Storytelling with a brush
By Kami Collins
Published Wednesday, November 15, 2017 10:54 am
God Decorated the Trees
It's hard to say if Cami Bair is primarily a painter who uses stories to enhance her work, or if she's really a storyteller who uses pictures to amplify her stories. But she melds the two art forms so beautifully that the line between storyteller and painter blends, and the end result is just simply the best kind of story: full of feeling and wonder and color and life. A story you remember, long after you've read the words and seen the painting.
Her paintings are more than pretty pictures -- they are very intimate snapshots of her life. Like her painting "God Decorated the Trees," a nighttime scene in the middle of a frosty winter forest. Looking at it, you can feel the joy emanating from the two figures in the painting; you can almost feel that frosty air biting at your cheeks. Seeing the painting would be enough to get that feeling, but Cami types up a few short lines to tell the story behind each of her paintings, adding depth and feeling to what you're seeing. In "God Decorated the Trees," she writes:
"Christmas Eve, cross-country skiing up McClure Pass...
"The moon on the breast
of the new fallen snow,
gave the luster of mid-day
to objects below..."
[from "'Twas The Night Before Christmas"]
And the moon did just that: glazed with rime, everything commenced to twinkling: a thousand flashes of color."
About 24 years ago, after having just relocated to Colorado, Cami's husband Bruce decided that a quick cross-country skiing expedition on the top of McClure would be a wonderful way to celebrate Christmas Eve. She had never been cross-country skiing, and the night seemed perfect. It was unbelievably cold, she remembers, close to -30 degrees. "We got out of the car, and the cold hit us like a wave," she said. "We were the only people up there -- no one else was that crazy," she laughed. The two set off into the trees. "As we skied, the moon was really close, just gigantic as it sailed over the top of the West Elk Mountains," she tells. "There was a rime of frost covering everything. The minute that moonlight hit the forest, it just started twinkling and sparkling, every color you could imagine. It looked like Christmas lights." In the hush of the snow-covered forest, Bruce told her that it looked like God had decorated the trees for Christmas.
Though that nighttime ski trip happened many years ago, Cami just painted this scene about four years ago. She's not the typical artist in that she has to put paint on paper every day, or even every week. In fact, she only paints twice a year, when her busy schedule -- as an elementary school teacher at North Fork Montessori at Crawford and as a farm owner -- allows it. That means she pretty much only paints on winter break and February break from school, when the farm chores are less demanding. But that gap in time is a great thing, she said. "My paintings are real experiences tempered by the patina of a memory," she said. "Memories have emotions. There is more than just the experience in my paintings -- there is what I felt, too." Also, she jokes, if she wasn't so busy the rest of the year, she wouldn't have anything to paint.
She was once told by her high school art teacher that her work was "basic," a criticism that stung so much she didn't pick up a paintbrush for several years. It was only after a traumatic college breakup that she decided to paint again. She had fallen in love with a guy who dumped her after only a month. "Being in my early 20s, you know, one always takes that a little too seriously," she said, laughing. But the pain that 20-something felt sparked something: she went right home, and painted for a straight 24 hours. She picked up a watercolor set her uncle had given her as a gift, a gift previously untouched, and she painted, and painted, and painted, channelling all the energy of her broken heart. "It was so overwhelming; I thought the world had ended," she recalls. "So I decided to paint what love should be." That painting featured Cami swimming in a lake at night, surrounded by a forest of trees. She also painted a man into the scene with her, a man who looked nothing like the boyfriend she'd just broken up with. "I didn't want to paint the guy who dumped me -- I wanted to paint what love should look like. I was moving on!" she said.
Funnily enough, that slim, dark-haired swimmer looked an awful lot like one of her college friends, Bruce. And funnily enough, it was just a short time after Cami crafted that painting that she and Bruce fell in love, married, and decided to move to Colorado, where Bruce's family is from.
Cami's life is the inspiration behind all of her paintings, such as "The Womb." About this painting, one of her favorites, she writes:
"In a storm, a side chapel felt warm, sacred...
Candlelight, bearing my votive in vigil...
Years later, my turn for bearing. My votive: You are sacred to me."
