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Drawing on her past

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Wednesday, January 12, 2011
— Her hands move across the pages, filling them with words, colors, dissected paper, random images and carefully drawn scenes.

It's as though her ideas are expanding at a rate that exceeds her ability to transfer them to a sketchbook, watercolor paper or canvas.

Artist Sherry Thurner spent most her life teaching English, a job she loved. She waited for art, and art has rewarded her.

Thurner's story could be the template for local artists. The drive to create faces stiff competition from life's obligations. Thurner still has obligations, but now art comes first.

One of Thurner's earliest influences?

An X-ACTO knife.

"When I was in college, I didn't know if I wanted to be an English or an art major," Thurner said.

During her first art class at UW-Whitewater, the instructor asked students to work on a sculpture. Thurner was laboring away when the blade slipped, cutting her finger to the bone and causing her to think, "English major."

Besides, there were practical considerations—she needed to support herself.

From 1972 to 2005, Thurner worked at Edison and Franklin middle schools and Craig High School.

"For years and years, I just did a drawing now and then," Thurner said. "I was busy being a young teacher and a forensics coach."

Her job didn't leave the big blocks of time an artist—especially a watercolorist—needs to work.

"I used to feel sort of wistful about friends who were artists," Thurner said.

Then she became good friends with Kathy Belling, a Parker High School art teacher.

"She was a really good watercolorist and potter, and I kind of lived vicariously through her," Thurner said. "She was really an insightful and interesting artist."

In 1997, Belling died from cancer. She was 47.

"I bought some of her pieces to remember her by and to be inspired by her," Thurner said. "I keep them where I can see them. She can't do her art now, but I can do my art."

After taking an early retirement, she began to do artwork in earnest.

Originally, Thurner worked primarily in watercolor, a fussy and difficult medium that leaves little room for errors. Acrylics, oils, monotypes followed.

Most recently, she's been working with mixed media collage using vintage papers and materials and other recycled items.

The walls of her home document her history as an artist.

On one wall hangs "the first thing I was really proud of," a watercolor still life of two books and a vase. She did the work during a class she took with Amy Arntson at UW-Whitewater in 1997, just after Belling died.

On another wall is a watercolor and colored pencil piece of her neighborhood at night. The light from the windows, glowing yellow against a dark background, pulls viewers into the image.

A monotype and watercolor of three pears looking pump and alluring occupies the dinning room.

In her kitchen, a paper collage made of vintage papers causes visitors to stop and stare at the shapes, colors, words and images.

She recently transformed an ungainly piece of grocery store Styrofoam into a setting for a pair of skeletonized fall leaves. The Styrofoam was distressed with a spray that raised ridges and bumps in its surface. Then she covered it with a black gesso and layers of colors.

Part of her desire to explore new mediums is driven by the practical streak that made her an English teacher.

"I need to distinguish my work from other people in the area," Thurner said. "There are a lot of people doing watercolor, and many of them are doing them beautifully.

But more importantly, it's about exploring ideas, and finding out who she is as an artist.

"It's just a desire to find which medium or which way of working is to going to be most interesting to me," Thurner said. "I wanted to do something that was interesting and fun for me and that would make a statement that was powerful for others."

For many, being an artist is like having a second job

What does it take to be a working artist?

"A second job," is probably the best answer.

Alicia Reid, owner of Raven's Wish Art and Framing, 2871 Liberty Lane, Janesville, said she represents about 70 artists, and about 80 percent of them live within a 30-minute drive of Janesville.

Virtually all of those artists are doing other work or have another means of support such as a pension or a "supportive spouse."

Artists can sell their work at a gallery such as Reid's; in a cooperative setting such as Artisan Locale Gift Gallery, 6 S. Main St., Janesville; or on a consignment basis at local shops such as Earth Song Gifts and Books, 2214 Kennedy Road, Janesville.

The Janesville Performing Arts Center also has a gallery.

Finally, artists can travel the circuit of outdoor art shows during the warmer months.

Janesville artist Sherry Thurner's work can be found at Raven's Wish.

This year, her work, "Gone Home," was chosen to be a part of Watercolor Wisconsin, the prestigious show held at the Wustum Museum. The Wustum is part of the Racine Museum of Art, which is known for its contemporary craft collection.

Most of the works in the show, including Thurner's, are for sale.

At Raven's Wish, most of Reid's work comes from the framing side of the business, but the art side is growing, she said.

People want original works, at reasonable prices for their homes, she said.

"I have people come in and say, 'She's my neighbor, I didn't know she did this,'" Reid said. "That's the beauty of it to me."

Last updated: 4:06 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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