My cartoonist buddy, Randy Enos remembers his talented mother-in-law.
Her name was Tecla Maria Marguarita Kolodziej. She was born in 1913 of Polish and Bohemian/Gypsy parents. When she was 15 years old, she was sent to live in a Catholic girls’ boarding school. She read everything she could lay her hands on. She was a bit of a loner.
She married Jim Walker (English, Irish, Dutch descent). As a young man, Jim was a champion amateur boxer whose trademark move was to rush out at the bell of round one and fell his opponent with one solitary blow. He never lost a fight… not particularly popular with fight fans who perhaps wanted to see a little more action. During World War 2, he was in the last Texas Cavalry troupe which was formed into a tank destroyer unit while Tecla worked as an airplane designer for North American Aviation. Later on she became an assistant to a medical illustrator. She had her own cadaver.
They had one child, Leann ,who I married in 1956. If they had had any other children, I would have married them too.
After the war, Jim worked for the Texas Pacific Railroad as a dispatcher. Tecla had always wanted to be an artist and when she made her first oil painting (shown here in article) which won the first prize at a Dallas Museum of Fine Arts show, an art teacher at the convent told her that someday she should study with Jerry Farsworth. So, she finally made the journey from Texas to Cape Cod to study with the well known painter/teacher. She appeared with their outdoor painting class that summer on the cover of Life Magazine.
While there on the Cape, she made some friends who invited her to visit them in Westport Connecticut. There she found a community of artists, illustrators, cartoonists, actors and writers. She fell in love with Westport and told Jim all about it. He quit his job, packed up a few belongings, left his car parked on the street in Dallas and took the train with his little daughter across the country to start a new life.
They had decided that since there were so many artists in Westport plus the fact that Jim had been successfully framing Tecla’s paintings, that a Walker Frame Shop might be in the offing. And so it came to be and for many years, it was the only frame shop in town and a fixture on downtown’s Main Street.
By the time I came into the picture, Leann’s parents knew all the famous illustrators, writers and cartoonists in town. Jim used to tell me about his friendship with Orphan Annie’s creator, Harold Gray.
Aside from being a framer and restorer (Tecla was very knowledgeable about old master techniques), she was an outstanding cook who would never let anybody in the kitchen while she was creating her culinary delights. We even got some off-beat appetizers like chocolate covered ants and fried grasshoppers. I couldn’t resist getting her dander up sometimes by proclaiming that, “Food is just fuel!” Regardless, she loved me and I, her. She introduced me to my favorite childhood illustrator, the little known, Martin Burniston who was one of her best friends and she had kick-started my career by hooking me up with Popeye’s Bud Sagendorf, another of her close friends, who hired me into the Famous Artists Cartoon Course thus starting me on the road to cartoonery.
Tecla did lots of self portraits, portraits of friends and portraits of me. I’ve included one of myself here that was painted without my knowledge as she sat on the floor outside my garret studio while I was trying to create a comic strip. At this point in our life we all lived together in a big house. Later we had our own houses but only about a hundred yards apart on the same street. Our kids, on the way home from school, would go through her back yard into her back door, past the big bowl of candy and out the front door and down the street a little ways to our house.
Tecla knew that I kept long hours at the drawing board in those days and often in the middle of the day, I’d get a call. When I answered the phone, all I would hear was one word “STRETCH”! So, now I keep a photo of her in my studio with a word balloon saying “stretch”.
She would never say “hello” when you answered her calls. She would just start in on whatever she was calling about. She was fond of calling me from parties with questions. I’d be in bed and the phone would ring with “What’s the capital of Ecuador?” It’s not that she thought I was particularly smart, but she knew I owned a set of encyclopedias.
When Tecla died in 1993 of cancer (Jim had already passed on), we put her very first oil painting, a self portrait (shown in this article), in the newspaper instead of a photo.
Tecla only painted for herself with only a very occasional commission like the painting of Simone Bolivar’s mistress Manuella Saenz for a book cover… and the fake Gainsborough she did. She had an opera singer friend who owned a Gainsborough and had fallen into hard times… she had to sell it. She loved it so much and had gotten so used to living with it that she had Tecla paint an exact copy of it for her. Tecla spent weeks and weeks on the woman’s screened- in porch, meticulously imitating the painting to perfection. She had to paint it at the woman’s house because, of course, she couldn’t let anything that valuable off her premises until the sale.
Hardly any of the customers who brought their homely little watercolors into Tecla’s frame shop knew of her extraordinary talent in painting. She never entered shows or exhibited anywhere. She was very modest and didn’t discuss her own work with anyone outside of the family.
After she died, we decided that the citizens of Westport should see her work (she would have hated this). Leann and I put up a show of a ton of paintings, drawings, sketches and sculpture in the hallways and corridors of the town hall. The show was up for months and months and hundreds of locals stood agog with their jaws dropped open while they looked at these paintings by a woman they thought they knew.
The one story about Tecla that sticks in the mind was the time that we (Leann and I, our two sons and their girlfriends) were all skinny-dipping in a small river one evening. A police car pulled up near our vehicles up on the road at the top of the river bank. A young cop, large flashlight in hand, descended the bank coming toward us. No one was supposed to swim here… we knew that. He pointed his lamp at Tecla who was emerging from the water stark naked. He said, “Y’know you all have to take off!”
“TAKE OFF WHAT?” Tecla raised her hands in a shrug.
He just laughed and got back in his car and drove off.
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Read many more of Randy’s cartooning memories: