Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Opening Exhibition of Camp Stories, Illustrated

It is a good thing this campfire wasn't any hotter, or it would melt the Letterology masthead above, making a sticky mess. As it was, the Camp Stories, Illustrated exhibit of my mother's and my own artwork, received a very warm and enthusiastic reception this past weekend at the opening, and I'm proud to say we may have set a world record for building the first publicly sanctioned bonfire and marshmallow roast in a university library. No books were burned in the process, I promise. 

I have to admit; setting up camp in any library is no easy task, but librarians are the best scouts you can imagine. Anything in need, they found it for me. I really want to thank Jane Carlin and her staff at the University of Puget Sound Collins Library in Tacoma for all of their accommodations while building the Camp Stories exhibit. The centerpiece of the exhibition was my campfire with roasting paper marshmallows, but more on that later.   

As I have described elsewhere in weeks past, this exhibit began with the stories of my mothers' childhood adventures spent living on Puget Sound, during the Hard Times of the Depression. Each Summer, the family of seven lived in a small, one-room beach house fondly referred to as "Camp". This was a time of neighbors-helping-neighbors and children who were free to run barefoot all Summer long. 

The image for the exhibition's poster originated from her joyful 11x14" illustration Swimming in the Rain as you can see above. Stepping back further, you can see my grandmother standing on the porch watching four of her young children playing in the water. This portrait sets the stage for over 30 more of her wide-eyed childhood drawings, each illustrated in 1983, at age 54. Her collective memories were all recorded in a journal which I discovered only after her death last January. All of her stories and drawings were produced within just one month, at the same time she was struggling with the increasing loss of her mobility after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The drawings were produced with no motive of financial gain nor recognition, but only for her own personal growth. In the purest sense, this was art for art's sake. 

The rustic Camp house often overflowed with company every Sunday—sharing in a meal on the long front porch—as seen in another of her charcoal drawings below. My mother was the devil child in the middle who is being chastised by her father for clowning around during prayers. My grandmother, Mert is seen working away at the wood stove with dog, Spunky waiting for handouts.  

Most every image had a story accompanying it. For additional context, I sprinkled in a number of copied pages of her journal and early photographs from family members and various historical archives.

In this scene, my mother put herself in the image twice—in the foreground drawing, and on the bench looking out to the water. She also cut the roof open as an xray, to view the scene from above.  

Having Fun With This 
April 8, 1983

I want to do a night scene with the full moon coming over the bay—I want to draw us eating breakfast on the porch in the morning sun; the beds on the porch; the pillow fights we all had; the wood block and chopping wood. 
     I want to show the fear of the snakes coming up the path and how we'd throw rocks and wood sticks to chase them away. I want to draw a big bonfire and how we all sat around and roasted marshmallows and sang. I want to have us in a scene walking through Newell's property, Mrs. Garness and the cow, the milk house, the pasture and the barn I want to draw us on the bridge and dock waiting for the boat—the "Elsie C". 
     I want to show us going to first dock, the huge rocks we'd climb up on top of and the clay cliffs I want to draw the fire at 3rd dock and the ruins, the blackberry picking, Mert cooking in the kitchen. I want to draw rafts, the ocean liners coming from the Narrows, and the huge waves. 
     I want to draw the back of the Camp from looking down from up on the hillside. This is so exiting that I love it. 
     My childhood was active—I ran my legs off so it's no wonder I can't walk now. I never walked but ran full speed. I see now the body wears out from childhood and I need rest now I can write and reminisce forever but visual imagery is where it's at. 
     I can draw the boogeyman—the bears, the skunks, feeding the seagulls—we had wood to burn from the beach we had kerosene for light, a roof over our heads and a warm wood stove to heat on cold days. We had fresh water from the hillside spring, clams from the beach and fish from the sea. We had it all and life was rich even though we were poor. We never knew it.

My mother was essentially a self-trained artist who made her own rules of perspective, composition, style and technique, and her narrative line drawings reflect some of the raw, spontaneous folk artwork of outsider artists. Combined with the many stories accompanying them, I was delighted to see they brought enthusiastic responses and smiles to many at the opening reception this past weekend. For myself, it was an incredible journey I was able to make with my mother back to her family home in the 1930s, when she could still run free. I can't imagine a better collaboration. 
    The exhibition will continue through January 14th at the University of Puget Sound Collins Library in Tacoma, WA. Check website for the Library hours. Stay tuned for tomorrow when I will feature some of my own artworks from this exhibition.


  1. Wow Jennifer! Your mother may have worn out her legs but the percussive pounding of running around must have helped to make those memories indelible. Her drawings are blessed by the absence of contrivance or the 'rules' we start to acquire when we leave childhood. I'm never really comfortable with the phrase 'outsider art' - outside of what? But they are naively drawn, appropriately child like and masterfully rendered. Thanks to you (both) for sharing these memories from another planet, and making them permanent.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful insights Rob. I agree completely about your dislike of the term "outsider art". It doesn't fully express or do justice to the work of these untrained artists. I myself, called my mother an "unskilled" artist, which is not entirely true, as I do believe she was just "differently skilled" and made up her own rules.

  3. What a moving tribute to your mother, Jennifer. I love all your ideas and interpretations, including your diorama and fab s'mores book. It looks like it was a joy for you to do, and your Mum would be tickled to bits to see it all together. Well done!

    1. Thank for the kind words Shelley! This project has been such a joy and a gift in many ways. I am delighted to share her work and the spirit in which it was created. Despite her disabilities, she brought joy and inspiration to so many and continues to do so. And you are right—she would have been absolutely thrilled to see this show take place—but I suspect she knew.


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