Not to Be Afraid
edited from interview | copyright © 2001–2013 Jane Robinette | All Rights Reserved
My mother remarked one time that I always saw pictures in the wet spots on the sidewalk. I still do. When I could have been eight, we dug clay by the creek, my brother and I, modeled little animals, and we put them in a tin can and put them in the coal-burning furnace. My father had a fit. We lost our first artistic endeavor.
I would say we had a very pleasant growing up. My mother was a very pretty woman—she was French-Italian, spoke French fluently. She had a nice personality. Whenever my father had to go to a conference, he took her along, because she would talk to people better than he did. My father was very staunch German-type, very assertive and business-like. My mother was Catholic; he didn't have any religion, but he took everybody to church on Sunday and saw that everything was done right. He took care of everything very well. He was the vice-president, general manager of Davenport Machine and Foundry. He started out as a machinist. They say every time he got a promotion, we moved to a better house. He helped me a lot.
My father decided I had to have art training, so I was going to Immaculate Conception Academy for high school. I was with the nuns—not too crazy about it. I wasn't exactly the conventional type: I did something, I did it my way. I was going to a painting class—after school at four o'clock, I went out and painted. I wasn't too interested in painting, but I did it. Nobody knew anything about sculpture.
My father decided every girl should learn to play the piano. I was not a piano player, so I finally quit. Every girl should have a hope chest. So he saw to it on our birthday, we each got a cedar chest. He had certain ideas like that. My father felt that every girl should have business training, so I went to Brown's Business College for six months. Then I went to work for a couple doctors as a receptionist and assistant. I started doing sculpture when I was working for the doctors. I went to the craft fairs and sold that way. I just did it. There just wasn't any sculpture classes.
I'm sure glad I didn't miss Stone City. That's a bunch of adults on holiday. I took my two-week vacation and went there. Grant Wood would sit at the head of a table with a red-and-white checked tablecloth, like the father figure. He wrote and asked John to come; he knew John's work. The green mansion was a beautiful home. The women slept upstairs in dormitory, and the men slept in the tents and John slept in the ice wagon with Grant Wood. I got acquainted with John when I was chipping stone by the back door of the green mansion, and he told me, "Look at that mess you're making; I'm going to have to clean that up."
Grant Wood was supposed to have sculpture classes, but those who were interested in sculpture went over to the quarry, found a piece of stone, and chipped it. There was some teaching—the teacher from one of the universities, she didn't add very much. Mostly it was an interesting bunch of people. John met more, though. I was always with the younger group. He was with Grant Wood.
Stone City gave me the same thrill and lift that I'm sure that Woodstock did. I compare them all to what they did to the spirit. The next year there was nothing. Grant wasn't there, and it didn't carry over. That one summer was something to remember.
I had started this studio right down on Brown Street, and there again, my father helped. He bought the building for me, built all the workbenches and tables. So I took some small pieces and photographed; I went to Chicago, Michigan Avenue Garden Shop. They said, "Where have you been? We've needed somebody like you for a long time." So from then on, I sent them everything I did.
I had a kiln and I did a lot of them in clay. There again, my father built me a kiln with a gas burner, big one. With the firing, you'll practically walk the floor with waiting to see what it's going to turn out to be. I did quite a few fairly large pieces, and every one sold. I was so thrilled to think somebody wanted it. I did a merry-go-round horse with two children on the back with a brass rod—it turned out perfectly. So, I gave it to the gallery; I'm sorry in a way I did now. They put it out one time, and some writer called it "exquisite." They don't put it out very much.
John wanted to paint; he didn't want to hold a job. And he was doing government murals for the post office. We rented the whole upper fifth floor of the old Masonic Temple down here, which was empty, in order for him to have a big enough place to paint the mural. It was quite exciting. I worked downtown.
We lived in an old house that we did over. It had a big yard and a place for the children. So, as they grew up I could still work and watch them from my studio. It was an old house, with 1887 newspapers under the carpeting. We had to put in new plumbing and things like that. But it had a nice big yard for the kids to play, and it was very pleasant.
I wouldn't call it modern sculpture—it's simplified. I thought children were nice in a garden. It's just children in various positions. Once I got headed in that direction that's where I stayed. I think my favorite is the one that's called Violet—it's a little girl, scootched down with her nose in a bouquet of flowers—Smelling Flowers, I call it. I'm amazed they are using the figures in funerals, instead of flowers.
I hope people will just be happy with it. They seem to be, the way they tell me how much they love it. People mostly come up here with arms full for me to sign. Everybody's so happy with it. It's always very exciting. It's most satisfying to see the sketch turn out to be a piece of sculpture. I can't draw, but I can make a little sketch to remind myself.
I had some classes at the gallery—I told the kids, "Don't hit your friend; hit the clay, bounce it up and down. Work the clay." I think clay is a good thing for kids to work with because they see it's round instead of flat. I have stacks of drawings my kids would send me. They were so interesting. I enjoyed working with kids up through about eight. Working with children, you can do it through drawing and clay—you can teach through that so much better than you can with some other methods.
John and I did a children's book. It was a simple little story, and then John's illustrations were exquisite. They printed a thousand; they're all gone. The printer did a beautiful job; you can't tell the original from the printed.
I had a TV show for a couple years at WOC. It was called, "Make Believe." I modeled the characters of the old fairy tales and put clothes on them, and then I told the story, and I gave them a lesson in modeling in clay. People seemed to like it. In fact, a couple years ago, a couple of grown men came over and shook my hand and said, "I never missed your program." It was a lot of work—I worked all week painting the background. One time, I had the boys with me. I thought that they could demonstrate decorating Easter eggs, and I had half a dozen hard-boiled eggs. I went over and told my story, and I walked over to the other side of the stage where they were, and my youngest looked up and said, "Look mom, we ate all the eggs." I wonder what I did; I don't remember!
Apparently, lately, people are getting interested in the sculpture, in the name, now they want to see the old programs—people have been calling the station wanting a print off of the program. But they said they didn't have any of that old program.
Being an artist, it's an easy kind of life. I don't think you take things so seriously. I think it's been a most interesting life—when you're interested in art, you're interested in a lot of other things, like travel. I traveled a great deal. I went to Russia three times. Once I went all by myself. I have quite a collection of Russian icons. I bought them in New York, Sotheby's auction house. I don't know why I have such a feeling about the icons, because they don't have any sculpture relation. I went to France, England, Greece. Just the stimulation; does you good all over. I'd go by myself to all these strange places; I always felt at home.
One Russian guy said, "You are the very best tourist"—because I was interested in the country. I don't have the language. Somebody asked me, "How did you get by?" I said, "In my diary, it says, 'I drank wine with four Russian sailors; had lunch with Russian girl.'"
I always say that the most important thing was not to be afraid.