Artist and retired teacher Ron Isom picked up a black Sharpie fine-point marker and began doodling. Orange paint smudges and spots, already on the white typing paper, became part of a design.
He drew triangles and dots. Houses. A hand and an eye.
Welcome to Ron’s world of symbols and pictographs.
“It looks very easy,” he said. “It’s a lot of brain power. It takes a lot of effort to make something look easy. It takes a lifetime of studying, reading, pondering things.”
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A sampling of his intricate art is on display now through Oct. 15 at Schmidt Art Center on Southwestern Illinois College’s Belleville campus. The show is “Studies of the heart, soul and mind that create esoteric connections to the universe.”
New teacher, new school
Ron, born 75 years ago at St. Elizabeth’s in Belleville, was among the first faculty members when Belleville East opened in 1966.
“The building was not finished,” he said. “I had no supplies. We had to have art in a regular classroom. We foraged building supplies for art projects — Styrofoam, scrap wood. It formulated an idea I had of manipulating materials at hand.”
Often, he created art along with his students.
“They would be working, I would be working. When I’d finish, I would give it away. ‘Mr. Isom, could I have that?’ One of my former students came to the art show. He’s a commercial artist now. He pulled out a little box, a thumb tack box, with eyes drawn on it. He said, ‘I’ve had this in my art box since the 1970s. You know what? You did thousands of those.’”
Ron, who was also chairman of art, music and the foreign languages department, worked small and large.
“He used to create these beautiful paintings in class,” said Dan Krause, a ’94 East grad and an art teacher at Belleville West. “It would completely captivate the class. ... I am inspired by his output and dedication to his craft. His art is part of who he is. When I was a student, I was inspired to see someone so passionate about what he did.
“I wanted to be in the art room. There were a lot of exciting, creative things going on. It was a fabulous place to be. He’s one of the reasons I am a high school art teacher.”
Ron’s recent adventures on Facebook led to his art show.
“I had open-heart surgery in 2008,” he said. “I was sitting around a lot. I was looking at old yearbooks. ... Just to see what was going on, I went on Facebook. I typed in a few names. Every day, I would find some people.”
Soon, he was back in touch with hundreds of students, including teachers, a watercolorist who works for Chicago Natural History Museum and a tattoo artist. Former student Dan Krause, who is on SWIC’s exhibit selection committee, friended him and said, “You should have a show. You are a legend.”
“I don’t do shows,” said Ron. “He kept nagging me. ‘Would it be OK if I put your name in at the junior college?’ I had taught at the junior college part time, an art appreciation class on Tuesday and Thursday nights, close to 30 years.”
Ron delivered his artwork to curator Nicole Dutton with a message: “Do whatever you want.”
Large framed pieces dwarf small designs on paper, taped up as if they were last-minute additions. Styrofoam cups full of black and white lines and shapes are up on the wall, too. The contemporary display fits Ron’s style.
He was delighted, and so were curator Nicole and assistant Jessica Mannisi.
“As curators, they want to understand what you do,” said Ron. “They nailed it, as they say.”
Painted chairs and shoes
Art is never far from Ron and Ron is never far from art. A wood chair he designed and painted with Sharpie oil markers, adds personality to the hallway outside the Isoms’ apartment.
A couple of Ron’s art chairs also hang on the wall at Grafica, a nearby art gallery.
“We get all kinds of comments on those,” said Lary Bozzay, who owns the gallery with wife Lynn. “My wife found an old white lab coat at a garage sale. He took it and made a piece of art. She had white shoes. He painted designs on them. She gets comments when we go to art gatherings. If they stand still long enough, he will paint them.”
Ron’s work is a fit for the eclectic gallery.
“His designs — he calls them a Codex Isom — are not just squiggles and zentangles (a type of doodle art),” said Lary. “They have meaning to him. He uses the same kind of figures in a lot of his artwork. ... Codex is pretty much like Egyptian hieroglyphics.”
Ron Isom-style hieroglyphics.
‘That’s the guy’
Ron met wife Anita in college. She likes music as much as Ron likes art. As Ron demonstrated his art style on a recent morning, she played piano in their sunny living room, a cozy place with art-filled walls, pottery on a table and a big bass alongside the piano. That’s Anita’s, too.
“In college (Illinois State Normal University), she lived next door to me,” said Ron.
“He walked by,” said Anita, who grew up on a farm in Kankakee. “I was crying on the steps. He said, ‘Would you like to go out for an ice cream cone?’ That’s the guy.”
Their routine these days?
“We get up at 7,” said Ron, “have breakfast and see the world. We go to garage sales, auctions, antique sales. We look for interesting things.”
“Which we don’t need,” she said.
“I read and draw and work on the computer,” said Ron, who regularly adds art and commentary to his blog and Facebook page. “I crank it out. We just got back from Texas. When you have five children and eight grandchildren, it’s a lot to do. It’s been 20 years since retirement. My first grandchild got married.”
Ron also owned a downtown Belleville bookstore in the late 1990s, was artist-in-residence at Governor French Academy and rehabbed houses with son Lowell. He and Anita moved from Belleville into an older brick apartment building in downtown Webster Groves a few years ago.
“We have had a great life, taking kids camping, rehabbing, a lot of art,” he said, looking across at his wife. “She’s my biggest fan. She’s my muse. Without this relationship, there wouldn’t be any of the other stuff. When you have been through a lot together, it forms a strong bond. Just to see her laugh at something or respond to something, it’s very rewarding.”
Two young grandsons stop by regularly after school. Grandpa Ron delights in showing them how to make delicate airplanes from balsa wood and tissue paper.
Ron has won numerous art awards, but is most proud of his family.
“They found their own way,” said Ron. “All have college degrees. They’re interested in music, interested in art. They have become great consumers of art. They cut me a lot of slack. Their houses are filled with art. I might give them one for Christmas or they might just take it.”
Recently, Ron switched from Sharpie to stylis.
“I started Isom 2.0 and the Sharpies have left the building,” he said. “I’m changing gears to more mind, hands and Internet. I’ve been posting a lot of digital collages. I haven’t totally abandoned Sharpies but they’ve become more auxiliary to my work.”
Look for his favorite symbols to repeat, whatever the medium.
“Birds. They’re a freedom symbol,” he said. “My birds tell us things about the environment.”
He likes numbers such as 5, 7 and 9. “Those perfect numbers, I don’t like 4s.” But threes are OK. “My mom had three children, one of each. I was the each.
“I like picture frames and houses. I do a lot of houses, landscapes. Hands reaching up.
“We have a class here called life stories. I wrote a story once about my mom. We would make paper boats. She would sit on the floor with me. We’d sail boats around. The rug was an island. I find myself still making boats for grandkids.”
They sail into his artwork, too.
“On one hand, a boat symbolizes a voyage, but another connection is to the past with my mom,” said Ron. “Those are things as you age. It’s aha, that’s what that boat is about. Sometimes, a paper boat is not a paper boat.”
To learn more about Ron and his work, visit his website: isomsymbolicart.blogspot.com or Ron Isom’s Facebook page.
Ron Isom art exhibit
What it’s called: Studies of the heart, soul, and mind that create esoteric connections to the universe
When: Through Oct. 15
Where: Schmidt Art Center on Southwestern Illinois College’s Belleville campus
Hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Fridays; noon-4 p.m. Saturdays
Want to see more: www.isomsymbolicart.blogspot.com