Jean Bakewell is an artist and a very active community member. She is a long time member of the Lithia Artisans Market and a woman of many talents. Along with her partner Kay, she has made Ashland her home for almost two decades. I spent the afternoon sharing coffee and words with Jean, and what follows is our conversation as it took place under the umbrella of her art booth on Calle Guanajuato.
What originally drew you to our little burg?
Jean: This Market. We stopped here for lunch on our way to a show in Seattle. We were having a picnic in Lithia Park when we happened upon this quaint little market. We were living in the Bay Area, California at the time and Ashland just seemed like a good fit.
What kind of Art were you creating at the time?
Jean: Etchings on slate. Big, heavy pieces, but beautiful and very intricate.
How long have you been a Street Artist?
Jean: Since the early 70’s–1973 in San Francisco, to be exact. I was one of the first in San Francisco to get an artist license which allows you to sell on the streets of the city. I still have that license with my picture on it.
What has changed over the years since you first joined the market in 1991?
Jean: Well, back when I started here along the creek there were very few restaurant tables sharing space with the artisans. The market was vibrant and lively.
Then we had the flood in 1997. The Calle needed to be rebuilt but we kept a presence even during the construction with very little space and a sparse market. We even held a fund raising event and raised over $13,000, which we gifted to the city to help rebuild the walkway between Granite Street and Ashland Creek. After the rebuilding of the alley, more restaurants wanted outdoor seating. Today we share the space with six different restaurants. It is still beautiful, quaint and lively. It is just a lot tighter.
You know the Market has been here for 28 years! My understanding, talking with the first artists from way back then, is that Calle Guanajuato was little more than a disregarded alleyway full of blackberries and lots of trash. The artists literally hauled garbage out of the alley by the pickup load. You could say the market helped pave the way for the beautiful area we all enjoy today.
Where did you grow up?
Jean: I was brought up on the west coast of England in a small town, New Brighton. Our little village was one of the most bombed because we were right across the river from Liverpool, the deepest shipping channel in England on the River Mersey. If the enemy dropped their bombs too early we got it, if they still had bombs on the way out, we got it again. Those images have always been with me and frame my way of looking at the world.
I got my first taste of an orange when a Yank gave one to me. We loved the Americans, just loved ‘em.
I remember in 1944 selling hot water to the day trippers so the English could have their tea. The war was on and nobody traveled out of the country so we were a big destination. I was five years old at the time. I guess I have a long history of street vending.
You are an artist as well as a well respected local peace activist. What spurred your activism?
Jean: I hate to sound corny, but being a child of war gives you a different perspective. Having bombs dropped around you, not having enough to eat makes you pay attention. Then, in the 70’s I became more aware of nuclear issues. San Francisco was a hot spot for all sorts of political activity, you couldn’t help but be a part of it.
You were instrumental in the creation of the the Peace Wall. How did that come about?
Jean: The Peace Fence started out as a way for people to express their vision of peace at that time, a very dark time in our history. It was the beginning of the Iraq war and everyone was frustrated and felt helpless to do anything about it. Peace Fence was a non-political installation of individually created peace banners. Kids made some, families did some together, local artists, about 14 panels were made by members of the market. We put it up on the fence down by the railroad. We installed it the night before Mothers Day, 2007. It stayed up for months and became a community vision, a community endeavor. We had over 200 panels at one point. We photographed them all and created a website (www.peacefence.org).
Due to vandalism, weather and exhaustion, we eventually gave up on maintaining the fence. However, the exhibition that started as a temporary exhibition has now evolved into a permanent installation called the Peace Wall which now stands as a community vision in front of our library in downtown Ashland.
What do you most appreciate about the Lithia Artisans Market?
Jean: It has allowed me to evolve as an artist and to meet people from all around the world. I guess I like the closeness, the family-like attitude of the artists at the market. We don’t always agree, but we are family, we love each other. Plus, I’m three minutes from home and I’m getting older.
You mentioned that your artistic endeavors would not be possible without support, could you explain?
Jean: Studio Designs, my business name, is really a partnership with my soulmate Kay Cutter. I’m the artsy end of it, but Kay is the graphics designer– the glue that holds the whole thing together. She is also so incredibly supportive of my various artistic projects.
How has your art evolved over the years?
Jean: I began as a slate etching artist, creating images on large pieces of slate. That got to be too heavy so I made smaller pieces and turned them into jewelry. That was very successful but also hard on my neck. The next thing I knew I discovered canvas and bold colors and I never turned back. The slate etching lasted about 20 years, all grays. Now I work in outrageous colors and I love it.
You and your partner have a new business that is attracting a lot of attention, could you tell us about that?
Jean: Two years ago, when the economy was diving, Kay and I knew we needed to come up with something to get through the winter. We saw a niche we could fill, that of making English toffee. We called our new enterprise “The Recession Candy Company” and focused exclusively on toffee. “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity” became our motto.
It started with one friend tasting the toffee, then another, and another, until we found ourselves invited to the Chocolate Festival. That was a huge success! We use my artwork on the box of a 1/4 pound of toffee.
Now you can find us with our art at the Lithia Artisans Market, and with our toffee at the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market on Tuesday and Saturday. We seem to be working all the time but life is good. I wouldn’t have it any other way.