by CHRISTINA ERNST-DIRKSEN
IT'S A COOL GRAY SATURDAY ON THE COAST, BUT JUST FIVE MILES INLAND it is bright, sunny and 80 degrees in Geta Hershberger's Fieldbrook sunroom studio.
Amongst wicker furniture and thriving houseplants stands an easel supporting a vibrant watercolor of sunflowers. French doors open out to meandering paths through individual flowerbeds bursting with fuchsias, yellow irises, orange wallflowers, rhododendrons and towering foxgloves. Goldfinches flock and feast at several nearby feeders.
Geta refers to Fieldbrook, her home of 35 years, as "God's country." Endowed with a love of gardening and painting, she seems to have found the recipe for happiness and living life to its fullest.
Geta describes the inspiration for her watercolor floral still lifes and garden scenes as "strong light and vivid color." Relating the tranquillity she experiences in her work as she arranges her flowers, composes her still lifes and ultimately as she paints, Geta hopes that viewers of her work will "get that same sense of peace."
The Potting Shed #10, 2000
"Another thing I want people to feel when they look at my art is, `I would like to be there and pick up that book and read and relax.' Some artists feel that a `pretty picture' doesn't really have anything to say, but I don't want to paint an ugly one. I think all I'm trying to say is, `Come on in, set a spell and have a cup of coffee and enjoy the moment.'"
Geta began her floral wonderland and career as a watercolor painter a little late in life. Her responsibilities for her family came first. With the support of Carl Hershberger, her husband of 40 years, Geta raised three children of her own and provided foster care for almost 20 more. The values and ways she learned as a child remain integral to her character and blend naturally with her love of art to create the cornerstone of her success and passion for living.
As tenacious as she is quick-witted, this 57-year-old Humboldt County artist describes herself and her work with a twinkle in her eye and a soft southern lilt in her voice.
"I'm just a simple country gal -- I don't have the desire to be famous, to have everybody know who I am. That's not a big thing to me. Mostly, what I want to accomplish is the satisfaction of doing artwork, and I would do it whether I showed it or not. I would do it whether I sold it or not. It's who I am now."
Hershberger feels that being a painter has given her a deeper insight into life.
"So many times we experience the world around us, but we look at things and we don't really see. You may look at a leaf and you don't see that little edge of blue or that spot of red. You just see a green leaf or a red flower and you don't see all the other colors that are in it. I think that being an artist teaches you to really open your eyes and look at the world around you."
Geta's world began in a small-town farming community in the southwestern corner of Arkansas. She started life as Anita Jo Theobolt, the second of three daughters. An older sister who could not pronounce Anita Jo dubbed her Geta Jo, and the name stuck. Together her family labored "to eke out a living in that place." Her father did mill work and farmed, and her mother worked in the fields and later in a dry cleaner. When crops were ready, Geta and her sisters worked the harvest alongside their parents.
Remembering a crop of cucumbers, her father and the work ethic she learned young, Hershberger recounts: "I hated picking those cucumbers, hotter than a pistol and the vines would scratch up your hands and arms. He would check to make sure you were picking them right and if you didn't you had to do it over again. At the time, I didn't see the value in that, but I suppose it instilled in me the attitude of doing a job right the first time."
Another aspect of Geta's early character development was the influence of her maternal grandparents. She describes them as "kind, Godly people, willing to lend a hand to anyone that needed it. Just simple country people, the salt of the earth. Taught me to do unto others." Through them and her mother, Geta developed the strong Christian faith that she carries with her to this day.
By the time Geta was 11, her family had moved from Arkansas to Goldendale, Wash., back to Arkansas, and out to Ashland, Ore.. She describes joyous times in Ashland, living across the street from the park, wading in the creek running through it and listening to concerts. She says of those years, "My dad liked to move around a lot."
When she was 14, her father brought the family to Humboldt County for a job at the MacIntosh Mill in Blue Lake.
"Things were really different then. There were a lot of mills and almost everyone in the area was employed directly by or as a consequence of the lumber industry. There were a lot of logging trucks on the road, and the highway between Arcata and Blue Lake was just a two-lane road."
"The railroad still operated in Blue Lake. The Eureka downtown was the place to shop and it was bustling with activity. As teenagers the thing to do in the summer was go swimming in Mad River. Those were also the days of the drive-in theater and it was affordable, so all the kids went there."
As for her creative pursuits as a child, Geta recalls that she always enjoyed drawing.
"We were poor as church mice and I do remember being told not to waste paper. The schools then didn't provide paper, and drawing on `new' paper was considered wasting it." She liked to draw people and experiment with fashion design that way. While attending Arcata High, she took art classes with Pearl Deagenheart, a well-known artist in the area at the time.
