Local artist creates ornament for White House X-mas tree
Artist Cathee van Rossem-St. Clair started painting on eggs as a joke.
“I painted an egg for my mother as a gift. You know, a daughter giving her mother an egg,” she said, chuckling. “Then, I gave one to my husband as a joke. Then the neighbors wanted one. Before I knew it, I was painting on eggs,” she said from the studio at her Truckee home, where she lives with her husband, Greig, and their dog, Kenya (Keen-ya).
But now, van Rossem-St. Clair’s canvas of choice is nothing to kid about. She paints on unfertilized eggs as a metaphor for the fragility of the Earth and has won numerous national and international awards for her art. She also teaches third and fourth graders in Truckee, Kings Beach and Tahoe City her craft so that they understand how to care for the planet.
Furthermore, she was chosen as one of 400 artists nationwide to create an ornament for the 2002 Christmas tree at the White House, an honor she, coincidentally, thought was a joke.
“I got a call in late September from the California Arts Council,” she said. “Laura Bush had sent a note to all of the governors asking for artists to paint an ornament. Gray Davis called the California Arts Council, and I was one of eight artists nominated in California.”
Van Rossem-St. Clair, who studied art and philosophy (“I’ve never been known for my practicality,” she jested) at San Jose Staten and abroad in Italy, said she had been recognized for her art before, but never on this scale.
“I really thought it was a joke. I was also a little troubled with the notoriety, at first,” she said earnestly. “I’ve made conscious decisions in my career to keep things small and local. I like the way my life is here in Truckee.”
She said she believes that on a smaller scale, her art can make a bigger difference.
So, she sought the opinions of her friends and her husband, and they all said to go for it. When she received an invitation from the first lady to a reception for the artists at the White House, “that’s when it all sunk in.”
Now van Rossem-St. Clair had to make her most difficult decision of all: What would she create for the tree? Of course, her ornament would be painted on an egg, but what would she paint?
The White House had deemed the theme for the tree “All Creatures Great and Small,” and artists were to create ornaments with birds native to their states.
“I took it pretty seriously,” van Rossem-St. Clair said. Like she does with a lot of her work, she did a great deal of research for the project.
“I wanted a bird that was not only native to California, but also one that had never left California.”
So, van Rossem-St. Clair, who has a passion for painting endangered species, started out with a California condor on an ostrich egg. She outlined the form of the condor in pencil, but before she could apply the acrylic paint, she noted that there were certain size and weight constraints for the ornaments. The ostrich egg was too heavy.
Then, she turned to a rhea egg, which was smaller and significantly lighter.
One day, van Rossem-St. Clair was diligently painting the condor, her husband walked in the studio.
“He looked at the egg and said, ‘You are not sending a vulture to the White House.’ I guess I’d never thought of a condor as a vulture, but it was true. So, I thought maybe I should do something else. But isn’t that a face only a mother could love?” she said, holding up her draft egg.
So after doing a bit more research, van Rossem-St. Clair decided that the California thrasher, a small bird found in lower elevations, would be her subject, and an emu egg would be her canvas.
“The thrasher mimics the songs of other birds, and I thought it was a perfect metaphor for us: the common people. That’s what we usually do as humans, run around and mimic others. I thought, here’s a chance for us to be recognized nationally. Most of us common people don’t get that chance.”
A true artist, van Rossem-St. Clair has placed more importance on the message of her work rather than the art itself. Perhaps that was why she was chosen to represent her state at the White House.
“It was incredible to walk into a building with so much history,” she said. “There was so much art on the walls. George Washington’s sword was in the library. It was amazing.”
It wasn’t a tour, she said, it was more like a celebration.
“We could walk in any of the rooms. We even got to sit in the furniture. We just had to be careful not to spill our tea. And they had a bald eagle centerpiece made of chocolate,” she said as she flipped through an album of pictures, over half of which were of the food.
“Everyone was on their best behavior. It seemed like we were all wondering, ‘What am I doing here?'”
After lunch, the First Lady came down the grand staircase and into the foyer to give a speech commemorating the 400 artists. (“Mrs. Bush said that there were five from each state, but if you do the math…”)
Following the speech, van Rossem-St. Clair and her husband had their picture taken with the First Lady.
“I feel very changed from the experience. After seeing all of that art work on the walls, it had an impact on me,” she said, choosing her words carefully. “What I did was a small thing on a huge tree. But after I saw my egg on that tree in a house so heavy with history, I realized that my art may have that same impact on someone else.”
After a lengthy pause she said, “Even though we’re common people, our energy makes a difference in some small way.”
For more information on Cathee van Rossem-St. Claire’s art, call (530) 587-1806.