Life becomes art for Reis

Several years ago, a Seneca County woman took up painting at her residence in rural Tiffin. Framed oil paintings and sketches adorn the walls of her “studio” in an extra room. Never mind that Wanda Reis is 89 years old.

Her artistic interests started years ago at Melmore High School.

“The first time I discovered I could draw anything was when I was in biology class. … I made notebooks and my mother saved them,” Reis said.

She married Jim Reis and started a family. They farmed in Melmore and ran an antiques shop at the farm.

Reis said she remembers reading stories to her seven offspring as well as outdoor activities such as coasting, sledding and playing ball. Sometimes, she conducted coloring contests with her brood.

“We had the kids color a picture and then I’d color a picture, and my husband would grade them,” Reis said.

Her art extended to designs for crochet and embroidery, but she also continued to make pencil sketches, mostly of landscapes and wildlife.

She is especially proud of a grasshopper drawing.

“I drew that grasshopper one night after we were married. The men were playing cards and I was bored in the room. … so I had an ‘Outdoor Life’ magazine with a picture of a deer jumping over a log,” Reis said.

One daughter, Bonnie Blankenbaker, said she remembers her mother’s doll collection, now dispersed among members of the family. Blankenbaker said her parents helped Don and June Zigler to plan and establish the flea markets at the Seneca County Fairgrounds. The Reises were among the first vendors to set up a booth at the flea market.

Blankenbaker said she cannot forget the images of her mother, who was not afraid to tackle any task.

“In my mind’s slide show, I see … the one who toiled beside me feeding the pigs, gathering the eggs, driving the tractor across the fields, the woman who spent her days teaching me and my siblings responsibility, work ethics and the value of integrity,” Blankenbaker wrote in an email. “I remember her under the house one winter day thawing out pipes with a blow torch while I waited inside, where it was warm, for water.”

After her children were grown, Reis learned oil painting – somewhat by accident – at about age 80.

She said she remembered going into Cabin Creations to look for craft supplies. While the clerk was searching, Reis ran into Bernice Price, who taught painting classes at Flowers Naturally.

“She said, ‘You need this, and this and this, and I’ll see you in my house Monday morning,'” Reis said. “That’s what started it.”

In the first painting class, Price had set up a vase of lilacs and two small glass bottles her student was to paint.

Price instructed Reis to start with some simple lines and guided her through the process of layering one color over the other.

When Reis wanted leaves in the bouquet, Price said, “Put some in.” The lilac painting is framed in Reis studio.

At home, Reis made her own chart to help her blend and match colors.

She wanted to paint a crazy quilt, with a variety of shapes and patterns, so she got started by painting the four corners of a new canvas. She tried to visualize a crazy quilt her grandmother owned.

“I got to thinking about the clothes that Grandma used to wear. She always had a lot of gray dresses,” Reis said.

Plaid shirts her children had worn, her own garments, a wallpaper pattern and other designs helped her to fill the space with a multicolored mosaic.

She outlined all the pieces and added painted “stitches.” It actually looks like fabric.

“Everybody comes up and feels it,” Reis said.

Butterflies are a favorite subject with Reis and her family. Only one butterfly painting remains from the many she has painted.

If she works from a photograph, Reis usually alters some part of the composition before she is done.

The views from her windows offer plenty of inspiration, she said.

“These are the leaves that come off these stupid trees. … that’s exactly the way they are,” Reis said, pointing to a picture of a full-size sycamore tree leaf.

Birds also are favorite subjects.

At a craft festival, Reis found a frame that resembles a rustic dutch door and created a small picture of a bird on a fence post to put in the top part of the frame.

The artist said she has never tried to paint human portraits.

Reis said she does not paint or draw every day unless the muse strikes or a family member requests a certain picture. With 16 grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild, she said she has lost track of the pieces she has given away. Several others have places of honor in her home.

If she runs out of ideas, Reis gets out an old book, “Happy Days,” which contains poetry, stories and black and white drawings. Some she has copied and enlarged to enhance with color.

The enlargements revealed many details that were less obvious in the smaller versions.

Her attentive eye and pioneer sprit continue to enrich her life, she said.