RoseMary Goodson: Sketching her way through life
This essay originally appeared in South Dakota Magazine, September/October 2001, pp. 36-46.
For the beginning of the story, see Part 1 in the blog posted below on June 13.
During summers, the Goodsons often went to South Dakota to work for RoseMary’s brother John at his resort. Everyone pitched in; Lucy worked on trail rides. RoseMary cleaned the lodge and guest rooms, cooked, and did laundry.
About 1970, with her children growing up and leaving home, Goodson decided to create a life of her own. She arrived in South Dakota alone and almost broke, with only a small suitcase and some pen and ink drawing supplies. She still hadn’t learned to drive, and didn’t own a car.
Staying in a cottage in Piedmont, RoseMary put together a paperback book with information on tourist attractions in South Dakota. She talked Wall Drug owner Ted Hustead into printing the book, A Guide to South Dakota and Black Hills Attractions. Hustead kept copies to sell at Wall Drug and told her to sell the rest at 50 cents a copy and keep the money. She sold 7,000 copies.
“I wanted to go up the ladder,” RoseMary said, so just as she had in St. Louis, she looked for a need to fill. On her next visit to Wall Drug, she convinced Hustead to establish a tourist information center, which she would supervise. Hustead mentioned that he’d purchased six old farm houses for dormitories for the 60 college students he employed. RoseMary agreed to be housemother in return for lodging with the girls.
“I don’t remember what my salary was,” she wrote, “but I was very happy with this new position. You know me. I don’t put a lot of importance on salaries.” She made sure everyone was home by 10 p.m. on weekdays, and that no one left town without her as chaperone or permission from Ted’s son, Bill. At her dorm, students could “hold their parties, play cards, and just have a good time,” she said. “If I accompanied them, they could have pool parties and cookouts in the Badlands.”
One day when she was substituting for a regular employee in the book department, she noticed people buying prints of pen and ink drawings of Black Hills scenes; she thought, “I can draw better than that.” Traveling through the Black Hills with friends–– she still had no car–– she sketched historic buildings and visited museums to sketch wood cook stoves, wagons, and washing machines. When she’d finished several dozen sketches, she printed 300 copies of each on good paper. She hired a woman to drive her to distributors, and began selling hundreds of prints at tourist stops in South Dakota.
RoseMary often set up her easel on a Deadwood street. Dressed in paint-spattered clothes, her dog at her side, she taught herself to paint. Concentrating on her work, she was unaware of the picture she presented. She gleefully tells about reaching for her water one day and discovering that a passerby, thinking she was a homeless bag lady, had left a dollar and fifty cents, an apple, and a banana.
When I first saw that small blonde woman sitting on the street corner with her dog and her paints, my own life was unsettled, and I was so hesitant I walked by her two or three times, peering at a painting I didn’t think was very good. But she was enjoying herself, and she looked like a woman who wasn’t worried about the future. I stopped to talk. Where did she live? I asked. Right now she was staying with a daughter and her husband, in the “mother-in-law tent” pitched behind their house. I was awestruck at her charm, her obvious joy in living, her unconcern with the future. RoseMary was happier sitting on a street corner dabbing at her canvas than I’d ever been; she has been my idol ever since.
Peg, the oldest of RoseMary’s seven children, describes her mother as “someone who consistently makes adventures out of ordinary life.” One moonlit night during her childhood, Rose Mary dragged all the children out of bed to watch night crawlers emerging from the ground. When the basement flooded during hurricane season, RoseMary garbed the kids in rain boots and slickers and sent them downstairs to play in the puddles. “Mom was always going off the beaten path,” Peg adds, “both in daily life, and especially in her travels.”
One summer day RoseMary insisted on stopping at a creek on the Pine Ridge Reservation to cool off. The whole family shed clothing and plunged into the creek–– just as several carloads of Lakota families arrived with the same idea. “Our first instinct,” Peg said, “was to quickly leave the area, but Rosie just began visiting with some of the women, resulting in a wonderful picnic atmosphere with children and adults from two worlds splashing and laughing together.”
On another trip, RoseMary followed her curiosity to the fishing town of Puerto Peńasco, Mexico, where the family camped on the beach for days. When ice ran low, Peg says, “Rosie would make us drive her to the ice-making plant for the shrimp boats and would boldly walk in to fill up our coolers. We were quite nervous about this practice, but she insisted that no one would bother a little old lady getting some ice.”
About 1973 RoseMary decided to spend the winter months alone in the Wall Drug dorm. The Husteads rented the house for $40 a month, but said she couldn’t afford the gas bill if she kept the house above freezing. She said she’d find a way. She bought a wood-burning stove, which Peg and her husband Bob Lamburth helped her install, and she collected scrap wood and coal. The Husteads wanted her to work in the store, but she wanted to learn more about oil painting. Whenever RoseMary was short of money, however, the Husteads found a job for her, even if it was repainting the giant jackalope and the stuffed horses in the back yard.
