How I Got From There To Here
My earliest memory is being in a crib in a warm and stuffy room with the sound of splashing coming from outside. When I revealed this memory to my mother she told me that I was remembering being one year old in a motel in southern California. My sister and brother were in the swimming pool outside the room’s window.
My mother Charlotte, a painter, had taken a trip with her three children, traveling around the American southwest in a Volkswagen Beetle—the four of us sleeping in it most nights. Charlotte was very familiar with the road as she had developed wanderlust at age eighteen while traveling with her father in Mexico. She transmitted the condition to all of her children, but it was me who fell in love with the Southwest.
Road trips with my mother were plentiful and often spontaneous. She would decide it was time for a road trip and have my older brother pack the car. If the hour was late, she would wake my sister and me and ask us if we would like to go on a trip. We would stumble out to the car, fall asleep and wake far from home, often with my brother driving and my mother making pencil crayon sketches of the passing landscape. Sometimes the car was packed when we got home from school, and then we would excitedly pile in and head for the American border. My mother took us to the deserts, canyons, caves, mountains, oceans, parks and towns of the American Southwest—and even into Watts during the riots. I cut my teeth on cactus, was toilet-trained in gas stations, learned about racial prejudice at a water fountain in Alabama, spent the evening at a nightclub in Atlanta, Georgia—at age eight, and woke one Christmas morning in a Volkswagen van parked in the Florida Everglades with crows disemboweling my Christmas stocking and making off with the chocolates. Life at home in Vancouver, B.C., with its ballet, music and art lessons, family and friends close by was lovely, but the road trips south were where I thrived.
When I was eleven my mother, sister and I moved to Saltspring Island—a move I complained about loudly for years. I had loved living in our old house in Vancouver’s West End and felt very out of place on the little island, isolated from my friends on the mainland. In front of our new home was the ocean, behind a forest. They were the places I disappeared to often. With my large white sheepdog Beauregard close by I would wander the shoreline for hours or slip into the forest and explore the old logging roads and abandoned orchards.
We moved several times on the small island before my mother found a piece of property on which she built her fantasy house―architect designed, three storied, post and beam, cedar house, complete with a balconied loft, round living-room and floor to ceiling stone fireplace. During the summer months of its construction we camped on the property, my mother sleeping in her Volkswagen van at one end of the property, and my sister and me in a screen tent at the other end. At night we would crawl into our sleeping bags and listen to old radio shows and pop music, or we would turn the radio to shortwave and listen in on the world. When the weather turned cold and the snow began to fall we moved into a room in our unfinished house. Plastic hung where windows eventually would be installed. We had a toilet, tub, shower and sinks but no water, a furnace but no furnace oil, an unfinished fireplace and a kitchen without appliances. At night the three of us would snuggle down on the floor and then argue about who would get to sleep with our five cats and dog—great sources of heat. On Christmas Eve a kind neighbour connected our water, and the windows arrived—eventually.
The year I turned thirteen I became the youngest member of the island’s arts council, drama and operatic groups. I attended drawing and pottery classes, and was mentored in make-up artistry by a retired make-up artist from CBC Toronto. She taught me the basics of stage make-up, at which I excelled. When she introduced me to special effects make-up my friends began to sport my handiwork—putrefying pus-oozing wounds, arms covered in third degree burns, disfiguring skin growths, unusual facial hair and prosthetic noses. When I reached that point my mentor handed me the make-up kit, put me in charge and went back to retirement. I worked in a mature professional manner and was respected by the membership. I traveled with the productions to BCDA festivals and my work was well adjudicated. By the time I turned fifteen I had taught theatrical make-up to the local high school’s drama class and turned professional.
Even after a decade of ballet classes I never felt light on my feet, and I was always relegated to the role of prince or king—never the Sugarplum Fairy. But, when at age eighteen I accompanied a friend to a Middle Eastern folk dance class, also known as belly-dance, I found my groove and a month later I began performing.
In 1980, after an acrimonious breakup, I became a single mother. When my daughter was six weeks old we headed for the Southwest, camping at Grand Canyon before settling into life with my mother and step-dad in a tiny northern Arizona town. I attended Well-Baby clinics with the Mexican migrant workers and helped out in a couple of my step-dad’s businesses, pumping gas on old Route 66 and book-keeping for his stone business and house rentals.
When I returned to Canada I left Saltspring Island behind and moved to Vancouver. Within a couple of years I was happily married to my brother’s best friend (who I met and fell in love with when I was five years old) we had purchased a home with a large studio and I was performing and teaching belly-dance. Eventually I partnered with another dancer and we created an entertainment company that had us performing at major hotels, airports, car and trade shows, city council meetings and hosting shows on local cable tv.
In 1989 I moved to Vancouver Island with my family and we built a log house in view of the ocean. I continued to work as a make-up artist for several years, and then quit to devote my time to writing with my mother. The results included, The Strange Canadian Painter Lady―humorous and heartwarming true tales on Arizona’s Route 66.
One morning in 1997, I woke up knowing I finally had to paint. I had avoided it for years. I had grown up with a painter―I knew what could happen! By the afternoon I was kitted out with brushes, paints, canvas and several tips from my mother. By nightfall I was pushing paint around the canvas, familiarizing myself with its eccentricities. I taught myself how to paint, and six years later I began to show and sell my paintings of the American Southwest. By 2004 I had become a full time painter and my paintings had been exhibited in a museum in Shanghai, China.
Since the exhibit in China my paintings have been shown countless times, the most memorable being the three generation show I had with my late mother Charlotte Madison, and daughter Morgan A. Cook, following decades of our annual painting trips to New Mexico and Arizona.
In August, 2011, my husband of thirty years was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. At age fifty-two I became a widow and sank into overwhelming grief. After a year and a half I surfaced and learned how to live a new existence, one that included learning to fly fish and love again.
In the spring of 2013 a man gave me a book about folks in the Cariboo. After reading it I packed my van and headed for Barkerville, BC. By the end of my first day in town I knew I would return to paint it, and I did two months later as the first artist in residence with Barkerville’s Theatre Royal. The following winter was spent painting arbutus trees for clients and galleries, and painting Barkervile’s old buildings and the cast of Theatre Royal. Sales of giclees of the paintings became a fund raiser in June, 2014, and the proceeds were donated to Barkerville Heritage Trust and Theatre Royal.
My discovery of fly fishing has resulted in not only paintings of the lakes I frequent, but paintings of the fishing flies I tie and use. And that man who gave me a book about the Cariboo, he happens to be the same man who taught me to fly fish, and in June 2017, we got married⏤in our waders in a beautiful BC lake.