Here I go, “Dancing Down The Bones” and my bones cover many years. Some memories seem lost is space, but many return as my mind wonders through the years and remembers other scenes and stories. I was born 80 years ago in Garden City, Kansas, the daughter of Walter Bates Jennings and Virginia Maxine Phelps Clark Jennings. I have two brothers, Norman Lyle Clark Jennings and Stephen Lionel Jennings. My Grandfather was a commodities dealer. Grandma said her life was like owning two lifestyles, one in a big house on the right side of the tracks and the other in a tiny space on the wrong side of the tracks, depending on Grandpa’s trading success. My father wanted a more solid lifestyle and became a civil engineer. He was employed by the Kansas State Highway Department. His love was bridges and the landscape of southern Kansas, especially the southwest corner, was sprinkled with bridges he designed and supervised the construction. With the advent of wider roads and superior building materials most have been either replaced or restructured. Prior to my arrival the small family travelled the state with work parties building the roads and bridges. My imminent arrival and the fact that Norman had attended 6 different schools in one school year caused them to find a permanent home and they chose Garden City. Mother was born in Idaho. She came from a musical stock. Her mother had been trained as a concert pianist. Grandmother Phelps died of diabetes when mother was in elementary school. Mother went to live with her Grandmother in Kansas. She also studied piano, played by ear and became a piano teacher, relishing in her student’s recitals and successes in life.
I grew up in Garden City. At an early age I began my love of fabrics, fashions and art. I learned to embroidery when I could hardly hold a needle, always thought I was never as good as my brother, Stephen, learned to crochet dish cloths and to finally sew my own clothes. I attended school in Garden City until mid- 9th grade. My father had left the State and was city engineer of Garden City. He accepted a new position as city engineer in Leavenworth, Kansas, where my grandparents lived. He went to the new job. Mother stayed in Garden City until they found a new home to move into in Leavenworth. I switched schools and it was a hard switch for me. I didn’t make friends easily and missed those who I had been with my entire life. I did adjust, learned to play the oboe (not very well) for concert band and was in the marching band playing the bell lyre. In my senior year I had a difficult decision to make. I was offered two positions, but could only accept one – editor of the sports page in the school newspaper or editor of the Yearbook. I chose the Yearbook. Doing layout, writing stories telling of the activities of the school, choosing photos, and working with the type setter and printer fed my love of art. However, I did not believe I was smart enough for an academic major (science, math, etc.) nor artistic enough for an art major (painter, ceramicist, silversmith, weaver) so I chose to pursue a career in Occupational Therapy. It was better, to my way of thinking at that time, than nursing or teaching. I graduated from the University of Kansas with a degree in Occupational Therapy and took my first job with the Wichita, Kansas, Institute of Logopedics where I worked mostly with cerebral palsied children and adults. I worked there for three years, became head of the Department but finally decided I would never meet a marriageable man there. I thought, “Where do I go to meet men?” Where else but the military. I chose the Air Force. Leavenworth, being an Army town, made the army to close to home and the Navy went to sea. That left the Air Force and I enlisted. I went to Medical Officers Training in Montgomery, Alabama during the race riots of the 60s. I got there just as the George Wallace blocks the schoolhouse door standoff was finally dying down, but tensions were very high and we did not leave the base very often. The military, serving at the command of the president, supported the Attorney General regardless of their own personal feelings and were the scum of the earth to most Alabamians at that time. I spent three weeks there, then went to my permanent assignment at Eglin AFB in the Florida Panhandle. I worked in the psychology wing of the hospital with both active duty individuals and adult and child dependents who were having emotional adjustment problems. It was stimulating and worthwhile see patients working their way through their problems. I was privileged to be part of a study conducted by one of our psychiatrists using LSD for treatment purposes. It was early in the history of LSD and even the Doctor did not know the full extent of the consequences for using the drug. While it was helpful with the severely psychotic, it was decided the dangers of the drug far out weighted the benefits and it was discontinued as a treatment option.
