The Lives of Artists' Wives

by Monty Montgomery

As we all know, some artists have wives, some have husbands, and some artists have ‘significant others’. However, the title ‘Spouses in Artists’ Houses’ just doesn’t sound as appealing as ‘The Lives of Artists’ Wives’. That’s why this article presents the responses of four Lee County artists’ wives to questions about their personal domestic realities. The four wives are: Cello Bennett, married to "I’m not an Impressionist!" painter, Gale Bennett, currently conducting summer ArtStudy Giverny programs in Monet’s garden outside Paris; Michaela Jansen, wife of Marcus Antonius Jansen, an ‘Urban Expressionist’ recently honored as the Ford Motor Company Centennial Artist; Krista Johnson, wife of talented artist and socially dedicated art teacher Leo Johnson; and Colleen North, wife of William North, currently celebrating the exhibition of his paintings in the Florida Governor’s Art Gallery in Tallahassee through August.

How long have you been married to your artist-husband and what were the circumstances surrounding your meeting and marrying?

CELLO BENNETT: We have been married since March 21, 2003. Our wedding took place in the Waterway Gardens of Matlacha Art Gallery, owned by our friends Leoma Lovegrove and Mike Silber.

In July 2001, my mother Kate Lowenstine, who had a house on Sanibel at the time, attended my husband's ArtStudy workshop in Giverny, France, along with my niece, Catherine. In the course of a dinner there one evening (at which Southwest Florida Symphony conductor Paul Nadler was also present) Gale started speaking about an American composer named Fred Kroll, who lives in Germany. Mother went on to explain that we had attended the performance of the overture to his opera, The Scarlet Letter, by the SWFL Symphony in 1988, a performance which Gale had reviewed. My mother, after recounting to Gale and Paul that her daughter had sung a lot of Fredric Kroll's music, decided to put Gale and me together on the telephone. At the time I was living in Berlin.

Gale and I spoke for about an hour the first time; the second time he said he was changing my name to ‘Cello’ because that's what my voice sounded like (I told him it was OK to put his mark on me!), and three weeks later I flew to Paris for our first meeting. When he met me at the airport, his first words were, "Will you marry me?" and my response was, "Probably".

MICHAELA JANSEN: Marcus and I have been married for 3 years, but we have been together for years before that, so we are like a couple married 8 years. When I met my husband, he was still a member of the US armed forces. At the time he was stationed in Germany, where I’m from, and where we met in 1996.

KRISTA JOHNSON: Twenty seven years. I think we met through a mutual friend. We started discussing books we both liked. At the time I was reading Zelda and we really hit it off through books. We kept in touch somewhat just by seeing each other on occasion. Then, I think, Leo called to ask me out and we hit it off. He actually wrote me a poem on our first date.

COLLEN NORTH: Bill and I have been married 55 years. In July we’ll be celebrating our anniversary. A mutual friend introduced Bill and me to each other. I was very young, working in a department store window display department in New Jersey and Bill was a student at Pratt Institute, having served in the army and been in Germany for eighteen months, I believe, right out of high school. I’d met him in his junior year and we married and had a 6-month old baby when he graduated.

Were they artists when you met and married?

CELLO: Gale was most definitely an artist through and through, having given up all his earlier activities in advertising and public relations to run ArtStudy Giverny and paint as much as possible.

MICHAELA: I’ve been there since the beginning—at least that’s how I feel—in terms of him starting his artwork in a professional way.

When we met, I was still a student in Aachen, nearby Cologne. I used to live on the third floor, in a very small student loft apartment. He joined me and we rented this little studio space downstairs where he worked. That’s where we organized our first showings in Germany and later in the Netherlands and Belgium.

KRISTA: Yes, Leo was always an artist.

COLLEEN: Bill has always painted. We used to go out on trips together (with the baby) and he would do sketches then come home and do a painting.

How did your parents/family/friends react when they knew you were planning to marry an artist?

CELLO: My mother was, of course, entirely positive about Gale. She felt that we were a real match for each other on many levels due to our multiple common interests, especially the love of art, music and nature—plus our strong-willed entrepreneurial natures. The rest of my family really liked Gale when they met him. My brother Mark said, "Gee, he's almost normal!" and even my son Christopher, who maintains his mother has "terrible taste in husbands", came and spent a month with us in France and got to know and like Gale.

