An Interview with Judy Dykstra-Brown, Teacher, Artist, Poet, Part I

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Judy Dykstra-Brown

When I first started blogging more than five years ago, one of the first blogs I discovered was lifelessons–a blog by Judy Dykstra-Brown. I took part in blogging challenges, and so did Judy. As I perused other responses to the challenges, I often found Judy’s, and often they were poems–very good poems. I was hooked.

When I asked Judy if I could interview her for ARHtististic License, I was thrilled that she agreed. I knew she was interesting, but I didn’t realize the depth of her genius until I read her responses. Frankly, she sent me so much material that I soon realized I couldn’t squeeze it all into one article and do her justice. So I’m breaking it into two parts. If by the time you get to the end of this article you’re dying for more, you’ll have to just click on the link above to her blog until Saturday, when Part II will appear here on ARHtistic License.

Judy with her husband, Bob Brown, in front of their booth at an art show. I think it’s interesting how alike their faces are. Look at their eyes, cheekbones, and smiles.

ARHtistic License: You have worn many hats: English teacher, television production, artist, poetry journal editor, photographer, author, and blogger. Did I get everything?

Judy Dykstra-Brown: I was also the curator of shows for an art center. 

AL: You have lived in interesting places, including Australia and Ethiopia. What took you there?

JD-B: From the time I was a tiny girl, I wanted to travel. When I was 11, I asked my folks if I could go on a tour for teenagers organized by Seventeen magazine. Of course, they refused, but by the time I was in high school I was driving all over the state to All State Chorus, district MYF meetings for the church we belonged to, and basketball games. I was the youngest of three daughters and they had sort of worn out in terms of driving kids, so I was given a lot more freedom than my sisters. Finally, during my junior year in college, they agreed to let me go on World Campus Afloat—a college campus on a boat that sailed around the world, stopping at a number of ports during its 4 month journey. They thought it would get travel out of my system, but I couldn’t wait to graduate and go back to my favorite place on the trip: Kenya. I absolutely loved Africa, but the only two places in the world that advertised that they  would hire a teacher with no experience were Isfran, Iran and Australia. So I actually emigrated to Australia and taught there for a year and a half before taking off to travel through Timor, Bali, Indonesia, Singapore, Sri Lanka and finally—Africa. Due to a series of misadventures, I ended up staying and teaching school in Ethiopia for a year and a half while my travel companion went on without me. 

Retablo by Judy Dykstra-Brown

AL: You were a television production assistant. What shows did you work on? How did you land that job?

JD-B: I did P.R. and publicity for The Bob Hope Specials on NBC and also for his specials in Denmark and Tahiti.

I was studying film production and Screenwriting at UCLA and participating in an actor’s studio as well, thinking I needed to know all sides of the business, but after working on a couple of documentaries, I became disillusioned with the dynamics and decided to take a poetry class to regain my soul. I took two semesters from an excellent poetry teacher at UCLA and then heard about a charismatic actor and poet, Jack Grapes, so switched to his weekly workshop. There I became friends with a woman who was an assistant in charge of public-relations and publicity for Bob Hope. At that time, my income suddenly dried up when a company who bought a ranch I had a share in defaulted on their loan payments and we had to repossess the ranch my sisters and mother and I had inherited when my dad died.

I had quit teaching a couple of years before to come to CA to write the great American novel (still unfinished nearly 40 years later.) My friend had not had a raise in the 6 years she’d worked for Hope, plus no health insurance, and when they wouldn’t give her a raise, she quit. Her boss asked if there was anyone she could recommend to take her job. Knowing I was suddenly without a means of support, she suggested me. Her boss asked about me and she said I was a poet and studying film production, but the thing that really earned me the job was that I had spent a few years traveling through Australia, Indonesia, Asia and Africa after I’d graduated from college, ending up in Ethiopia where I got a job teaching English in a local school and had a number of adventures.

It turned out that the man hiring me was a travel writer for the L.A. times during the 5 months a year when everyone in the production company was laid off because there was no show in production. So, I got a job in publicity and P.R. not because I had any experience in those fields but because of my poetry and my travel experience. I was actually at a poetry conference in Napa when I got a phone call from my friend and her boss interviewed me over the phone. At the end of our talk, he asked me to come in for one week on a trial basis when I came back to L.A., and I ended up working there for 3 years until I married and moved to Boulder Creek.

Retablo by Judy Dykstra-Brown.

AL: When did you begin making art? Do you have any special art training?

