Blooming in the Desert
Story and photos by Donna Clayton Lawder
Part of the fun for me in moving to the Southwest a few years ago was simply to be a transplant. A northeasterner all my life—between New Hampshire, New York and New Jersey—I wanted a taste of something new. Silver City has given me bigger, bluer skies, more sunny days than I ever would have thought legal, and a varied community.
Settling in, I've met a few fellow transplants. Natives and long-timers may know what they've got here, but I appreciate the perceptions of newcomers, people like me who left congested cities and the like to wind up here, a place of their choosing.
Today I am on my way to visit with an interesting couple of transplants, author and artist Angela Sommer-Bodenburg and her husband and business manager, Burghardt Bodenburg. Starting off in Germany, the couple moved to San Diego, Calif., in 1992 when one of Angela's books, The Little Vampire, was optioned for a movie. The film, starring Jonathan Lipnicki (of Stuart Little and Jerry Maguire fame) and Richard E. Grant, was finally released in 2000. Hollywood called and the Bodenburgs answered.
Thanks to the Internet and some happy coincidences, they left San Diego for Silver City just over a year ago. As I drive the winding road to their house, I wonder how they are landing, if the change has been good for Angela's writing and painting.
I drive through the gate, up the gravel drive to their lovely home on the hill. Their windmill is spinning in the strong breezes common up high, and as I walk up to the front door, I notice a number of baskets overturned and weighted down. Something obviously is being protected. I wonder if they are cactus, the Southwest flora that seems to fascinate transplants like me.
I knock and am greeted by Burghardt.
I ask about the overturned baskets scattered throughout the yard.
Angela rushes to greet me and answer. "Yes, yes, they are cactus," she informs me proudly. She purchased them from a purveyor of native plants in Silver City, and says she was cautioned that the cacti might not do well at this altitude.
"We are at 7,000 feet here," she says. So the cacti, beautiful, large fishhook barrel specimens, are getting a little extra protection under the baskets during these cold months.
Her eyes dancing, Angela informs me "they seem to be doing very well." The hope is that if they take root well in their first year, the cacti will accept this new home and continue to adorn the property with their flowers in summer.
We step into the house, a dramatic place with high ceilings and exposed beams. The living room wall opposite me is entirely glass, revealing breathtaking views beyond the patio. The walls are adorned with many forms of art and curiosities. In addition to the dozens of large paintings covering nearly every surface, some up high, above the rafter line, there also are hanging wall sculptures, an unusual purse, dolls.
Most of the paintings are Angela's—dramatic self-portraits with flowers, mountains, some mysterious symbolic-looking items.
And, of course, cacti.
"I especially like the desert landscape," Angela says. "I feel really inspired here. The sunsets are magical, and from being up on the mountain, we get a 360-degree view. Coming (to New Mexico) has really revitalized my painting."
We walk through to the den and sit on leather couches around a large, round coffee table, upon which has been set a pitcher of fresh orange juice, gourmet imported chocolates and—champagne! As a freelance writer, I am accustomed to carrying my own water bottle. This elegant, festive spread beats the corporate lunches I sometimes enjoyed in my early writing days as a business reporter!
The Angela on the couch is relaxed, warm and animated, in contrast to
the hanging painted Angelas surrounding us, who gaze down with cooler,
more reserved expressions. Some have questions in their eyes, and all,
I think, have a story to tell.
Not only prolific as a painter, Angela Sommer-Bodenburg is the author of 40 books, most famously The Little Vampire, a children's book that has been made into a movie, two television series, two stage plays and a musical. There are ballet and dance versions in Europe, where the television series remains popular, and the books themselves have been translated into more than 30 languages.
Her just-completed Night of the Shivers is the 19th title in the Little Vampire series, and Angela's first book written in her new Silver City home. But she says, "I didn't intend to be the author of children's books."
She talks easily of her austere childhood in Germany, where books became an escape. The years after World War II were bleak, and the family had just one coal-burning stove for heat. Young Angela discovered the warm, inviting atmosphere of her local public library, often reading several books in an afternoon. Just five years old, she started writing her own stories, even making little books that she illustrated and bound together with string.
Her mother was a harsh disciplinarian who often would punish her young daughter by not speaking to her for days on end, or by locking her in the bathroom for long periods. Young Angela learned to escape into stories and her imagination. She imagined her hands to be magical elephants, carrying her away from her punishment and bleak surroundings.
With the playful demeanor of a five-year-old, she puts her hands together, curving her thumbs into trunks, her other fingers fluttering, carrying the imaginary creatures off into infinity. "In my imagination, I flew away with the elephants and had exciting adventures," she says simply.
Her mother did not encourage her writing, Angela says. "She said it was a dead art."
But her father did. Struggling to support his family, he also wrote plays and novels. One day he came home to find his wife and mother-in-law laughing at him. They had burned one of his plays in the stove.
"But he never gave up writing," Angela says. She compares his work "to Rilke, but not as powerful." Her face is bathed in pride and happiness when she recounts, "He lived to see my first books published."
