One artist's journey: Trying to live a creative life with grace, grit, gratitude...and a border collie.
(or perhaps I should say: greys, grit and gratitude)

03 April 2013


Today is the birthday of my favorite person…my Mom, Betty StClair Horton.  It seems appropriate to share some "Mom" stories...

Mom is an artist, herself...she met Dad in art school and was a commercial artist after they married.  After kids became a full time job, she kept her hand in the art doing portraits of dogs.  

It was my Mom who really taught me to be an artist.  Dad was busy as a self-employed freelance illustrator and his limited free time was reserved for family trips, working on the farm and family horseback rides.  He would help when he could, but it was Mom who really got me started with my art…

When I was about 10 or 11, Mom was doing a dog portrait for one of her dog show clients.  I copied it and she encouraged me to try selling portraits from life at the dog shows we went to.

She was always there to advise, instruct and encourage.  She set me up with a big box of pastels and velour paper then let me do my thing.  She taught me about color, anatomy, the value of drawing and how to run my little business.  Those years doing portraits from life were the sturdy foundation of my art career.

One night at a Kennel Club meeting I was drawing a Bull Terrier …the owner kept correcting me, "change this, it SHOULD be like that" etc…Mom took me aside and said "you were doing fine, you were drawing his dog as it was…he wanted you to draw it as it should be according to the AKC standard".  One of many invaluable lessons from my best teacher.

Mom taught me business, quietly supporting my work and making sure I had everything I needed for art supplies...while letting me buy more and more of my supplies as my business grew.  She likes to tell of the dog show weekend where she had decided to skip the second day and go home…but, because I had a list of people wanting my $5 dollar portraits, I offered to pay for the motel if we could stay.  Of course she agreed.

We traveled to shows all over the region…usually just Mom and I with the dogs.  It became a running joke that we would always end up in the "wrong" part of the towns we went to.  Mom always made it fun…even as we were locking the doors of the little Honda Civic on a dark street, she would be making jokes.  She may have been scared to death, but I would have never known it.  To this day, I credit her with giving me a sense of humor about even the worst things that happen to me.

My Mom is far and above the most creative person I know…she is creative in every single aspect of her life.

She paints beautifully, sculpts, does stained glass, ceramics and quilts.  Her holiday decorations are a wonder to behold.  She bakes, cans and cooks…her desserts have always been a family holiday favorite.  Her dog knows so many tricks, she makes Newt look like a slacker.

When Dad left stone walls and walkways unfinished at their parting…Mom taught herself how to set stone and finished them so beautifully that you cannot tell where his work ended and hers began.  She built a gorgeous deck off the back of the house…and is a Master Gardner (really, officially, she has a hat to prove it)!.

She has built fences, rewired parts of the house, taught herself plumbing, installed new kitchen cabinets and more.  She knows more about the Home Depot inventory and how to use it than any employee...the guy in the orange aprons either love her, or fear her, lol. She designed and built a chicken house for her "Horde" of hens that looks like something out of a fairy tale…and it is, of course, called the "Horde House".

One of my favorite Mom memories:
When I was a kid we always had chickens of one sort or another.  For a while, we had a flock of Dominigues (pronounced Dominecker...though for years, i called them "Black and Decker" chickens).  We also raised dogs at the time.  Every night the chickens would fly to the trees above the kennels to roost.  Many nights some would miss the trees and crash into the dog kennels.  If they were lucky, we'd find them alive in the morning, often snuggled with a sweet dog in the dog house).  Some were not so lucky and landed with a dog who did not appreciate the company.  One of these hens survived her mauling...she had been mostly plucked and her neck torn open.  Mom scooped her up, sat on the front porch with a needle and thread and sewed her head back on.  When she turned the little hen loose, she wandered off...looking straight up at the sky.  Mom had sewed her head on crooked.  So, she recaptured the little hen, pulled her stitches and sewed her head back on straight.  "Air Conditioner", as she was named after that did quite well for a long time...then one night she missed the tree again.

By the way...she can load a Miata like some people load a truck...all she needs are some ratchet straps!

When she came to Montana last Summer, we put her on a horse and she helped my friends Bill and Julie drive cows.  Not a single hint of complaint passed her lips...and the ear to ear grin never left her face.

Then there is her wicked sense of humor…at one point the farm was graced by "Emu-lou Harris" (the emu), "Patsy Swine" the pot-bellied pig, "Minnie Curls" and "Woolie Nelson" (the sheep).

You cannot do ANYthing with Mom and not end up laughing.

One Spring Mom found an abandoned bunny nest.  She carefully set broken chicken eggs in the nest and lined them with bunny fur...then called my Grandmother to come see.  My Grandmother exclaimed "I never knew bunnies came from eggs!"

When, just days before a visit to me in Vermont, the cat tripped her and sent her face first down the basement stairs…she made a delightfully illustrated T-Shirt that said "the cat did it" to wear on the plane to explain her black eye…and then laughed when she still got searched.

She has come to many of my shows, was there after my son died and during my cancer surgery, she gathered my friends to make a cancer quilt (pictured above), she has helped me move, been unwaveringly supportive of every crazy thing I have done (and the sane ones too) and she has been a shoulder to lean on (or cry on) more times than I can count.  

Last, but not least, there is her great heart.  She is the simply the most kind and generous person I know (no, I am not biased in the least).

I love you, Mom...and am still hoping I grow up to be just like you!!  Happy Birthday!!

01 April 2013

Saying Goodbye...

Antelope Valley, CA  April 2003  age 17
Today is the birthday of one of the best little souls I have ever known.   He's been gone nine years and as I wander through memories of his life, I find myself thinking about his death.  He left in a way that was, to me, as remarkable as he lived.

