It's hard to talk about Dick Elliott without talking about Jane Orleman. Their lives and their art are inextricably interwoven. And it's hard to talk about their art without talking about their life together, because as much as any artist or poet or writer I know, their art is their life. What they've accomplished is rich and bountiful and has gained them, incidental as it may be, national reputations.
What follows is a flow of subjective commentary alternating with a series of stories and newspaper articles about Dick and Jane that I published during our 36-year friendship.
This is by no means the whole story, but it paints a picture, which seems appropriate.
Dick & Jane, Gallery One Joint Show - 1986
Among the first people I met when I moved to Ellensburg, Washington, in 1974, were Dick Elliott and Jane Orleman. They had been married about three years at the time and were living in an apartment on Fifth Avenue. Jane was doing small paintings of interiors, and Dick was doing large, detailed pencil drawings of the Kittitas Valley. He was also selling cars to pay the rent.
The story below captures something of how Dick and Jane found Spot and began transitioning into a new life.
THE DOG JUMPED OVER THE MOON
(first published in the Ellensburg Daily Record, December 10, 1992)
Technically they're Blue Heelers or Queensland Heelers or Australian Cattle Dogs, but some people call them Dingo. And in the deepest currents of their blood, Dingo is what they are. The first dog, some sources say, cosmically fine-tuned, sharing the outback with the Australian aborigine.
The Dingo still roams the outback, but 160 years ago some of his brothers and sisters embarked on a strange journey that--in one particular instance--mutated straight into the pages of a children's reading primer. The dog in question was/is called Spot, his masters Dick and Jane.
The Australian cattleman needed a tough breed of herding dog with enough stamina and intelligence to orchestrate large herds of semi-wild livestock over thousands of miles of rugged terrain. All the dogs that were imported fell short of the mark, until in 1830 a man named Timmins crossed a Dingo with an English Smithfield, and then things began to happen. Highland Collies, Dalmatians and Kelpies got in on the act, and around 1840 two brothers, Jack and Harry Bagust, came up with a cross that we now know as the Australian Cattle Dog--strong, agile, cunning, silent and loyal. The blue-mottled heeler, sometimes with black or tan markings, began showing up wherever cattle grazed, including the Kittitas Valley in central Washington, where one day ten Dingo pups were born in a Badger Pocket barn, more than the rancher had use for, and so he put an ad in the local paper. Eight miles away in the town of Ellensburg, Dick and Jane circled the ad and dialed the number. The year was 1973.
Dick, Jane, Spot, Sally & pup
Mutual friends brought Dick and Jane together in 1970. Dick, meet Jane; Jane, this is Dick. They were standoffish at first, but on their first date they sat down in Jane's kitchen and did a drawing together, and shortly after that they got married. All you need now is a dog named Spot, their friends joked, and three years later they found him in a Badger Pocket barn, a black spot around one of his brown, attentive eyes.
Spot became the catalyst for their lives. They started a janitorial business called Spot, and they found the perfect spot from which to forge the myth of their lives together-- a dilapidated house across from the police station with all the windows and doors boarded over, something that over the years they transformed into a Ginger Bread House filled with art, art and more art, theirs and that of others. The hard-packed barren ground surrounding the house evolved into lush gardens and carpet-thick grass and more art still, sculptures and whirligigs, brick towers and totems. Dick and Jane were metamorphosing into a fairytale.
Spot settled in. He was home. He wandered a bit too much for the dog catcher's liking, but by-and-large he was a law abiding dog. And he was smart.
He did have his weaknesses. He caught a bullet in the stomach one spring when the dream of herding overcame him during one of his wanderings on a rancher's property, and once he cleared an eight-foot fence to be in the company of a grave digger's female dog in heat. And then he met Sally.
It was a deviation from the standard myth of Dick and Jane. Sally wasn't a little girl, she was another Blue Heeler, and where Spot found her no one ever knew. He just showed up with her one day in 1981, and Dick and Jane decided to keep her.
