Monday, December 11, 2006

Lady Ostapeck

Lady Ostapeck

When we moved here about three years ago, I couldn't help but notice a very "unique" home on the road to town. The house was extremely run down, sagging and unkept. The yard was filled with junk. Chipped statues, segments of iron fencing, spray painted wicker furniture, etc. But there was a bit of whimsy about it all and I couldn't help but look for new items every time I drove by. After awhile, I learned that the woman who lived in the house was Lady Ostapeck. I had already heard much about her as she had recently turned 85 and the whole town had a party for her. There were many articles about in the local papers and I certainly thought she seemed interesting, if a bit eccentric.

Later on that winter, I had several dreams which included her and so I took that as a sign that I was supposed to know her. One snowy Sunday in March, I made some cookies and went over to meet her. She immediately invited me in and the minute I walked in the door, I was in a daze. Her house is filled top to bottom with stuff. I mean more stuff that you could ever imagine. I can't even describe how much stuff is in her house. Chairs, stools, handbags, statues, birdcages, typewriters, books, photography equipment, bottles, costume jewelry, plastic flowers, etc etc etc. There was a little path to two chairs in the living room where we sat and chatted. She seemed glad for the company and went on and on about old friends, life in the country and photographers whose work she admired. She was very interested in me-my heritage (I have found since that she asks everyone where their family originates), my children and my work. She especially enjoyed the fact that I stopped by because of the dreams. I learned later that she's a big believer in signs.

Since then I have often stopped by to visit her and to take her food. She is almost 89 and doesn't always eat as she should, so there are several of us who keep an eye on her and her kitchen. I also see her often at the local church dinners, art openings and other events. She doesn't always remember me at first, but a reminder that I am "the artist down the road" usually works and we pick up right where we left off the last time we visited. This last Saturday night I was her driver/escort to the annual "Victorian Stroll" held in Cooperstown. This is another one of those historical events that our seemingly perfect small town revels in, especially at the holidays. Normally this is the kind of event that makes me want to gag but everyone involved was so enthusiastic, I couldn't help but feel that way also. The main street was closed to traffic, was lit with candles, there were horse drawn carriage rides and a live Nativity scene. Because she has an extremely extensive collection of historical costumes she loaned many of them to the volunteers who dressed up and walked along the Main Street providing a glimpse of the past. Lady and I walked up and down the street and she stopped and spoke with everyone, And when I say everyone, I am not exaggerating. It took us an hour to walk two blocks and to take one of the carriage rides. Finally we settled into a table at the window of the Doubleday Cafe, with a perfect view of the the passersby. All of whom waved at Lady or came in and chatted with her. As the event wound down, we ate our dinner and chatted and she told me more about her past and how she came to live in upstate NY alone in 1960. It was a lovely evening and I really enjoyed it. Despite the fact that she constantly chided me for not wearing a hat. She can't understand why women don't wear hats anymore, insisting that men can't resist a woman wearing a hat. A bit of advice if anyone out there is looking for a man. Heh.

Anyway, she has the true spirit of an artist and while the photographs she takes have perhaps been spoiled by the similar kinds now taken at a booth in the county fair, her heart is in every photo she takes (and she still works, believe it or not) and they are really amazing to see and experience in real life. She spends a lot of time getting to know her subjects, discussing their family heritage, their hopes and dreams and how they see themselves. She then decides on costumes and puts together a scene, using the objects in her overstuffed home and barn.

Lady is also a reminder to me that I don't need a fancy studio (I know, I always complain about needing more space. I should stop.) or supplies. Every picture she takes is a set-up in her tiny, overcrowded front room-a table by a north facing window and 100 year old 4x5 camera (no flash) that cost her $50 at the Salvation Army, four feet away. She develops the film in her tiny, overcrowded bathroom and retouches the actual negative in her workspace which is a tiny, overcrowded closet.

I hope you will visit her website and read more about her. She really is an inspiration.


Steven LaRose said...


I am feeling better.
Thanks for the "portait".

ps. Don't worry, the blogger dust settles.

Tracy Helgeson said...

She is pretty inspiring, huh!?

I always feel like the laziest person ever when I see all that she has and still does accomplish.

June Parrish Cookson said...

Hi Tracy, great story about Lady and thanks for the link to her website. Love reading about people's lives no matter how young or old.

Tracy Helgeson said...

Thanks, June, glad you enjoyed hearing about her. She's a character!

Karen Jacobs said...

There are magical momments in life if we take the time to experience them. A special story... KJ

NikonNick said...

Thanks for th great Lady O story. Please visit again and update us. Your artwork is interesting.

p said...

so i'm digging in the archives per your link, and love this post. i would say she is lucky that you stopped by and got to know her...but i think you are probably just as lucky from the sound of it. i checked her site out, and while it isn't my cup of tea i can see the extraordinary amount of attention she spent in details and feeling.
i can also see why her house looked so ramshackled from ouside!

Lou Benzell said...

My wife and I lived in Jefferson NY for a number of years. Joan made reproductions of victorian dolls and was an award winner for those reproductions. Lady Ostapeck lived nearby and my wife had her portrait with her award winning dolls taken by Lady. Her photo still hangs on the bedroom wall and everyone who sees it admires the quality of the pose. When Joan asked Lady for directions to her studio, Lady gave her vague directions but told her that once she got to her road, Joan would know immediately where Lady's house was. Joan was not disappointed. We are so honored to have had contact with Lady as well as having one of her photos of my wife. Joan talks of her experience with Lady the day the photo was taken. It was one of my wife's memorable experiences.