Cabinet of Childhood Curiosity

I recently submitted a proposal and was accepted into a curated group exhibit for Women’s History Month at the Howland Cultural Center, here in Beacon, NY. The topic was enticing: Girlhood. Oh boy, was this ever custom-meant for me and my kind of personal art! One foot is always in my girlhood.

Girlhood overview

Looking back all these years, I assume that I asked questions from the time I learned to talk—what child is not curious? My nuclear family really was perfect, so I know when the answers stopped coming. My father simply disappeared from my life, in 1957, and my big question was Where’s Daddy? What I remember first was being in our linoleum-floored kitchen with my grandparents and asking Why is Mommy crying?  I have no memory of having his death (electrocution on the job as utility pole lineman) explained to me, or going to a funeral, or ever being comfortable asking questions or talking about any of it with my mother. Not until lately.

With the recent escalation of a nuclear pissing contest between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, I found myself having a bit of PTSD. Childhood fears are being resurrected from the Cold War. I grew up in the era of “Duck and Cover,” and here we are again. Of course, ducking and covering was a joke, but the threat itself was very real, and still is. The idea that we could simply hide under our desks to avoid the blast—who knew how ludicrous that was back then? Answer: A lot of people in high governmental positions. But that’s the propaganda pablum they fed us. And I was very frightened, especially when Nikita Krushchev thundered on our black-and-white television sets: WE WILL BURY YOU!

GH 2

Old electrical manuals and my civil defense booklets from the 1960s, a charm bracelet with the ten commandments, glitter, some toys, and my childhood art

Where did I find solace and a sense of safety? That is what makes up this installation. Sifting through a lifetime of personal archival material, as well as trinkets I’ve collected for my assemblage art (that connected me nostalgically to my childhood), I address my unanswered questions, my fears, and how I navigated my girlhood—steeped in family love, but also loss.

GH 3

More vestiges of growing up in the 1950s & 60s along with a very early book of poems

GH 4

Prayers weren’t working for me, so I switched to Mighty Mouse. “Here I come to save the day!” Gauges and gee-gaws. My childhood bank. A buddhist prayer flag with my questions.

At the center of the installation is my first assemblage art done in 1996. That was when I began to seriously address my past and how I became who I am today. No longer afraid to ask questions. Now I also write poetry to make peace with what I may never find out.

Insulating Materials



I ask now what you remember.

For me:

Air raid sirens pierce arithmetic lessons as we

practice for nuclear war.

My classmates and I scramble

under wooden desks:

girls’ plaid skirts tenting pale knees scabbed at recess and

even the boys are quiet.

Spitballs at a cease fire.


You say you don’t remember much.

A hint:

Did you ask me what I learned in school that day and did

I already know not to

disturb you with my fears?

I almost forgot:

Got a hundred per cent on a spelling test and

Mike Clark ate a red crayon.

And I can’t sleep at night.


Copyright Sharon Watts 2018

Reclaiming My Studio (& Pappaw DeWalt’s Dirt)

Halo-lit by the setting sun, a hulking cumulus cloud looms in the sky like a bulbous atomizer for the Fishkill Creek. The funky summertime fragrance fills my nostrils as I soar down Tioronda Avenue on my bicycle. Along dormant railroad tracks, encroaching development in the form of luxury housing spreads over the abandoned industrial landscape like a modern pestilence. The lambs ear and sumac and occasional dumped sofa are standing their ground for now—and I am rooting for them. (Well, not the sofa.) A whip of wind and gnats and honeysuckle helps to create a miracle: my sixty-four-year-old body is still able to reclaim that giddy feeling of endless summer.

