It’s Wednesday morning and already the four women who take art lessons from Patricia Cherry are hard at work.
They’ve got their sketch pads and tray palettes smeared with the vibrant colors Cherry often chooses for her own work.
Painting is all Cherry ever wanted to do, even though she made a living mostly as a headhunter in the Bay Area.
It shows in her buoyant expression while teaching this weekly class. When time is up — about lunchtime — no one wants to leave. Cherry calls the class How to Find Your Visual Voice and a prerequisite is the artists need to take painting seriously but not so much themselves.
The class is held in her art studio, which she and her husband Jim added onto their house off Phoenix Lake Road.
Soaring ceilings, big windows, yellow paint, the studio is just what Cherry hoped for when she was a young girl struggling against her father’s alcoholism, through two difficult marriages, when she almost lost her recruiting business due to a manager’s malfeasance.
Trauma informs her life and her work.
Cherry grew up in Oakland. Her father was an alcoholic and she describes her childhood as neglectful.
“I always say it was a rough start,” she said. “Drawing was my thing.”
She’d draw faces from magazines, newspapers.
“That’s what kept me going,” she said.
She married at 16 and quickly had three children. By the time they were mostly grown she had come to the realization that women did not deserve to be treated as her husband was treating her. She struck out on her own with Stansbury Staffing Consultants.
She married again and the more successful she became the less her husband wanted to work. She almost lost her home and her business due to hidden expenses of her husband. She learned about liens on her house only after she sought a loan to remodel her kitchen.
Through the years, she took every painting class she could, at San Francisco State, University of California at Berkeley, California College of Arts and Crafts, She went to Escuela de Belles Artes in San Miquel de Allende, Guanajauto Mexico, expecting to stay three weeks.
When time was up, she stayed longer then longer still until more than three months had passed. That’s when she learned her trusted staff member was not so trustworthy afterall. She went home and once again resurrected her business.
In 2001, she married Jim Cherry, a lawyer in the Bay Area. They had known each other for 20 years. She was a longtime friend of Cherry’s wife, who had died.
With the economic downturn of 2003, they decided to leave the Bay Area and settled on Tuolumne County. They bought the house off Phoenix Lake Road and five acres and settled in.
Their house is full of books and comfortable leather couches and chairs. Outside, there’s a pool and a hot tub — handy for when the grandkids visit — and beside their property is a trail that serves as an avenue for wildlife.
Patti said once when she was in their first pool in the garden beside the house, she was luxuriating and suddenly felt something amiss. She looked up and there on a hill by the driveway sat a regal but disinterested mountain lion, staring at her.
She went in the house and soon after they moved the pool to the backyard, built on a platform to be accessible only from the deck.
As they settled into a very different life in Tuolumne County, where they knew no one, Jim opened a law office (now located on Washington Street) and Patti was free to paint full-time. Her work is displayed in a number of places, including a terminal at JFK Airport in New York. She works in watercolor and oil and many of the paintings are abstract, although for a time she made a living painting portraits.
They also lent their expertise to various non-profits including Stage 3 Theatre and the Tuolumne County Arts Alliance. Patti was instrumental in starting Art Trails, an event where people can visit the studios of area artists that lasted for several years.
Now, Patti spends most of her free time painting. She also hosts a radio show on the local community station, KAAD, called Foothill Forum, during which she talks to people about issues and various topics, from politics to spirituality.
But community service is never far away. She is a founder of the Mother Lode League of Women Voters, which grew from a handful of dreamers to more than 50 members in one year. Members of the group have attended various governmental meetings and are planning an ambitious program to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the national League of Women Voters next year.
Of her art, Patti says it comes from a place where she has checked her ego at the door and doesn’t take herself too seriously, as she cautions her students to do.
She is particularly proud of a series of paintings of children that began when a friend gave her a picture of children she had taken in Africa. A girl stood in the back of the group and something about her - Patti didn’t know what at the time – stuck with her.
She painted that girl in watercolor blues and yellows, her dark eyes looking out from under a basket.
Patti painted another child, then another. They are big paintings, 22x30, and visually striking. She sent the paintings to a friend, who responded, “You’ve finally figured out how to deal with that wacky cracky childhood of yours.”
Patti realized then all the children have a look of hyper vigilance that comes from a traumatic childhood.
“They’re always expecting the worst, how do they hide, how do they escape,” she said.
Since then she’s painted 13 more, children of every continent. That first painting hangs on the wall of her living room.
She hopes one day the entire series will be displayed in a children’s facility of some sort or in an office of a non-profit that works with children. It would be a perfect cap on a lifetime of struggle and overcoming. And of not taking yourself or life too seriously. There is joy everywhere.