Saturday, July 23, 2011

Artist and nurse-midwife Penelope Caldwell births new work in her mountain studio

It's no surprise to see a sculpture of a woman giving birth in the studio of an artist who also is a nurse-midwife.

The wax figure is a little larger than life. She is naked, on all fours, long hair hanging over her face, back arched, tiny face jutting from the birth canal. You can see the effort that it takes to push new life out into the world.

"That's me," says Penelope Caldwell.

Penelope and Jim Caldwell have two grown children. The scene depicted in the sculpture happened several decades ago. But as the two of them survey the sculpture, Wyomingarts gets the impression that it seems like only yesterday.

It's Thursday and we're at Penelope's rural Albany County studio, just north of Wood's Landing, to select art for the upcoming fellowship biennial. As is the case with many Wyoming artists, Penelope sculpts and paints big. Jim, too, is an artist but teaches computer science at the University of Wyoming about 25 miles up the road. He's a hunter -- skulls of deer he shot hang on the front wall. He spends his spare time exploring the local landscape of sage-covered hills that rise up into wooded, rocky slopes.

Penelope shows biennial curator Nancy Bowen some of the paintings she submitted for the 2010 fellowship competition. They are large nudes, such as "Mail Order Brides Come with Baggage." The painting hangs just off the house's spacious, light-filled great room. It shows a woman flanked by two large dogs. In the guest bedroom, a pregnant and very sad black woman reclines on a cot. The painting reflects Penelope's experiences at birthing centers in Nicaragua and Honduras, places where women are treated more like cows than human beings. The artist will be heading off to Honduras again in November.

Another big painting hangs in the hallway leading to the studio. This one shows two handsome nude black men. Penelope knew the subjects in San Francisco, but that's all that she will say. Very mysterious.

But when it comes to her portraits of an elderly gentleman, she opens up. They are of her father, a military veteran, a learned man who spoke seven languages but one who had a difficult life. One of the portraits shows him sitting naked and forlorn, black shoes his only adornment. In another, he is shown standing, wearing a military greatcoat complete with medals. He walks with a cane. He wears the same spit-shined shoes with drooping socks.

Wyomingarts thinks, "There's a story here." Wyomingarts thinks that about all of the paintings.

Photos (top to bottom):
1. Biennial curator Nancy Bowen (left) interviews artist Penelope Caldwell about her work. At right is part
of Penelope's self-portrait wax sculpture of her giving birth.
2. Nancy Bowen and Penelope Caldwell discuss some of the artist's newest paintings.
3. Penelope Caldwell, "Mail Order Brides Come with Baggage," oil on paper, 90"x52"

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