Learning to Celebrate with Sandi Ludescher

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“I knew how to take a negative and get power out of that.”

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sandi ludescher

Picture her fingers waiting to pluck the strings
Imagine the strings in the dark waiting to vibrate
but there is silence there
and the vibrations are in her fingers
she trembles
that chemical fear that only some of us know
only those of us with a phobia
know this kind of fear
it’s overwhelming her
freezing her hands in the air
an angel afraid to stroke the harp
back in the shadows of the stage
nobody notices much
because it’s only the harp
and when her fingers do pluck the strings
they sound beautiful

her paintings wait for her brush
collecting dust in her studio
patiently sitting in time

fast forward
she sits with her harp
with that same fear
in front of a group of 75
75 dying people losing their minds and their memories
an old man steps up to her stage and drops his pants as she plays
another old man proposes to her
and then another
and another old man guffaws at her and throws imaginary chickens at her feet
and that terror is still there
her fingers pluck through the fear
her hands find ways around the chemistry of freezing
and she plays
and she plays
and she plays the harp
she’s not on the stage anymore when she’s there
she sees them instead
these souls that listen
she realizes that the harp is not her performance
the sounds are for them
It’s not her on the stage anymore
just the sound
of strings
she shares the music
swiftly with courage and grace and confidence

back in her studio her brush is dipped in vivid color
and a stroke lights up the old canvas
glowing in the daylight
her heart opens up
blossoms with every stroke of the brush
the fear withers and falls away
and she blossoms into an artist
filling canvas after canvas after canvas
with faces and colors
with people staring back at us
painted people with painted faces

This is Sandi Ludescher and there is so much more to her story…

A brush covers lines as drawings vanish beneath wet paint like prehistoric treasures buried under wet sand
But not for long
Soon, a small hand holding a color strokes the fresh new surface, and her parents are confounded about just what to do until a brilliant idea strikes—

Marlite! Panels and panels of Marlite like dry-erase-board so their daughter can draw all she wants because there’s no use trying to stop her or crying over spilled paint.

Their three-year-old becomes eight and goes with grandma to a little art gallery in California. The house with Marlite walls is hundreds of days back in Illinois, and it’s been long years since she’s painted on walls.
“How do you think they make these pictures?” Her grandmother asks.
“Oh they paint them and they have paint erasers!” says the child, imagining a magical tool that can lift paint right off the canvas or lay it down at will and she wants to try it but she knows she can’t draw. She’s no good. She always got C’s in art class at school. Even her stick figures were only C’s. And this child thought she couldn’t draw until she tried again one day

Curiosity by Sandi Ludescher

It was an elephant! “Look mom, look!” shouts the child
“Oh wow! Did you trace that?” asks her mother.
“No” and the girl beams with pride, “I drew it. Watch I’ll do another one!” and she did. She drew another elephant, and another and another.
It’s only a mile to Disneyland and the girl begins to draw more and more cartoon characters

but at Knoxberry Farm there’s something special
something remarkable

and it comes from the sound of roller skates racing across the ceiling.
It was the neighbors who lived just above them, every time their mother left for work in the evening the kids would skate across the hardwood floors all night and this is how they met The Artist. She was a portrait artist. They went to visit her at Knoxberry Farm and one day she drew them a portrait of grandfather. It looked just like him, just like his picture.
Pastels. She used pastels.

“I was fascinated just watching her,” says Ludescher, “but I never thought that I could draw more than cartoons.” But Ludescher was inspired by more than cartoons. On family vacations, they’d travel from California to the Chicago area and always go through New Mexico’s monsoon season. She saw the desert skies filled with colorful lightning, pouring down the colors of rain, refreshing our desert here. She’d watch the land drink on their way to Chicago and back every year. It really is The Land of Enchantment.

 

 

Curiosity by Sandi Ludescher

Fast forward a little bit. Now it’s the 60’s. The wild, vibrant, rebellious sixties and Sandi Ludescher is a teenaged girl and still as stubborn as she was at three years old when she drew all over the walls again and again. Don’t tell her what to do.
Her grandmother had an idea,
give her paint
give her art lessons
give her something creative to do

And so they did. The same parents who had once covered the walls with Marlite for their young daughter to draw all over went to the store and got her a set of paints and an easel and sent her to take art lessons at that little gallery where her grandmother used to ask “How do you think they did that?” and an eight-year-old girl imagined paint erasers.

 'She Dreams of Everything She Is" by Sandi LudescherWhen this rebellious teenaged girl skipped class you could find her hard at work on a painting. Her father brought her paintings to work and they sold. He started getting her commissions. She was a working artist, and then some. She picked business up fast and because she could draw, she made beautiful A+ parental signatures for $5 a forgery on pink slips for kids in school and did one for herself to go take college level figure drawing classes on Saturdays. She was brilliant and beautiful and alive.

