Born in upstate New York, Bonnie lived in about 13 towns before she completed third grade. Her father was a civil engineer building bridges in the 50’s after the war, so the family moved every six months. She figures those moves came at the end of a bridge job. The family of five, she was the oldest, lived inNew York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and ended up in Menasha, Wiwhere she attendedher 11th school since beginning as a four year old in New York. In Menasha one day, an artist neighbor sat down with her on the sidewalk and taught her how to draw a tree. That tree ended up on the cover of the 4th grade school newspaper, an honor that thrilled her and was the beginning and the end of her art career for many years. But creative considerations guided her life.
During her school years she studied piano. She was shy with a terrible case of stage fright, so performing arts did not seem to be an outlet until a high school teacher gave her the opportunity to stage the senior class play which she wrote and directed based loosely on the cartoon sketches of Lil Abner. During the summers she would write and stage garage plays in her neighborhood with the other children.
During her high school years, another neighbor, an editor at Banta’s Publishing Company, introduced her to literature and gave her a list of what educated young people should be reading to get into college. That began her desire to be a writer. Bonnie graduated from UW Madison in 1971 with a comprehensive major in English literature, no visible job skills, and on a quest to acquire experience to become a writer.
In a broken down 1961 Chevy station wagon held together with binder twine, she and her first partner headed west planning to live in the desert of Arizona in their tent. And that is what they did. Collecting unemployment checks , as he was a laid off construction worker, they camped around Arizona finally joining a group of older laid-off construction workers and camping in a group along the Salt River and at the base of the Superstition mountains, which in the 1970’s was truly a wilderness area. Armed with a 350 magnum and a small derringer for protection, they lived in their 8x10 tent along the river, washed in the river, cooked in a fire pit with black cast iron pans hanging from a nearby creosote tree. They were homeless before the word was invented. This was 1971 when hippies roamed the earth living free. And that is what they did. On the weekends, they visited friends in town, took showers at the local campground. After the town people left the river on the weekends, they picked up cans and bottles, took them into town for recycling, used the money for a steak dinner and moved back out to the desert. Occasionally town friends came out to visit bringing dinner, pork chops, once, chicken liver spaghetti sauce, and they entertained their friends with conversation and their joy of life.
When it got too hot in April and the unemployment checks stopped, they moved into town (Phoenix), rented a guest house behind a 1930’s bungalow near Central and McDowell (now the freeway system) and they went to work. She at McDonald’s, then as a secretary in the Phoenix Union school district and finally as a secretary for a city-run poverty program. In those days of economic scarcity, the Reagan years, girls with English degrees became secretaries.
For five years they lived in Arizona, first in Phoenix and then in Tucson, where she worked as a secretary at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona. A small inheritance meant that they could move back to Wisconsin and buy a hobby farm. Hippies became back-to-the-landers. And so they went. Forty acres, half woods half open, with a barn and a chicken coop , a half acre of garden and a river with a suspension bridge running through the center of the property, separating the woods from the fields. They grew their own food, raised chickens, a beef cow, geese, ducks, guinea hens. She taught herself how to garden, to can and to write magazine articles on raised bed gardening. She began to write poetry ,the Apex coming when she was invited to read at the Wausau public library.
She began to work at the rural weekly newspapers, first on the production line, then writing, doing photography and editing. She started taking black and white photos and developing them at the newspaper learning basic elements of photo composition through a class at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. She discovered Imogen Cunningham and Georgia OKeefe. Her visual career had begun.
She was asked to lead a 4-H music group. She was teaching piano lessons at her country home. She created and directed two performances, both of which won the first prize at the Clark County Fair. The second year win came with a prize. The group was invited to perform at the Minnesota State Fair and their production was professionally staged by people in the children’s theater groups in Minneapolis. “How to Keep them down on the Farm”, complete with dancing cows, flappers singing 1920’s jazz and ending with a tango were the highlights of the performance of these young people from ages 8 to 15 who traveled to the big city fair on a bus and had the time of their lives. This experience changed Bonnie’s focus to children when she realized how much she loved working with them.
A divorce and a move to Eau Claire ended the hobby farm and rural newspaper phase of her life. She re-entered school at UW-Eau Claire to earn certification teaching English with a Spanish minor and ended up teaching middle school Spanish in the Eau Claire School district until she retired in 2006.
