"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

Self-admitted tumbleweed has tried many things, but stayed true to her art

By on May 28, 2019 in Arts with 0 Comments
Horses and art have been constants in Cam Elder’s life, so she’s sold several but kept a copy of this lost wax bronze piece in her home collection. Photo by Mike Irwin

By Susan Lagsdin

Heritage Heights, a senior living facility in Chelan, is full of history and lively personalities. Last winter, six local artists eagerly captured those elements as they painted portraits, or in a few cases abstract representations, of individual residents. 

The project was initially prompted by watercolorist Cam Elder, who had participated in a similar endeavor at the Seattle women’s shelter, Mary’s Place. 

Barbara Koenig of the Chelan Arts Council and director Amanda Ballou of Heritage Heights brought the idea to life, and the portraits were exhibited in the Chelan library before coming back home to the hall walls. The idea caught on — now, a second hallway is slated for the same loving attention by a new wave of artists.

Cam is pleased the collaborative project went well, though she’s humble about her role in it. Refreshingly objective about her skills, she would say she’s not so much driven and passionate as “darn good.” 

Detail of Leaf Lady, acrylic and Flair pen on autumn leaf, a gift for friend. Cam said, “it’s about as big as your phone.”

With minimal formal training, she’s experimented and switched media, endured the inexplicable fallow period common to many artists and finally arrived, post-retirement, at a comfortable place, both literally and figuratively. 

Years of happily vacationing here culminated in a full, post-retirement move to Chelan in April of 2018, where Cam appreciates the arts community and values the camaraderie of other creatives. She lives contentedly single in her spacious condo, surrounded by artworks she admires and productive in her tidy studio. 

She was frank about her career. “I’ve sold a lot of pieces over the years, but really — I’m a hobbyist.” She cited a 1/10th of 1 percent figure — people who can support themselves with their art. 

Watercolor with mixed media is her most recognizable genre, but she also does photography and small sculptures and is currently having an enjoyable fling with copper.

Cam said, “I seem to have been blessed with some skill in art, and now I’m not going to abuse it… not going to waste it.” From her teen years (Edmonds High School ’58) where her posters filled the halls to this latest creative partnership in her new hometown, a surprising amount of her work has been made, like the Heritage Heights project, in conjunction with other people. 

Cam‘s portrait of Heritage Height resident Theresa Hoback has a special gift on the back: the artist‘s conception of a horse from the subject‘s childhood.

In addition to being in juried shows and art fairs over the years, she’s joined in the worldwide Art Abandonment Project (you leave a small piece of finished art just about anywhere, for anyone…), the Fish project for the Canadian Olympics and The Sketchbook Project for the Brooklyn Library Museum. 

For the Arlington/Camano Island Banner Project, she explained, “We made avenue banners, painted on both sides — and the whole auction’s highest bid was for my Uncommon Llama piece.” 

And uncommon transitions characterize her life. 

Cam would say she was raised a little rough — enough so that the day after graduation she headed south and essentially never went home again. 

After she stepped off the bus near Imperial Beach in San Diego at age 17, she recalls, Cam started to sell her paintings almost immediately. She’s lived and worked up down and over in the West — Alaska to Mexico, Reno, Portland, Wenatchee for a while, circling back to Deer Island and Everett. After a few marriages, she decided against that institution — volunteering a wedding ring/noose metaphor.

In that peripatetic life (“I’ve always been a tumbleweed,” she said), Cam has accumulated skills beyond her artistry. 

She competed in timed riding events as a teen and later raised and showed Arabian performance horses. She can read, write and speak Greek and has been a dog obedience trainer. She once came in second in autocross at the Nationals for British Sportcars with her Triumph Spitfire, and she’s enjoyed boating for years in the San Juans with a friend. 

As Cam described the work that’s occupied most of her adult years (not the early bull-trucking or bean-picking, or the cookie-decorating or cracker factory quality-control gig), she realized that she might have made a good detective; also that her sensitivity to mood may have helped her become a portrait artist. 

This four-foot salmon was part of a group installation (with 350 artists) welcoming visitors on I-5 to the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Canada.

She was essentially a bill collector, a skip tracer, the archetypal “bad cop.” Turns out she made it an artform: Cam was a wiz at gentling and cajoling people in the accounts receivable department of banks, credit unions, a hospital and in doing FBI fingerprint checks for Snohomish County.

Cam looks back with wisdom and good humor on her adventures and a few misadventures, saying, “I’ve never regretted anything I’ve done… Just a quiet life, kinda.” 

Now with a stunning view of Lake Chelan out her front window and a little visibility for her work in the regional arts scene, she’s looking forward to quieter explorations. 

She’ll make art for herself — and maybe join with others again to make art that enriches the community

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