If you have loved a long-lived animal, you have probably faced what we all dread…the "end of life" decision.  Gig was seventeen and had followed my every footstep throughout his long life.  He seemed bullet proof, he'd survived the van wreck against all odds (as told in a previous post)… and a couple of times during his last year he seemed close to death and then he would suddenly rally.  

On a visit to my Mom's, when he was almost 17, the family vet gave him his shots then said "at his age, he probably doesn't need shots anymore".  "Why didn't you say that BEFORE you gave him the shot?", I wondered.  That evening, Gig collapsed…the shoulder where he got the shot wouldn't work.  He couldn't stand, much less walk…and it kept getting worse.  Another visit to the vet, who said:  "It's neurological, there is nothing I can do, you're gonna lose him."  He seemed to be going down so fast that my family said their goodbyes and I tried to make him as comfortable as I could for his "last" days.  Then one morning I took him outside, set him down…and watched in disbelief as he stood and took a couple of unsteady steps.  By the end of the day he was tottering around again like his old self, unphased by his "near death" experience.  For the rest of his life, though…that shoulder would "go out" now and then.

With Dad on the ranch, Del Norte, CO   May 2003
In June, during a visit to my Dad's ranch in Colorado, I looked up to see Gig (who was nearly blind and mostly deaf) following Dad up the log staircase.  I launched myself toward him while calling out to Dad, who was just getting to the top.  We were both too late…near the top of the stairs, Gig toppled over backwards and tumbled down the staircase to the floor.  It looked like something out of a movie…I remember it in slow motion.  When he hit bottom, he writhed as if his back was broken, his neck twisted around and obviously in pain.  Sure that he had broken something, I immobilized him as Dad called the vet who lived down the road.  When we arrived at the vet's house and I set him carefully on the floor, he was still not moving.  The vet asked…"what did he do when he tried to walk?"  me:  "he hasn't yet, we brought him straight here".  About that time, the vet's Corgi walked by…Gig got up and tottered after the Corgi as if nothing had happened.  

Giggy the Poodle   October 2003
Over the next months, Gig was his old self, just old…and he traveled with me back and forth across the country, as always.  In Tennessee for Halloween at Mom's, I made "poodle" costumes for Gig and I…and together we won three costume contests.  In December, Gig was in the room with all of us as Dad died.  

Two Poodles   October 2003

In January, back in Idaho, I came home after walking to the Post Office and found Gig had fallen over the rocker of my chair and had not been able to get up.  I'd only been gone for about 20 minutes…but what if I'd been gone longer?  So we visited the vet to discuss what would be in Gig's best interest.  The kind country vet said:  "He is not in any pain…he is living because he wants to be with you".  

So, over the next few months, I tried to help my old friend be "old" as I processed my recent losses and faced losing him.  As we began this last phase of our long journey together, I told him:  "When you quit trying to eat and trying to walk…we'll go to the vet…you just tell me when".

In February, he traveled with me to San Diego for the opening of my "48 x 48" show…he always loved beaches, so I made sure he got to go to some.

On the road somewhere   November 2003
One day it happened…he had been eating less and less, walking less and less…then he didn't do either.  Snuggling him to my chest as I lay on the futon, I called my Mom to tell her I was putting him down.  She shared a good cry with me…but the moment I hung up the phone Gig got up, tottered across the room to his dish and started eating.  So, I postponed the vet visit.

The circumstances of my Dad's last hours had given me reason to believe that, as much as we have a right to live as we choose, we also have a right to die the way we choose when possible and humane.  It would seem that Gig was not ready or willing to have the "dying" part of his life decided for him…and who was I to deny him that if he was not in pain?

For the next few weeks, it was back to our routine.

My step-mother, step-brother and several friends were going to the C.M. Russell show at the end of March and I was going to visit them there.  A couple of days before the show, Gig stopped eating and walking again.  I didn't want to subject him to the stress of another art show (he had been to soooo many over the years), so I called Linda to say that I was still coming to the show, but I would be putting him down before.  Another call ended with everyone in tears…and, once again, as soon as I put down the phone, Gig got up and walked straight to his food bowl.

March 2004
So…Gig went to Great Falls with me.  He stayed in the car when I was in the show and I would check on him often…so worried that I would come back to find he'd died alone.  Then, one morning as we arrived at the show, he looked at me and something solemn passed between us.  Instead of going to the show, Gig and I went back to the room…I called a vet and made an appointment for the next morning.  With Gig snuggled in my lap, I spent the day reliving countless moments of our eighteen years together.  Linda and Kevin returned in the evening…they said their goodbyes and Kevin took the last pic of me and my old friend.  

I fell asleep with Gig in my arms, snuggled on my chest and his head under my chin.  Sometime in the wee hours of the morning, he pushed me awake with a paw…then he lifted his head, looked me in the eyes…and was gone.

There were so many times over the years when I thought I had lost him, when I worried something would happen and I wouldn't be there for him.  As it was, I can not think of a better way to say goodbye to this remarkable little soul who had been such an amazing part of my life…and I know he wanted it exactly that way.

Giggy the "Litebulbhead"   April 1, 1986 - March 21, 2004

Giggy... November 11. 1999

For all the, literally, hundreds (maybe even thousands) of dog portraits I did during my dog art days...the paintings/drawings of my own dog were rare. Of the wonderfully unique "Giggster" there is only a small collection of my sketches (though I have a couple of pieces by other artists).

This is one of my favorites...a sketch I did from life as he slept on my knees, done in ball point pen on a napkin.