Bawdy women and acrylic cows
The Hipkiss women: as different as paint and clay
A cast of Hipkiss characters: Julia Child, Peony Lady, Cynthia Hipkiss, Yellow Lady, Dotty and (on the leash) Spotty. Cynthia is always working; she even takes clay on vacation.
In a tiny, offbeat, off-the-Plaza art gallery, Sonoma’s mother-and-daughter team Cynthia and Caroline Hipkiss sell art as quickly as they create it. There, among the bulbous clay sunbathers and landscapes of ruminating livestock, the two artists share a mutual admiration for each other’s talent—not to mention the same last name. In all other ways, they are as different as paint and clay.
Cynthia’s ceramic figures are bulgy, bawdy, boisterous and sometimes risqué. Caroline’s paintings are serene, sentimental and sometimes quite serious. While Cynthia specializes in bikini-clad hyperboles and corpulent chefs, Caroline favors the noble gaze of finely feathered chickens, contemplative cows and the antique softness of a little girl’s long-ago smile. Cynthia’s work thrives on humor and whimsy, while Caroline invokes the innocence of bygone days and country rhythms.
At 59, Cynthia wears her pink-lemonade hair long, with schoolgirl bangs above her round red glasses. Don’t let the fact that she makes fat ladies fool you. Cynthia is thin, with a plus-size talent and an overweight imagination. She squeezed out a niche for herself when she was in art school, discovering that clay lent itself nicely to flabby figures. She sells her creatures for a plump fee, finding a market for just about everything she’s ever made—literally thousands of madcap and mischievous pieces. She works most every day, usually well into the wee hours, and has mastered running six kilns without blowing fuses. Her studio on Arnold Drive is a muddle of little rooms spilling over with paraphernalia, memorabilia and stashes of unsold ceramics, from comic likenesses of Michael Jackson and Barbara Bush to Orville Redenbacher in a suit made of popcorn and Hugh Hefner in bed with four naked women—pieces that buyers have not found as hilarious as Cynthia does.
“My mother was a clean freak, and it always drove me crazy,” Cynthia explains as she searches for a spot to sit amid all the stuff. She reveals that her parents, who are passed away, never liked her art; her mother, especially, felt embarrassed by it. Maybe that’s why Cynthia is so supportive of her own children’s choices. Besides Caroline, there’s Jackie, 36, and William, 27 (both artists), and 35-year-old Victor—a businessman she describes as “the one who decided to make money.” He and his wife live in Wisconsin with their toddler son, Hayden, and it’s Cynthia’s great disappointment that her only grandson lives so far away.
Cynthia and her adored husband, Karl, met when she was 16, married when she was 19, and have complemented each other in every way, and then some, for 40 years. For so long, their lives orbited almost exclusively around kids—diapers, camping trips, homework help, all-around Mom-and-Dadding—during a wonderful but very full phase in their lives. Karl was a teacher at Altimira Middle School until his retirement a few years ago. Now there’s more time for them to go off and play, Cynthia remarks, and their delight in each other is as youthful as it was when they were truly young.
They own a getaway home at Clear Lake, where they often escape for a couple of weeks at a time. Cynthia has clay and a kiln there, or she wouldn’t be able to relax. The couple has also become a loyal fixture at the Tuesday night farmers market, where they share Karl’s homemade Big Kiss wine with friends. Cynthia sees all the fuss about wine as rather silly. “Just give me a gin and tonic,” she says. Karl also collects old Volkswagens, which lie scattered around the front of their home like steel memories, few likely to ever actually run again.
The fact that her children are long-since grown hasn’t diminished Cynthia’s absorption in motherhood, which she considers her greatest passion. She worries and brags and finds bliss in their being, and she will always, in her mind, have four children and not four adults.
“Karl always provided everything our family needed,” she says, explaining that he brought in the lion’s share of their income. Her art was for two things: to feed her soul and provide for extras—prom dresses, birthday parties, Christmas presents.
“For years I felt like I really had to sell. Now I just want to do my art. If no one buys it, great. Now, as I get older, I want to be really bravado,” Cynthia grins.
Recently she decided to spoof the Miss America Pageant, casting a figure from each state, each of whom would crowd 300 pounds if they were real, flaunting signature behemoth busts and behinds. Miss Missouri, the Show Me State, shows it all in a tawdry see-through dress, while Miss Arizona’s cactus-green bosoms boast flowers for nipples but fend off potential fondlers with prickly black needles. And on and on. When Cynthia sells one of these beauty queens, it’s often to visitors from the state they represent, and she always makes another to replace it.
