By Julie Pendray
IDYLLWILD, Calif. — Louis Armstrong spent his youth in and out of New Orleans Colored Waifs Home for Boys because of “delinquency” learned in his neighborhood, the poorest in the area. It was so destitute that it was known as the battleground, according to various reports. After his father abandoned the family, his mother left him with her mother and went to live in the legal prostitution quarter. Armstrong was passed around to live with various members of his extended family and remembers having a lot of “step-dads.” To help his mother make ends meet, he did a paper route, sold food he found in trash cans and hauled coal. Yet, as an adult, working in jazz clubs in New York City and Chicago, the man who became world-renowned as the beloved trumpet and cornet player “Satchmo,” told people that New Orleans had given him the gift of music that gave his life a purpose.
Marcia Gawecki is inspired by stories like this.
“People like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald had to overcome such great obstacles like poverty and racism and still they accomplished great things,” the Idyllwild artist said in a recent interview. “I do a lot of research on people I paint. I once listened to an 18-hour book on tape on Louis Armstrong’s life.”
Her huge banners of jazz musicians are on display until mid-May as an educational exhibit at Idyllwild Library. This extension of Jazz Appreciation Month offers fascinating books, vinyl records and other memorabilia.
Gawecki’s portraits there include Miles Davis, Etta James, Billie Holiday, Herb Jeffries (who had a home in Idyllwild until his death in 2014), as well as accomplished musicians who live at least part-time in Idyllwild: Marshall Hawkins, Barnaby Finch, Chuck Alvarez and Casey Abrams. Hawkins co-founded the jazz program at Idyllwild Arts Academy, a private high school for gifted artists from all over the world. Jeffries, Hawkins, Finch and Alvarez have resumes that span The Duke Ellington Band and Miles Davis Quintet, plus touring, performing or recording with George Benson, Lee Ritenour, Tim Weisberg, the Emotions, and many others. Abrams was a finalist on American Idol in 2011.
The banners have become familiar to visitors at the academy’s annual Jazz in the Pines. The bartenders in The French Quarter there say the energy of the colorful faces makes people get up and dance, Gawecki said.
She described her painting as important self-expression that goes back to her childhood.
“I’m an Air Force brat. Both my parents were in medicine and there were seven of us,” she said. “So art was my way of getting attention in a large family.”
At Idyllwild Library one of the books in the jazz display is opened to a page of Gawecki wearing a dress designed like one of her banners. The illustration is part of “Wise Women of A Mountain Village,” by Judith Way. In Gawecki’s words of wisdom among the pages, she described art as a way to deal with pain, as she told of a childhood peppered with criticism and beatings.
The life of a working artist isn’t easy, because it often involves having a second job, she said in her interview. Gawecki said her jazz icons have given her hope that helps her endure hardships. She finds the local community supportive too.
“I work as a cashier at Fairway and I’m grateful for full-time work,” she said. “It inspires me when young people come through my line (in the store) and say that they walk by my house every day and look at the banners that I put in the window. They are artists too.”
Idyllwild attracts many people of the artistic persuasion, who enjoy the down-to-earth lifestyle as a respite from the metropolitan hub-bub. This mile-high village in San Bernardino National Forest has a year-round population of only about 3,850 people, although that swells with second-homers who visit over summer to escape desert heat and enjoy artistic events, such as the jazz festival.
Gawecki fell in love with Idyllwild when she came on a visit with her mother, who lived in Temecula, she said. She’d just returned from two years teaching English and editing an English language newspaper in Santiago, Chile
“I was planning on moving back to Chicago where I had been before,” she said. “I was missing the four seasons and I fell in love with Idyllwild. In Temecula, they were chopping down whole orchards to build new houses. Now I have 40 trees on my property. And I have wildlife at my door, so it’s a perfect, quiet, spiritual place to be.”
It takes a very large exhibit location to display the jazz banners. Currently, Gawecki is considering restaurants as possible locations. To learn more about her work, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org .
The banners will be on display at the library until May 18.
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