MICHAELA: I was very young at the time, 23 and a student. My family background is a very secure one, with my father being an engineer and always generating a steady income. So he was the first one to question, "Is an artist your serious choice?" and "Can he provide the security that maybe someone like me can as an engineer?" Everybody else, actually, was very welcoming to Marcus.

What fascinated me in my husband was his way of looking at life and his being ready to take chances. And his thinking that you can’t always rationally grasp parts of life. An engineer, for instance, is a very rationally driven person, whereas an artist is a creative, sensitive and emotional type of person, and I think that was what initially fascinated me about Marcus.

KRISTA: I think it was important that he was a nice person and that they liked him. I think they thought he fit with me because of the kind of person he was—being an artist and leaning towards writing and drawing and painting, instead of a business type person. I had always been a writer of sorts, myself.

COLLEEN: We were very young when we met and married seven months after we met. There wasn’t much they could say to us, because we were determined, and I knew that Bill had wonderful qualities. He’s been a wonderful person to know, not just as my husband, but he’s been so creative all his life and we’ve made a wonderful marriage with three children and we have three very special grandchildren.

How do you imagine your life as an artist’s wife differs from the lives of wives not married to artists?

CELLO: Since I am an artist myself, having been an opera singer in Germany for many years, it is hard for me to say. No matter whom I was married to—Gale is my 4th husband, I am his 6th wife, so, as you can see, we are both optimists and believers in the commitment of marriage—I have always tried to lead an artistic life. I was also married to an opera singer for 16 years and lived with a classical pianist for 5, so the artistic life is normal for me.

Perhaps the greatest difference is that artistic values usually take precedence over the so-called ‘practical’ values. An artist needs his tools—be they canvas and paints, vocal music, or a piano—more than he needs food or money for the rent. Fortunately Gale is a quadruple Taurus, so he tries to pay attention to those little mundane details, too.

MICHAELA: From my perspective, some wives whose husbands may be lawyers or some type of engineer might not be able to share their own experiences with their husbands and vice versa, because the wife may not feel a part of their husband’s career. I feel very much a part of my husband’s career as an artist. We talk about a lot of things that concern our world—politics, history and culture—and we share a lot of our views, which then later on I see reappear in his artwork. I feel very much a part of what Marcus does and I think that must be a difference between an artist’s wife and a non-artist’s wife.

KRISTA: I can’t imagine not having art in my life: talking about painting, looking at an art book, and loading heavy boxes of paint and canvas! And the visual! I would really miss the visual part in thinking about being creative and the creative process itself.

Because Leo’s a painter I think I became a painter. At first, I was somewhat of an apprentice, helping. Sometime after I started to help him I just wanted to get my hands on paint. I think being married to someone who’s not involved with art at all would be very strange to me because it’s something I love and I wouldn’t want to be without it. If I wasn’t an artist, I would want to be surrounded by it, looking at art and thinking about art.

Also, I think because we’re in art, certain aspects can be a little more sensitive. There are parts of your soul going out there! It’s part of you. It’s not like selling a house. When you sell a house, you may think, "I got a good price or I didn’t". That’s different than, "What do you think of my painting?" or "Was I successful communicating my intent?" Then there’s marketing it, selling it, and that’s not easy. You’re part business person, but you are always dealing with people’s emotions more than the average person.

COLLEEN: Bill and I have a lot of togetherness. You might say we are joined at the hip. We do everything together. I help him in his work every way I can. We both go to all the shows together and support the artists that we know. I think it’s just a matter of having the same likes and interests in life. We’re very compatible. In some people we know, what we see are wives who have absolutely different attitudes about their husband’s work. Some wives are not interested at all in what their husbands do.
Personally, I think it’s very important to be a moral support to your husband. I think it’s terribly important for me to have an interest because he’s so focused and needs that to bounce off someone else. He likes to have my input.

How active—or not—are you in your husband’s professional artistic career?

