I don't remember a time when I didn't know Jeanne Mann. She has been part of my life since I can remember. She was introduced as one of my mom's coffee and cigarette friends. She had a son about my older brother's age, and a daughter who was just a little younger than I. The two older brothers were in Indian Guides together, and that's where I was made aware of the extreme creative spirit living inside Jeanne. My father was counseled by his buddies at the YMCA to keep his tribal name as simple as possible, since he would be asked to repeat it dozens of times in pictograms. This is why he chose "Bent Arrow" for himself and "Straight Arrow" for his son. The Mann men became "Big Bear" and "Little Bear." The visuals that adorned their crafts were aided by the talents of Mama Bear. Jeanne gave them a pair of big black bears that were at once impressive and easily duplicated. Imitated, but never equaled.
Jeanne was an artist looking for a canvas. She gave her art to all kinds of nice places, like the library at my school. She drew cartoons of a cowboy and a cowgirl that graced bookmarks for Columbine Elementary years after her kids had moved on. Their Christmas cards were always a marvel to me: topical, funny, and always carefully drawn in a style that I tried to imitate, but never matched. Later, all this creativity found a new outlet in soft sculpture. Far from the mashed faces of the dolls that could be found in your average eighties gift shop, Jeanne applied her eye to making characters from literature come to life. I was the grateful recipient of a Falstaff, a Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Frankenstein's monster. They hold a special place in my home to this day, since I know just how unique these pieces were.
And when her grandchildren arrived, oh lucky them. The stuffed animals would not be purchased from a store. Cat in the Hat, Eeyore, the Lorax and more Wild Things than you could roll your terrible eyes at came thundering out of her workshop. There seemed to be no end to her energies. She was the friend of my mother's that I felt I could hang around and talk to. On those long afternoons when she and my mother used to play duets on the piano, I would wait for a break to come down and hang out with Jeanne. She got me, even when a lot of adults didn't. At least that's the way it felt. And she liked a bawdy story. She had a loud, long cackle that was the reward for telling a joke that was just the right shade of off-color. She nurtured my fascination with Charles Addams, and inspired me to keep sketching.
Now she's gone. It comes after a time when she had put her own drawings away. The music and the laughter had dried up. She leaves behind rooms full of relics that testify to her humor and enthusiasm. I thought of her as I sat at my desk, drawing this year's Christmas card for my family, just as I will every time I put a pen to paper.