Thursday, July 3, 2008

Essay: Laura Spong: The Making of An Artist

Countdown to 10, 2008
Oil on canvas
36 x 36 in

Laura Spong : The Making Of An Artist 

by Wim Roefs, 2006

“Here is a brief ‘catch-up’ on me,” Laura Spong wrote in 1990 to an old acquaintance in Nashville, Tenn., where Spong was born. “After graduating from Vanderbilt, I married Ernest Spong from Columbia, South Carolina, and moved here. We had six children, and I was a housewife and mother until Ernest died in 1973. I went to work as an arts and crafts instructor with the Columbia Parks and Recreation Department for ten years. Then the children grew up and left, the dog died, so I sold the house and resigned my job. I took several nice trips and looked around for what to do next.

“I teamed up with a friend, and she wrote and I illustrated a children’s activity book on South Carolina. Another friend and I tried the antique business. Neither venture proved to be very lucrative for me, so I decided that if I was going to starve, I would starve doing what I had always wanted to do. Be an artist! I went back to school and took some art classes and proceeded to paint full time.”

Spong’s own summary of her life until 1990 confirms the impression many have of her career as an artist – that she didn’t begin to paint until late in life, sometime in the 1980s, not long before she got a studio in 1991 at Vista Studios in downtown Columbia. But already in 1957, just after she had joined the Columbia Artists’ Guild, Spong won with J. Bardin and George W. Gunther the guild’s annual exhibition. As a novice painter in her early thirties, her lacquer-on-masonite painting Three Figures beat out the work of local, even regional mainstays such as Gil Petroff, Catherine Rembert, and Dorothy and Edmund Yaghjian. The prize was a three-person show with Bardin and Gunther at the Columbia Museum of Art. 

“I couldn’t believe that I was in the show, that I got recognition,” Spong says now, “but I didn’t realize, looking back, how unusual it would have been to be in a show like that with university professors and professional artists.” Spong also made juror Lamar Dodd’s cut for that year’s Guild of South Carolina Artists exhibition. There she was in more heady company that included Sigmund Abeles, Carl Blair, William Halsey, Willard Hirsch, David Van Hook, Nell Lafaye and Corrie McCallum. 

Three years later, she won an award at the state guild show, the Artists Guild of Columbia Award. Other winners were Bardin, Blair, Robert Courtright, Robert Hunter, Van Hook, John Waddill and Ed Yaghjian. In 1961, Spong was with Lafaye and George Horn once again a Columbia Artists’ Guild winner, this time with Composition No. 10, earning another Columbia Museum show. “But I didn’t know enough to be impressed with the company I was keeping,” she says. 

These early successes and Spong’s inability to recognize them as such are a telling part of her life long quest to become an artist, both as an occupation and a matter of identity. From the late 1940s, when she took a few art courses as an English major at Vanderbilt University, until the late 1980s, Spong’s art production came in fits and starts. Early on, the rigors of a family with eventually six young children prevented a consistent art career. She took classes at the Richland Art School at the Columbia Museum, mostly with Petroff, and at times entered competitions. But she primarily lived her life as a mother, wife, reluctant Junior Leaguer and “good little girl,” as she puts it.

During most of the 1960s, Spong didn’t paint much. She had teenage kids to take care of. Her decision in the early 1970s to make a go of it again as an artist led to a busy exhibition schedule in 1973, despite personal upheaval. In January of that year, her husband died. Several months later, Spong was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a radical mastectomy that prevented a recurrence. “They might not have done a radical mastectomy today,” she says. “But what they did to my body was the least of my worries. I was wondering, what are my children going to do?” After her husband’s death, she had taken the Parks and Recreation job, which she would keep until 1983.

It wasn’t until 1978 that Spong exhibit again. In 1979 she had a solo exhibition at the Little Corner Gallery in Columbia. She also made the cut of a combined, juried exhibition of several Columbia area artists’ guilds. 

In 1983, Spong resigned from her job. She had gotten bored with it, didn’t see eye-to-eye with her new supervisor and thought she was going to get married. She had already sold her house, which had become big with the kids gone and a financial burden, and had planned to join the Peace Corps. Instead, she went to Vienna, Austria, were the man who had proposed lived. But the marriage never happened. “It was obviously not going to work,” she says. “I think he had no idea that I would actually come to Vienna. So I had a lovely European honeymoon all by myself.” 

Back in Columbia, Spong ventured out professionally – sort of. As a paint store clerk, figuring out how much wallpaper was needed for a certain size room was an obstacle. Her aversion against selling expensive clothes for small children didn’t help in a children’s clothing store. As an antique dealer, her inability to remember what she paid for things interfered with profits. Illustrating two activity books for kids didn’t bring in the big bucks, either. And so Spong decided to be a full-time artist.