If you ask Sandi, she’ll tell you she was just awful, but I admire her independent, bellicose, spirit. I love that she worked hard to get what she wanted and found ways to transport herself, at 15, all the way from Anaheim to Los Angeles to take figure drawing with college students—it was the 60’s after all.

But this is a true story, one with all the irony and tragedy and regret and inspiration that only a real life can attain. And so we step back a little bit
and look closer into this glimpse of Sandi Ludescher’s life.

Picture her as a girl again, a girl deep in the pages of a history book. She’s reading about Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel and she is glancing at his life as we glance at hers. She sees the nudes painted to exaggerated perfection and she believes that to be a great artist, she too would have to paint the human body into realities as convincing as these. Impossible. Unattainable. But surely college level courses would bring her closer to the artistry of the masters…

'Te Recierdo' (I Remember You) by Sandi LudescherThus was her ambition when she attended, with great anticipation, college courses with older students studying under respected professors. One class, in particular, was disenchanting in this light. Where she had hoped to learn the mysteries of the Renaissance, she was asked instead to figure out what art really was with other students who were given no instruction and it was demonstrably acceptable to take trash out of dumpsters and just hang it on the wall. This was disappointing to the young Michelangelist and it made the idea of graduate school in an art institute seem a laughable waste of time.

And anyway, taking out student loans for graduate school would make her parents look bad for not supporting her and her father didn’t see what use it was to educate a girl in the first place. They soon got their wish for her future when she married young and put her childhood paintings aside to be a good wife to a husband who only wanted her to be a good wife and nothing more. Perhaps she really was happy and perhaps, at first, perhaps she really was in love. But those pages filled with Michelangelo’s paintings were closed, her college education seemed like a trivial hobby, and that child who excitedly drew an elephant sat back and watched life go by for a little while in exchange for the trials of a woman conceding to her traditional place in the world.

'Te Amo Siempre' ('Love You Forever') by Sandi LudescherHer husband was a workaholic and she was a wife who found herself alone until she had children. And then found herself alone again, when her children were older, and the school activities she was once needed for that offered a chance to befriend the parents of her children’s friends had passed. Old friends were far away after moving again and again. She had been writing all this time. Writing as a mother and a wife, and still a child deep inside painting only a little when the house had room for it, and playing music. When she did paint she was asked by her husband to paint things that were appropriate, please. And even though her work sold she was a little apathetic, longing for the excitement of painting the people and colors she really wanted to.

Still encumbered by the conformity of taste when it came to her art, she exerted her independence openly through music, and still quietly in journals. She took the money she had made with her paintings and went out to get her chops back on the violin so that she could step away from the piano and into a chamber group. When she took her violin to get straightened up she wondered into a guitar store. The confident child inside of her had always wanted to learn guitar and told her that if she could play to such a high level on organ or piano, why not this too? Feeling ambitious, she picked out a breathtaking 12 string Washburn guitar. When the owner of the shop learned that she didn’t know how to play guitar, he refused to sell her the Washburn and insisted she learn to play on a six-string. She concedes now that he was absolutely right, but in her youth, at that time, on that day, and during her need to break free it felt like just another man telling her what to do with her life. So she went home with a 29 string harp instead. Now she’s the busiest harpist in New Mexico, but we’ll come to that in a while.

 

 

detail from 'Esperando de El Desfiles' (Awaiting for the Parade) by Sandi Ludescher

Back then, she lived in Eastern Washington, and this was before the days of meetup.org and Facebook. The internet was just getting started and the idea of having a website was new and rare. It was in this time that Ludescher started a writing group, a move that made writing her first profession since getting married. One of the group members worked for the local paper and told her they needed an editor. It was that quiet, solitary act of writing that set her free and soon allowed her to end what had been, for years, a lonely and controlling marriage. Within a year she was freelancing all over the country, traveling to places like El Salvador and Costa Rica. She began working, from afar with a website designer in New York to get her website going and then she became a staff writer in Estonia.

She lived and worked as a writer in Estonia until her Visa was lost and then returned to the Unites States. But it was the perfect opportunity to fly in and at last meet her friend, the website designer in New York, Zachary. He is blind. It hadn’t been mentioned before because, well—who was going to hire a blind graphic designer? Zachary is amazing, to say the least, and he’ll reappear in our story soon. In the meantime, Ludescher had a fantastic visit with her long time friend before returning to Eastern Washington. There was some drama, “I had moved my kids to Costa Rica for what turned out to be a summer but was supposed to be forever. I moved out in the dead of night. Didn’t tell my ex-husband, just left. I wound up having to come back with the kids.” What a whirlwind!

