The gift of art: Painting through a pandemic

Photo by Amy Bohrer
Jill Stromberg painted a series of small Kansas landscapes for her Artists at Old Town show.

By Amee Bohrer

The Active Age

Denise Ziegler is an optimist by nature, a trait that illuminates her conversation and artwork.

“During this, the Covid, the gift of art is that I’ve had plenty to do,” Ziegler said in her studio in Artists at Old Town. She is one of 10 artists who are part of the collective, which leases space behind Gallery XII at 412 E. Douglas. It happens that they are all women over 55. Ziegler shares her studio with Carol Stibal.

On a recent afternoon, Ziegler and her daughter, Brooke, sat together at adjacent plastic tables, each painting white masks to be given to friends. Denise was dressed in glitter tulle socks, which she made, and a gray Frida Kahlo T-shirt with the iconic Mexican artist’s quote, “I paint flowers so they will not die.” Her brown hair was gathered up, and her eyes twinkled behind a mask.

Brooke, her hair in braided pigtails, wore a yellow-and-black tank top from her alma mater, Wichita State University. The two began making art together once a week in 2013 and have focused on masks during the pandemic. Completed ones go into a box lined with teal tissue paper.

Denise, who lives in Maize, said it was the collective’s shared workspace with its easels, drying racks for canvasses and pegs for hanging smocks that “made me decide ‘yes’ – to have this to enjoy and be downtown.” 

A basket of colorful acrylic paints sat between them. Denise chose neon yellow as a base for hers. She was thinking of a keyboard theme. Brooke began painting a pineapple in the lower right-hand corner of hers.

“Nobody likes to wear (masks), but if we have to, you might as well make it enjoyable,” Brooke said. “It’s not this huge disappointing thing; my mom helped make them beautiful. It’s something happy to put on your face. I’m in a wheelchair because of my disability. I like abstract art because I don’t have to stay in the lines, and it makes me feel like I’m allowed to make mistakes, and it’ll turn out beautiful.” 

Another member of the collective, Jill Stromberg, is originally from Los Angeles and now lives in Sterling. Petite with a silver pixie cut, she wears a mustard yellow tunic with a black T-shirt underneath and black leggings and flats to match. Her intense blue eyes peer out from behind a brightly colored mask.

Stromberg started painting watercolors in 1983 and switched to oils a few years later. She describes her style as impressionist.

During the pandemic, she had an idea for a series of Kansas landscapes painted on 4 x 6-inch canvases. She had a bunch of that size at home and liked that they could be done quickly. “There are so many beautiful places in Kansas. Clouds are my signature. People pick out my paintings by my skies.”

She will be the 2021 Featured Artist at Gallery XII with her own show, which requires a minimum of 60 paintings. Having that goal motivates her. She appreciates the support of her studio mates.

“It’s all women! All our styles are so different, so I appreciate the constructive criticism. It’s very nurturing.” 

Stromberg has traveled and created art in France, Whales, Italy, South Africa, India, New Zealand and Australia. In Provence, France, she stayed for a month and did a series of paintings depicting the lavender fields as they began blooming. She rented a car and took all country roads for four weeks following the changing colors north. 

For her, one of the challenges of aging has been dealing with her sight. Detached retinas have compromised her depth percent, but she sees a positive in it.

“One of the rules of art is to stand back and squint at your work. Now, I don’t have to squint.”

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