One day after a snowfall, she painted her own yellow house from across the street, and gave the painting to the Husteads, who hung it in Wall Drug. When local teachers saw it, they asked for art lessons, and RoseMary began teaching at $3 per session. Most of the teachers were tense because they’d never done art, so she gave each a tequila sunrise. “That did the trick,” she laughs. “They relaxed and had fun,” as she encouraged them to draw in their own styles.
One winter, friends from Deadwood invited her to join them on a trip to Arizona. Right away, she discovered the old mining camp of Congress, an unincorporated desert hamlet 50 miles south of Prescott. She stayed at the only motel in town, where her room with a kitchenette cost $3 a night. “It had a few roaches,” she recalls, but she’d met a lot of roaches in Missouri. “I fell in love with the desert and the warm climate.”
The next morning, she hiked to the historic ruins of the old gold mine and spent the day sketching. On the following day, she sold her drawings on the street in nearby Wickenburg, Ariz. At age 56, she’d found a new way to make a living.
Back in South Dakota, RoseMary continued to create and sell pen and ink drawings as cards and for framing. She learned to play the mandolin with her family band. She spent months sketching Mount Rushmore and thinking how to tell and show the story of Gutzon Borglum and his carving. She built a small light table and learned layout to produce The Rushmore Story.
Telling the Rushmore story engrossed her. “Even the smallest bumping pneumatic tool was difficult for me to lift,” she said. Sketching the bosun chair, she “thought of the man in the harness shop who made dozens of such chairs by hand with iron and heavy leather–– with perfection. I thought of the man who sat in that chair on a seat that was no more than two iron bars and a strip of leather–– hanging over the mountain side for hours in bitter cold winds or the intense summer heat and smiling when he received his pay of sixty-five cents an hour. The rubber gripper on the handle of the pneumatic drill that I sketched was worn down to the metal; the hand tools were worn and split handles wrapped with tape. Everything told of the stress it took in shaping a granite mountain into a beautiful work of art.”
A reviewer for The Traveler magazine later wrote, “In all my travels, I have never found a book on a national monument as delightful to read and own as RoseMary’s The Rushmore Story.”
RoseMary began spending winters in Arizona, returning each summer to South Dakota to paint, sketch and market her prints and greeting cards. She rode busses, caught rides with friends, or hired people to drive her around for years–– and then got an inheritance. “RoseMary is always helping others and never asks for anything in return,” said daughter-in-law Desi. “Within about two weeks she had given it all away, except for enough to buy herself a car she still has today.” A mechanically-minded friend found and fixed up a 1954 red Ram Dodge, a four-door sedan. The car was so neglected that birds had built nests in the seats. RoseMary cleaned up the car, added new seat covers, and began teaching herself to drive by laying out lines of rocks in the desert.
The next Sunday she drove the car to church, parking well away from other cars. After mass, the priest asked everyone to remain for a few minutes, picked up the vial of holy water, and led the congregation directly to RoseMary’s car; he blessed the car and prayed. “Apparently it worked,” says RoseMary, “because I never had an accident–– and when I drove the car back to South Dakota one wheel had only two lug bolts on it.”
No matter where she was, RoseMary continued teaching herself to paint. Since she’d never had lessons in drawing or painting, she consulted library books. For her first oil painting, she chose a deserted adobe mercantile building in Arizona, roofless and deteriorating. She painted most of the building before heading home. She heard a hard rain in the night, and when she returned next day, most of one wall had collapsed.
“I changed my painting, which made it more interesting,” she said. Then she packed up her paints and easel and returned to the motel–– but couldn’t find the painting in her car. She drove back to the adobe building, but it wasn’t there. Only when she gave up in frustration and headed back to her room did she notice the painting–– on top of the car where she’d put it while packing. She later gave the painting away, and has no photos of it.
By then, RoseMary’s family was mostly grown; she was living alone in a brown and white trailer in a Piedmont development called Thunder Hills, next to her daughter Peggy, working as a supervisor of eight college students at the Tilford rest area.
Peg recalls a 1973 Halloween party at an old farmhouse her brother rented. Family members appeared as pirates, nuns, witches, a Pillsbury dough boy, and various four-armed and four-legged creatures. RoseMary came as an elderly beauty pageant winner, in what Peg calls “Tammy Faye Baker make-up,” under a big straw hat piled high with fruit and flowers. RoseMary painted pink tights with bright blue varicose veins, then stuffed them with tissue paper to simulate knobby legs. Over that she wore a bathing suit draped with a banner reading, “Miss Thunder Hills.” RoseMary left the party earlier than her children, wondering how she’d explain herself if she had car trouble on the way home. Peg is sure she would have thought of something.