Living and working as a teacher in Germany, Angela says her main goal "was that all of my students would love reading books." She noted that the boys in her classes didn't like reading, so she started asking them what they would like to read about.
"They wanted things that were funny, scary and entertaining," she recalls. And so the character of the Little Vampire was born.
In 1979, both a book of her poetry, Sarah With the Wolves, and The Little Vampire were published, almost simultaneously. Even though this would probably amount to quite a success in any author's estimation, Angela Sommer-Bodenburg went on teaching for several more years.
"Angela did not want to be a starving author," Burghardt puts in. "She kept working as a teacher to get financial stability. She didn't rely on the books."
More than 40 books later, it is quite a different story. While the Little Vampire series brings home the bacon, about 95 percent of the money, Burghardt estimates, Angela has continued to write poetry as well.
Literary success has enabled her to indulge her artistry. Her paintings, which number around 100 now, have been exhibited in La Jolla, San Diego and Escondido in California, as well as the McCray Gallery on WNMU's campus and the Mimbres Region Arts Council's gallery. She started painting in Germany, but really took off when she and Burghardt came to the US in 1992.
"Those are darker images," she says. "I
was working with some darker issues."
I ask her to give me a tour with some of the stories and feelings behind her paintings. Of course, she is interested in my interpretations. We take turns, me sharing my impressions, she sharing the energy and thoughts behind the creation of the paintings.
We start with "Hit the Road," a painting I couldn't help but notice from my seat on the couch. A woman stands naked, holding out a man's suit on a hanger. To me, the look on her face says it all: She's had enough! But what of the broken doll in the corner? The tropical plant?
"She's very determined," Angela says of her mirror image. "She's trying to keep her emotions in check. The message is clear: 'You'd better move on!' The broken doll represents that which is broken in life. This cannot be fixed. And the plant is a symbol for new growth, beauty."
Angela's first marriage lasted only a few years. I imagine the artist before me, pushing past that painful passage, finding a new life, a new beginning, in her art.
I ask why so many of her paintings are self-portraits.
"Well, I am always here. The model is always ready." She smiles.
But also it is because of the stories, the things being worked out. The images Sommer-Bodenburg brings to the canvas lay bare the processes of her own life.
"It is easier to tell stories about a person I know intimately," she adds.
We stop at "California Rose." The Bodenburgs' first home in the US was a happy landing place. Many good paintings came from those years in California. Against a golden background, Angela's body in this painting is green and plantlike, a cactus. Brilliant flower petals encircle her neck, like an Elizabethan collar.
"This is Germany in the background," she says, pointing to a black-and-white image in the distance. "There is a dead rose bush there, what is left behind. But she is blooming."
We continue on, then stop in front of "Leaving California," a painting that depicts some sadness. In it, Angela's head is painted onto the body of a lizard. In the background are mountains in flames. The Bodenburgs left California after wildfires in the hills nearly destroyed their home.
And "Welcome" is the first painting she made in her new home in Silver City. In it, her hand holds out a heart, realistic veins dangling like roots, seeming to offer it to W Mountain in the distance.
We climb the stairs to Angela's delightful, airy studio. The view is incredible, and shelves behind her desk are crammed with her books. One smaller shelf is devoted to many translated versions of just one title: Hanna, God's Littlest Angel. Above the shelf hangs a painting of Hanna, her wings presumably clipped by the slightly bloody scissors in the background. This is the only one of Sommer-Bodenburg's paintings to be used as the cover on one of her books.
"It is close to my childhood. The story is told through my brother's eyes," she says.
This is not the only one of Sommer-Bodenburg's books to deal with a heavy topic. Julia and the Life-Lights tells the tale of a young girl who deals with the death of her grandmother. Though American publishers may be reticent to take on a children's book with such serious subject matter, this is not the case in Europe, Sommer-Bodenburg says.
We look at and talk about a few more canvases in the studio. "Embracing the Past" depicts a mother and child, with Angela's face both as the mother and as the child on her lap. "I first thought to call it 'Inner Child,'" she says. "But that is too one-dimensional. The new title, 'Embracing the Past,' goes deeper. It is about making peace with the past."
We descend the stairs, taking in the paintings lining the walls on the way down. It is like a too-full visit to a museum, so much to see and absorb and try to understand. On the way out, the Bodenburgs both draw my attention to a painting set apart, on an easel.
"The is the new one," Angela says with a smile. "'Birth of a Flower.'"
Against the painting's background of sky blue, Angela stands with a majestic lily-like flower. The roots gently curl around her feet, and the leaves seem to embrace or shelter her. The face of her painted image is peaceful, the countenance relaxed.
"It is a healing plant," she says. "The image came to me and I looked through books to find a plant like the one in my mind."
I bid my new friends goodbye for the day, and drive off wondering what next will come to life from the hand of this flower, blooming in the desert.
Donna Lawder is a Silver City freelance writer