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Summer 2009

Wife, mother, watercolorist: Art of living


By Rachel Coleman

When the job offer came, a world of color, light and possibility spread out before the young college graduate. Working for Hallmark Cards in Kansas City was an art major’s dream.

And Liberal native Saundra Koochel was perplexed as she tried to balance her artistic aspirations with her heart’s desire.

“I was really torn,” she recalls, several decades later. “Even now, I know I could have been in that business world and done well — but I chose to be a wife and a mother. You can’t be a part-time mother, but you can be a part-time artist.”

Newly married to Larry Koochel, the Southwest Kansan said “no” to Hallmark and settled in her hometown.

“I just wanted to be a teacher and start a family,” she said. That soon included two children, Audra and Todd. Koochel put in time as a Boy Scout den mother, PTA president and Sunday School teacher. Interspersed with family life were stints teaching elementary students and middle-school art classes, work as a local arts supporter and progress in her own art.

“I continued painting,” she said, noting that she learned to sketch and paint whenever she could find a few moments. Scheduling, she said, “took all the fun out of it.”

Building on the foundation laid by her high school instructor Lloyd Angell, and her education at Fort Hays State University, “I turned into a sort of self-taught watercolor painter and I progressed and evolved,” Koochel said. “I was shyer and more subdued when I started. Now, I’m a bolder artist.”

Through the years, Koochel got a close-up look at the path she might have chosen when her younger sister, also an art major, said “yes” to a career at the greeting card giant. Koochel’s brother also made the visual arts his vocation, working as a graphic artist. She’s glad for her siblings’ success, but, she said, “I am so happy with what I chose. Some people might look down on me and think I missed out, but I am thankful I was fortunate enough to be able to stay home and raise my children. The art became my hobby.”

If the description sounds like a demotion of her own abilities, keep listening: “It’s a hobby,” Koochel repeats, “but it’s always been my passion.”

A visit to Koochel’s sunny, black-and-white tiled studio on the south end of the family home feels a bit like stepping into her paint box itself. Cheery light pours in through a wall of windows to illuminate a shiny white work table, plants, pots, thick pads of heavy paper and crumpled, vibrantly stained tubes of watercolor paint jumbled in a tackle box.

“When we bought this house 30 years ago, my husband Larry said, ‘What about an art studio?’ He has always encouraged me,” she said. “When we travel, I’ll say, ‘Stop! Back up! I want to take a picture of that.’ He does.”

Snapshots and passing glances are then transformed into bright images formed of translucent paint, one color atop another.

“That’s what I’ve learned,” Koochel said, “to put on layer after layer. You can’t go lighter, only darker and more intense. I love blue and purples laid down against golden yellow. And here’s my favorite brush, a denture brush that is great when you want to splatter speckles of color and texture.”

The paintings that crowd the opposite wall at present are second-level works, she said, “because I’ve got 19 in an exhibit at Baker Arts Center right now. One of my former students has a show there, but they needed more pieces to fill all the galleries. That’s why I’m there — to fill in.”

Koochel is not a self-promoting sort of artist.

“I’m just a common watercolor painter,” she will say. But the local art collectors who snap up her work — and sometimes try to commission special pieces — don’t think so. Koochel has lost track of how many works she has sold at exhibits, auctions and in private.

“I’ve been very fortunate,” she said. “I used to take a photograph of every piece I sold, and catalogue where things went. It got away from me somewhere along the way. There were just too many.”

Koochel’s work is accessible and friendly, marked by trees and flowers, garden produce, rows of battered, colorful mailboxes, an occasional kitten. She does not favor sentimentality, she said, “but I want to paint things people really do enjoy. My art is a burst of color, and it’s supposed to make you go, ‘ah’ with happiness. It should be something that you’d want to hang on the wall.”

That stands in contrast to art-world trends, she noted, where juried art shows and exhibits look for art “with some sort of message. I am not a statement-making person. I would rather paint it.”

Being out of step with such politicized art has sometimes led to rejections, Koochel said.

“I’ve been in many shows, but I have been turned down just as much,” she said, noting it is a grounding experience. “It just builds character.”

The experience of watching people look at her work at an exhibit’s opening poses a greater challenge, she said: “It’s just nerve-wracking.”
But the gallery scene is only a small part of Koochel’s life, which now includes grandchildren.

“My daughter is a stay-at-home mother, and she’s using art so much in raising her children,” Koochel said. “The creative side of motherhood is so valuable. That’s where I learned it. My parents loved good art, they had good taste and it’s only because of them I loved art so much.”

The career in Kansas City that never was? That, Koochel says, “is just a memory in my dusty closet.” Her life as a wife, teacher and mother is what has given her art its zest and beauty, and brought her full-circle.

“If I hadn’t done all that, I wouldn’t be the artist I am,” she said. “I wouldn’t be the person I am.”

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