Ada Dawson - Artist and Poet
Presentation to the Annandale History Club
November 3, 2009
Diana Bajari and Wanda Lamprecht
Diana Bajari and Wanda Lamprecht are sisters and best friends. For six years, while caring for their mother, they owned a Fair Trade gift shop in the storefront attached to their mother's house.
Thank you for allowing us to reminisce about our mother's life today. A definition of history is, "a record, usually written and in chronological order, of past events -- a connected series of events and facts concerning a specific subject."
In the dictionary, a couple of pages past history is the word "hoard," which means, "an accumulation of something stored away for safekeeping or future use -- to amass and store."
We were blessed with a mother who amassed and stored a bounty of information from which we prepared our talk today. To condense a person's life to 45 minutes is not an easy task, considering the amount of written material we have read and sorted. And then to sort in our minds the historical from the emotional is overwhelming.
Today we'll talk about not history but her story.
If you knew Ada, you knew that she was a kind, gentle soul. She was unpretentious, a willing worker, a loyal friend. She loved music and had a great sense of humor. Her passion for learning everything about creating beautiful artwork never diminished despite the hard road to get there.
Ada was born May 10, 1920, near Blairsburg, Iowa, the second child of Alfred and Ella Burnham. Her mother had been a school teacher and her father was a farm laborer. Mom had three brothers. In 1923, Mom's grandmother died at a young age leaving several children. The two youngest moved in with Alfred and Ella's growing family. They were extremely poor and struggled to feed their expanded family.
Alfred was injured in a farm accident when his glove got caught in a corn sheller. He lost all of his fingers and thumb of his left hand. This injury happened at a time before insurance and rehabilitation programs, so our grandmother had to invent ways to encourage him to recover.
Then came the Great Depression. "Make do, wear it out, use it up or do without," was the motto of those years. Mom grew up in those hard times and learned to be creative in many ways. They had to move many times in those formative years. She attended several different country schools. She realized that she wanted to be an artist when her fourth-grade teacher hung her drawing up for all to see and admire.
When she was old enough for high school in town, they had no transportation. She and her older brother were sent to live with great-aunts 35 miles away, so they would be able to continue their education. She saw her parents only four times during that school year, and they didn't have a telephone. She was 14. As a sophomore in Home Ec. Class, the assignment was to make a dress. Mom made a cute dress with a sailor collar, and she was quite proud of her accomplishment. The teacher gave her a very low grade because she didn't use a store-bought pattern. She didn't get any credit for designing and creativity. Fortunately, that didn't stifle her creative nature.
Mom was able to return home for the last two years of high school in Kanawha, Iowa. She was the secretary for the superintendent and vice president of the senior class until graduation in 1938. After graduation she worked as a caregiver for an elderly invalid.
Then she met our handsome dad, Wilmer E. Babe Dawson (1909-1986), who was 11 years older than she. They were married July 25, 1939. Dad was a farmer. They moved to Mora, Minnesota, in 1940 where in December their first child, a little girl, was stillborn.
In 1941 and 1943 a son and daughter were born. During these years, Mom was taking a correspondence course for illustrating, lettering and cartooning. In 1944, they moved back to Iowa when I was only a couple months old. Dad had some medical problems so was out of commission for a few months. According to Mom's ledger in 1945, she raised chickens, geese and ducks to sell eggs and had a huge garden, selling cucumbers and beans, canning and preserving the rest for our use. Using her artistic talents, she started painting north woods scenes on plates, mirrors and black velvet to sell. She bought the plates for about 10 cents and sold them for 40 to 50 cents. She sold the mirrors and velvet paintings for about a dollar. She tinted photographs and sold greeting cards as well. These years she continued to write poetry. Her poems were published in a variety of anthologies.
We moved back to Mora in 1947, and one more daughter was born. Mom's ledger records clothes that she made for herself, us kids and others, including feed sack underwear, bras, and training pants.
In 1950 we moved back to Iowa and lived in the same general area for the next 10 years. At that time Dad became a carpenter, so life was more predictable than farming. In 1955, driving home from work one evening, Dad was hit at an intersection causing his car to roll several times. He was able to walk away from the accident; however, the next day they discovered his spine had several crushed vertebrae. His injuries severely limited his ability to work even after months of recuperation.
Supporting the family rested solely on Mom's shoulders. Our small town didn't have many employment opportunities. She went to work in the local hardware store and then worked in the grocery store. She supplemented that income by lettering trucks and painting signs. In the summer she contracted to detassel several acres of seed corn fields. We kids helped with that. She said the detasseling wasn't as hard as working in the sugar beet fields when she was a kid. She also wrote a weekly column for the newspaper.
Even though she had to work outside the home, she still took the time to be involved as a Sunday school teacher, vacation Bible school teacher, den mother, Girl Scout leader, school room mother, Band Booster, and chaperone for dances and skating parties. She painted murals to decorate my junior and senior banquet, sewed most of our clothes, helped with 4-H projects, cut our hair, sacrificed her own dreams for us.