CELLO: Gale has totally involved me in his professional life from the very first day he met me. On my second evening in Giverny, he took me into Monet's Garden, then showed me the door opener for the special exit ArtStudy students use when they paint after-hours there. He said, "Someday you will be running ArtStudy, so I want you to know everything." I attended all his lectures the first year or so and learned a lot about the principles he applies to painting. This was all new to me, as I had never really painted before. Once it became clear to him-—from looking at photos I had taken around Giverny—that I had absorbed these principles, he started asking my opinion of his paintings in progress and has gradually placed more and more trust in me.

MICHAELA: There’s one thing that might be a challenge to all artists—to paint on one hand and to market all the artwork on the other hand. Those two things don’t often go together. One requires more artistic skills; the other requires more business skills. So that’s one way artists’ may need to rely on their wives—a wife can help arrange shows and talk to galleries. Given that I have a business background in my education, I support him as much as I can in marketing his artwork to galleries, especially in Europe. I write press releases, newsletters to our clients, and also work on our web’s design. That’s how I try to keep his back free.

KRISTA: I am very active. I basically help him with decision-making. We sort of do a joint process on "What do you think I should have photographed next?" and "What pieces should I have in this show?" I do all the bookkeeping. And getting a portfolio ready for a gallery.

COLLEEN: I’m very involved in the marketing of Bill’s paintings. We also have a print business, which is an adjunct to the oil paintings he does. We put our favorite ones into print, into reproductions. Then we have a very active business of selling them to galleries and some shops locally, where they’re very well received. They’re in the Edison-Ford Estates’ gift shop, at the airport, and of course in the galleries on Sanibel and Bokeelia where he’s represented. His works go out all over the world, and I’ve packed them up myself. We also go out and scout locations together.

How do you imagine your life as an artist’s wife is the same as the lives of wives not married to artists?

CELLO: We still have the same worries about broken dishwashers, flat tires, paying bills, etc.—but I think it pretty much ends right there.

MICHAELA: Married to an artist or not married to an artist, you still have your classic dreams of a good family life, living in a nice neighborhood, perhaps having a dog. If you have a son who’s one year old, you have to get a babysitter. It’s all the human things we have in common.

KRISTA: I think part of being married to an artist is, if they paint daily or weekly, you’re always going to run into "Is it finished?" You have a lot of joint decision-making to do about the piece and there’s going to be some arguing and discussion about framing and things like that. But I guess in any business or marriage relationship you would have that.

COLLEEN: We all have mortgages and rent, and things like the dentist to deal with.

What are some of the best parts of being married to an artist?

CELLO: The constant search for higher levels of expression, the daily involvement with beauty, the interchange of ideas and ideals.

MICHAELA: Always being in touch with what’s happening. Marcus is an artist who likes to show what’s going on in urban areas, in our cities. And living here in the suburbs of southwest Florida, his artwork kind of always draws me back to where we both come from. My husband and I were raised and grew up in urban settings. His paintings of those environments always make me feel at home. We live in a very tropical quiet Florida suburban setting and our house is filled with artwork and paintings of New York City and European cityscapes. I think he’ll be doing some downtown Fort Myers scenes, because there’s this redevelopment program going on right now, and he’s very excited about that.

Another ‘best part’ is the travel that is involved in dealing with people from all over the world. It’s also being able to introduce a very colorful world to our son, who’s only one year old at this point. Being so involved with art and culture, which to me is the one of the essential things in life, will enable us to be better parents, I think.

KRISTA: Just being in the room or the same building with someone who is painting. And thinking about painting, especially when a painting is finished: looking at it, enjoying it, seeing it the next day, the next evening in a different light. In a sense it’s like a new creation, a new addition to the family.

Of course, for myself, becoming a painter! And learning how to paint.

COLLEEN: I think it’s a matter of being interested in each other. And enjoying the kind of life his painting has afforded.

I think the best part of his being a painter is that he was always with me at home. He traveled—he had to travel for business—but every chance to involve me I was invited along. Certainly they were some of the best parts—as is having his paintings to enjoy at home.

What are some of the least good and more challenging parts of being married to an artist?