JD-B: I started doing art when I had writer’s block and Jack Grapes, who headed up my writer’s workshop in Hollywood, forbid me to write and told me to do art instead. I insisted that I didn’t know anything about making art and he said, “That’s why I want you to do it. You know too much about literature and writing and that is getting in your way. You’re too concerned about what you ‘should’ be doing. I want you to do something you don’t know how to do!” So I went to a variety store—what we once would have called a dime store, and just bought a bunch of silly stuff: confetti, a rubber mouse and other assorted things. The summer before, the man who became my husband and I went on a driving vacation through Europe and I was amused by all the various little disposable aluminum jam and butter receptacles and I’d saved them all. I cut them up into three-dimensional shapes and took my poems and cut them in thin strips and made little figures out of them and glued them to heavy watercolor paper along with the things I’d bought. They were totally silly but I had such fun making them. I remember the first one I made had the title “Party Mouse Wants To Come Play But Can’t.” It included a rubber mouse and the confetti with a little fence around the mouse and I don’t remember what else, all glued to a Morilla block. At any rate, Jack had told me to bring them to next week’s workshop, but I was embarrassed and just left them in the car. When my turn came to present, he asked me if I’d done the art he told me to and I said yes, but they were dumb. He asked where they were and I said in the car and he told me to go down and get them. So I did, and they passed them around the circle.

At the end of the session, a woman came up to me who had a gallery in L.A. and she asked if she could exhibit them there. I was too embarrassed and said no, I wasn’t really an artist, but within a few months, I had married Bob, who was an artist and also a poet. We moved up to the redwoods and I fully intended to go back to teaching. I had taken and passed the CBEST test and planned on applying to teach the next year so Bob could stop teaching and do art full time. In the interim, I was doing little collages on stone and he said if I was going to do collage I needed to learn more about joining than simple cold joining. He talked me into taking a silversmithing class and that class led to another and another with the result that I never did go back to teaching and I ended up making my living making silver jewelry for the next 14 years. After my second class, he entered two of my pieces into the CA State Fair and I won first prize for them. I was astonished. He also entered me in an art fair in Oceanside. I was so embarrassed, but was delighted when people bought the jewelry. I took a photo of every person who bought a piece of my jewelry that day!  Ha.  Later I became a papermaker and made washi shades for all of my husband’s lamps, then started making art lamps myself as well. I didn’t go back to writing for 5 years. By then I was the curator of an art center and curated a show called “The Poet’s Eye, The Artist’s Tongue” which wedded art and poetry. I wrote a poem to go with another artist’s painting and then ended up doing several other art pieces that involved words which lead to starting a reading series at the gallery. And Jack was right. I came back to writing from a completely different slant after that.

Jewelry by Judy Dykstra-Brown.

AL: Do you have any funny stories about your work?

JD-B: When I was making jewelry, I remember feeling as though it was a very self-indulgent pastime. Prior to moving to California, I had been an English teacher for 10 years and felt that although I loved being a metal smith, it wasn’t really a job that was of benefit to anyone else. I think I had been doing shows for about three years and every time I did a show within 50 miles or so of San Francisco, one woman would always come and buy at least one piece of jewelry. Then two and sometimes three pieces. Then during one show, she came up to me and said, “You know you have changed my whole life.” Puzzled, I asked how that could be, and she said, “Well, you know I’m a nurse, and every year I go to this convention of health workers and because I’m not very outgoing, I never really used to meet anyone, but then three years ago, I wore one of your brooches, and people kept coming up to me and asking about it and because you always told me the stories behind the pieces, I had something to talk to them about. Pretty soon, every time I’d go to one, people would come up to see what new piece of jewelry I had, and eventually I knew lots of people and because we’d already broken the ice, we always had something to talk about”. My husband Bob always did say that he thought art could change the world, and I guess after that, I believed him. Never again did I question the worth of what I was doing.

About the above photos, Judy says, “These are some of the hundreds of vases Bob made so we could do shows together–me selling my jewelry and him the vases. I only have one–the carved dragon–only because the lady who bought it gave it back to me after he died. I’m looking at it now as I keep it on my desk.”

