This might look like something a child would do, but I painted “The Laplander” while a 21-year-old art student at RISD. My illustration teacher, Judy-Sue Goodwin-Sturges, gave me a roll of brown paper and told me to work big. She could see that I was struggling to find my way artistically and this was her way of getting me to see other possibilities.    

The Laplander, tempera and pastel, 1977

 The assignment was to illustrate a story about a Laplander. So, I bought some tempera paint, wide brushes and some children’s pastels and taped the 6 ft. long sheet of paper to my apartment wall. I can remember how exhilarating it was to move the wide brush across the paper. It felt as loose and playful as a finger trail on a foggy car window. As part of the excercise, I tried not to think too hard or overwork the painting.    

detail of "The Laplander", 1977

 When I brought the rolled up painting to class and hung it up with the other student’s work, it was by far the largest piece and was highly visible from across the room. During the critique, another teacher walked past the open doorway and poked his head in. He pointed to my picture and called out, “What is that?” I don’t remember if anyone responded to him, but he soon walked away. Now I must tell you that every art school student has bad critique experiences, but this was very unusual behavior for a teacher who has no connection to the class. This man, whom I shall not name, no longer teaches and has gone on to become a very famous illustrator. I can remember being shocked at his rudeness, but also felt excitement because he noticed my work. You see, I had previously decided not to register for his class because my friends had complained that his class was torturous unless you were willing to draw in his style. I’ve never spoken to him about the incident and for years held a grudge against him. It wasn’t until I saw him 20 years later at an art show that I experienced his human frailty, that I could see him for what he was, just an insecure man who is vulnerable like everyone else.    

I’ve kept The Laplander painting for 30 years and recently unrolled it, ironed out as many wrinkles as possible and photographed it outside. Seeing it today reminds me of a time when I was unsure about how to make my mark and how, with the help of an insightful teacher, pressed forward into unknown territory. There have been other moments of uncertainty, but I continue to strive for qualities like sincerity, strength and vulnerability in my art and in my life.    

"The Laplander" with Salley today

My teacher, Judy-Sue Goodwin-Sturges still teaches at RISD and encourages students to develop their own individual styles and find new ways to extend themselves artistically. Thanks, Judy-Sue, for helping me find new possibilities, then and now! Here she is in the early 90’s with some of her former students who are children’s book illustrators, Salley, Ashley Wolff and Holly Berry.  

Judy-Sue (back), Salley, Ashley and Holly 1992

17 thoughts on “Laplander

  1. Bravo for you! This is very inspirational to those of us who try every day to express our inner creativity. Usually in the span of a lifetime, all artists experience that negativity from someone who is really of self inflated importance. Sometimes it is enough to stop or at the very least shake your confidence for expression. Thank you for sharing. Your outlook on life is as delightful as your art!

  2. Thank you for sharing this, Sally!
    It is so necessary to go “where angels fear to tread” if we truly want to find our way to expressing our unique voice…at least that is my feeling.

  3. Could that very successful former teacher’s initials be CVA by any chance? Having taught Design and Illustration myself, I think he stopped
    to comment because it was eye stopping and he liked it. Was there anything about the way he said what he did that made it sound negative, or just your insecurities? I think there are interesting hints of what later became your sewn work, color and design wise in the Laplander.
    Thanks for sharing your war stories”. Others adventures in Illustration Land are always a comfort and most interesting.

    • I wondered whether people would try to guess the teacher’s identity. Sorry, but I think it’s best to keep it a mystery. It could be that he noticed my work because he found it interesting, but I recall that his tone was negative and judgemental. That I heard it that way could be a reflection of my insecurities and imaturity, and my opinion of him based on my classmate’s reaction to him as a teacher. So much for analysis 30 years later!

  4. You were so lucky to have had a wonderful teacher who helped guide you to your artistic path- I think that is very unusual. Most of us had that other kind of teacher all through art school.

  5. I like your perspective Salley. What we say, what we mean by what we say and how we interpret what others say are not always the same thing. What I like to focus on is the fabulous instructor who guided you. Of for more of those kind of teachers in this world.

  6. Salley, I just discovered your wonderful blog. I have long been a fan of your work, books, kits and website. As a Kindergarten teacher, I’m very excited about your soon to be released nursery rhyme book. When reading your blog and viewing the photos and especially your art, I’m inspired to make time for my own art.

    I was surprised to see that Ashley Wolff and Holly Berry were at RISD with you. They are also two of my favorite children’s book illustrators. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I have met Ashley a couple of times while she visited my children’s elementary school. She always speaks highly of her time at the RISD.

    Thank you so much for taking the time to write about your life as an artist.

  7. Good Morning, Salley!

    I think as we go through life we should file other people’s criticism the same place we file their praise… in a “miscellaneous” file… not to be discarded but to be kept in perspective. Any creative process we go through… whether it be painting, needle work, cooking, or in my opinion, child rearing… will be appreciated by some and disparaged by others. Although this instructor’s comment obviously had an impact on you, I’m glad you did not allow it to stifle that lovely child like exhilaration that has remained apparent in your work throughout your lifetime… for which I am MOST grateful 🙂

    Now on the the piece itself… I LOVE IT! You can sense the freedom and joy in each color and content face. I think this would be a wonderful experience to share with children. I plan to turn the wall of my dining room into a giant canvas and allow my grandbabies to create. Thanks for sharing this painting and story. Every time I come to your blog I’m so delighted that you squirreled away all these precious pieces! I will be linking to your site on Facebook. I’m sure many of my readers will be inspired to offer their children the possibilities a large canvas offers!

  8. I love your story and I absolutely love your painting – I would hang it on the wall in my home! It is just the sort of folk art that would allow one to get lost in happy thoughts. Thank you for sharing…

  9. I love seeing the work you have saved . The illustration is amazing and is so much like your textile work…even the figures look like they could be standing off of the fabric with their pipe cleaner legs and amazing felt colors !!! It is also amazing what perspective teaches us ( in art AND in life)

  10. Hi Sally. Came upon your blog by happy accident. Love your story and your beautiful work!!! Wonderful to see the photo of the three of you and Judy Sue. Sending warm wishes (PS …isn’t it amazing how brittle newsprint gets after all these years!)

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