This is how smart Spot was: One day while Spot and Sally were out roaming, the dog catcher managed to lure Sally into his van. Spot raced home and got Dick--literally. He tugged on his pants' leg and growled, and then he ran to the door and barked. Out the door and down the street they went, across Main to the railroad tracks, south on the tracks--the dog's route to the animal shelter. They arrived just as the van pulled up, and Sally was set free.
Spot's devotion to Sally knew no bounds, and he deferred to her in everything. He would not eat until she had eaten, would not accept affection from Dick and Jane until Sally had had her fair share, and when Sally growled at him for gnawing on his blanket (a fast-shrinking Navy-blue piece of wool), he gave it up. This, says Jane, was his undoing. She swears Spot needed to gnaw on that blanket in order to digest his food after he'd been shot in the stomach. Without his blanket, Spot declined rapidly and died.
Dick and Jane bought a weather vane in memory of Spot and mounted it on the peak of their roof. It's a dog in wrought-iron silhouette jumping over a wrought-iron moon. It's Spot, catapulting out of the Dingo outback into the myth of civilization. It's there to this day, turning in the Ellensburg wind.
Dick Elliott: self portrait - circa 1975
Jane Orleman: self portrait - 1975
In the early 80s, Jane's paintings went from small interiors to bright mythological fantasies on large canvases, charged with sexual energy. Dick went through an abrupt transformation, abandoning his realistic pencil drawings for dots. In one night, after what I suppose you could call an intense spiritual experience, he produced 127 Meditations, 127 intricate geometric drawings made up totally of pen-and-ink dots. From there he went directly to bottle caps, nailing them by the thousands in primitive geometric patterns to any wood surface he could get his hands on. It wasn't long before he switched to reflectors which he ordered by the boxful in many different colors from a Japanese firm. He now blended color into his geometric patterns which grew increasingly complex and yet remained primal. He produced these reflector works of art on wood "canvases". Also during this transformation, Dick was prone to paint rocks and sticks and occasionally glue tiny reflectors to them.
Jane Orleman: Moon Meditations - 1982 |
The writing below captures something of the spirit of the world Dick and Jane and their growing circle of artist friends were moving through during this time.
Black Moon - Part II: The Rock Festival
(first published in 1983 as part of the White Paper Series, Vagabond Press)
Dick carrying large rock...
Bill Haley rocking out...
By the summer of 1982, we were all painting rocks. Constructing rocks. Smashing the ocean of our imaginations against rocks. Having love affairs with rocks, in the rocks, in the high desert of our minds...
When was it first obvious that a Rock Festival was in the making? Using hindsight I'd say that the first sign was the show Dick and Jane organized for Sarah Spurgeon's former students. It took place long before Dick began painting rocks, but it set things in motion.
The task of tracking down Sarah's former students at Central Washington State College (now Central Washington University) and then rounding up some of their work was daunting. Sarah had taught for so long that when she retired they named the college art gallery after her. But that's the kind of challenge Dick and Jane warm up to, and one day there I am with Jane, driving the yellow Spot janitorial van across the mountains on a painting-and-sculpture hunt. We discovered all these people still creating art with Sarah's influence running through it, projecting this art into the world, influencing the world, but thinking they were working in isolation. This is what the media does under the guidance of the industry that finances it: it doesn't bring the world together, it obscures the true bonds that connect us and creates an illusion of isolation at the deeper levels of our being, the effect being to drive people toward the surface where they can be manipulated, flushed like birds and blasted from the sky. Jane and I were entering the lives of artists young and old, professional and amateur, listening to them reminisce about their days at the college, helping them pack and load their work into the van, waving goodbye and telling them we'd see them at the gala opening. And there they were, people in their 30s and 40s and 50s, their work surrounding them, their energies mixing and humming, Sarah at the head of the table, holding court.
