Vashon artist finds inspiration from the seniors in her life

Nannette Cotton Pawlowski takes the hand of Shirley Boardman, a senior who’s helped to inspire Pawlowski’s art.  - Elizabeth Shepherd/staff photo
Nannette Cotton Pawlowski takes the hand of Shirley Boardman, a senior who’s helped to inspire Pawlowski’s art.
— image credit: Elizabeth Shepherd/staff photo

Nannette Cotton Pawlowski spent a day hanging more than 60 colorful drawings and five large quilts at Vashon Community Care Center last week, stopping to chat and dispense hugs to the people who served as muses for her artwork.

Pawlowlski, 51, a soft-spoken woman with a mop of unruly hair, easily combines two roles in her life — caregiver and artist — and indeed, one seems to inspire the other.

“I love helping one person at a time, and hearing their stories,” Pawlowski said.

Some of her artwork — drawn on plain brown paper or stitched carefully by hand — is a tribute to the deep bonds she has formed with Island seniors while helping them in their homes with daily chores and simple tasks.

The care center — a place where some of the artist’s dearest friends now reside — thus seems the perfect setting for Pawlowski’s largest-ever exhibit of artwork, some of which tenderly illustrates anecdotes she has heard from elderly people.

Shirley Boardman, a care center resident and former Pawlowski client, beamed as the artist showed her a framed fiber art piece that told the story of Boardman’s early courtship with her husband Harold, who is now deceased.

“He didn’t know her name, so he called her peaches and cream” is stitched across the center of the piece, which is set inside a fabric panel made from soft flannel pajamas that once belonged to Boardman.

“Thats so nice,” Boardman said, looking up from her wheelchair with wonder at the framed artwork.

Pawlowski’s choice of materials — grocery bag paper and soft fabric — is a testament to her simple philosophy of artmaking.

Pawlowski, who studied fiber art in college, said she only began drawing seven years ago. She taught herself, drawing on grocery bags, in a process she called “a mom thing, an everyday thing.”

She said she loved working with the bags, so much so that she didn’t listen to advice from people who told her she should be drawing on a different kind of paper.

Pawlowski smiled as she recalled how she worked up the courage to place a minimum order from a paper bag wholesaler, for 10 bales of 400 bags each.

When the bales arrived, she noticed the bottom of the bags were date stamped, and the date on all 4,000 bags was her birthday.

“That was reaffirming to me — it told me I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing,” she said. “I needed to be doing art for the people.”

Other works in the show depict the simple, ordinary things about life that Pawlowski loves best.

One row of drawings pays tribute to the stuffed animals Pawlowski’s daughers — now both in college — cuddled with when they were small.

Another row of drawings is inspired by Pawlowki’s daily household chores, while yet another series is devoted to her favorite fruits and vegetables.

Her colorful quilts are also warm reminders of her garden and other comforts of home.

One quilt, which incorporates dish towels, bears a slogan Pawlowski said was used in England during the 1940s — “use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

“Timeless words, aren’t they?” Pawlowski said, smiling.

Nannette Cotton Pawlowski’s exhibit at Vashon Community Care Center will open from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 6. All of the works are for sale, with many prices for framed work in the $50 range. Unframed works are available as well, at lower prices.

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