I have been reacquainting myself with my art studio for the last week—a 1920s brick garage that was a large part of the reason I moved upstate from New York City nearly seventeen years ago. It’s been a constant battle with the carpenter ants who have had squatters’ rights since time began. A recent tar-and-patch on the roof’s perimeter has given me the (most likely false) hope that maybe this time I can get the upper hand.

squirrel & tar

So, I am back to assemblage art. I wanted to start small, both in scale and concept. While the setup was initially an homage to my paternal grandfather and the workshop he kept in his basement, this summer I am feeling the spirit of Pappaw DeWalt, my mother’s father. He had built a small, seasonal cabin (known as “the cottage” for some reason, but let’s not envision cobblestones and roses!) out of scavenged Stroehmann’s bread billboards. My dad and uncles would cart the building materials to the island in the Susquehanna from the tiny hamlet of Cly before my memories of summer even began. By the time I was nicknamed “Peapicker” by Pappaw, matching his motorboat, I was happily ensconced in that simple, idyllic setting.

Cottage - me on boat

It was less than a half-hour drive, and yet a world away from our suburban backyard and asphalt playgrounds (where we could easily crack our heads open with one faulty swing on the monkey bars). The cottage was at the very end of the island, which felt like the tip of my entire world, as I spread out on a doll blanket and memorized picture flash cards with all the butterflies and birds, or read the latest Nancy Drew. There was a small dock for the boat and jumping off into the chilly, murky river. Wooden steps led up to a screened-in porch where I loved to sleep on a metal cot, but the rustic interior I barely remember at all. Maybe an enamel-top table, an arm chair—but who wanted to be inside during summer?


Me at the cottage


Nana & Pappaw picnicing.jpg

Pappaw and Nana DeWalt had traveled—camped!—across some of the United States, and he always brought back a souvenir for me. A fossil, some fool’s gold, and from one trip in 1957, samples of dirt. Sixty years later they are lined up in my studio, their masking tape labels still legible: Wyoming, Cedar Rapids Iowa, Hinkley [sic] Illinois, and “50 MI west of Omaha Lincoln NEB.” To christen the rebirth of my creative workspace, I decided to give them a little more of a presentation, using materials that evoked feelings of the cabin on the river, and of a time when feeling dirt underfoot and memorizing Latin names for butterflies was really all a girl needed to pass a long, summer’s day.

Dirt on shelves

3 removed and mounted, 4 to go

Samples in progress

experimenting with backgrounds to mount the dirt samples

Linoleum in driveway

a nice sheet of aging linoleum that evokes the cottage, warming up in the driveway

Linoleum on masonite

cut down to the size of pre-cut masonite (done years ago by Pappaw Watts . . .for what?)

Dirt__Lincoln Nebraska

One sample assemblage ready


This one goes to Pappaw DeWalt’s great-grandson, Mike, and his wife Charlotte, who live in Wyoming. Passing the dirt!

Close Knit


Great Aunt Lenore was one of those orbital family members I encountered a few times a year, and whose context in my early life was not entirely clear to me. I remember her mostly as a bosomy backdrop for costume jeweled brooches, with grey marcelled hair and a wall-eye that always looked away while she asked how did I like school. She was not a cheek-pincher. She was a spinster* who somehow knew that an ivory-colored vinyl manicure set was the perfect Christmas present to give to a nine-year-old girl.

We dispensed with the “great” and simply called her Aunt Lenore. She was Pappaw Watts’ older sister (by ten years), born in 1897. I came along in 1953, and as a child was a bit tentative around her. It might have been that eye which refused to look at me, or simply because her world was so different than mine. We didn’t visit her often, but the ebb tide of a memory— the occasional Christmas or Easter noonday dinner in her dimly lit Victorian dining room (my younger sister Dianne and I on best behavior)— sometimes laps at my feet.

The holiday ham would be festooned with Dole pineapple slices, tacked on by whole cloves, an exotic touch, and a far cry from our usual pit stop after church: the brand new McDonald’s off I-83. My shyness and disinterest in adult conversation pushed me into exploring the house’s dark shadows, punctuated by porcelain knickknacks and bright white spotlights of crocheted doilies draped on chair arms, a love seat’s back, or under an African violet.

Of all the objects I have traveled the decades with, one that somehow has never strayed is a patchwork Afghan throw that she knitted. It most likely was a wedding gift for my parents (my father was her nephew). I don’t know which is more incredible: that I still have it or that she made it at all. Aunt Lenore was legally blind.