People met the night of the opening who might never have met otherwise, and people who knew each other only vaguely got to know each other better. Dick and Jane got to know John Harter and Paula Peterson, John Crew got some incentive to open the Crew Gallery, and somewhere in there, maybe that night or a year earlier or months later (it's one continuum that operates outside of time), Cathy Schoenberg, Ken Slusher and Bear were thrown into the equation. Circling on the periphery, entering and exiting and cross-pollinating, countless others. Jesse Bernstein, Seattle's quintessential street poet, for example, shows up at the Crew Gallery once it opens, because he is a friend of John Harter. He picks up a copy of my Anarchistic Murmurs from a High Mountain Valley that I gave John Crew when I met him through Dick and Jane, reads it and heads across the mountains. I find him in my driveway drinking beer in a car with doors held on with duct tape. And there I am, years later still, part of a group sitting around the table in Dick and Jane's kitchen, listening to John Harter. John is obsessed with the idea of burning down his neighbor's barn, and we lay out elaborate schemes, burning the barn with gusto a hundred different ways. The next morning in Dick and Jane's living room, the same group sitting around drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, an old Beatles tape on the tape recorder, the sun streaming through the window...
Dick hasn't been just painting rocks, he's been carrying on like a witch doctor. He paints a rock and looks at it and says: "This is the sign of water." Or he'll paint a string of rocks and sticks and when he's done, go down the line and assign each a function according to how he feels about it. If he feels strongly enough, his sticks and rocks will be what he says they are. Any way you feel about it, energy is being unleashed, and Dick continues turning out the goods until one day he looks at his calendar and in the month of July sees a black moon. Black moon, he mutters. A night of magic. Time for a Rock Festival. He gets on the phone to John Harter and Paula Peterson who live in the woods at the end of a winding dirt road on the far side of the mountains, the road lined with rusted skeletons of cars overgrown with vines and thistles; a pony in a small corral; a trailer sunk into the earth and a live-in studio; the only spot imaginable for a Rock Festival.
"A what?" says John. He's not sure he's heard right. "A Rock Festival of artists and madmen where everyone must do something to a rock, bring it along, and show up before dark? Are you serious?"
Yes, Dick is serious. He pulls out his ace in the hole. He tells John about the black moon.
Dick Elliott's "Lunar Observation Piece" with Bill Haley in the background. Rock Festival, July 1983
Photograph: Ken Slusher
Lunar Observation Piece at night
Photograph: Ken Slusher
There were big rocks and little rocks and middle-sized rocks. Intricate, exquisite rocks and rocks that never made it to the festival, like the one that blew up in a kiln and took twenty glazed pots along with it. But perhaps the most wonderful rock of all was Jesse Bernstein's rock, speckled and smooth and shaped like a bird's egg, snug in a delicately shaped nest fashioned from steel wool. John Harter's rock was also wonderful, and in its own way, just as delicate as Jesse's. Harter took a heavy-duty spring from a garage door, hung it from three wooden poles assembled tepee-fashion, and attached a hundred-pound, smooth-contoured bullet-shaped rock to the spring in an amazingly elegant carriage of heavy chain,leaving the rock hanging about a foot from a sparse and downy circular patch of green grass in the middle of which is a circle of glass underneath which is a light, all of this confined in a wide triangle of white gravel. The rock just hangs there, still and graceful, until someone tugs on the thick spring, setting it into a rhythmic, stroking motion, the rock dipping repeatedly toward the downy patch of green, coming to within a fraction of an inch of the center of light and then pulling away again behind the coil of the great spring. One pull keeps it in motion for minutes on end.
Cindy's rock was a play on rock and shadow. She took a piece of volcanic rock that had been lying out in the Yakima Canyon for maybe five thousand years, and she painted it. That is, she cut out a piece of wood with the outline of the rock and painted the rock on the wood so that from a distance the wood looked like the rock. Then she painted the rock she'd just made a painting of gray so that it looked like a shadow of itself. Next she constructed a box and laid it on its side and painted the inside of the box in graduating shades from white in the front to gray in the back. She stuck the rock that was painted to look like a shadow in the back of the box and the wood that was painted to look like a rock up front. She hoped to gain the effect of having the real rock look like the shadow of the imitation rock which in turn would look like the real rock. She didn't quite pull it off.
