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2011 CVAs: Lois Main Templeton

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Lois Main Templeton, lifetime achievement winner for the 2011 NUVO Cultural Vision Awards. Photo by Mark Lee
  • Lois Main Templeton, lifetime achievement winner for the 2011 NUVO Cultural Vision Awards. Photo by Mark Lee

Lois Main Templeton and her husband, Ken, were living in the San Francisco Bay Area when Ken was offered a job in Indianapolis. This was in 1979.

San Franciscans tend to be incredulous that anyone living by the Golden Gate would so much as entertain the idea of moving elsewhere, especially a city as famously landlocked as Indianapolis. Sure enough, it wasn't long before one of Lois' Bay Area friends demanded to know why she was leaving.

"I was too shy to tell him that maybe I would have some use if I went," says Templeton today, sitting in the studio she shares with fellow artist Phil O'Malley in a former A&P warehouse on Indy's southeast side. "I thought there'd be something I didn't know about. Something to do."

The journey of discovery that Templeton embarked upon over 30 years ago has had a rich impact on Indianapolis' art scene -- particularly, on the lives of the countless individuals whose paths have converged with hers at one time or another.

Although Templeton couldn't have known it in 1979, she was on her way to becoming one of the city's most distinguished visual artists, with work in the permanent collections of the Indiana State Museum and The Midwest Museum of American Art. Her work has twice been exhibited at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. and she has published two books, The Studio Book: Finding Your Way and Who Makes the Sun Rise, a book for children.�

The first artist to rent a studio in the legendary Faris Building, Templeton can be credited with blazing the trail leading to the creation of studio complexes like the Stutz, Murphy Art Center and Harrison Center. These landmarks have come to define the city's contemporary art scene.

Outside the studio, Templeton's serves as a Master Artist with VSA Indiana, teaching and creating arts experiences with students ranging from children and adults with disabilities to convicts in correctional facilities. Her work has demonstrated, in ways real and profound, Kurt Vonnegut's observation that the arts make human souls grow.

Upon arriving in Indianapolis, Templeton enrolled at the Herron School of Art. She was nearly 50 years old at the time. "I wanted independence," she says, "and I liked the intensity." She had taken art classes in California; the Herron experience provided a kind of culminating realization.

Templeton recalls her daughter once remarking to her that she was a person who helped "shipwrecked" people. "What she didn't know was that I wanted to swim," says Templeton. "I wanted to go out in the ocean and go over my head and see whether I could swim. And that, for me, was painting. I had no known ability whatsoever to paint. I just wanted to get my hands on the materials."

Templeton graduated magna cum laude from Herron in 1981.

"I was 51 when I graduated, which has been a great source of strength to me because I had been through a lot of stuff," says Templeton. "We artists are supposed to be honest. Well, when you're 20, even 30, it's hard to know what that means. You don't know yourself what's honest. I had in me a big reservoir out of which to paint. It was a chance to lay a trip on people, without words."

Before graduating, she began to look for a studio space. "I needed a studio, so I put on my sneakers and tramped all around downtown Indianapolis."

Eventually she found the Faris building, a seven-storey warehouse with enormous multi-pane windows on downtown's southern rim. "Bob Faris said that I could have a studio," recounts Templeton. "I said, 'OK, I will sign a lease.' He looked at me and he said, 'I don't bother with leases.' I said, 'I've been reading, and it says I should have a lease.' He said, 'You get a lease and I will sign it.'"

He sent Templeton to a stationers' to get the proper form. When she came back, Faris asked if she could afford $200 a month. "I couldn't," says Templeton. "But I was not about to have my husband pay for my studio."

So Templeton began teaching adults at the Herron night school. "They wanted to paint," she says. "I wanted to know what they wanted."

Contact with students has been an ongoing inspiration for Templeton's work. "I left Herron and went to work with kids and VSA because Herron was instructional and VSA was experimenting with doing the best you could with people with needs. You had to be inventive with people who have other ways of learning. You sing to them, you act, you dance, you read, you paint -- all those different things that belong to any whole person. And doing that with them, I would come back to the studio singing, and not be afraid."

For Templeton, working with non-artists keeps her own process real. "They're not anxious," she says. "They're not competitive. They are willing to be very imaginative and not worry about making fools of themselves. When I think of the kids with whom we've been working recently, they often come from lives we would see as deprived and tragic. This does not in any way, that I've been able to see, diminish their ability to be themselves and be positive and be free -- at least in this context. If they have tasted this [expressing themselves through the arts], then they know something about themselves that they may not have been told otherwise."

Templeton compares her own painting to jazz improvisation. "I paint the way a jazz group plays. When I say I talk with the paintings, this is true of any jazz group - they will listen to each other and then go off. This is very much the way I work. I want to be there when jazz is played. I want to watch the interaction."

Templeton says her nature consists of two parts, one of which is collaborative - a quality she associates with the Midwest. The other part is a potato.

"When you dig the soil and pull it back, there they are," she says of potato digging. "They're not dirty, they're dusty. It's a treasure hunt. A potato grows beneath the surface. It's not a party thing. It isn't pretty. It is not sociable, unless it bumps into another potato. And it likes being in the dark."

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