During this time she met a nun who did watercolors in La Crosse and the image of a card she purchased captured her imagination. A visit to a new construction open house in Eau Claire led to the discovery of another watercolorist whose paintings decorated the house. She searched for this woman and found she taught lessons. Jean Beck of Eau Claire, WI became her first teacher. Then she learned that a retired art teacher from UW-Eau Claire taught watercolor classes in the summer. Janet Carson became her second teacher. For two weeks each summer she took these classes and painted. After her retirement she sought out classes and watercolorists in the community. She found a watercolor group, of which she is still a member, at the Beaver Creek Reserve, a nature center in Fall Creek. Once a month she would paint with these women, members of the Chippewa Valley Watercolor Association. It was there that she was encouraged to show her work and join another local art group, the Valley Art Association, whose emphasis is sharing and showing work of its members. During that time she took a watercolor class at the local senior center from Dick Richardson a local artist and at UW-Eau Claire outreach from Kim Yearman in drawing. Then she took the leap to week-long workshops by joining the Karlyn Holman studio workshop experience in Washburn, Wi. There she learned a treasury of watercolor techniques and still returns to “girls camp” at Karlyn’s each summer, now with a group of between 8 and 15 women from the watercolor group in Eau Claire, to study. During this time also, she took an outreach class from UW-Madison. This class was an independent study which she and the teacher designed around her interest in color.
With her background in technique and her interest in color she has developed a style that incorporates both brilliant color with textured backgrounds that has become her signature in paintings. People who buy her work are struck by the fabric like backgrounds that feature striking color in the central images.
With retirement came more opportunity to study, paint and show her work. During the almost ten years that she has been retired, she has continued to broaden her studies, taking classes with area abstract artist, Patricia Hamm.
As her interests expanded from single blossom flowers influenced by Georgia OKeefe, with the textured backgrounds influenced by Holman, she ventured into landscapes. First with Holman, learning techniques for rock texture and then to general landscapes at Madeline Island School of Arts with Tony Van Hasselt, Steve Rogers and most recently, Sterling Edwards. With Van Hasselt she experimented with painting pleine aire, with Rogers she added vibrantly colored landscapes and with Edwards, she applied new techniques for painting the mountains of Arizona and abstracting blooming cactus, her current interest in painting. Through these influences she has developed a unique take on painting blooming cactus that incorporates her textured backgrounds and is developing a multicolored and textured approach to painting her beloved mountain landscapes of the Tonto National Forest and her old stomping grounds near the Superstition Mountains and the Salt River. Her paintings are impressionistic and slightly abstract renditions of these places so dear to her heart.
During her teaching years, her eyes and heart always faced west. During spring break in March she and her husband of 28 years, David, would spend a week in Arizona. She knew in her heart there was a “ranch’ in the desert that they could afford to stay at for a week and eventually she found it, Sahuaro Lake Ranch, only miles from where she had camped in her youth. She was home. This beautiful, rustic cluster of adobe and brick buildings, once the lodging of the dam builders in the 1920’s was now her place of choice for that one week escape in the winter and became the subject of her many cactus and mountain paintings. She photographed this area extensively every visit She brought her friends here. She shared it with her “French” sister martine and her brothers.
Then in 2015 she and her husband made the biggest leap of faith for them. They rented an apartment for the winter on the edge of north east Scottsdale, only minutes from her beloved desert. David returned to Wisconsin for the winter to work and she painted. During this trip she made a pilgrimage to Santa Fe and Georgia OKeefe’s Ghost Ranch where she discovered and was inspired by OKeefe’s Spartan landscapes. At the end of March a friend took her to On The Edge Gallery in Scottsdale where she showed her work to one of the managers and was asked to join the sister gallery in Fountain Hills, Fountain Hills Artists Gallery.
Her work currently hangs there as well as at several venues in Eau Claire, WI including the French Press Café, the Eau Claire County Courthouse and the Janet Carson Gallery.
On January 1, 2016 she and her husband loaded up her car with 20 new paintings of the mountains and the desert and they struck out, mirroring that long ago trip to the desert, this time, in a good car, heading for an apartment, with a different goal. Painting images in words has become painting images on paper and another quest begins.