When we arrived at the Rock Festival, I went up to the compound and got a wheelbarrow to haul my rock in. My rock was Bill Haley, self-proclaimed father of rock 'n' roll. I'd gone down to Goodwill and bought a garish shirt reminiscent of the Hawaiian shirts Bill wore, got a pair of imitation alligator shoes for a buck, a pair of 50s slacks, stuffed it all with straw and sat it down in a wooden rocking chair. I spent weeks on my Bill Haley rock. I looked high and low for a picture of Bill, and Tim, proprietor of Ace Books and Records, gave me a helping hand. He not only found a picture of Bill, he also informed me that Rock Around the Clock was on the American Graffiti album. The album cost me four bucks used, and the picture of Bill's head, about an inch square, cost me $15 to enlarge. I glued the enlarged head to a cylinder of cardboard and worked it down into the straw of Bill's body. All around the cylinder I made a collage of famous rockers, most of them lost in the straw. I went to the barber shop, got a few locks of black hair, and fashioned the famous Bill Haley curl. I glued th curl over the photograph curl on Bill's forehead. I fashioned a two-dimensional guitar out of a piece of plywood, using barbwire for strings and making magic marker frets. I placed the guitar in Bill's hands. All that remained was to breathe life into my creation. I took the American Graffiti album and began recording Rock Around the Clock on a cassette recorder. I recorded it over and over again. Then I took the recorder and broke it open. I by-passed the tiny speaker with about six feet of wire, secured the recorder out of sight under the rocking chair seat, drilled a hole through the seat of the rocker and into the seat of Bill's pants. I ran the speaker wires up through the holes, up through the guts of Bill's straw body, out through his shirt and into a larger speaker that I'd fastened to the back of the plywood guitar. I pushed the button under the seat and heard my own voice that I'd recorded earlier: LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE GRAND DADDY OF ROCK--BILL HALEY AND HIS COMETS!
Bill blasted out his famous song. "One-two-three o'clock, four o'clock rock! Five-six-seven o'clock, eight o'clock rock! We're gonna rock around the clock tonight!" sang Bill, perspiration breaking out on his photograph face.
I came laboring up the dirt road with Bill perched precariously in the wheelbarrow. All the other rocks were being displayed on stumps of cedar that lined the road, but Bill got to sit right in front of the porch that was built onto Paula's trailer, where later the rock band would play. I got a beer and drifted off into the crowd, waiting for dark.
I held off having Bill sing, figuring I'd wait until the band warmed up and then give them something to bounce off, relate to--the first official song of rock 'n' roll. I explained my plan, and the boys in the band said, "Sure, man--we can dig it." I decided to give them a demonstration and pushed the button under the seat that starts Bill singing. But Bill wasn't in my living room where he'd loomed big during his test runs, he was out in the wilderness with a lot of space around him at a 1982 Rock Festival with darkness coming on and a black moon on the rise. Bill's song was faint. "...one, two, three o'clock," he whispered. "Rock around the clock..."
A member of the band came down off the porch and stuck a mike behind Bill's guitar, amplifying him into the 80s. "I'LL BE GOING STRONG, AND SO WILL YOU!" the straw man blurted out. A few people around the compound looked up from their conversations, then looked away again.
It's all wrong, the music is coming out of the speakers on the porch instead of Bill's mouth, and he seems less alive than ever. "That's not the effect I'm after," I tell the kid holding the mike.
"Yeah, I see what you mean," he says, and takes the mike away, sending Bill spinning back through time. I'm left standing next to my creation, listening to the batteries wearing down. The band hits a few licks, and I reach under the seat and turn Bill off. I straighten his turned-up collar and catch a glimpse of Jimi Hendrix staring up at me from down in the straw. I set the rocker in motion by pushing down on one of the rungs with my foot and then I wander off as the band gets into their first number. I open another beer and go down a narrow path to piss in the woods.
