A serial memoir by Jean Fogelberg


A Beautiful Life

Dan was standing at the stove, stirring a pot of chili with a long wooden spoon, and I was setting the table for dinner. A quiet piano concerto was playing through the speakers in the kitchen and dining room. Outside, an icy wind shook the trees and made the distant lights in the Blanco Basin look like twinkling stars.

     Reaching up for the salad plates, I noticed that one of the under-cabinet lights was off. I took the small bulb between my index finger and thumb and gently turned. The power went out. In the sudden, silent darkness, I confessed: “Oops.” 

     I looked out the window and the entire basin was in a blackout. Abashed, I turned to look at Dan, dimly lit by the blue flames under the pot. He resumed stirring and asked, “What did you do?” He didn't sound angry or accusatory; more like, curious. I told him about the bulb. Surely, I added, that couldn’t possibly have knocked out the power for such a large area? He thought about it for a few seconds then agreed, surely not.

     As we ate by candlelight, though, I fretted about my possible culpability. I really didn’t want this to be the story neighbors would tell about me, and embellish, for years to come. 


“No kidding? The whole grid?!”

“Oh, yeah, the entire county was without power for five days, and it was one of the coldest winters on record. She didn’t show her face in town for three months.”


     A few hours later, La Plata Electric restored power to the basin, and we learned that a truck had hit a power pole. We marveled at the serendipitous timing. The more I thought about it, the more I appreciated Dan’s reaction. Not because he didn’t get mad when I thought I’d knocked the power out, but because, in those first confusing seconds, he believed I had done it. People had been underestimating me my whole life; Dan’s first instinct had been to overestimate me.


     I settled easily into life at the ranch and, especially, the art studio. Dan was my mentor, my benefactor, and my biggest fan. I was a self-taught painter, so I valued his training and advice; he had studied painting in college and I admired his work. His portrait of Rudolph Nureyev hung on a wall in the art studio and I would sometimes leave a face I was painting to examine Dan’s brushstrokes closely.

     Now and then he came out to see what I was working on and give me little tips. “Use Ivory Black over the Mars Black in the center of the lips, just there.” Sometimes I didn't want to hear it, and I’d say, “Okay, maybe. I’ll think about it.” In the end though, he was always right and my paintings were better for his suggestions. When I started creating animated website pages, Dan was blown away. 

     No one had ever been so excited about my work. His encouragement and belief in my abilities helped me to believe in myself, which gave me the confidence to try things I wouldn’t have before. If he didn’t like something, or thought it could be better, he let me know, which made his praise all the more potent.


     My need for the approval of others had frustrated me since I was a little kid. In elementary school I got requests from classmates to draw them pictures. When they liked them I felt really good but then I’d overhear someone say, "Well, her mom’s an artist," and just like that, the praise wasn't mine to accept.

     One day in art class, the teacher gave us each a piece of 7” by 20” colored construction paper and told us to draw a picture on it. Everyone drew rolling hills with trees and houses and people and horses and suns in the skies. I turned my piece of paper vertically and drew two long, yellow stork legs, standing in a nest with three eggs in it. The teacher praised me for my creative thinking in front of the whole class, and I couldn’t wait to take the drawing home to show Mom. She gave it a cursory glance and went back to her painting.

     “That’s nice, honey.”

     I wanted more. “Yeah, but the teacher said it was creative!”

     She looked at me apologetically. “Oh honey, I’m sorry. It’s just that I’ve seen so many good things.”

     What she meant, of course, was that as a trained professional she’d seen the works of the world’s great artists and skilled masters. She was only being honest with me in her guileless way; she’d received little praise as a child herself, so she didn’t know how to coddle or feign enthusiasm.

     I did have a gift that she recognized, and utilized, though: a naturally developed visual-spatial sense. She would be struggling over a portrait and ask me, “What’s wrong with this?” I’d look at the painting, and the photograph she was working from, and say something like, “You have the eyes too close together,” or, “The nose is too short.” She would look, tilt her head, nod, and go to work on it with the paintbrush. 

     When I got older, she handed me the brush a couple of times and said “Here, you do it, I have to check on dinner.” I loved helping Mom with her paintings, but I never touched the canvas with paint, for fear of ruining it. Years later, it occurred to me that she may have handed her smug, spatially-gifted daughter the brush to remind her that there’s more to painting than recognizing how far apart things are.

     In my mid-twenties, I enrolled in Art History and Graphic Design classes at Santa Barbara City College. One day, the Graphic Design teacher said the next assignment would have three parts; each one utilizing a different design principle. When the day came to critique our work, the normally positive teacher put my piece up and verbally ripped it apart. I was mortified; he’d never done this before, and the other students were looking sideways at me in shock.

     When he was finished, I hesitantly pointed out that I had taken all three design principles and incorporated them into this one piece. Hadn’t I? I’d been so sure while I was working on it, now I was filled with doubt, and fear of public humiliation. He looked again, and his anger turned to shame. He was a good man, and I know there was a lot more behind his outburst that day than my design homework. He had the good grace to apologize and give me an A.

