Harry Potter books inspire me in the same way that The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings do.
I have worked through several books by Julia Cameron: The Artist’s Way, The Vein of Gold, and The Right to Write. If you want to know more about why I consider certain authors as influences on my artwork, get her books.
The book How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist by Carol Michels has also influenced me greatly. Where Julia Cameron has kicked my downtrodden behind into gear and helped me to rediscover my creative self, Carol Michels has completely debunked the myth of the “starving artist” and encouraged me with facts and figures about artists that DO manage to make careers out of their artwork.
As you can see, it takes much more than a few good paintings to inspire and influence an artist. It did for this artist, anyway. It is true that we are all the sum total of our collected life experiences. It isn’t just the artists and art teachers along the way that inspired me. It was also the books that I read, the places that I went, and the things that I believed. The list of my influences is growing by the minute, as I am still and ever learning. To me, that is the greatest part of the artistic process, and I hope the learning never ends.