As much as I like Dubuque, I love to get out of town. Day trips with some kind of loose agenda – a play to see in Spring Green, a book to search for in Madison, a Thai restaurant to try in Davenport – those are the best. I grew up taking rides in the country, and while I do still love to see another view of nature, it’s often a shot of culture that propels me out of the house.
So the other Sunday found us on Highway 151, heading for Iowa City. The weather was perfect, so we ate outside at a little vegan restaurant under flowering trees made us feel like we were in a wedding. Then we wandered up East Washington to the Iowa Artisans Gallery to look at a new show by the daughter of a friend of ours. I’d seen Jenny Braig’s paintings before, and I knew it was going to be hard to just look and leave. She paints with oils, so thick you can see the brushstrokes, and the colors she uses are gorgeous – deep gold for a gravel road struck by sunlight, pale aqua for a summer sky sending down rain.
Jenny (daughter of Karla and Jim) lives in Spearfish, South Dakota, after growing up in Dubuque. Her subject matter is often farms and country roads, pickup trucks and trees, but there’s nothing at all trite or predictable about her work. Like any creative artist in any genre, she makes you take notice of the ordinary by making it new.
So, of course, I fell in love with one painting in particular. I said to my husband, “If money were no object, I’d take that one home.” He said, “Um hm.” I don’t think he realized that I had come to Iowa City intending to buy one of these paintings. It wasn’t a decision I made after we got there. I just wasn’t sure which one I was going to want until we arrived.
We left the gallery, but only to go to Prairie Lights – that bookstore of world renown which shares its name with San Francisco’s City Lights and Dubuque’s River Lights – so I knew there would be time. Walking down the sidewalk, making our way among the students and the skateboarders, I began to wheedle in earnest. “Would you think I was crazy if I said I really wanted to buy one of those paintings?”
As a psychologist, he knows I don’t ask questions like this for his professional opinion. He was less concerned with my sanity (though the price of the larger pieces was no small potatoes) than with the limited wall space in our home. We live in a hobbit house, otherwise known as a 1920’s bungalow, a style which many people prize and which even has a magazine, American Bungalow, for its devotees. But what these houses have in charm they lack in vertical space. Or maybe the problem is that we’ve already covered what we have in a sizeable collection of art, much of it original. Not Monets, not Rothkos, but some very nice prints and watercolors by wonderful local artists like Stormy Mochal. Add in a few prints from my husband’s years in Winnipeg and a family portrait or two, and there’s barely room for windows.
Still, that painting of the road and the farm and the sky spoke to me. I said, “It could go over the sofa,” even though we’ve already got two framed pieces there. He said, “What about this smaller one?” pointing to a charming painting of a country road. I said, “But this one has the road AND a farm.” He said, “I’m the one who grew up on a farm; it’s more evocative for me.” I said, “But my mom’s parents grew up on farms, and we were always visiting her Aunt Minnie there. I LOVE this one.” Finally, he said, “I guess it could go in the kitchen.”
So, Dear Reader, we bought it. We decided we’d each pay half and call it our anniversary present to each other. I offered to leave it there, so other people would be able to enjoy it until the show is over, and maybe be encouraged to buy another piece. It felt a little weird to walk away empty handed. I feel a little like we’re adopting a child from China; we know what she looks like, but we can’t take her home just yet.
Is this crazy, in these dire economic times? Spending money on a painting, what my dad would have called a “picture”? We never had real art growing up. I remember a dreadful, muddy brown reproduction of a mountain scene that hung for years over the living room sofa. My dad would have thought I was foolish to spend so much on a painting when I’ve been whining about the new kitchen cabinets we so desperately need. (Well, okay. Not “desperately.” But we really have no place for the cereal.)
But I think, as long as you’re feeling reasonably confident that your job is stable and the bills are going to be paid and the bacon is going to arrive on the table, then the act of bringing home something extra, something beautiful, is one of the best ways to say you’re not going to let the economic terrorists win. Artists have to make a buck, after all. So do galleries. (Have you been to Outside the Lines on Bluff St. lately? Check out John Anderson-Bricker’s acrylics and Mark Fowler’s glass works! Buy a pair of Connie Twining’s exquisite earrings! They’ve even got some of Jenny’s paintings.)
I know I’m fortunate. I will be reminded of this every time I see that golden road and those farm buildings on the horizon line and the soft blue sky of the painting Jenny named “Summer Rain” hanging above my kitchen table. And I’ll be reminded of a poem I first heard when I was a wretchedly poor college student. It went something like this: “If of thy fortune thou art bereft, and of thy store there be but two loaves left, sell one, and with the dole, buy hyacinths to feed thy soul.” A little beauty is just a different kind of nourishment, something you may not even realize you’re hungry for.