     As I said, people had a tendency to underestimate me. I wish I hadn’t allowed myself to be susceptible to criticism, or even, apathy, for so many years, but I couldn’t help it. Dan understood that; he’d weathered criticism on a much larger scale than a classroom, and come away from it stronger and more determined. I admired that so much, and wanted it to rub off on me.

     In the end, it was his love, and his belief in me, that enabled me to care less about what others thought. He wanted me to be everything I wanted to be, and he was willing to help me achieve that. All he needed in return, was for me to make him feel loved and wanted, and to stay. That wasn’t a problem - wild horses couldn’t have dragged me away.


At the beginning of each month, a stipend was wired into my new Pagosa checking account, so I could order art supplies whenever I needed them. It was the same amount I’d made while performing five nights a week. “Pocket money,” Dan called it. This was his own idea, and I really appreciated that I wouldn’t have to ask him for money. My second marriage ended because I got backed into a tiny, powerless corner, and I didn’t want that to happen ever again. With hindsight, I could see how I’d given my freedom away, one piece at a time, to maintain the relationship. I had painted myself into that corner and, in the end, I painted myself out of it.



    In 1983, Limousines were doing big business in California so my husband, Chris, bought an old Silver Cloud Rolls Royce and began driving weddings and wine tours in the Santa Ynez Valley. When we met, I was performing at the Belle Terrasse pub; now I was playing five nights a week at Federico’s, a big restaurant just off the 101 highway. We moved to the one-bedroom garage apartment behind his parent’s house to save money until the business could get on its feet. With the income from the limos, plus my weekly $500 paycheck from Federico’s, we were able to add a white stretch limo and hire drivers.

     I did our advertising, answered the phone, booked the jobs, and cleaned the cars when they came in. After-prom cleanings could be ugly: drunk teenagers riding backwards in an enclosed space. I’ll say no more. When there were no drivers available, I donned a black suit and played chauffeur. Chris was hard-working, handsome and personable, and before long, local celebrities were regular customers.

    The limousine business had become a full-time job, so I quit my gig at Federico’s. When it was time to add a second stretch limo, Chris said we should sell my beloved ’69 VW to help pay for it. I loved that car; loved looking at it, driving it, washing it. My father would tease me, saying I was going to wash the paint off. I didn’t want to give it up - it felt like my last piece of independence. 

    Chris had a charter checking account with benefits he would lose if he made changes, so he wouldn’t add me to it. After being financially independent for my whole adult life, I now had to ask my husband for money when I went grocery shopping. I called my mother and asked how much a woman should be expected to give up for her marriage. She said I should give up my car, since the business was our sole income now. I did it, and I would always regret it.


Me and my beloved VW, at the property that would become Michael Jackson's "Neverland Ranch."

    I had no car, no money, no gig, and I was living in one room - ten feet from my husband’s parent’s house. I adored his sweet mother, Vera, but the walls were closing in on me. Added to my frustration was the fact that I’d given up everything for the limo business, but people would always ask me, “How’s Chris’s business doing?”

    To keep from going crazy, I started painting. My “studio” was the six feet between the kitchen counter and the waterbed. I started small, painting on inexpensive 12” x 18” canvases. My parents had moved from Lompoc to Santa Fe and while visiting them, I fell in love with the art I’d seen there. Paintings by Lawrence Lee and Frank Howell were still vivid in my mind as I put brush to canvas in my kitchen studio.

    Chris had a great sense of humor, but he was all about succeeding at business. I supported his dreams and endeavors, but he didn’t care about, or understand, art, so he was incapable of doing the same for me, and I resented it. One day he quoted the old adage, “The only rich artist is a dead artist.” I couldn’t make him understand that I wasn’t painting to get rich; I was painting because I had to express myself to feel alive. If I couldn’t do it through music, I would do it on canvas.

    A little southwest gallery in Santa Ynez took my first Native American painting, and it sold. Emboldened by that sale, I used the money to buy larger canvases.

    Next, I got into the local co-op gallery in Ballard. My mother’s friend, Dee Sudbury, was going to have a show there and I offered to work the reception table for her. The gallery was packed and, as I stood in the little side room pouring drinks, I watched two of my large paintings get carried through the crowd and out the door. I had sold two paintings! The other artists were patting me on the back and congratulating me, and it was thrilling.

     Gallery owners from other states saw my work at the co-op and soon I was showing at galleries in Ventura, Dallas, Santa Fe, and Oregon. The gallery in Ventura sold one of my paintings for $3,000. Now that my art was bringing in real money, Chris stopped talking about rich dead artists. It was too late, though; our marital tug of war and my own deep resentments had done too much damage. We split up and got back together again twice, then finally divorced in January of 1995.


Dan was working on a Christmas album that would have fourteen Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque-styled songs. He wrote nine new songs for it and gathered five of his favorite ancient and standard songs.

