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February 3, 2004 > Donna Sanson

Donna Sanson

"Art has been an on and off thing throughout my life" As a young child, Donna Sanson was captivated by her aunt's career as a commercial artist. One of seven children, she says, "Although we didn't have a lot, we always had original artwork in our house because of my aunt." Her aunt went on trips throughout the world with famous artists such as Dong Kingman, Rex Brandt and Robert E. Wood. Each trip generated a notebook of sketches, paintings and pictures from her travels which became a focus at subsequent family gatherings.

There has always been art talent in Donna's family. "All my brothers and sisters could draw to a certain degree." Donna and several of her siblings were chosen to attend Saturday morning children's art classes at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. "You were given one box of crayons, one pencil, one sheet of paper, a masonite board and told to walk in line to the music hall with red velvet cushion seats. You had a sense that this was something really special."

Her affinity for art continued through high school. "Every year that was my elective; that was my favorite class." After graduation, business school captured Donna's attention and her artistic talents lay dormant. She concentrated on secretarial work and her family life until her daughter's kindergarten was involved in an end-of -the year play. Scenery and props were needed and when a committee was formed, Donna was put in charge. "When I did it, I had a lot of fun with it and loved it!"

One of her neighbors came to her and said, "Donna, you don't just have a knack, you have a gift and need to do something with it." Shortly thereafter, a move to Texas provided an opportunity when Donna's son was in kindergarten. A five minute commute to Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls allowed her to enroll in fine art classes. "I just loved it from the very beginning. It was wonderful. This was my first introduction to watercolor. Elizabeth Yarosz was one of my instructors and a wonderful artist. The classes were small and my other instructors were excellent too. Those in the classes benefited from one another as well as the teachers."

A move to California interrupted Donna's studies and once again she found herself immersed in office work and family life. Her creative side would not be denied, however and she joined the Fremont Art Association (FAA). As Donna's children grew older, she began to serve the association in a variety of roles including Gallery Director for three years. "I really enjoyed promoting the gallery and working with other artists." During this time, a group of FAA artists including Donna, formed a group, called "Artists 7" (now composed of nine members) that has displayed their art as a group and formed a "wonderful friendship that continues."

Donna is thrilled to be in California. "Everywhere you look, there is something to paint." She says that although there have been accomplished artists wherever she has lived; there is something different about California. "People are more willing to try things." Donna says that when people live in a beautiful area like this, it inspires them to express their feelings and what they see, whether in writing, poetry, music, painting or whatever.

Although she has also worked with pastels, colored pencil, pen and ink and monotype printing, Donna has chosen to express herself primarily in watercolor for a variety of reasons. "My aunt was a watercolorist and I grew up around these paintings." Also, while training at Midwestern State University, once students chose a medium, all subsequent assignments for the semester were required in the same medium. A practical answer is the cost of investing in several sets of brushes and paints. "I was on a strict budget and once I bought watercolor brushes, paints and paper, it was too expensive to reinvest in another set of brushes, colors and tools. Of course, it is always an open question for artists whether they chose the medium or the reverse is truth.

Donna creates her own compositions, often from photographs. "I focus in on something I see." Her still life painting comes from inspiration when seeing something that looks inviting due to colors and lighting. Looking at one of her paintings of a bowl of apples, she says, "I woke up one morning and looked at the apples highlighted in filtered sunlight and just had to paint it." Donna finds colors and shapes of organic things interesting. "I love the colors and shapes at the grocery store."

On trips with the "Artists 7" group Donna feels inspired to paint landscapes. "The scenery here is so beautiful," she says. "I like small, lonely spaces. Instead of doing a whole building, I like to do a door, a walkway or a window. I really like abstract art and there is always an element of it in my paintings although they are representational. She points to her painting of poppies and says they can be interpreted as any type of flower. "I don't care if viewers see it differently."

She shifts her gaze to another painting of a grouping of persimmons and says people often confuse them with tomatoes. "What is really exciting about art," she says "is that I can leave some interpretation to the viewer. I invite the viewer to linger and look at the painting. If you put in every brick, every hair, you might as well do it with a camera." When learning to paint, Donna says, it is necessary to learn how to paint detail, but she wanted to move beyond realism and allow the viewer to inject their own interpretation. "I love to simplify things."

Some of Donna's paintings create a complex image from a grouping of simple elements. Her first painting for class at Midwestern State University was a collage of items held on her refrigerator door by magnets; her son's first painting from kindergarten - "a big blob of red, yellow and blue that dripped down to the edge of the page" - formed the background. A red heart, her daughter's first place ribbon, brushes and crayons and a copy of a magazine advertisement for a refrigerator cleaner showing a woman's hand and a stick figure drawing are in the foreground.

"Our instructor encouraged us to experience the whole range of art including exhibiting, shipping, photographing our work and entering shows. The Texas Watercolor Society Annual Show was coming up and I entered it for the experience. A grocery store chain bought my painting for $500!" She laughs and says, "I was always afraid I would walk into a market some day and see my painting hanging over the meat department." This turned out to be a bittersweet result since this was Donna's first painting and included a picture of her son's first painting. She says, "It spoiled me too, since it was a long time before I ever sold another painting for $500."

Another collage, called "Edouard and Victoria's Secret," combines an image Donna saw on a calendar from an Edouard Manet painting. The figure in a black square caught her eye and she knew that she would incorporate it into one of her paintings. Some of the great masters included themselves in a painting using the reflection of a mirror or some other device. Donna's collage includes an eye reflected in a small mirror. But, she says, it can't be hers because she has brown eyes and this eye is blue. The interpretation is up to the viewer.

Donna currently teaches watercolor and drawing classes and feels, with art firmly in her life, she has regained an essential part of her "self." She is grateful for the support of her husband, Tom, and his understanding of the importance of art in her life. Classes are relaxed and can be energizing as well. She says that at times, a student will come for an evening class feeling tired, warning that an early departure is almost a certainty. At the end of class, that student is usually still there and feeling a lot better. The ability to leave everything else behind for awhile is refreshing. Donna says, "I am doing what I always wanted to do since starting my classes in Texas. A small studio and the ability to share with others has been my dream. Once I realized that I was given a gift, I wanted to be able to give back and share with others. Teaching allows me to do that."

One of Donna's favorite stories is called, "The Dot" which she reads to her new students. The story follows a little girl, Vashti, who is convinced that she cannot draw. Her teacher asks if she can put a dot in the middle of a blank sheet of paper and Vashti does so. When finished, her teacher asks Vashti to sign her work. The next day, Vashti's dot is hanging on the wall behind the teacher's desk. Vashti decides she may be able to improve on her original dot. Dots begin to flourish and soon, the little girl's work is exhibited for all to see.

Gazing wistfully at the exhibit, a little boy admires the work and tells the "artist" that he would like to draw like that, but can't even put a straight line on paper. Vashti pulls out a sheet of paper and asks him to draw a line on it. He painstakingly draws a small, shaky line and hands it to her. She studies it...and asks him to sign it!

Can you make a dot or draw a line?

Donna Sanson Artworks
Originals, prints, gifts and art classes
37541 Niles Blvd., Fremont
(@ The Empty Nest)
(510) 792-3549

New classes begin in March. Classes run for 6 weeks.

Watercolor Class
Monday, Tuesday 1 p.m. - 4 p.m.
Tuesday, Wednesday 6 p.m. - 9 p.m.

Drawing Class
Monday 6:30 p.m. - 8:30 p.m.

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