Again, the actual memory behind this painting happened many years ago, when Cami attended school in Austria for a short time. At the time she painted "The Womb," she was pregnant with her first child. "I was trying to think how she felt inside me," Cami explained, and then she remembered this particular scene from her time in Austria. After her school days, while waiting for the bus to take her home, she remembers the kids lined up waiting for the bus, and how rambunctious they were, so rowdy and loud that Cami didn't want to ride the bus home. Instead, she waited for her aunt to get off of work, and while she waited, she wandered the streets. One cold, snowy day, to escape the weather, Cami stumbled into a church. She made her way into one of the smaller rooms in the church, a room lit by dozens of votive candles that had been lit as prayers from other church goers. Sitting in the room, surrounded by the haze and light and warmth of the candles, Cami remembers feeling at peace. "It felt very sacred, very safe," she recalls. So when, many years later, when trying to imagine what her unborn daughter must feel like, she remembered the safety, warmth and security of the church. "I thought that's how she must feel, so I decided to paint that," Cami said. The Bairs gave birth to a healthy baby girl, whom they named Vela, which means candle. They also have a son, Jack.
A self-taught artist, Cami tells her stories in watercolor. "I am pretty in love with watercolor," she said, because this particular medium reminds her of her job teaching children through the Montessori model. To paint a watercolor, she explained, you first begin by sketching in the framework. "And that's kind of like my classroom," she said. Her classroom is set up very specifically, with shelves stacked with learning tools, color-coded based on ability level. Each of her students in her combined first, second and third grade class have a learning contract with her, ensuring she is meeting their educational needs, but with enough flexibility that the student can make choices for his or her learning. "I am not in total control of that kid; the whole point is that they're controlling themselves, and that's like watercolor," she said. "Because after you draw it, the minute you put that water on the paper and let the color flow, there is a mystery factor. You cannot control what it's going to do, not totally." Like educating a child with a mind of her own, trying to force watercolor to do what you want, instead of letting it flow, doesn't work. In watercolor, too many outside factors influence the finished product, such as paper quality, the humidity in the air, the amount of water in the paint, how fast it dries. "I do love that -- the unpredictability of it, and the fact that I'm setting it up but I'm also letting it do its thing," she said.
Another of her paintings, called simply, "Me," is a message for kids. About this painting, she writes:
"One of my first paintings. Life is created. We are given that gift, by our Creator. Our work, whatever form it takes, is how we give back."
The painting shows a young girl -- Cami -- climbing up into the sky on a daisy chain she wove. She painted this, she said, as a message for kids that, at least in America, you still have the power to create your own path. "In a free society, you do still create your own life, and what a wonderful thing that is," she said. "This is important for kids to understand."
Another lesson she teaches her students: Everybody has things to share. Some share with words; others share with music. "Painting is one of my ways to share," she said. "I feel like work is your way of giving back, so you may as well do it right." She prays before she ever starts a painting (she prays before she does anything, actually). "I feel like work in any form is your way of expressing your appreciation of the people that gave you what you have, your community, your environment. When you work, you're giving back," she said.
Another of her paintings, "Spirals," showcases how work, in any form, can be a blessing, and is a memory from "a quintessential hot summer day in Delta County," she said. The accompanying story to "Spirals," reads:
"Resetting a fence post, breezes in the draw were drifting my mind along spiraling swirls of cottonwood fluff. The sun slid, & with it, my heart: I'd set the post on the wrong side of the fence! Third time around, Bruce got home, came on over, & kept me grounded."
This painting is another memory, this one of work on the family farm in Crawford. One of the fence posts was rotted, and Cami set out to fix it while Bruce was at work. She worked for hours in the summer heat, digging out the rotted post and setting a fresh post, often getting distracted by the hazy summer sun and the way the cotton drifted on the breeze. This particular fence post was in an awkward location, sitting next to a ditch. It took a long time to get it out, re-dig the hole, and set the new post. "I had spent a lot of time on it," Cami said. When she finally finished, hot and sweaty and tired, she gazed proudly at her work -- it was finished! -- only to discover, much too late, that she'd set the post on the wrong side of the fence line. The whole thing would have to be re-done. Thankfully, Bruce had just come home after his own long, hot, sweaty day of work, but immediately came over to help her. "Spirals" shows the two of them fixing the fence. "He came right over, and we did it together," she said, gesturing to the painting. "The sun was setting and the cotton kept spiraling away. I think this captures that work, even if you're sweaty and tired, there is this beauty to it."
Fixing a fence, crafting a school lesson, painting a picture, telling a story... work, yes, but the best kind of work: blessings more than anything. "I feel so blessed to live here," Cami said. "Every day. Every single day is a new blessing. It's such a beautiful experience, living here. I'm so in love with life -- everything that is a part of this wonderful, huge endeavor." That overwhelming sense of awe and gratitude is evident in every brush stroke, every word in her accompanying stories. In everything she does, really.
Cami currently has a showing of her paintings at The Living Farm Cafe in Paonia.