Ice Skater to Abstract Painter to Sumi-e Master…

Ok, the following story may seem to be calm and direct on the surface, but it is loaded with CIA intrigue, early Air America connections in Laos, and the rise and fall of governments around the globe. We’ll touch on it here a bit but really dig into it when the time is right.

How does someone go from:

  1. chorus figure skater in the 1942 Ice Follies to
  2. gifted Art Student at Art Institute of Chicago (and counting Edward Hopper, Willem De Kooning and Mark Rothko as friends and contemporaries) and
  3. then decamped to South East Asia for 50 years to become a celebrated Sumi-e Master?

Wait… What?

Yes, that’s my Mom, Joanie, a truly remarkable human being who left a trail of beautiful work all over the world, that included sketches, line drawings, paintings and scrolls.

Ah, there you are, dear Reader! Sorry, thought I lost you…

This past Mother’s Day I wrote a little something about my Mom, Joanie, and it went from a few lines to a few more and a few more until I thought I had a decent outline… and I walked away from it.

To get perspective, I suppose.

But I came back a few hours later with my head spinning, going ‘round and ‘round with all the details I had left out, odd ball things I’d just remembered or bits of a memory that bubbled up from that cauldron in the middle of my head where all this stuff seems to collect – it’s like a vat of oatmeal that keeps bubbling up, folding over on itself, bubbling back down…

I imagine everyone tried to write a bit about their Mom on that day, or found a bit of quiet time to collect their thoughts, make them as precise as possible and then scribble them down on a card and hand it over to your Mom with a nice arrangement of flowers when you saw her later that day. Or, in my case, quite a few days later.

She’s been gone for a few years now, but Mother’s Day is always an important day for me, no matter what. When she hit 94 or so, she just slipped away one day, just closed her eyes and went off down the road to a temple in Mandalay, Burma or Nakhon Pathom, in Central Thailand, just her and a few rolls of rice paper and some charcoal, enough to do a little Temple rubbing to add to her collection.

My Dad followed a little later, 5 years or so, and his end was going to be beautiful and stately as well, but he had a few challenges and when he merged with the infinite, it was a little more complicated. But at the end of the day, they’re together, reading and listening to classical music somewhere, or hanging out at The Bamboo Bar listening to Maurice Rocco holding forth at the Oriental Hotel’s piano bar on the Chao Prya River, Bangkok.

But back to the here and now: and after looking over the few sentences I had strung together, it didn’t seem to be enough for such a larger than life human being, so I‘ve strung together a few more sentences, and here we go:

There wasn’t much to do growing up in 1940’s Duluth, Minnesota if you didn’t ice skate, play hockey or like ice fishing. So Joanie started skating at a very early age and got quite good at it, all thru high school up until WWII started.

From Duluth to De Kooning

She joined the Ice Follies in 1943 from Duluth, Minnesota, then The Art Institute of Chicago ; Contemporary of Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Edward Hopper House in Chicago, Illinois, met Mr. Bill in Duluth, married close to 70 years, 50+ years of High Adventure in Boston, Bangkok, Saigon, India, Burma, Singapore, Jakarta, Manila, Krackow, Warsaw; Sumi é Master at 85, left this world on her own terms, uncompromising to the end… such an inspiration, such a talent!

Peace and Beauty, Joanie, you gave me so much, and I am so glad you and Mr. Bill took me along for the ride…!

And what a ride it was!

High Adventure

So, once my Dad got out of the Navy, finished up on the GI Bill and became a WWII Veteran, he took a number of jobs as a City Manager, landing us eventually in Middlebush, NJ, where we lived in a farm house and my bed was a big drawer in the living room cabinet; we were there a few years, during which Mr. Bill started a Theatre Group in an old barn across from City Hall. The troupe was called “The Villagers” and it is still in existence today, more than 50 years on.

Then we moved out of the Farm House and into town, and we stayed in The Slade House on Front Street – Middlebush was so small there were only two streets: Front Street and Back Street. But the move to the Slade House was destined to change my life forever,

This was a small New Jersey farming village, just outside of New Brunswick, and we rarely saw a car except on an occasional Sunday afternoon.