Babe and Ada's
Lake Sylvia Store (1960-1974)
For years Mom and Dad wanted to move back to Minnesota. In 1960 an opportunity arose to buy a little country store on Lake Sylvia near Annandale. The day after Labor Day we said goodbye to friends and headed north once again. Mom was 40 years old, Dad was 51, I was 16, and Wanda was 13. We each must have had different thoughts (fear and trepidation or a promising new adventure) as we reached our new home, a huge gray converted horse barn.
The previous owners had the store open only in the summer. Mom and Dad tried to have it open in the winter for the first couple of years, but then Mom got a job at the garment factory in Buffalo for a few months. Through the years Mom and Dad expanded Babe and Ada's Lake Sylvia Store. It became a full service convenience store before that was a popular concept.
They installed gas pumps, had a full line of groceries, lunch counter, and served Brown's ice cream malts, sundaes, and cones. The 8-foot penny candy counter was a hit with the kids. They had a bumper pool table and a juke box. They added an art gallery, par 3 golf course and gift shop. Mom made signs for many realtors and others. She also baked pies from scratch on order for Sunday morning pickup. They were open 7 days a week from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.
During these years, Dad worked for a construction company and later as custodian at a bakery in the cities until his retirement. As busy as Mom was during these years, she found time to complete another correspondence course in fine arts. Her love of art enlarged her life beyond Lake Sylvia.
Dawson Signs (1960-1980)
As Diana mentioned, Ada painted signs. She was an accomplished sign painter. Mom's sign painting business was successful; however, it wasn't as fun as artistic endeavors. She painted banners for queen candidates and posters for cars in the Kanawha, Iowa, annual parade. I think she also painted signs in Annandale for the July 4th parade.
She painted signs for businesses. She mentioned the largest she painted was about 20 by 8 feet. Painting signs like she did does not compare to how they are done today. There were no stencils, the materials were not lightweight and there was no spray painting and no computers. She used several coats of enamel paint on the background, and she measured by hand the dimensions each letter should be and where to place it on the board.
She also painted signs for lake cabins, mail boxes, race cars, buses, and trucks. The buses belonged to Neil Bahr; they were the Annandale School buses. One of our favorite teasing moments, when she was almost done lettering a sign, was to mention she had a spelling error. She was not thrilled with our humor.
A woman sign painter was unusual. Generally, it was a profession for men. She mentioned that when she was high up on a ladder and scaffolding to paint a sign, a man climbed the ladder and said to her, "I had to shake the hand of a woman sign painter." She also wrote a letter to a magazine about doing an article about women sign painters. In 1966 the magazine wrote an article titled, "Increased Women in the Sign Business," and included a photo of Mom and two other women.
In August 1980, Ada discontinued her sign painting business and placed the following in the Annandale Advocate
As I am
discontinuing my sign business, I have the following
for sale. Three half-empty barrels of sunshine to use on cloudy
days to hasten drying of paint, one pint stamina red, one quart patience
blue, and half a dozen partially rolled up tubes of letters
to squeeze out at will and form to your various needs. Also one
distressed yardstick, one dozen brushes of different sizes and shapes
(most with a handle and a few bristles). A few paint splattered rags
with lost identity, a gallon of invisible turp to erase all kinds
of mistakes, one partially used dispenser of luck (dispenses both good and bad,
very unpredictable), and one white paint-stained shirt with
tail permanently flying from trying to meet deadlines.
These items wrapped up in a 20-year old blanket of service interwoven
with gratitude to my many customers. Call Ada
Dawson of Dawson Signs. No item guaranteed. Any reasonable
offer accepted if negotiated over lemonade on the shady side of the shop.
P.S. Reserved, one brush to paint pictures with!
Creative Arts Group
In October 1973, Judy Mosher demonstrated batiking to Diane Shoberg and Ada. This was the beginning of an art group. Ada was instrumental in establishing the creative art group in Annandale. She functioned as the unofficial chairperson.
Ada recorded that in 1976 the official name was "Lake Country Creative Arts Group." Membership increased to 15, and Julia Barkley offered space to meet in her greenhouse studio. The purpose of the group was to cultivate art awareness in the community, to encourage individual artists and crafts people, and to enrich the experiences of each member. They wrote and received a grant for educational workshops. When the members met, they would have a member teach or discuss their form of art or craft. Members also exhibited their works at various art fairs.
I believe there were more than 11 art fairs through the years where members displayed their work: The Canopy Art Fair 1983-1987 and Lake Country Creative Art Fair 1988-1993. Some were cooperative efforts with Wright County Arts and the Chamber of Commerce. The shows later evolved into the Heart of the Lakes Arts and Crafts Fair, which was held each August until 2008.
Ada was an active and enthusiastic volunteer at Minnesota Pioneer Park. She was a life member. As early as 1974, a newspaper article on the Pioneer Travel Park displayed a picture of Julia Barkley, Nobel Shadduck and Mom. The article informed us about Julia and Mom working on the Information Center and Gift Shop. Mom gave tours. She dressed the part of a bank robber and spent hours researching period displays and developing a layout for the Women's World building. She strongly believed that women's role in history was under represented, and she wanted to preserve their experiences for others to see. In a tribute to Mom, Marilyn Gordon wrote, "The Women's World was Ada's pride and joy." The Women's World building was recently renamed Hearth and Home.
