Sometimes, June Hamm has a bad day. When she thinks about where she comes from. When she’s stuck inside too much. When she doesn’t have a good book to read or a painting she can work on.
She knows just what to do when this happens. She hops in her car and drives the 7 miles to an overlook on Mesa Road, where a majestic scene of Pikes Peak and Garden of the Gods comes into view.
“It brings my spirits right up,” Hamm says. “I just think, ‘That’s God’s handiwork.’”
Mountains can’t cure a hard memory and rocks can’t replace what the pandemic has taken from 90-year-old Hamm, like hugs or trips to see concerts. But, for a moment, the beautiful scenery washes all that away.
Perhaps that’s why Hamm prefers to fill her time making beautiful things. She just has to go to her easel, where she paints beaches and mountains and snowy days and pretty places she’s seen. She doesn’t always know why she paints what she paints. Inspiration strikes randomly.
“I was thinking about it the other night when I was trying to fall asleep,” she says. “Inspiration comes in through my eyes and goes to my brain and then through my heart and out through my fingers.”
For the first eight decades of her life, painting wasn’t part of her days. There were kids to raise and money to make and houses to keep up.
“I’ve basically been on my own much of my life,” she says. “There wasn’t very much time for that.”
Then she moved to a retirement community in Colorado Springs six years ago, after a series of falls left Hamm worried about living alone. Finally, she could paint whenever she wanted.
“The weight of the world fell off my shoulders,” Hamm says. “I just felt relief.”
That sense of relief, for her, was a long time coming.
Hamm was born in a small Indiana town during the Great Depression. She was one of eight kids. “My family had practically no money at all,” she says.
Her family didn’t have much that Hamm wants to remember. Or talk about.
“It was a bad childhood, OK?” Hamm says in a gentle way, as if hoping to change the subject.
There were some happy things, like singing at church with her sisters. As an adult, Hamm would spend 40 years in choirs, including in the Colorado Springs-based group called Soli Deo Gloria.
And, at the age of 3, Hamm started drawing with pencil and paper. She suspects it was a method to keep her quiet during church. But Hamm fell in love. Her parents didn’t seem to care.
“There was no encouragement in anything, basically,” she says.
She doesn’t want to dwell on that. Or her first husband, who she wed when she was 24.
“It was a very, very bad marriage,” she says. “Hell on Earth.”
There was a bright spot during that time. Hamm started taking painting classes at night. She never had much money for something like art school, but those classes taught her techniques and revealed what she calls a “God- given talent.”
For the next several decades, she focused on her two kids and her career in computer graphics. At 50, she got married again and, this time, to a good man. But they only had six years together. He died after a battle with lung cancer.
Hamm was alone again.
A few years later, she decided to make a change. She’d heard Colorado’s drier air might be good for her asthma. So in her early 60s, she moved to Colorado Springs all by herself.
She got a job for a greeting card company and bought a house with four levels and a view of the mountains. She stayed busy with the choir and yearly trips around the world with friends from church.
Then, in her early 80s, a few falls led to a few injuries. Hamm thought she’d be better off in a senior home.
She moved to The Inn at Garden Plaza, where she has her own apartment and can do just about whatever she wants.
“I feel more peaceful and relaxed now than I ever did,” she says. “I don’t have to deal with the hassle of someone always dragging me down.”
She paints or reads or plays games on her computer. She can drive to see Garden of the Gods and to get her haircut. She can hang out with friends and meet new ones, like local artist Rose Ann Ost.
A year or so ago, Hamm and Ost started emailing back and forth, exchanging photos of their artwork.
“I was thinking about you today,” Hamm might say. “What are you painting?”
When Ost gets a piece commissioned somewhere, she can’t wait to tell her friend. After one of those conversations, Hamm replied, “Gosh, one of my dreams is to see my painting on a gallery wall.”
“Huh,” Ost thought. “I might be able to help with that.”
Ost, who also got into her art later in her life, thought about one of her first big shots as an artist. It came from Abigail Kreuser, owner of The Kreuser Gallery in downtown Colorado Springs.
“I’ll remember that until my dying day,” Ost says. “A gallery owner saying, ‘Yes, I think your art is good enough…’ There’s nothing like that.”
And she wanted her friend, June, to experience that.
So, Ost submitted one of Hamm’s paintings to the Kreuser Gallery. For an upcoming exhibit, called “Gratitude,” Abigail Kreuser was looking for artists “who use creativity for reflection and gratitude.” Hamm and her artwork fit perfectly.
It’s one of the sweeter emails to come through Kreuser’s inbox. Even though the show was juried, meaning pieces had to get approved by judges, she made a promise to herself.
“Even if everybody says no to this piece, I’m still putting it in because of June’s story,” Kreuser said. “If this is someone’s dream, I’m going to fulfill it.”
The judges said yes.
Hamm’s story makes Kreuser think of many people she’s met who pursued their passion at an older age.
“We all choose our paths to be able to support ourselves and our families and sometimes means putting our dreams on hold,” Kreuser says. “It makes me happy to know she’s doing something she loves now.”
When “Gratitude” opens Friday, it will include Hamm’s painting. It’s a landscape of one of her favorite views, Garden of the Gods and Pikes Peak.
Ost calls the piece “breathtaking.”
“June has a true gift,” she said. “Her stuff should be seen by everyone.”
And, yes, she’s “amazed” that Hamm still paints at the age of 90.
For Ost, whose parents died more than 10 years ago, spending time with Hamm keeps her connected to a generation she holds dear. She describes Hamm as sweet and kind and loving.
“It makes me miss my mom and dad,” she says. “It makes me happy at the same time, if that makes sense.”
Keeping COVID-19 in mind, Hamm’s retirement community has arranged a small private appointment to view the exhibit. Ost, who also has a piece in the show, plans on “crashing” the visit.
“I get misty thinking about it,” she said. “It’s something else we’ll get to share.”
Hamm gets misty, too.
“I never thought anything like this would happen to me,” she says. “I think I’ll have happy tears.”
That will be a good day. And, lately, Hamm has a lot of those.
On her best days, she picks up a brush and makes something beautiful.
And she forgets about the ugly.
“I figure I’ll just enjoy life while I can,” Hamm says. “And I pretty well do.”