Her niece, my Aunt Anna Mae, is the lone custodian of memories predating my birth for my father’s side of the family. Anna Mae was my father’s younger sister, up until he was electrocuted on the job and our world’s axis took a seismic shift. Natural questions that would have been asked became stillborn in the wake of our personal nuclear family incident. So I’m asking them now. I learned that Aunt Lenore’s blindness was caused the day she was born.

“They put the wrong drops in her eyes. I guess they put drops in babies’ eyes as soon as they are born. That is what I was always told. She could see to get around but was considered completely blind.”

She went to the Overbrook School for the Blind in Philadelphia to learn a trade, and came out a masseuse. Who were her clients? No one I knew while growing up would indulge in what is now standard luxury spa fare. But massage was likely the muscle relaxant most prescribed by doctors of the time. E.R. Squibb’s followers were still experimenting in pharmaceutical labs, test tubes clinking, while she worked out knots (and knocked out her knitting projects).

I wish I could talk to her right now, woman to woman, spanning the centuries over a cup of tea: one of us a relic of the Victorian age, and the other of the baby boom era. Both childless, we each mustered—maybe even mastered—a creative life within the triangle of fate, circumstance, and will. She never left her hometown. I fled to Manhattan. And with me, I took that Afghan quilt.

*This (derogatory) term reflects the time I am referring to.


Our family – 1956


Dianne & Aunt Lenore – 1957


1960 – Me,  Great-grandfather Smolizer (Mammaw Watts’ father) and Dianne . . . and Aunt Lenore’s throw. Quite a contrast to our brand new mid-century modern living room!


Easter 1961 – maybe a visit to Aunt Lenore’s after church?


1971 – Aunt Lenore’s throw has cozied-up my first NYC apartment, just in time for visiting friends from high school


1974 – my first Hell’s Kitchen studio apartment, and a visiting kitty.


1975 – my second Hell’s Kitchen apartment


1976 – what self-respecting fashionista  didn’t have those Reminiscence coveralls? (And gel-sandals??) Roxy (and all my cats) can’t wait to get her hair all over that throw.

Me in leather__afghan 1979.jpg

1979 –  Aunt Lenore’s throw is a backdrop for entering the New Wave era. And a security blanket that connects me to where I come from.

The shoe box of ancient family photos has yielded this gem. I never knew who it was, until I recently scrutinized the back. In pencil, it faintly says “Lenore 1913.” She is sixteen, in a field, wearing glasses and feeling the tall grass and wildflowers that she can’t see. Weaving it into her expanding world.


copyright Sharon Watts 2016

Candy Cane Memories


credit: Me and My Green Bin

Growing up in the early 1960s, and being a kind of girly-girl, I do remember I liked my food pink. And sugary. When standing in line with my mom at Acme Supermarket, the impulse buy of choice near the cash register was those awful (to me now) pink marshmallow cookies with white coconut sprinkles. This was before red dye #2 was banned.

vintage mom & me

My mother, Shirley, and me in her state-of-the-art kitchen, 1957.

But at Christmas time, we made cookies. Mom did like to bake, if not actually cook. (Hey, it was the Atomic Age, and she had better things to do, like paint!) One of my favorites from that era was candy cane cookies. We had to divide the dough, and color one half. Then keep it moist until we twisted the braids together and curved them into the cane hook. Some baking, and voila! This was a cookie that actually tasted as good as it looked, as opposed to sand tarts. For all the glitter and sprinkles I shook onto them, they were always a letdown to me after they came off the sheet.

I no longer bake anything remotely like the candy cane cookie, since I have gotten much healthier in my eating habits. But a recent call for baking memories from one of my favorite blogs, A Hundred Years Ago, got me thinking about these cookies, and I realize that they probably still influence me today, in my art, if not my baking.

Happy Holidays to all!

Let it Snow! -card

I want to credit a fellow blogger for her contribution to the candy cane cookie. I shared her photo of the original recipe. Read her post for more on this classic!

Left Behind



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neil's moccasin

More here

all images property of and copyright Sharon Watts 2013


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