Gallery and Gifts (1975-1980)
In 1974 Mom and dad moved to town and purchased a home with commercial space in front. She soon opened a gallery with her paintings and handcrafts. She also gave private art lessons and art classes through community education. Ada closed her sign business and the Country Art Gallery in 1980 to spend more time on her commissioned artwork. We have photographs of many of the paintings Mom has done. She has created many works of art. We do not have a number.
Ada was sensitive to the beauty in her surroundings. Her artwork reflected what she felt, and she recorded what she saw in a variety of mediums. She sketched with pen and ink and painted in oils, acrylics, and water colors. She painted on wood, glass, cloth, garage doors, fish houses, rocks, shells, canvas, paper and probably more. She did calligraphy. She experimented with silk screening. She made paper. She did collage work. Ada developed several note card series, religious, wildlife, Pioneer Park and Annandale. She did fiber weaving.
Mother wrote poetry or prose much of her life. She had some published. We have found many poems written in journals and notebooks. In 2005 we put together a few poems in 'Dreams at Dusk." She expressed herself in writing much like her paintings. She observed her surroundings and saw beauty in everything.
To a Butterfly
gorgeous creature like silver lace
Hovering over an earthen vase
Of candy tuft and violets blue, Bleeding hearts and daisies too.
Graceful body on delicate wings, On a fragrant flower it deftly clings
One precious moment, then flies away,
A bit of sun on a dreary day.
Annandale's centennial was celebrated in 1988. A Pioneer Park committee, Ada, Marilyn Gordon and Lucille Raiche, researched and developed a booklet highlighting events in Annandale's history. Ada designed the logo and motto used on the cover and illustrated the maps in the booklet. Marilyn Gordon wrote that the trio spent many late night, hilarious hours at Mom's table sifting through material. And drinking tea!!
The elevator mural project was an extension of the centennial in 1988. Mom was on the committee of dedicated volunteers under the Chamber of Commerce Tourism Committee. She helped with fundraising, made signs, and donated time and energy to help attract visitors to Annandale. We have photos to look at if you're interested. Ten years after completion of the project, there was talk of tearing the elevator down, which prompted Mom to write a letter to the Annandale Advocate newspaper. This is an excerpt.
This $20,000 project received the "Minnesota Beautiful (Picture It Painted) Award" from Valspar Corp. Since then the colorful elevator has been publicized. People stop to photograph it; some slow down and observe. It has become a landmark and one of the things that makes our town unique.
I could go on mentioning the treasures of our area, but back to the elevator subject. Will this elevator go the way of the covered bridge, the gristmills, the barns and windmills, or will someone with the ingenuity and the money come up with an idea for its use? I don't have an answer, and I'm not blind to progress, and in case you hadn't guessed, I, a resident of this area for 38 years, do love this town, the lakes, the rolling hills, the winding roads, and on and on.
When the elevator was torn down in 2000, her comment was, "Nothing lasts forever."
Mom was the secretary in 1991, the first year of the Annandale History Club, with Harvey Hawkinson as leader. We have the membership list, some meeting notes, and Mom's letter of resignation as secretary, saying she was too busy to carry out the duties. And busy she was! We almost had to make an appointment to see her. Her calendar was filled with things to do. Many times I would go to her house, find her gone and have to check her calendar to figure out where she was. She was always happy to see her kids and grandchildren.
Ada was involved with the Methodist Women's sewing circle for many years. They collected sheets, towels and clothing for the Red Cross and the battered women's shelter. They assembled shoe box kits for varied mission projects. They also made quilts, lap robes, walker bags, baby quilts, pillows, etc. to donate to veterans, nursing homes, and shelters. They also held craft and bake sales to raise funds for materials and for donations to missions.
Ada painted murals on the walls of rooms in the basement of the church after researching many details. She was very conscientious about being historically accurate about things that she created.
She was responsible for the church paraments and banners, designed covers for the bulletins, and illustrated the cover and chapter pages of the cookbook. She made the Christmons for the Christmas tree after researching the meaning of each symbol.
Through the years, she quietly gave of herself without fanfare and received notes of appreciation from several pastors.
Mother's life is noteworthy. She possessed a variety of qualities that shaped her life and her influence on the Annandale community.
Ada had moxie. She had courage, energy, vision and dared to be involved.
Ada was service minded. Her many volunteer experiences are but an example. She was the leader of many.
Ada was compassionate. She raised her family with love. She was welcoming and warm to all.
Ada inspired others. She was a role model to many, and she received positive feedback from them.
Ada was inquisitive. She pursued knowledge in many interests, the arts, crafts, genealogy, Pioneer Park Women's World, and more. She was the "go to" person for the grandchildren doing school reports.
Ada loved our country. She was proud of her three brothers serving in the military. She was proud that her ancestors fought in the American Revolution.
Ada was proud of her accomplishments, but she didn't believe she was special.
Ada Dawson May 10, 1920-February 28, 2009
a well-spent day brings happy sleep,
So a life well used brings happy death.
-Leonardo da Vinci