The children are gone, the house is sold; 87-year-old artist finally has time to paint |
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The scent of flaxseed oil and turpentine wafted through the air, and 4-year-old Chloe Fonda was mesmerized. It was 1939, and it was a tiny thing watching his retired midwife grandmother, Chloe Wassum, paint landscapes in oil. The namesake granddaughter was destined to be a farm girl in the San Joaquin Valley, but Fonda loved the magic trick of turning a drop of pigment into an image. She knew from that tender age that she didn’t want to stay on the vast barley ranch east of Modesto; she wanted to be an artist.
Now at 87, everything is going for Fonda.
“If there’s a moral to the whole story, it’s never give up,” Fonda said, sitting in her studio in downtown Sacramento’s Warehouse Artist Lofts, known as WAL. “I am having the most wonderful experience of my life.”
She said she produced more work in her two years at WAL than in the previous 50 years. Fonda credited four things: ‘No garden, no kids, no dogs and I barely feed him,’ she said pointing to her husband, James Fonda.
The artist describes his work as “playing”. She loves bold colors and patterns, and in a series of mixed media works she has painted still lifes of fruit then pasted on real fruit stickers – it’s not just a banana, but a Dole Banana . In a portrait of James playing cards at their small kitchen table, Fonda includes, at the bottom of the canvas, his own perfect cribbage hand, about to beat him. In the background she painted the clipboard they actually use to keep score for their daily card games (she makes it look like it’s pretty evenly spread across the board, but when a reporter saw the 2022 score sheet last Wednesday, Fonda was 13 games ahead).
Distractions en route to the studio
Fonda and her husband spent two years on the waiting list for their bright, subsidized apartment, and she’s already waited for opportunities. In the 1950s and 60s, Fonda postponed art school for over a decade. She spent a year in Oakland at the California College of the Arts, when it was called the California College of Arts and Crafts. But after two semesters, she moved back to the San Joaquin Valley and got married. She had two children and stopped painting for 10 years, instead spending her time “being the perfect mother” to her two sons.
She had seen her beloved grandmother find time to paint in her retirement, only after her husband had left; she knew that her grandmother had learned to paint in the first place only because she had been “a spinster” who had remained unmarried for her 20s. Knowing this, Fonda kept her year in art school in the back of her mind as she grew into a young mother. When Fonda was around 30, she left her husband.
She recalled: “I filed for divorce, I woke up the next morning, I was like, ‘I have to go back and finish. “”
Fonda graduated in 1969 and became a graphic designer; she found a job in a winery alongside male colleagues who she said made twice as much money for the same job. Then she married James, a family law attorney, and moved into a Victorian house in Alameda, where they lived with their sons from her previous marriage. their daughter was born in 1973. They install skylights and transform the attic into an art studio.
When the couple later returned to Oakdale to be closer to their parents, they bought a property with a chicken coop that had already been converted into an artist’s workspace.
But Fonda never had much time for art – the house was on two acres, with a huge yard and a rose garden she tended. She had to go through a plethora of planted distractions just to get to her studio. James said she usually turns her attention to something else before she even gets to the old chicken coop where she worked.
Work in the artist lofts in the warehouse
When the Fondas’ daughter, Gioia Fonda, suggested they move to Sacramento to an “artist’s loft” where Fonda could finally concentrate, it seemed like a great idea. “We looked at seniors’ apartments,” James said; Fonda interrupted him, “and they don’t look half as fun.” WAL, they thought, would give Fonda a chance to meet other artists and tear out the pages of old art manuals to make a collage for a new headboard. In 2020, they got rid of all the stuffy old china that Fonda always hated anyway and filled their new kitchen cabinets with vibrant Fiestaware.
Gioia is an art professor at Sacramento City College, a point of pride (as Fonda said, “I raised – we raised – another baby artist”). Before her parents moved to WAL, Gioia composed small business cards with a cartoon illustration of the couple and distributed them to friends in the building.
Due to the ongoing pandemic, Fonda hasn’t met as many other performers in the complex as she would like, but she is sometimes recognized in the elevator, due to business cards. She opens the doors of her studio to visitors every first Friday, asking people to wear masks when they come inside to view her art because, as a handwritten sign near the door said in July, “Chloe really is an old lady”.
Throughout his life, Fonda said, art was “always a bit of a hobby, a hobby, never serious.” She always feels less serious about her work – she sees herself as play and learning. “I’m just trying to figure it out,” she said. “I’m 87, so I have no time to waste.”
Now that she finally has the freedom to focus on her work, “It was delicious.”
Discover the art of Fonda for yourself
Along with other artists, Chloe Fonda opens her studio on First Fridays at Warehouse Artist Lofts. The public event takes place monthly at 1108 R St, Sacramento, CA 95811, from 6-9 p.m. Fonda’s Instagram is @chloefondaart.
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