Each winter, RoseMary drove to Arizona. To research the history of her family she learned to read and write German. She visited Germany several times, and lured German relatives to the west to camp and hike with her. Always she painted and sketched, trading her art for stories, storing up images to take back to her easel for the winter.
In 1980, when RoseMary arrived in Congress, the motel room was no longer available; a sheepherder had moved in for the winter. Land developers had discovered Congress, so she put $1,000 down for one of the first lots, on a corner next to the open desert. She was considering living in a tent until the motel told her the sheepherder hadn’t arrived. She stayed in the motel until she found a small travel trailer for her lot.
The next winter her son and daughter-in-law, Tony and Desiree Goodson, came to help RoseMary start building. “She had no money,” Desi said, “so we cut, peeled and hauled all the logs from the Prescott National Forest about 50 miles away.” They hand-dug a basement for plumbing and lined it with rock they gathered in the desert. One day when they were collecting rocks, rancher Lewis Granthan told them they were on private property. RoseMary offered to make a painting of his ranch in exchange for the rocks. He agreed, adding, “Every time you pick up a rock, I get a little more grass for my cattle.”
RoseMary bought an old cement mixer, and they collected and sifted sand from washes for the concrete. As the rock walls rose, she studied the pile of dirt from the basement. She learned it was the perfect mixture of clay, sand, and pebbles for adobe bricks. “When I wasn’t painting,” she said, “I made adobe bricks. The Spanish have a slogan, ‘When you’re resting, make adobe bricks.’” She also found an adobe house about to be demolished and hauled truckloads of salvaged bricks from it. “Some of my family were eager to help after I told them that gold might have been stashed between the double-thick walls,” she laughs, “but we found only an old smoking pipe.” For several winters, RoseMary worked with friends and family on the house and an adjoining shed; when it was completed, about 1985, she settled in Congress.
As usual, she found new challenges, new ways to experience the world and make a living, like painting murals on businesses, decorating a tour bus, creating business signs, sketching people’s homes. She drew a map of the historic mining district around Congress, sold hand-drawn ads around the map’s edges, and distributed it free to tourists. She wrote and illustrated the first history of the region, The Story of Congress, Arizona’s Premier Gold Camp.
RoseMary now says she’s “somewhat retired,” but it’s hard to tell. She’s always made time for enjoying life wile she worked, hiking the Grand Canyon with daughter Lucy when she was 72 years old, traveling and camping with daughter Alice and her two children, and visiting art exhibits.
RoseMary never goes anywhere without her art supplies–– or her sense of humor. Always she has made a living from her art, and enjoyed herself as much as possible while creating it. And always, she has made a distinction between the work she did for a living and her fine art paintings.
“I believe that I have made more than 350 paintings in my lifetime,” she said. She’s also made thousands of pen and ink sketches, giving most of them away. Not to mention an untold number of hand-drawn greeting cards, place cards and Easter eggs. But her records of the massive volume of work are sketchy; RoseMary has always been more interested in making art than in cataloguing what she has done. In August 1998, her daughter Emily and son-in-law Dennis Buckhannon arranged an exhibit of 85 of RoseMary’s paintings, a few pen and ink sketches, and some of her books at St. Peters Cultural Arts Center in St. Peters, Mo.
These days, she spends part of each winter visiting her children. But she is always anxious to get back home and to her easel. It’s still true, as her friend Al Gunther wrote in 1972, that “if you visit when she’s painting, you’re sure to find a pot of dried out, blistered coffee on the stove, or a load of dirty dishes stacked in the oven. On those days she forgets to eat,” except for crackers, cheese, and beer before she goes to bed. Her children mention that after she moved to South Dakota and resumed her life as an artist, her spaghetti sauce always had a slight flavor of turpentine, that her dinner plates were usually speckled with cobalt blue around the edges.
“I am an artist,” RoseMary says firmly, “and even though I have had some hard times as an artist, I have always been completely satisfied and happy with the fact that I was born an artist.”
# # #
For more about RoseMary . . .
See my blog posted June 15th (above) for Part III of this story: an update after ten years.
For more information:
South Dakota Magazine website
Go to RoseMary Goodson's website to learn more about RoseMary's life and see a gallery of her paintings.
Update 2012: RoseMary (who is going on 95) has a hard time with correspondence now and Emily's project of cataloging RoseMary's original art is falling by the wayside. They used to post a contact address on RoseMary's website but no longer do so because they aren't able to reply to website visitors. Sorry.
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