I did achieve my goal. I met and married my husband of 54 years while at Eglin. I was with the base hospital and he served with the Strategic Air Command serving as an electronic warfare officer on a B-52 crew. Our wedding was small, most who attended were either from the hospital or from the SAC wing. His mother, sister and grandparents were living in Southwest Florida at the time and were there as were my parents from Kansas. Neither of my brothers were able to attend. My Air Fore career was short lived (2 years) and one of the memorable occasions for me was being on the roof of the hospital building, standing at attention and saluting as President Kennedy’s motorcade drove by in review. When my enlistment ended I became an Air Force wife and Pete was a career officer. We spend most of the second year of our married life apart as he was sent to the Aleutian Islands, a remote tour of duty. He worked with testing equipment designed to locate downed airline crews, passengers and astronauts. He was in Hawaii and saw John Glenn’s ship arrive after the pick-up at sea of the capsule, an exciting time for him. He returned and we spent the next several years in Missouri, 50 miles east of Kansas City. He served on a minuteman missile crew and received his MBA from the University of Missouri. I was bored with the wife’s club routine so took advantage of being close to Missouri State University and received a K through 6 teaching certificate, became interested in mathematics and earned a certificate to teach mathematics in grades 7 through 12. During this time Pete served a one-year tour in Thailand serving as air support for the ground troops in Vietnam. I was fortunate enough to spend his leave in Bangkok with a side trip to Hong Kong. Bangkok was exactly what I had imagined Fairyland to be like with its unique structures and delightful culture. On his return from Thailand we were stationed at the Rome Air Development Center in Rome, New York. I taught 7th grade mathematics and he worked with development of laser locators to find people lost in remote, overgrown areas of the world. We will probably always be remembered for our Bicentennial car. We had an old car we used mostly for local base transportation. We put it in the garage, got some paint and brushes and painted it for our county’s 200th anniversary. The front end was blue with stars we cut from some plastic material with glitter on the front and sticky stuff on the back. The stars glittered in the sunlight. The center was white and the back was red. On the doors Pete painted the Bicentennial emblem. We loved this car and ended up driving it, along with our good car, to Florida when he retired November 30th, 1976.
Since moving to Florida I have spent 5 years selling real estate and 22 years doing income taxes for H & R Block. The most wonderful thing that has happened to me during my Florida years is rediscovering my love of fiber. I had made clothes my whole life and knitted 12 sweaters the year my husband was in Thailand, but now I found dyes. I relished Adrienne Buffington’s book on baggie dyeing. Then I found the internet, discovered quilting, especially art quilts, and made friends who also loved these things. I met Beverly Snow on the art quilt email list. She introduced me to the book, Complex Cloth and my life was changed forever. I took the Complex Cloth class from Jane Dunnewold in 2002 and have never looked back. I became a Dunnewold groupie and studied with her for several years. Then I became a member of the Independent Study Group. I make my yearly pilgrimage to San Antonio and Art Cloth Studios where I renew my friendships with many wonderful women and plan my year’s studies and goals. I also have taken classes with many other fiber artists, Kerr Grabowski, Ana Lisa Hedstrom, Carol Bryer -Fallert-Gentry, Ginny Eckley, Susan Brubaker Knapp and too many more to list them all. I am a founding members of the Tampa Bay Surface Design Guild and I love to teach small workshops in my home studio.
How do you work…
I approach my work in two diametrically opposite manners. First, I may be very spontaneous and unplanned. I just let things happen as they may and work with what I am given. It is interesting and I learn a lot, but it is usually not as successful as I would like. While the work can look exciting, it is not always consistent with what it says. And it frequently does not say what I really wanted to say. Second, I work with a cartoon. I have everything planned out and have no room for error. This also has given a lot of unsuccessful pieces. They are frequently static, lacking in enthusiasm and very tight. They frequently send a rigid message that again may not be what I originally intended to say. I do find a combination of the two methods really produces my best work. The planning keeps me focused and on topic and spontaneity lets some things just happen. The piece flows and takes on a life of its own.