Just before ten o'clock I wander down to John Harter's studio and turn on the radio. At ten o'clock Radio KRAB will be broadcasting a reading I recorded a few weeks earlier at their station, and at 10:30 the lunar eclipse begins. There are perhaps ten or twelve people in John's studio, and speakers have been hooked up to relay the broadcast throughout the compound. I'm amazed that the reading is actually going out over the air waves, and astounded that it's taking place on the night of the lunar eclipse.
The reading is about the spirit of old women, about the sexuality of old women. My words fill the night, and up the hill from the studio, in the shadows behind the trailer, a dark-skinned woman sways with castanets on her fingers, her body adorned in Arabian silk, listening as she dances to my tale, preparing to perform.
"Here's to you, old woman, and the sex that is in you!"
The reading ends and is replaced by exotic music, John Harter's rock dips silent and rhythmic to kiss the shining light, and the woman in Arabian silk sways out of the shadows, a lit candle in either hand, into the circle of magic totems that Dick has assembled around a reflection pool. Bill winks at the dancer from under his barbershop curl.
There is a large gathering around the reflection pool now, and then, abruptly, the dancer extinguishes the candles with her breath and melts into the night, leaving two wisps of gray smoke curling over the water. At that very moment, the moon appears through a break in the cloud cover, just minutes before the eclipse is to begin, then disappears again.
People are trading rocks. I approach Jesse Bernstein at the same time as John Harter, but we're both out of luck. Jesse's rock has already been spoken for. Harter and I make a big productions out of it. I figure that if I can't have Jesse's rock, I should have Harter's, and I'm willing to trade Bill Haley for it. But Harter doesn't know if he wants to do that, this rock of his is pretty entrenched where it is. I fatten the offer, throw in a copy of ever book I've ever written or ever will write, signed, sealed and delivered. The bartering goes on until I blurt out, "Hell, you're a car man, Harter, I'll throw in my 66 Impala with the 396 under the hood."
"Deal," says Harter.
"It's a deal."
Shake on it, Harter says, and sticks out his hand.
"My Chevy for a rock?" I say. "Ho!" I snap the top off a bottle of beer and slide into the dance crowd.
"My rock for yours," Jimmy Jet says, dancing up alongside me.
"Why not?" I say, and he slips his rock into my shirt pocket--a paint-splattered sucker about the size of a crawdad.
Jimmy Jet and I load Bill into the wheelbarrow and make our way down a dirt path to Jimmy's truck.
"...one-two-three o'clock," Bill whispers, and then he's in the back of the pickup and disappearing around a bend in the road. "A white sports coat and a pink carnation," Bill plagiarizes as the taillights disappear.
Back in the compound, I sit around the fire with a group of people, drinking beer and eating chicken off the grill. The talk is easy, about books, art and movies, about divorces and law suits and the neighbor's barn that needs burning--Harter gets us laughing so hard we have tears in our eyes. And then the cloud cover lifts, and there's the moon, large and white with just a trace of shadow left around one edge.
"Well," says Dick, in that amazing accepting way of his, "I guess the eclipse is over."
"Yes," says Harter. "That's it."
"A fine eclipse," says Jane.
"A fine eclipse," everyone agrees.
And then we begin drifting from the fire to our sleeping bags, guided by the light of the sun, rebounding off the great spinning rock in the sky to the dark side of the earth.
The wild, heady days of the 80s settled down, and by 1993, when Dick went to New York City to do his 42nd Street reflector installation, he had already done several commissioned installations (one for the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, and one for the Yakima Sun Dome in Yakima, Washington). He also had started doing sculpture in neon, which was to prove disastrous to his health.
Jane had had quite a few solo shows, and her work was included in numerous invitational and juried exhibits.
But the work of art that was closest to their heart was ongoing, their Gingerbread House, which they call Dick and Jane's Spot. Dick and Jane's Spot had become an Ellensburg tourist attraction by this time and a destination for art-loving pilgrims. It has been written up in national magazines and has been the subject of several television presentations.