JD-B: Okay, another story. When I started doing shows, my husband Bob, who was a sculptor, decided he wanted to do something on a smaller scale than his very big sculptures so he could do shows with me, so he started making incredible ikebana vases out of wood, stone and bamboo. Each vase he made was unique and I would do an ikebana arrangement in each one. After a few years, those vases grew into huge lamps and I started making handmade paper lampshades that looked more like big sails or big cocoons than traditional lampshades. Some of the large lamps were rather expensive and there was one couple who would come to every show in San Francisco, Sausalito and the surrounding towns in the bay area. They would spend a long time looking at each lamp, but never bought anything. Finally, after three years or so, the man came to a show in Sausalito and bought three of our most expensive lamps. As I wrote up the order, I couldn’t help but ask why, after all these years, he had finally bought not a lamp, but three of them! 

Because, he told me, that entire time he knew he was going to divorce his wife and he didn’t want her to get the lamps in a divorce settlement! And, the plot thickens. We delivered the lamps to his house, then went back to do two more days of the show. The day after the show ended, there was a Cirque de Soleil show in San Francisco, so we spent an extra night at my friend Sharon’s house in Berkeley so we could go to see it. The tent was so full that we couldn’t find three seats together, so Bob sat in the front row in front of the stage and Sharon and I sat in seats far away higher up in the risers on the side of the stage. During one performance, clowns started drawing people from the audience to come up on stage and Bob was one of the first people they chose. Now I must explain that Bob had a Santa Claus beard and long white hair that came to his shoulders. He loved wild Balinese-print batik pants, and red high-top suede sneakers. He was a handsome man and although rather quiet in private life, on the stage he came alive. Accustomed to performing his poetry in public, he was much more at ease center-stage than he was fighting it out with the hoi-polloi in real life. So, of course, the clowns made much of his hair and clothes, but Bob gave them back tit for tat and the crowd was laughing as loudly at his quips as those of the clowns. So, when they sent the rest of the people back to their seats, they kept Bob up on the stage for another 5 minutes or so.

The show ended and as Sharon and I stood in front of the tent waiting for Bob to find us, who should stroll up but the big spender who had just purchased our three lamps! He was with a very pretty girl and when he saw me, he came right over to me and asked where Bob was. I explained and he said, “Well, there’s someone here I have to introduce him to!” Turns out that before the show, as they were sitting in the audience, he started telling her about these fantastic lamps he had just bought, describing Bob as this eccentric character. She asked why eccentric, what did he look like, and just then, he looked up and the clowns were pulling Bob up to the stage. “He looks like that!” he said. “That’s the man!” The girl would not believe him. It was just too much of a coincidence to be true. We were in a town where neither of us lived, not even the town where he’d purchased the lamps. The chance that we would run into each other was just about nil and yet, there was the object of his story, up on the stage at Cirque de Soleil!  And just then, Bob strolled up, and the girl was finally convinced.

Above are some of the beautiful lamps made by Bob and Judy. Click on an image to enlarge it.

Do you agree that Judy Dykstra-Brown is an amazing artist and a captivating intellect? Be sure to check back on Saturday for the conclusion of this interview.

14 responses »

  1. Hi Andrea. I thank you for having the interest to interview me. I want to emphasize that the genius behind the lamps and vases shown was my husband’s, not mine. I made and applied the paper that completed them and did the ikebana arrangements, but he did the really hard labor of working the wood and stone and conceiving the incredible designs. He was also the one responsible for making me realize that I, too, was an artist. The minute I had an interest in anything, he procured or made me the tools to realize that interest, pushed me to exhibit and instilled in me the belief that art can change the world. It certainly changed ours.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Judy thank you for letting Andrea interview you. And thanks to Andrea too. A fascinating journey you have taken both around the world and through the arts. Not sure which parts of the interview I like best. The part where your (zen) poetry teacher told you to switch to art to free your mind. Or the part with you and Bob at Cirque de Soleil.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Wow, wow, wow, my friend Judy is amazing. I already knew that and I have begged her to write her amazing stories, but now we have some of them here. Glad to read all of it. Judy’s the best, and most talented, and MOST GENEROUS person I know currently. She’s an inspiration to me on so many levels. Thanks for doing this interview.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Are you the Perry I know from La Manz? I was in Ethiopia in 1973 and 1974–during the start of the revolution, but with none of us knowing exactly what it was going to lead to. The high school I taught in was one of the most revolutionary. I think I have a couple of stories on my blog about when the students rioted. If you search for “Ethiopia” you should find them–if you are interested. You must have stories to tell, as well. That’s some rough country.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Judy’s blog was among the first blogs that I discovered as well. I knew that she has had an adventurous life, but I did not know how fascinating it was! I loved the stories about her work and how, “Never again did I question the worth of what I was doing.” The story about the Cirque du Soleil was hilarious!

    Liked by 2 people

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