I love creating backgrounds for my pieces. I do many backgrounds using shibori techniques while others are screen printed. Occasionally I do some kitchen backgrounds with oats, flour, etc. Backgrounds are the most important step in my piece. If nothing else, they get me started. They are carefully planned when it comes to color and technique, but techniques are allowed to flow spontaneously. As an example, in shibori folds, if used, are created carefully and placed properly, stitching is exact, pole wrapping is a little more relaxed but all have dye added either with brushes, pipettes or emersion. Emersion is more controlled while brushes and pipettes allow the dyes to flow and mingle. More than one color is usually added in this manner.
The piece develops usually through my favorite techniques, screen printing and dye painting. I have recently begun using wet and dry media to draw on my fabrics. I also love to paint a focal point and machine embroider it. I plan to add more hand embroidery. With screening I do discharge, foil, paint and dyes as I build layers interweaving contrast with story.
My major passion is filled with the love I have come to have for my adopted state, Florida. She is so varied in her ecology, some natural and some contrived by builders creating what they thought people really wanted. Florida’s panhandle is like an extension of Georgia or Alabama with red clay soil, waters filled with shrimp, sea weeds and oysters and the most beautiful white sand beaches imaginable. Travelling over towards Jacksonville you pass through Tallahassee, the capital. It is like any other bustling city. It has a gorgeous capital building with a wonderful dome, the campus of Florida State University, busy office buildings all streaming with people bustling around conducting their business. Then onto Gainesville, home of the University of Florida as well as major medical facilities including the Sands Teaching Hospital. And finally, across the top of the state and on the Atlantic Ocean, is Jacksonville, home to a major Naval Base and Naval Air Station. Just south of Jacksonville is St. Augustine, a town teaming with history. The buildings are beautiful and the atmosphere drips with the history of the white settlers, the Spanish invaders and the native Indians. The Orlando area is like Kingdom City. Among the Kingdom’s are Disney World, Sea World, Epcot Center, Universal Studios and Nickelodeon Studios. Exciting day activities are coupled with great ways to enjoy dinner and the evening hours. Further south and on the Atlantic side are West Palm Beach, noted for wonderful shopping in exclusive stores, great beaches, golf courses and the Beeches Hotel. Miami – need I say more. The Florida Keys have such diverse and delicate flora and fauna as well as sea life including corals, sea turtles, dolphins and other marine life. And Key West, the Conch Republic, is a world of its own with chickens roaming the streets along with the Rainbow Cotillion. Cross over the sea of grass, the Everglades, from the east coast to the west coast. You will see alligators, egrets, herons, snakes, including the python, Florida panthers and wonderful hammocks filled with cypress trees and, if you are lucky, Florida native orchids. Take an air boat ride with one of the Florida Native Indians. You will be amazed and stimulated by skimming over the grassy sea. You eventually arrive in Naples, drive north through Fort Myers, then through Sarasota with the Ringling Museum, the Selby Botanical Gardens, and Siesta Key shopping. Finally you arrive in my home area, Tampa Bay. Tampa has Ybor City, a Cuban settlement where they still hand roll cigars, make fabulous pressed Cuban Sandwiches and have wonderful art stores. Across the bay is St. Petersburg, my home. Located in Pinellas County which appears to be an abnormality in name. Originally named Pinellas because it was home to a great pine forest, the developers removed most of the pines and planted palm trees. Palm trees may have been native to the Miami area, but did not grow here until the building boom following WWII. Many young men and their families who came to Tampa’s MacDill AFB for training and deployment during WWII, came to love the area and made it home at the war’s end. I love Florida and all its ecological beauty and much, if not most, of my art cloth is dedicated to maintaining its current status as well as regenerating some of the old status before it became so populated.
Two other areas are dispersed in my Florida art. I still love mathematics and love to create pieces with geometric shapes or with fractals. I also do some social comments such as my Hate Speech Is Killing America piece and some pieces inspired by songs and pictures that grab my fancy.