She left her native Missouri/Kansas at the age of 25 for San Francisco in 1970. She describes her artwork as “abstract impressionist,” and creates sculpture with a slightly sexual bent. She has lived in a sprawling home in Thousand Palms, which she hopes one day will be a museum, for more than 30 years.
Oh, and did I mention the peacocks?
Ramona Rowley, a vibrant 75 years old, envelops you with a warmth and openness that is both refreshing and unusual. She and her brother were born in Kansas City, Mo., and raised in Kansas.
“My dad was in the Navy and didn’t even see me until I was a year old. He had been raised on a farm in Kansas, got his education in agriculture, and ended up as dairy commissioner,” Rowley said. “My mom was also raised on a farm and became a teacher, but she had always wanted to be a hairdresser. She went to school and opened a salon in our home.
“The real secret is that she had always wanted to be an actress. She was very beautiful, loved children, always had flowers on the table, and always had a house full of everybody’s kids. My parents had dated since the ninth-grade.
“I wasn’t encouraged to love art. My grandmother was the first to call me an artist, and I had a second-grade teacher who told my mom about a picture I had done. I was 18 when I saw (a fine-art) painting (for the first time). It was (one of) Monet’s Water Lilies. I couldn’t stop standing in front of it. I took art history, looked at lots of photographs, and realized the difference when you’re standing in front of a piece of art.”
After a summer session at Washburn University, and in spite of the fact that the University of Kansas had an art department that beckoned, Rowley attended Kansas State.
“My dad had graduated there, and if I had gone to (the University of Kansas), I would have been a traitor!” she said.
Rowley had a first marriage (“to get out of the house”) and began working at the Menninger Foundation. Her husband was a therapist there in the children’s hospital, and Rowley worked as an adjunctive therapist focusing on art and horticulture, working with the occupational therapists.
“My office was in the greenhouse, and I got to watch bougainvillea blooming when there was snow outside. Everybody was jealous,” Rowley laughed. “I wasn’t just doing art, although I enjoyed it. My job was to help people to be creative. You have to learn to be alone and spend time dedicated to finding what your colors are.”
Rowley made the break and moved to San Francisco in 1970.
“I found my life,” she said. “I was 25 and going forward to explore who I am and what I want. It was too hard to be an artist in Kansas.”
A mutual friend introduced Rowley to another artist, a Spaniard named Manuel deArce—and thus began a lifelong relationship.
“We lived together for 34 years before we ever married,” she said, her eyes sparkling as she talks about her beloved late husband. “He had a wife when we met. I had a boyfriend, and we were just friends. I was the only American in our group of friends. It was ’70s San Francisco. We were sitting on the floor and talking nonstop about art. He gave his wife a baby that she wanted, and we wanted to be artists. It turned out that everyone made the right choice. I think we followed not our egos, but our souls.
“When we met, Manuel didn’t like abstract art. He had trained at the school in Spain where all the great masters had trained. When we left San Francisco, I had been doing ceramics for over 20 years, using pink clay, whites and browns, sometimes lapis (a blue gem) or shells from the ocean, and colors that changed from glazing and with metal leaf.”
What brought Ramona and Manuel to the desert? “Manuel loved Palm Springs,” said Rowley. “He used to stop here on the way to do exhibits in Arizona and Texas.
“In the desert, I started out as a painter. Manuel and I were huge influences to each other, more about being artists rather than in the art itself. At 5 p.m., when the light changed, we would take my art and set it on the table, have a glass of wine and take the time to see what I had done that day. He never gave critiques, but he would say, ‘Do you mind if I turn this (ceramics piece) over?’ They would often have more power one way or the other.
“You need to find the colors: They tell you what to use. I reflected the sky and earth in Kansas. In San Francisco, it was blue and grey; I was painting torsos in lavender, blue and grey, with lots of full, round shapes. I’m a woman and intuitive; he was a Spaniard and very colorful. Manuel was using bright colors in San Francisco, but the desert environment changed what he saw.”
The house Rowley shared with deArce has their paintings, large and small, throughout, along with Rowley’s pottery and specialty pieces on the walls and shelves. Canvases stand along every surface.
“I’d like this to be a museum someday,” Rowley said. “I’d like to keep working for the next five years, then be doing exhibitions and classes.
“I had tried to tell my parents that I didn’t want to go to college, that they should send me to Europe. When my mom was 80, we were in Europe. She said to me, ‘We made a mistake. We should have sent you to Europe.’ Last year, I got to see Botticelli in Italy. While my legs are still good enough to travel, I’d like to go to different cultures and find out how people become who they are.”
Among many exhibitions and collections, Rowley’s art is included in the permanent collection at the Mingei International Museum in San Diego. She is also a photographer.
Rowley candidly talks about how her art suffered after deArce died in 2017.
“I had no joy in my life for almost three years. My paintings were bad,” she said. “Luckily, I was finally able to find a new ‘friend.’ Now I can channel the muses again. When I do that, I never do a bad painting. I’m finally ready to sign these pieces.”
Did I forget to mention the peacocks? On the sprawling cactus-laden grounds surrounding her house, Ramona has 11 peacocks roaming freely, including Houdini, a rare white peacock.
“I raised him from a baby. We even dance together; the males dance, you know,” she said. “We discovered Houdini wasn’t male when an egg was laid in the house. Oh, well.”
Ramona Rowley is a free spirit, a dedicated artist and a warm and lovely human being. And then there are the peacocks …
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show That’s Life airs weekdays on iHubradio, while The Lovable Liberal airs from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.