BAYFIELD – Inspiration and art go hand in hand. Artists seek inspiration and inspiration finds artists. Dorothy Kerns sat motionless on an eastern Oregon hillside – nature her inspiration – looking for one of her favorite subjects to paint – deer. Then inspiration found her.
“I had been sitting about a half-hour and none came so I figured I would wait another five minutes,” Kerns said. “And that’s when I looked around and here he came right toward me and got about 15 feet from me.”
Kerns is looking at her painting of a mountain lion that hangs in the living room of her Bayfield home.
“He didn’t know I was there. I said, ‘Oh god, what do I do?’ And a voice inside my head said, ‘Stand up and face him.’ He just stood there and didn’t move and I was standing there and my blood all went to my feet and I thought, ‘I’m gonna die.’ I couldn’t run because he would chase me.”
She reached down and picked up a stick and threw it toward him. The lion didn’t budge. She barked like a dog.
“It was the only thing I could think to do,” Kerns said. “He probably thought I was crazy. And it was maybe 10 minutes and finally he turned and went back down the hill. Never made a sound.”
The cat was a big one and had more markings on its face than most. She returned to camp and a doubting husband. “He said, ‘Awe you didn’t see a cougar.’ And then the thing came out in a big field – walked right out,” Kerns said and laughed. “I carried a 44 pistol around after that.”
Ninety-three years of living has only stoked the fires of inspiration that lead Kerns to create. She makes pillows and embroiders and braids rugs made from thrift store sheets. But her passion is painting.
“Since Christmas I said I wanted to improve my art work, and one of the best ways is either paint nudes or do drawings, so I got books at the library and there are some real good drawing lessons in there,” she said. “And I said I would either paint or draw every day. I’ve missed five days since I started. I’m feeling that I have improved my art work.”
Ignacio Community Library displays Kerns paintings. Dorothy Williams, who manages the service desk, adores Kerns and her work. As do the people who purchased her drawings at a gala fundraiser in January.
“People were just so impressed with her,” Williams said. “She’s such a neat lady and she’s very outgoing.” Williams purchased one of Kerns paintings. “It’s of Vallecito and I hike Vallecito and it just takes me right back to that hike. The painting is just wonderful. I’m very pleased and I’m so happy that I bought it.”
Kerns in turn is grateful to have the library as an outlet. Her paintings sell for $75 to $300.
“Thank heavens,” she says. “I really appreciate it. You get kind of bogged down painting pictures unless somebody gets you motivated. I was here 10 years before I had anywhere to hang my pictures besides this house.”
Kerns paints and draws in her spare-bedroom studio about five hours a day. In the past she has drawn portraits in charcoal – 32 sketches of people in a park on one day. And she has painted with oil and watercolor – which brought her biggest commission. But these days she draws in graphite and paints with acrylic.
“Acrylic is my favorite because I can do so many things with it,” she said. “I mess around with a picture too much and with oil it gets all gray. But with acrylic it dries fast enough so that I can put another color on top without spoiling what’s underneath.”
Kerns’ paintings celebrate Western landscapes and wildlife – the sagebrush West with its elk and mule deer. California’s flowering winter trees left her wanting when she stayed with her daughter. There was nothing familiar, which led her to improve upon her abilities by attending nude drawing classes.
“I have a couple of sketchbooks full of nudes,” Kerns said. “My sister said, ‘Aren’t you going to do anything but draw naked people?’ She didn’t realize it’s one of the best ways to be trained for drawing.”
The complications in the angles and the subtle changes in color and value make it complicated, she explained.
“There aren’t an awful lot of people who do people on account of that,” she said. “You see a lot of landscapes with nobody in them because the most difficult thing to work in is the portrait business. I couldn’t do it because it took all of the fun out of it, trying to please somebody with their picture. The first thing they see is what’s wrong with it. It gives me a headache.”
Kerns paints from photos and memory. She loves color. Blue is her favorite. It used to be green. She can paint people – an occasional cowboy plays guest star among the cows and horses. And she doesn’t buy that bit artists say about horses.
“Artists say you can’t paint a horse unless you can ride one,” she says. “Do you have to ride a cow to paint a cow? Or a bear to paint a bear? That’s nonsense.”
Kerns was born on the edge of the Pacific in her grandmother’s home in North Bend, Oregon. Her mother was a painter who encouraged Kerns and her older sister in art. Kerns taught college drawing classes for eleven years – the thought of which left her so weak in the knees she had to lay down before her first day on the job. She has award-ribbons for her paintings and pillows that hang near the color palette in her studio.
“People think an artist’s world is a different world entirely and actually it’s always been my main world,” Kerns said. “If I couldn’t paint I don’t know what I’d do other than make pillows. But I don’t want to do that anymore. I want to improve my art work so that’s my main goal right now.”
Friend and neighbor Kelley Sutherlin met Dorothy when Kerns moved to Bayfield 11 years ago.
“Dorothy is an open book and she’s very inspiring,” said Sutherlin who makes and sells jewelry. “It’s interesting to be around an artist because they really do look at the world through a different eye. She just sees differently than people who don’t do art and paintings.”
Kerns takes photos for inspiration during their drives together. They’ll pull over for windmills and cows.
“And she might say, ‘Look at that sky,’ and I’ll say, ‘Yeah, that’s pretty, and she’ll say, ‘But you could never paint it that way because it wouldn’t look real,’” Sutherlin said. “And you realize she’s right. But the way that she sees color and perspective, it’s really neat to hear an artist and kind of be in their brain and see how they see the world.”
Kerns demurred to a master when asked about advice for aspiring artists.
“Picasso said that if you want to paint everyday or so just go sit down where your easel is ... start cleaning your palette ... and the next thing you know you are working on your art. And it works.
“I think anybody who has the urge to paint is really blessed because it takes your mind off everything you worry about,” she said. “I don’t worry about health or anything else when I’m doing my art work.”