But she didn’t really think of herself as an artist. “I can’t tell you how long it took me to fill out ‘artist’ on a form,” Spong says. “I just said I was a painter.” It was not just a reluctance to acknowledge that what she painted was art. “First I thought, ‘I am a housewife and mother’, and then perhaps that I was an artist, too. It took me years to say ‘Laura Spong’ instead of ‘Mrs. Ernest Spong Jr’. I don’t have another identity now but being an artist, except perhaps being a grandmother.”

Her initial participation in Columbia’s art scene had not forged an identity as an artist. For one, Spong didn’t hang with the other artists in town. “I didn’t even know any. I was busy. And what I liked was doing it.” 

She was and would be for decades between worlds, one the arts, the other, domestic, not a full or fully committed participant in either. “My place was made for me when Ernest brought me over here, but I just didn’t fit in well.” Raised a Methodist, Spong had become an Episcopalian to please the Spongs – she wasn’t planning to go to church a lot anyway, although she did “to take the kids, help them with their morals.” She joined the Junior League only at her mother’s and mother-in-law’s urging, leaving the organization in 1964, a month after the mothers died. “I don’t play bridge, I don’t play golf, I am not big on doing lunch, but it never bothered me that I didn’t fit in.”

Solitary life came natural. Spong, was shy and timid as a child. “Sixteen years through school without saying anything,” she says. And all her life she wondered about the world, the universe, and how things are connected, spiritually and otherwise. “Even as a child, when I scraped my knee, I would study my knee and thought that maybe in my knee cap there’s a little girl studying her knee, and I wondered whether we all were in a giant’s knee, thinking of those possible connections, how everything in life is connected.” 

In her late teens, Spong signed up with a Bahai’i group but didn’t participate in anything for fear her parents would find out. In college, she took courses in philosophy, religion, literature, Greek and Latin. She thought the one science course a dead end. “They were telling you how the leaves turn. Well, that doesn’t tell you anything.”

Spong’s art reflected her introspective and reflective nature from day one. At Vanderbilt, seeing images of Van Gogh’s and Gauguin’s work had gotten her fired up. In the early 1950s, a modern art exhibition at the Columbia Museum changed her life, she says. “It certainly seemed like the kind of work I wanted to do, and it came from all over the country. It was the most exciting thing I had ever seen.” 

Most of what she knew about modern art, though, including Abstract Expressionism, was by osmosis, and it wasn’t much. But she knew she had no interest in making representational art or communicating the literal. “I have always painted abstract. I have four flower paintings. But then, perhaps the way I paint was my way of staying hidden, of not letting people know what I was thinking.” 

“The three main forces in my life,” Spong says, “were my family, taking care of them, later in life my love for art, and all my life the search for God or a spiritual force, artistic energy.” In her early sixties, Spong at last managed to structure her life around making art and, consequently, pursuing existential questions through her art. She had been taking art classes again since the mid-1980s, ditched her pursuit of jobs she didn’t want, bought a house after renting for years, and began to paint. In 1989 and 1990 she had solo shows in Columbia and Tennessee. She married a man who was supportive of her art but not, it turned out, a good fit otherwise, and separated after a year. In 1991, she got a studio at Vista Studios, which for the first time put her in the thick of Columbia’s art scene.

“I was painting by myself in my house, and I felt that wasn’t all that good for me,” Spong says. “I needed interaction with people.” At Vista Studios, she found artists willing to share expertise. Mike Williams told her which brushes to use and introduced her to liquin, which decreases the drying time of oil paint. Bill Jackson showed her how to build good stretchers. Anne Bjork was helpful, too, Spong says, and Heidi Darr-Hope initiated her 1993 solo exhibition at Vista Studio’s gallery space, Gallery 80808. 

Getting the studio was a breakthrough. Being around other artists kept Spong informed about exhibition opportunities and led to group-show invitations. And simply being at an art hub gave her more exposure than ever. And so her life as a working artist, and an increasingly renowned one, took off. Spong became a regular at statewide and regional art exhibitions, frequently winning awards. Local media paid attention to her, favorably. She had solo exhibitions in Columbia and elsewhere in South Carolina and at Vanderbilt University. When a local artists’ group, Osmosis, asked her to join and exhibit with them, it gave Spong a real boost of confidence. So did Columbia’s Carol Saunders Gallery’s invitation to show there. Other galleries in South Carolina, Charlotte, N.C., and Atlanta followed. 

Some thirty five years after her first successful but brief burst onto the Columbia art scene as a novice among some of the area’s most legendary artists, Spong’s halting career came to bloom among artists many decades younger than her. And life as an artist made Spong more at ease and fit in better. “I think that as I have grown older and have been willing to share more with people, I have felt more connected. I am not so worried anymore about what people think about what I think. Now I am older and I want to have a voice.” 

Wim Roefs is a free-lance writer, independent curator, and owner of if ART, International Fine Art Services, in Columbia, S.C.

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