    He started recording in March and by May he was talking about how hard it was to record Christmas music in the summertime. He just wasn't feeling the Christmas spirit. He broke out the Christmas lights and decorations, and hung them in the studio, and that helped. 

    One day he asked me to come listen to a couple of tracks that were almost finished. I sat in front of the console and reminded him about the sound - I always had to ask him to turn the volume down in the studio; it was way too loud for me. He played “Snowfall” and I relaxed into the chair. The music conjured up images of a horse-drawn sleigh gliding along a forest road as snowflakes silently drifted down from the sky. It was flawless; I loved it.

00:00 / 04:05

     Then he played “I Saw Three Ships” and I couldn’t lie, even by omission. I told him I liked the song but, “All I could hear was woodblocks.” A little defensively, he said he wanted the percussion to be really present in this one. 

     When we met for coffee later that day, he said he played the song again after I left and, “All I could hear was woodblocks.” He didn’t have to admit that to me, but I think he wanted to encourage my continued honesty. At this point in his life there were so few people who would tell him if they disagreed with him.

    He loved Christina Rosetti's lyrics to In the Bleak Midwinter, but wasn't sure of Gustav Holst's melody, so he asked me to try to find it online. Today this search would pull up thousands of results, but in 1998 all I could find was a tinny recording from a music box that someone had inexplicably posted. Dan was glad for it though, and recorded a beautiful rendition of the song.

In The Bleak Midwinter
00:00 / 04:40

    A huge Loreena McKennitt fan, he was thrilled when Hugh Marsh agreed to come to the ranch from Canada for a few days to lay down some violin parts. Dan was so happy with Hugh’s gorgeous playing, he ended up using him on four more tracks.

    He had an idea for the CD cover and asked me to help him flesh it out on the computer. It would have a Nordic feel, with a Celtic font and a stylized wreath on a leather background. We sat together at Dan’s 15-inch Blue and White iMac and played with images, ideas and colors.

    None of the stock wreath images we found worked for Dan, so I spent a couple of days creating one from scratch and tweaking it until he was happy. We made it gold and put it on a green background with a leather texture (kind of fake looking, but the best I could find). We added red berries, red text, and a candle, and Dan was happy with it. 

    I thought this would be a mock-up, and the record company’s graphics department would do something based on it. But Dan wanted to use what we’d created and, just like that, I had my first album design credit.


    Twenty years later, it was time to reprint the CD and scale the booklet and jewel case package down to a digipak. The old design looked very dated to me, so I created a new package, giving it an Italian renaissance feel, all the while thinking how much fun we would have had creating the new package with today's software, fonts, and stock image selections.


During one of our trips to Santa Fe we bought an espresso machine and some white ceramic cappuccino cups. We were excited as we opened the box on the kitchen counter. I read the manual out loud, and the instructions said to pour milk into the metal jug, to the froth mark. “Froth mark?” Dan repeated, then he laughed and said, “Frothmark! I like it!”

    When checking into hotels on tour, he used assumed names to throw off the more persistent and resourceful fans. On the last tour he had used “Damien Wilder,” after I told him I’d adopted the nom de plume “Chelsea Wilder” while trying to get into modeling in my early twenties.

    During the 1999 Summer Tour the following year, we would register at each hotel as Daphne and Hayden Frothmark.


    We were stoked to be able to make our own cappuccinos and lattes, and Dan dubbed the breakfast bar Jumpin’ Jeanie’s Java Bar. We met at the butcher block island every day at around 4pm and, while he ground the coffee beans, I got the cups and milk. Dan was the master of his domain while surrounded by electronics in the music studio, but when it came to household electronics, he quickly became frustrated. I’m a natural born tinkerer, so things like the TV, VCR, and espresso machine were my province. While I made the coffees, he got the tin of Lazzaroni Amaretti cookies from the cupboard. When we arrived at Jumpin’ Jeanie’s, we were stretching and yawning with fatigue. Half an hour later, the cups were empty, the bar was littered with sugar crystals and crumpled cookie tissues, and we were chattering like Alvin and the Chipmunks.


    At the end of a long day, I loved soaking in the big jacuzzi tub in the master bathroom. Dan liked the jets, but I liked it still. I could sit there for hours, hearing the faint, dull throbbing of bass and drums from the music studio, while reading a book or mulling something over; it was where I got my best ideas. If I was stuck on how to fix a problem with a painting or a website, I’d head for the bath. 

    Sometimes, when I’d been ruminating and marinating for a while, I’d hear the door open and Dan would come in with smoked salmon and crackers, grapes and champagne. He’d sit against the wall on the large step platform next to the tub and we’d wander off on one of those long, rambling conversations until the salmon was gone and the water was cold.

    I loved this beautiful life we were building together. It was better than any book I’d ever read, any movie I’d ever seen, any daydream I’d ever imagined. I had unlimited art supplies, all the time in the world to create, and a man who believed I could render the Rockies powerless with the turn of a lightbulb.


Posted August 8th. 2020 Copyright ©Jean Fogelberg 2020