Rita Crooks? favorite part of creating Three?s a Cow was the fact that she didn?t know how it would turn out. “Every time I hear writers say they start a novel and it just takes on a life of its own, I always think, ?How can that be??” says the Wausau, Wisconsin, artist. “But I now know of what they speak because it happens to me. Sometimes I start painting by just doing squares and geometric shapes in different colors and then I just go on from there. I don?t know where the roofline?s going to be, necessarily, or when I?m going to put in a silo or a windmill. It just grows as I?m painting. If I knew exactly what I was going to do, I probably wouldn?t be interested. The fun of it is how the painting takes on a life of its own.”
While she leaves a lot to chance, Crooks typically begins her paintings the same way. She?ll plan her design on a piece of brown wrapping paper, making a rough sketch of where the large forms are to be placed. Most often she?ll stain her acid-free board or 300-lb. watercolor paper and let the colors and textures that develop stimulate her imagination. At some point with Three?s a Cow she decided to collage in a map and let the lines and green areas on the map portray the texture she was looking for. “The barns, silos and the forms of our countryside in the whole Midwest are my inspiration,” she says. “I look at a farm and I see shapes.” She uses some photo references to remind her what a cupola or windmill look like, and often as she and her husband are driving she?ll sketch an interesting configuration of rural buildings.
It?s really no surprise that Crooks has this sense-of-adventure attitude with her art, since that?s pretty much how she lives her life. With six children all around their teens at the time, she started taking art classes at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point as a diversion and to feed her life-long interest in art. Those two or three classes each semester eventually turned into an art major. Once she got her degree she was planning on being a ceramist.
The segue to watercolor painting came about because her ceramics studio became filled with the byproducts of her son?s house-painting business and she decided, once again, to make an artistic escape, this time to a week-long watercolor workshop in Door County. “I really hadn?t concentrated on painting during my art major,” she says. “I took the required courses, though. The instructor freed me up. Then at a little art show at the end of a workshop, a gallery owner asked whether I?d put some pieces in her gallery the following summer.” Though she considered painting and doing ceramics at the same time, painting won out.
The future could hold just about anything. For now, though, she?s looking forward to her annual painting retreat to South Carolina in the fall to study with Fran Larson and Katherine Chang Liu, as well as continuing with her rural landscapes—maybe branching into farmhouses and exploring the L or four-square architecture. “That may be one direction,” says Crooks. “Who knows?”
Cathy Bennett is a writer living in Toronto.