Dick & Jane's Spot -- 1979
Dick & Jane's Spot -- 2007
Recognition has not changed Dick & Jane one iota...which is to me their most outstanding accomplishment
THE KING OF 42nd STREET
(first published in the Ellensburg Daily Record, July 1, 1993)
In your face. That's what he says they are. One way or the other, all the time. New Yorkers. Imagine a light about to change at 42nd and Broadway. On opposing corners, a mishmash of melting-pot humanity, shoulder-to-shoulder, thirty or forty deep, waiting. The light turns green, and they're on the move. What happens? A melee? Knifings and purse snatchings? No. A miracle instead. Two solid walls of flesh pass right through each other without touching, like schools of fish.
Dick Elliott, an Ellensburg artist, was in New York on commission to cover the front of a boarded-up fast-food franchise on infamous 42nd Street with designs done in reflectors, part of a long-range reclamation project. The people who awarded the commission stuck him in a boarding house, gave him two English art students for assistants, cordoned off a patch of sidewalk, and told him to have at it. Then they retreated to their field office behind a second-story window across the street and called out for pizza.
This wasn't the biggest on-site commission Dick had ever done, but the work conditions were the most intense. To simply live in New York City and go out into the streets every day is an act of heroism--you're immediately enveloped in a relentless sensory maelstrom and are required to make a chain-reaction of split-second decisions just to reach the corner deli to buy a bagel. But this is the sort of challenge Dick thrives on. He set to work that first day with his usual intensity, furiously gluing down reflectors, and a rotating audience of forty to fifty onlookers generously offered up a non-stop barrage of comment and criticism until the sun began to set and Dick packed up and returned to the boarding house.
Each morning Dick returned to his work site half expecting to find his art vandalized, but this didn't happen. There seemed to be an aura of protection around it. Curious, Dick meandered down to 42nd Street close to midnight one night. There was a lot of commerce going on, trading in illicit commodities was high, and Dick found that his wall was under the protection of a distinguished black gentleman wearing an impeccable white suit, shiny black shoes, and a panama hat--the King of 42nd Street, who had taken a shine to the dazzling Aztec-like work of art that was beginning to take shape on the wall.
Dick's Reclamation-Project installation on 42nd Street, NYC
There was only one serious crisis. Dick arrived at his site one morning to find three squad cars at the curb and seven police officers milling around. One of the officers, Officer Levine, was stopping passersby and asking them, "Whacha see der?" Then, convinced they saw what he saw but were too overwhelmed to speak, he spoke for them. "Dat's right! A swastika!"
Dick tried to expand Officer Levine's awareness by telling him that Nazis didn't have a monopoly on swastikas, there was an ancient Navajo swastika, for instance, symbolizing the gods of river, mountain and rain, and anyway, there wasn't any swastika on the wall, he ought to know, he was the artist.
Officer Levine's lucky day. The culprit.
To make a long story short, Dick declined to get into the squad car, the pizza eaters from across the street rushed to the scene, a PR man for the police department arrived, and the New York Times stood waiting in the wings. After much negotiation Dick agreed to make minor changes on what wasn't there to begin with to placate Officer Levine's twisted imagination, and New York went on about its business.
Dick's back in the Burg again, while a continent away the early-morning sun slants between New York's monoliths of glass and steel and sets his reflector wall ablaze, patterns of primal energy shimmering in the grime and litter of the city, protected through the long nights by the King of 42nd Street.
Jane Orleman: Go Make Daddy Happy - 1991
By 1990, Jane had reached a creative block that she could only overcome by confronting a traumatic childhood --molestations, beatings, rejections, attempted suicides, lust for revenge, near murders, teenage alcoholism and rapes. Dick stuck by her through grueling years of therapy during which Jane's creative block disappeared and her art transformed; it was still colorful and charged with sexual energy, but her dreamy landscape of angels and butterflies had given way to slashing butcher's knives and hatchets, ghouls and monsters, huge threatening penises and gang rapes.