Also during her high school years, Geta had an after-school job as a waitress at the Blue Lake Cafe. She was unaware at the time that she was working for her future mother-in-law. Carl Hershberger helped his mom out by tending bar on the weekends.
Geta recalls that "the cook on the night shift had been trying to get us together and she finally did it." Geta Theobolt graduated from Arcata High on June 9, 1960. Nine days later she married Carl. She was 17.
Lacecap Hydrangea, 1998
In July of 1961, Geta began her life as a mom with the birth of her son Lyle. Two daughters followed, Trina and Kim, in 1964 and 1969. Shortly thereafter, Geta and Carl became foster parents. They wanted to help others out where they could. Inspired by her sister, who was a foster parent at the time, it seemed to be the right thing to do. When describing the experience, Geta remembers how difficult it was emotionally and physically -- letting go when it was time, keeping up with the daily needs, providing enough attention for everyone.
With one foster child and three of her own, Geta attended Fredericks and Charles Beauty College from 1972 to 1973. She worked at the Added Touch in McKinleyville for a few years and in 1981, she opened her own salon called Geta's Hair Place in Blue Lake.
Over time, Geta and Carl's responsibility as foster parents grew until they had a total of seven children. Calling on the lessons she learned as child, everyone in the Hershberger clan had chores to do in order to make ends meet. With nine mouths to feed, their garden consisted mainly of food crops, vegetables and fruits for fresh consumption and canning. Milk cows were maintained as well as cows for beef. Hard work was a way of life.
It was during these years, when her kids were young, that Geta slowly began to enter the world of art. She enrolled with her sister-in-law in an adult education art class in Eureka. She recalls arriving late to class and the teacher asking what she was going to paint. Having no idea what to do and how to do it, Geta's frustrations mounted when the teacher presented an "ugly bouquet of plastic red geraniums in a God-awful green vase!"
She quit when she realized she was spread too thin with the responsibility of seven children ranging from 17 months to 13 years.
Geta went on to take a tole painting class and became intrigued with oil paints as a medium. Finding no time for classes, she began to paint at home to please herself. She displayed these early paintings at her hair salon and found support in the positive comments she received.
Some who saw her work urged her to try watercolors. Simultaneously, there were dire descriptions of the difficulty of the medium, its unforgiving nature and its need for careful layout and planning for effective results. With her inclination for spontaneity, Geta initially had reservations.
She finally enrolled in a watercolor class. Life had its own ideas, though. Hershberger was unable to complete that first watercolor class, and ultimately chose to sell her salon in 1986 for health reasons. Carl owned a dental lab for most of their married life, so she went to work as his secretary and self-described "gofer" until 1995, when the lab was sold.
Garden Tour, 2000
In 1989, after the last of her children left home, Geta finally found her way back to watercolors and became comfortable with the medium through a class taught by Bob Benson at College of the Redwoods. Artist and teacher Alan Sanborn worked in the same building that housed Carl's dental lab. After coming to know Sanborn, Geta enrolled in his watercolor class at College of the Redwoods in 1990, where she learned color theory. She subsequently took his basic design course. To this day, Hershberger credits Sanborn as her most important influence.
During the years between 1990 and 1996, Geta began attending watercolor workshops taught by nationally known artists at the Lighthouse Art Center in Crescent City. By 1994, only five years after her watercolor class with Bob Benson, Geta Hershberger had two solo exhibitions: one at Thunderhill Studios in Nacogdoches, Texas, and the other at the Highland Art Center in Weaverville. In 1998, she taught her first workshop in Lewiston, Calif., and will teach another there in June.
Currently, Geta enjoys weekly painting sessions and forthright critiques with a few good friends. She also paints and exhibits with the Representational Art League. Their work is displayed annually in May at the Trinidad Art Gallery. Geta also showed with the League through the Ink People, in March of this year, in an exhibit entitled "Personal Visions."
Geta Hershberger is the featured artist at the Cody Gallery in Eureka, June 3-28, with an Arts Alive reception Saturday, June 3, from 6 to 9 p.m. Of the approximately 20 watercolors included in the exhibit, 12 will be featured in the Coast Central Credit Union 2001 calendar coming out in October.
Also included in the calendar is her painting "Lilies On Lake Eleanor," which recently won the Jack Richeson Award through the California Watercolor Association. This painting will be on display at the San Francisco Academy of Art Gallery, June 4-29.
A true spitfire, Geta also enjoys backpacking and bird watching, and yes, she backpacks with her watercolors. An active runner for 10 years, Geta has made the transition to walking three miles a day with her husband Carl, and is a grandmother of nine.
When asked if there was anything else she wanted to say about life as an artist, she had these words:
"As artists we are forever students and the moment we become satisfied and think we have arrived, then we might as well hang up the brush and put the paints away because we will never grow beyond that point."
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