CELLO: With Gale it' s learning to understand and accept how much time a painter needs to be alone, needs peace and quiet, needs not to be disturbed. Singers are a vocal, gregarious lot, so this has been very hard for me to adapt my nature to his needs.

MICHAELA: I think the challenge is that to create wonderful art the artist has to really dive into his work, which sometimes means you might not always be open to be talked to or to receive other things and other people around you, including the wife.

My husband, as an artist, is a very spontaneous person. So am I. We are world travelers and we now are living in southwest Florida, but we don’t know for sure where we’re going to be in 5 years. That could be a challenge or a positive thing.

KRISTA: When you are asked to critique a piece, and you have a different opinion than the artist. Sometimes that can be difficult

COLLEEN: Possibly, if you said he had to support a family of five, just with his art, I don’t think that would have worked. We had three children pretty quickly, a whole family in our early years. I was a young mother and things could have been a little tough financially, but he always had another career where he was guaranteed a salary.

If you could, what one or two things would you change about life as an artist’s wife?

CELLO The main thing I would change, if I could, would be to hire a full-time assistant to take a lot of the detail work off my hands. To be really happy I need to have more time to practice singing (we have concerts coming up next winter in Florida), as well as just to read and relax. My days are packed full of activity from morning to night.

I'd also like to ban the television from our house in Florida. We don't have one in Giverny and we both sleep much better there (the fact that we're out in the country and the only sounds you hear are birds probably plays a role, too). In Cape Coral, Gale always watches the news late at night, then has restless nights of sleep—with unpleasant side effects for his artistic temperament!

MICHAELA: I only know what I would change myself—maybe to get more actively involved with art myself. It has actually inspired me to do things myself. Now my dream is to do something with clay, to take my own art classes. His work in art has inspired me to a point where I also want to enrich my life artistically. People often ask me, "Are you an artist yourself?" And I say, "Yes, I’m an artist inside!
Krista: I just wish that we both had more time to paint and to teach me more, which we’re working towards.

COLLEEN: There is a division of responsibility. Bill has supported the family and I raised children, and because I went to art school I wanted to be better than I was. I did take painting classes, sporadically, through my married life for the enjoyment of getting out and doing something in the arts field. They didn’t amount to very much because the focus has always been on Bill’s career. I had to put that aside, not that I really would have been any good, but I might have. You never know.

Based on your personal experiences, what advice would you offer a young person considering marriage to an artist?

CELLO: Make sure that you have your own profession about which you are passionate. The artist's involvement with his/her work will take precedence over his/her feelings for you at least 60-70% of the time. You have to be a very strong, independent person to accept that this is not personally directed at you, but is merely the life of an artist. Artists are usually totally self-involved because their work is an extension of themselves. It also helps if you are earning money in your profession, because the artist's road to success is usually a difficult, thorny path strewn with pitfalls.

Gale has given me a completely new life, but one that was easy for me to move into due to my artistic background and 23 years spent in Europe. Even though we have at least one fight per day (astrologically we are exact opposites, he's Taurus and I'm Scorpio), I wouldn't exchange him for any other man. He is an exciting artist, a fascinating and intelligent conversation partner, and profoundly loving. Besides which, our dogs Roscoe and Sasha think Daddy's the best!

MICHAELA: Go for it and be open to an interesting, exciting and challenging journey.

KRISTA: I would say "Great!” Your life will probably never be boring. Visually and physically you’ll stay in shape—and have fun. Yes, fun! Definitely go for it! Especially if you’re in love with the person. You’re going to have a great, wonderful, colorful life, and hopefully, be successful.

COLLEEN: Do it! I think it’s an exciting life, it’s a fulfilling life and it’s a contribution to life, where we are just enjoying the nature around us. It adds a lot to our lives and to our children’s lives. They are all interested in the art world. We took them to museums when they were only infants and I guess a lot of it rubbed off on them. •

from the July-August 2004 issue

Colleen North

"When he met me at the airport his first words were, 'Will you marry me?'" and my response was, 'Probably."

Michaela Jansen

"His work in art has inspired me to the point where I also want to enrich my life artistically."

Cello Bennett

Krista Johnson