DON'T LEAVE BEFORE THE MIRACLE HAPPENS
(first published in the Ellensburg Daily Record, February 14, 2000)
Dick & Jane at Jane's opening, Sarah Spurgeon Gallery, CWU, 2007
Details are murky, and the legend varies, but there was a Saint Valentine. There were three, according to the Catholic Church--all of them martyrs.
The one associated with Valentine's Day as we know it today was a Christian priest who lived in Rome in the third century A.D. It's said that he went around secretly marrying young couples against the wishes of the Emperor Claudius, who was building an army and felt that young men fought harder if they were single. Valentine wound up in prison, awaiting his execution. While there, legend has it, he fell in love with a jailer's daughter, and before going to his death, he wrote her a love letter. He signed the letter, "Your Valentine."
The Church, in an effort to win converts, blended romance with pragmatism and fashioned the legend of Valentine to dovetail with Lupercalia, a pagan rite of spring associated with fertility. The Luperci were an order of pagan priests who each year in mid-February gathered in a sacred cave and sacrificed a goat. At the end of the ceremony, young boys would take strips of goat's hide, dip them in sacrificial blood, and then run through the streets of Rome, slapping the strips up against young women to enhance their fertility.
Things have lightened up since Roman times. Today, Valentine's Day is a puppy-love phenomenon and a boon to the flower, chocolate and greeting-card industries. Over a billion manufactured Valentine's Day cards exchange hands each February, second in volume only to Christmas.
Yet underneath all this commercialized fanfare beats the human heart and the real-life tribulations that either break love or temper it into something enduring. Commitment, endurance and faithfulness are the ingredients of lasting love, and perhaps the question every couple should ask before taking their marriage vows is: Do we have what it takes to get through the first seven years?
Dick Elliott and Jane Orleman, it appears, after 30 years of marriage, have what it takes. They've weathered the storms and rejoiced in the good times, and there's been an abundance of both.
They met back in 1970 while attending Central Washington State College. Jane was coming off a first marriage that started in elopement and ended in incompatibility, and Dick had just arrived back in town after two years of living in the wilderness with Alaskan Eskimos. Jane had an edge to her that was part New York upbringing and part childhood sexual abuse, and Dick, after a normal and loving childhood and two years with the Eskimos, was a man of few words. They seemed on the surface to be opposites, but for months all sorts of people had been trying to get them together. They were both in their twenties, Jane three years Dick's senior. They each had a tentative interest in art, and it was this interest that finally brought them together.
The first time they met, through a mutual acquaintance, Jane decided Dick was boring and perhaps mentally deficient, because he hardly spoke. Jane literally turned her back on him. "I was," Dick says, "still pretty Eskimo at the time."
On their second meeting, a date, and alone this time, they sat down in Jane's apartment and did a drawing together. Neither of them spoke much as they did the drawing, and when they had finished, they were bonded. They didn't quite understand what had happened, but in short order they were off to Portland to get married in the backyard of the house Dick had grown up in. They remained in Portland, rented a house, and tried to be normal. Until one day Jane woke up crying for reasons she could not explain. "That's it,” Dick said. “We're out of here." They came back to Ellensburg.
They lived on the bottom floor of a big house on Fifth Avenue, and life settled into a routine. Dick did landscape drawings, Jane painted interiors, and they started their own janitorial business. They were looking about as stable as artists can look, but on a deeper level, they were floating, and on more than one occasion Jane thought about leaving. And then things began to change.
They'd decided when they first came back to Ellensburg that in five years time they would buy their own home, and when the time came, they did it. They bought the most dilapidated house in town on a hard-packed patch of ground directly across from the police station. The house anchored them and began dictating the direction their lives would take from that point on.