'We are Sweethearts' (Somos Novios) by Sandi Ludescher“When I came back my kids wanted me to stay someplace in the United States. They knew we were going to split up and they knew I needed a job.” Ludescher opted to take a job in New Mexico because it was the closest she could get to leaving the United States and still be visited by her children. She also remembered our glorious thunderstorms and neon skies from her childhood. This too brought us Zachary, who moved to Gallup to be with his long-time friend. Zachary was also a musician who could play any instrument he got his hands on. Ludescher describes Zachary’s compositions, “It’ll bring tears to your eyes…” she takes a deep breath and says, “Phenomenal”. By this time, Ludescher played organ, piano, violin, harpsichord, guitar, drums, and harp. As time went on, music would play a tremendous role in their lives.

At first, Ludescher worked as a staff writer for The Tribune for 2 1/2 years. When The Tribune closed it brought her the opportunity to go back to school. She finished her art degree at UNM in 2006. After getting her degree she had planned on devoting all of her time to painting and marketing her work, but when the economy tumbled, that just wasn’t possible. She had done lobbying and part-time work writing while she was in school. She wrote for The American Heart Association, “When they outlawed smoking in public places, I did all the writing for that…I did such a good job that it passed the first time it was voted on and I put myself out of a job.” By this time she had an extensive resume, “but the thing I didn’t realize was that I had turned 50. I was a woman and I was over a certain age.” As job after job slipped away she realized that she could not fight the economy and the fact that they could hire someone younger, with less experience, for less money. In the meantime, Ludescher had been battling her stage fright with that 29 string harp she had stubbornly learned to play in her youth.

 

'Las Tias Lolita's' (The Crazy Aunties) by Sandi Ludescher

She’d been upset because Zachary had booked them for a gig. She was upset because she had terrible stage fright and wasn’t ready for it, “I started crying, I didn’t even recognize the harp. I had to sit there mortified on the stage, I was so paralyzed.” She overcame her stage fright through a serendipitous program that had just started through UNM, Art and Medicine. A friend noticed that she was upset and Ludescher explained her predicament of stage fright.

“What do you play?” Asked her friend.

“The harp.” answered Ludescher and her friend’s eyes went wide and lit up!

“Well, I’m in Art and Medicine and the woman who’s running it is looking for someone who plays harp!”

This is how Sandi Ludescher, despite her terrible stage-fright, ended up playing the harp at UNM. Harp therapy programs had recently started and Ludescher came across an ad in the Sunday paper, ‘Hospice looking for part-time harpist’. She needed the work and when she called the number she was hired on the spot. Ludescher thought it would be okay because she imagined herself playing alone in a room for one dying person who would fall asleep or drift away in the music. Instead, what Ludescher ended up experiencing was a group of 75 Alzheimer’s patients.

“Well at least they won’t remember if you mess up.” I said to her jesting.

“No,” Ludescher replied, “but they don’t have any boundaries either. I’d have these guys standing in front of me dropping their pants, three or four of them asking to marry me every week, and I had a guy throwing imaginary chickens at me.” This audience would have given any amount of stage-fright to the most experienced musicians, “I wound up going there once a week for two years and I was absolutely terrified. It was the best thing I ever did. It was a good experience…by the end of August, I had three hospitals I was on contract with.” By her graduation in 2006, Ludescher had become the busiest harpist in New Mexico. When the market crashed in 2008 she had enough experience to start playing for weddings too.

But then, after finally getting her art degree, she felt devastated that she wasn’t painting full-time. Ludescher, the harpist, was in a deep depression for seven years and she wasn’t painting. She would walk into her painting studio and burst into tears and she didn’t know why. It may seem obvious to those of us reading her story now, but life is full of distractions. Life is long and slow while we live it and there are so many moments that become invisible to us in the present. Seven years is a long time.

It was June 3rd, 2013. She knows the exact date and moment because—after overcoming stage-fright, after working for years as a writer and traveling all over the world, after raising her children and enduring her marriage, after thinking that the lesson was that art-school was trivial as a teenaged girl—Sandi Ludescher started painting again, “All my life I had negative—“ Ludescher says beginning to slam her fist into her palm, telling her what to do, telling her what she could not do, telling her what she should not do, telling her no, “I knew how to deal with that. I knew how to take a negative and get power out of that.” That negative power ended when Zachary came into the picture and the two began life together in New Mexico. Ludescher was used to having to fight, having a catalyst to push her into something, and it threw her for a loop when she didn’t have that anymore. She had to adjust.

She realized that everything she did was a celebration. The stories she wrote celebrated events, the places she went to play the harp celebrated life and death, Zachary coming to New Mexico was a celebration, the lives of her children were celebrations, her life was a celebration. The child that drew an elephant once was celebrating by drawing that elephant over and over again and the teenaged girl she used to be was celebrating independence. Now this artist, Sandi Ludescher, celebrates life through painting. She celebrates with all the colors of dias de los muertos. She’s gone to the Marigold Parade for the last three years and taken pictures to paint from.

Keep an eye out for her el dias de los muertos exhibition.

 

 

'Tres Hermanas' (Three Sisters) by Sandi Ludescher
'Tres Hermanas' (Three Sisters)
 by Sandi Ludescher
 
 

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