While we were there, I realized many years later, my Dad had been selected by the new Kennedy Administration to be part of the new USAID Program, and were soon off to Bangkok, Thailand, after spending a painful day in South Jersey at Fort Dix getting every conceivable shot and vaccine – my arms hurt for a week.

The next thing I knew, literally in the blink of an eye, I was living in Suburban Bangkok, in Bangkapi, north of the railroad tracks and The US Embassy, and Raum Rudee School on Wireless Road , to our house on Sukumvit Road, Soi 49. So fast forward and the rush of events was exhilarating: Joanie became a sought after instructor at the Sumi-é Society, a relationship that lasted almost 70 years.

We visited and toured almost every major temple complex in Thailand, Burma and for one scary week into Cambodia to Angkor Wat, a magnificent city that had been swallowed up by the jungle for hundreds of years until it was rediscovered by a French Army Office on vacation from Vietnam and hacked out of the jungle over 20 years.

Joanie painted and brush-stroked her way across Asia, and was welcomed effortlessly into Thai Society and became a wonderful teacher and collector and sought after artist, whose work sold consistently. Her fame eventually spread to China where the Masters and Senior Calligraphic Painters knew her well.

She continued with a remarkable level of output for the next 20 years, painting across Europe and the Balkans, and maintained her creative works even in Cairo and Jakarta, many times while Governments were crumbling around her and Mr. Bill.

Eventually she and my Dad relocated to Boston, where she received another degree from The Mass College of Art, and settled into teaching and painting while Mr. Bill served as Commissioner of Public Works for the City of Boston and then for The City of Cambridge, Mass. She continued to paint and teach, and finally, after having had enough of the Boston weather, she and my Dad relocated again to Fearrington Village in North Carolina where there remained for the next 15 years, in love until the end of their remarkable lives.

My Dad started The Fearrington Poets Society and kept it going for 15 years, while my Mom continued to paint and teach, then just teach and when her eyesight began to fail she would sit and look at her vast collection of Art books with beautiful plates of all her favorite Sumi-e calligraphers.

They are where the Universe wants them now, peaceful and content.

About the Author

“If there’s a place for musical perfection, it’s wherever you’ll find Eric Sommer – A blistering acoustic style plus a variety of slide and open tuning formats will knock you for a loop…” wrote Studdie Burns, Melody Maker/UK in 2013. “How one guy can do this so well is remarkable, but if you look a little deeper there’s a batch of road miles around this lad… and it all makes sense.”

Eric started his musical career in the Boston area under the eye of legendary promoter Don Law and was onstage at The Paradise Theatre in Boston for a record 40 appearances. He has been a regular player on many national and international tours and showcases, and worked in Europe for two years with Nick Lowe and acts Bram Tchaikovsky and Wreckless Eric; during this period Eric worked on Danish, German and British rock stages, returned to Boston and formed The Atomics.

As founding member of Boston’s legendary pop/new wave cult trio “The Atomics”, who toured non-stop with Mission of Burma, Gang of Four and The Dead Kennedy’s and were on the leading edge of a number of musical transformations, Eric never lost sight of his acoustic roots, returning to his heros and mentors often: David Bromberg, Steve Howe(YES), Duane Allman (Allman Bros.), Bert Jansch, Davy Graham, Robert Johnson. Mr. Sommer’s current project with power trio “The Solar Flares” shake up Chet Atkins and David Bromberg influences with those of Randy Travis and British Rocker Elvis Costello – a remarkable mix.

And to keep track of it all, Eric started keeping notes, which evolved from napkin scribbles to paper and pen efforts, writing stories, making poetry and capturing the roads and bridges as they went by, plus people, places and… more people which become his notes, then become characters for songs, stories and prose.

Eric currently has four volumes of verse, 5 studio albums, a LIVE in AUSTIN DVD as well as an electronica project titled “The Smallest Particle” and more on the way… this blog is an attempt to keep track of it all,



You can reach Eric directly at and see more of his projects here on this website. Red Chairs, Black Pancake and Blue Turtle are all available here, as well as all current releases. Please share and comment below.

Ice Follies
Joan in her studio
Way of the brush
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