They transformed that sad old house inside and out into a nationally-known work of art, and when Jane lamented that the soil in the yard was not good enough to plant in, Dick ordered up truckloads of top soil and fertilizer and bought enough seed packets to blanket an acre of ground in flowers. Their personal art also changed. Dick began working in geometric designs with bottle caps and reflectors, and Jane began doing fanciful paintings full of angels and maidens and sexual imagery. They began having shows, publishing books, and getting major commissions. Now, almost thirty years later, they are established artists with national reputations.
On the surface, the Dick and Jane love story looks fairytale perfect, a great Valentine's Day story, a Hallmark greeting-card gem. But under the surface lies hard times and a lot of pain.
When Jane's parents came to live in Ellensburg, Jane became distraught. She would fly into rages and spent hours chain-smoking and playing solitaire deep into the night. At one point she was reading three novels a day. Dick never chided her about her smoking or her endless games of solitaire or her marathon reading jags. He figured she was working something out, and he gave her space to do it in.
And then one day he came home and found her out in the garden, destroying her favorite plant. "That's it," he said, and taking her hand they went straight to mental health. "We're not leaving until we see someone," said Dick, and he meant it.
What Jane unearthed in years of therapy was suppressed memories of a childhood filled with severe sexual abuse, and when she felt like she could no longer live in the same town with her parents, Dick immediately said they should sell the house and leave, that Jane's well-being was more important.
As it turns out, they didn't have to sell the house--Jane's parents moved instead. But there were still a lot of hard years ahead in which Jane, through her art and through counseling, resurrected and dispelled a nightmarish past. She realized she was making headway when at the age of 50 she quit smoking, and after a lifetime of not driving (there was an accident on prom night in which her date was killed), she casually mentioned to Dick that it might be nice to learn to drive. He went straight out and bought her a car.
"After all that," Jane says, "Dick could write himself a blank check. He is the most non-judgmental, supportive person I have ever known."
"We can't imagine being married to someone else," Dick says. "No one else could fit the bill."
There have been other less shattering occurrences in their 30 years together: a benign tumor in Jane the size of a grapefruit; Dick falling off a ladder and breaking his wrist and his ankle; bad habits to overcome, business setbacks to deal with, extended-family fiascoes, the deaths of Dick's father and both of Jane's parents--the hard currency of life that we all have to deal with. And then, five years ago, making art out of neon, Dick inhaled mercury vapor and seriously damaged his heart. He was brought face to face with his own mortality.
He's seen a small army of specialists in conventional and holistic medicine, and he's made countless visits to the emergency room in the middle of the night, but the problem persists. His sleep patterns have been disrupted, his energies have been diminished, and both he and Jane have had to make major changes in their lifestyles. Through it all, Jane has been right there by his side.
Thirty years of triumph and tragedy, and only a portion of it is mentioned here. Through willingness and candor, their lives have become inextricably interwoven, a fine-tuned balance of shared dreams and respect for each other's individuality.
They love each other more now than they did when they started out, Jane says, and oh--they don't exchange Valentine's Day cards.
Jane Orleman: Janus: Guardian of the Portals - 2007
Dick Elliott: sample of his latest work - 2008
Dick Elliott working on most recent Primal Op painting, February 3, 2008
In 1998, the Child Welfare League of America published Telling Secrets, An Artist's Journey Through Childhood Trauma, a book of ninety color reproductions of Jane's paintings done during her years of therapy. Along with the paintings there is a running commentary written by Jane. Jane has worked through her trauma, and her painting has softened again, but it has a new strength that her earlier work lacked.
Dick finally stabilized after his mercury poisoning, and he does not work in neon anymore. But his reflector art continues to evolve, and to date he has done 22 commissions and 25 installations nation-wide. In 2008 he received the Governor's Arts Award from the Washington State Arts Commission.
In 2007 Dick was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer. He is undergoing intensive chemo therapy. He continues to do his art. Whatever the gene for self-pity is, Dick missed out on it.
And there you have it. Dick Elliott and Jane Orleman are artists to the core and the best friends anyone could ask for. They have seen me through many a hard time over the years. They just show up when the going gets tough, do what's needed without asking for anything in return, and then they leave you alone.
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