Lu Haskew | Trading Places

Lani s Ginger Jar [2000], oil, 16 x 12.   Left:  From the Orchard [1999], oil, 16 x 20., painting, southwest art.
Lani’s Ginger Jar [2000], oil, 16 x 12.

By Norman Kolpas

Imagine a grandmother who’s approaching her 70s deciding to pursue a new career as a painter and suddenly enjoying tremendous success: one-woman shows in top art galleries, sales to discriminating collectors nationwide, and awards in noteworthy exhibitions. Given those facts alone, you might be tempted to think you have another Grandma Moses on your hands. And, in the best possible way, you’d be quite wrong.

With respect to that widely known matriarch who rocketed to fame in the 1940s with her charmingly unschooled, naive scenes of life in rural upstate New York, Lu Haskew is a grandma of an entirely different stripe. Classically trained, she paints lushly realistic, exquisitely modeled still lifes of flowers, plants, fruit, ceramics, and other subjects that surround her in her Loveland, CO, home. Yes, she may be charming in manner and sweet in demeanor, with two sons, five grandchildren, and 12 great-grandchildren. But she is a woman determined to eradicate every trace of amateurism or naiveté from her canvases, to paint like nothing less than a master.

Though she embarked on her career as a serious artist just 12 years ago at the age of 68, Haskew was not unfamiliar with brushes and oils or watercolors. “I’ve loved painting all my life,” she says. “But I painted as a hobby on Saturdays.”

From The Orchard [1999], Oil, 16 x 20, painting, southwest art.
From The Orchard [1999], oil, 16 x 20

There were no art museums within easy reach of the tiny Oklahoma town where she grew up, close to the land of her Native American grandmother’s Potawatomi tribe. Lack of outside cultural influences mattered little, however, in a loving home. “My parents weren’t educated,” she says, “but they encouraged us to get an education, telling us that if we didn’t go to college we wouldn’t amount to anything.”

After grade school, young Lu fulfilled her parents’ wishes by studying at the Southwestern Institute of Oklahoma, a teacher’s college in Weatherford just 15 miles from her home. “I took only one art class there, a teachers’ course in art,” she says. “I remember one assignment that I didn’t have done, so I did a pencil drawing of trees while I was walking to class. And I got an A on it!”

Early Cuttings [2000],  oil, 14 x 18., painting, southwest art.
Early Cuttings [2000],  oil, 14 x 18.

The year she graduated, 1942, she married John Haskew, with whom she recently celebrated their 58th wedding anniversary. After World War II, during which Lu worked as an aircraft production scheduler and John served in France and Italy as an air traffic controller, Lu settled into her career as an elementary school teacher.

In 1950, when John accepted a job manning the airport control tower in Salt Lake City, UT, Lu began to take weekend painting classes from respected local teacher Ethel Daynes. “She started me out with pastels and really taught me to work from models and to draw. I guess you’d call it classical studio training,” she says. “I studied with her every Saturday for 10 years, and eventually, on days she had to be gone, she’d let me take over the class.”

Lu Haskew. photograph, southwest art.
Lu Haskew.

Haskew’s devotion to painting classes found new inspiration when her husband’s work led to a transfer to Longmont, CO, just 16 miles away from the regional art colony of Loveland. There she took occasional workshops at the prestigious Loveland Academy of Fine Art. But most of her time remained devoted to elementary school teaching. Even after her official retirement in 1981, she remained a hardworking substitute teacher for six more years.

Her priorities, though, soon began to shift subtly, in good measure as a result of the influence of her son Denny. After earning a degree in business and working in a wide variety of outdoor-oriented occupations—including as a ski instructor, river guide, and carpenter—he became enthralled with the world of sculpture and eventually served a two-year apprenticeship with acclaimed sculptor Fritz White. By the late 1980s, Denny had begun to enjoy his own success as a figurative sculptor of Native American and nature-inspired subjects. “When I saw him get his own studio and really get to work,” she recalls, “I decided that at my age I’d better start acting like I was serious about art, too.” In 1988, she rented her own studio.

All in One Basket [1999], oil, 16 x 20., painting, southwest art.
All in One Basket [1999], oil, 16 x 20.

Her first award came the following year, when a still life titled Lesa’s Dolls took second place at the Thompson Valley Regional Show. Though the honor marked her emergence as a professional artist, Haskew is now reluctant to talk about the winning work itself. “It’s not a good painting, and I’ve tucked it away,” she confesses. “I tucked away my 1990 first-place winners, too. Not everything I do is wonderful, and if it doesn’t measure up, I just put it in the basement.”

Such an attitude demonstrates the growth of her professionalism, which manifested itself even more clearly in the master classes she began to take in 1992 at both the Loveland Academy and the Scottsdale Artists School. Since that time, she has studied with such renowned painters as Richard Schmid, Clyde Aspevig, Joyce Pike, and Jan Kunz. She gives major credit for her improvement to Schmid, in whose group she painted every Thursday from 1992 until ’98. From him, she says, “I learned how to critique my own work. He was very strict about doing that.”

Schmid taught her to approach every painting critically by focusing on four distinct qualities. “Draw-ing was first,” she says, recalling the skills she learned using a plumb bob and the handle of her brush as tools for getting every aspect of a composition in perfect proportion. “Richard would say that there’s no excuse for poor drawing because you know how to measure and it’s just fourth-grade math.” Next came value, Haskew says—“the lightness and darkness of a painting, which is what makes it look three-dimensional.” For every color on her palette, Schmid required her to prepare a chart showing six different values ranging from light to dark.

Edges were the third quality, according to Schmid. “They make the viewer’s eye go where you want it to go in a painting,” says Haskew. “You use hard edges around your focal point; soft edges give you distance or softness and lost edges totally disappear, one color blending into the next.” Finally came color: choosing dominant and complementary hues and placing colors to produce desired harmonies or strike discordant notes.

The influence of such lessons shows dramatically in the increasing number of works that Haskew is no longer tucking away. She is capable of taking a subject as commonplace as a bunch of flowers gathered from her husband’s garden and creating powerfully moving compositions such as Early Cuttings and Welcome Spring. Even several handfuls of barnyard eggs, the subject of All in One Basket, take on profound, almost iconic meaning through Haskew’s subtle yet sure use of the principles of drawing, value, edges, and color.

A constant string of awards attests to her success, as does her regular inclusion in regional and national exhibitions. Still, as often as possible, she signs up for classes taught by painters she admires—most recently, a workshop on florals led by Joyce Pike. “She usually brings the class to my house and we paint in the yard,” says Haskew.

Ever the teacher herself, she regularly shares her hard-won knowledge with aspiring painters at the Loveland Academy and the Thompson Valley Art League. But now teaching comes second to her dedication to painting. “I paint at least six days a week,” she says. In her studio by 8:30 every morning, she works nonstop until at least 4:30 in the afternoon. As much as possible, she works from life, and when the weather is good she tries to get out of the studio to improve her skills at rendering landscapes.

Through all these efforts, says Haskew, her simple goal is “to get better at what I do.” She remembers watching Schmid create a painting of the gnarled roots of a tree. “It was gorgeous,” she says. “I want to be able to see the beauty in everything, whether it’s flowers or trash cans or litter. There is just so much to learn.”

Photos courtesy the artist and Columbine Gallery, Loveland, CO, and Santa Fe, NM; and Talisman Gallery, Bartlesville, OK.

Featured in July 2000