A prime example of her ribald humor is the three-foot statue of a fat lady in a cherry-print housedress sitting on a toilet reading Bon Appétit. After titling it “The American Standard,” (a droll takeoff, of course, on the well-known plumbing fixture firm), Cynthia was nevertheless flabbergasted when Terry Boden of Boden Plumbing walked into the gallery one hot summer day and promptly bought it. The indisposed madam now sits, still immersed in her Bon Appétit and never the wiser, smack in the front window of Boden Plumbing on Broadway, real toilets displayed all around her.
In stark contrast and a few blocks away, Caroline has a stunning white chicken and a serene, pastoral barn among four of her paintings hanging at the posh MacArthur Place, purchased by Sonoma businesswoman extraordinaire Suzanne Brangham.
“Suzanne has been an awesome force in my career,” Caroline says, explaining that Brangham also bought paintings to hang in Ramekins Culinary School, where patrons have seen them and commissioned other works from Caroline.
Special-order art comprises a nice chunk of each woman’s income. “I’ll sell a chef to a woman from Tiburon, she’ll put it in her kitchen, and then all her friends start calling me because they want one, too,” Cynthia says, although she finds continuous repetition of a particular piece to be a creative drain, always preferring to conjure up some new bosomy beauty.
Caroline finds endless possibilities for her paintings in vintage photographs she scoops up at flea markets and garage sales. Sometimes people bring her an old photograph and ask her to make a painting from it. It’s challenging work and stressful when her list of commissions gets a little too long, but she’s become very good at it. “When you paint every day you are always improving,” she says.
At the gentle age of 31, Caroline supports herself solely by selling her art, an accomplishment most artists never achieve. She lives a short distance from the gallery and is at peace (for now) with being single. When her mother was her age, she already had four young children, which seems almost unimaginable to Caroline. But she understands completely her mother’s passion for art. She inherited it, and the connection binds the two even more deeply.
Caroline paints on birchwood with acrylic paints and is considering a return to her earlier medium of oil on canvas now that she has a well-ventilated studio. In her old apartment she painted in her kitchen.
“It seemed so crazy to be eating my organic food while breathing in toxic fumes from the art materials.” She’s been living for a year now in a house with a separate storage building that she’s transformed into a pristine and light-filled studio, enveloped by freshly painted sheetrock and expansive windows.
It was after high school that Caroline left what kids like to call “Slow-no-ma” for UC Santa Cruz, where she majored in biology until a teacher praised her fish illustrations, initiating an artistic epiphany. So she switched to science illustration and a degree in fine arts, then returned to Sonoma to follow in her father’s teaching footsteps while studying for a credential. But it didn’t take long before she discovered the truth in front of her face: It was her mother’s way of life she most wanted to follow. Painting became her priority and passion, and her own way of keeping a roof over her head.
She now finds Sonoma not as slow as younger citizens like to lament, and Caroline rejoices in the tourist-town phenomenon that allows both her and her mother an ever-changing audience and a constant stream of sales.
“I love Sonoma, and if you complain about any part of it, you better just shut up because you are spoiled.”
Caroline is a beautiful wisp who looks 10 years younger than she is and can scarcely look at a six-pack at the grocery store without being asked for her I.D. Yet she exudes an even-keeled maturity and the confidence of someone who has found her calling and—what’s more—been able to prosper personally and financially from it. She paints every day. Her plan for the future is to keep doing what she’s doing, perhaps at an amplified rate. “I am really stoked right now,” she says. She loves getting to run the gallery with her mother. “We are very close. She is warm, good-hearted and so funny.”
Caroline recently took a five-week trip to France with her parents, an aunt and an uncle, and it was the first trip abroad for both her and Cynthia. It changed them both. They shared the thrill of standing inches from paintings they’d studied in art school. “There it is, there it is!” they would say, hugging each other and pointing. Now Caroline plans to learn French and return to paint there for a while. This trip, she found a fabulous old album that has already inspired several paintings. She says people actually notice that French cows look different.
Caroline and Cynthia were both enchanted by the light in France, and the way the French sun cast an age-old, scintillating magic. All the time they exclaimed to each other, “Look at the light, look at the light!” Now home again, Caroline appreciates—in a way she perhaps hadn’t before—Sonoma’s geographic predisposition for charmed light, the way it plays exquisitely upon the face of the Valley and off its hillsides.
Their own artistic light has been channeled equally and differently in Cynthia and Caroline, and admirers sense that. People gravitate to Cynthia’s art because it’s so marvelously quirky, so irreverent and mirthful, and it makes them laugh. In Caroline’s art, people find a place held still by time, a poignant simplicity, a world in which, she thinks, “They are getting back to basics—chickens, eggs, gardens—a simpler life.”
Both Cynthia’s belly laughs and Caroline’s rustic reflections make us smile, make us appreciate the lovely everydayness of life. It’s the restorative power of their art, and we love them for it.
From the Winter 2008 Issue of SONOMA