My Fourth Starving Artist Story

Stick with it, there is a photo at the end.  

This Starving Artist post will focus on Tamsen Donner, who was a large influence on my life.  We ended up taking a trip through the South together – a trip that I will never forget.

God chiseled and hammered Tamsen out of the hardest stone.  She walked off her column base from the Atheneum, and peered down her perfectly carved nose at the rest of us.  Tamsen could kill you with her jawbone.  The tendons in her arms were bullwhips.  Her huge feet were necessary to support such a beautiful creature.

When I first met Tamsen, she was going through an extreme hermit phase.  She had chopped off her blonde waist-length hair with kindergarten scissors.  She was living in a basement apartment in the hip Clarksville area of Central Austin.  She spent her spare time painting and reading.  I think that she was working at Sweetish Hill Restaurant at this time (They used to have a restaurant.  Remember their Eggs Florentine?).

Tamsen and and her brother Marco Stanley Donner (“The Poke”) had both spent some time in European boarding schools – Poke in England at a British Preparatory school, and Tamsen went to a Provincial French boarding school.  She was fluent in French. Also, She had spent several years in France during her college years at a very eccentric art school in Aix en Provence named the “Leo Marchutz School of Art“.  The school was on the estate of Paul Cezanne.  Leo was in his dotage, and had given up the operation of the school to two Bohemian Americans.  One of these fellows had graduated from Sewanee Episcopal when it was still a private men’s college focused on the Great Books.  They were dead-broke and in love with the idea of living and painting in Europe.  They came up with the great idea of revitalizing the school by offering painting trips into Paris, where they would copy paintings at the Louvre (this was the 70’s, when it was relatively easy to get access).  They bought an old WWII ambulance to use for the field trips, and started advertising.  Well, the price and venue was just right for Tamsen Donner.  It is at the Leo Marchutz School that Tamsen fell in love with paint, painting, and a man.  I think that his name was either Claude or Karl, but I can’t remember.

I was escorted by Marc the first time that I met Tamsen.  Poke came over to the Texas Women’s Federation and threw pebbles at my window to get my attention (this is how all of my friends visited – by jumping in and out of the window so that they could avoid the secretary and Club manager).  Poke had an original WWII Willey, and we took that over to Tamsen’s.  She was there, painting inside.  Her hair was indicating all four compass points, paint was smeared as a weird body lotion all over her hands.  She was in a foul mood.  I immediately liked her, with her European sensibilities, her intellect, and her beauty.

The Donners were anything but modern; they reminded me of The Durrell family.  They were Bohemian Intellectuals, having more in common with the Victorian or Pre-WWII ex-patriot. They would speak French to each other if they didn’t want you to know what they were saying, they would make references to literary passages to spice up any mundane event.  They were cliquish, they sparkled, and became the shiny bauble that you just had to catch.  They didn’t fit in, and they despised conformity.

Tamsen loved the theatre, particularly Shakespeare and Chekov.  I didn’t even know who Chekov was until I met Tamsen.  She auditioned for Esther’s Follies, and was accepted on a probationary basis.  She did not thrive in under their tutelage.  The Tamsen that I knew and was in awe of did not exist in the world of Vaudevillian slap-stick.  Her humor was more intellectual, more at home in the autobiographical novel “My Life” by Chekov.  There was this unsettled friction between the pastoral, booted Cossack and the worldly Intellectual.  Tamsen did not require the gyrations and fumbles of slap-stick.  She would have been more comfortable in a traveling Shakespearan troope.  It is not that she lacked humor.  Her quips did not require the physical.  When you take a Greek statue, and make it do the time-step, well, we are all embarrassed.  I was there on her last night.

Tamsen Donner

Tamsen Donner


  1. Posted November 13, 2008 at 2:43 am | Permalink

    Far from being bored, I couldn’t stop reading. Can’t wait for next Wednesday!

  2. Posted November 13, 2008 at 5:59 am | Permalink

    Hi, justwilliams.

    Thanks for the encouragement. I don’t know if people are stopping by for the stories, or the pictures, or both. Feedback sure helps!

    Thank you,

    ~Lavanna Martin

  3. Posted November 13, 2008 at 6:51 am | Permalink

    Hi Lavanna-

    My, how the internet makes time & space a knot – I remember you clearly. From your paintings shown here, it looks as though you’ve done some good staring at people the past few years.

    Do you remember me? So many echoes from that time in my own memory. I, too, loved the Donner family, so it is good to find some traces of them now. Bittersweet, is memory.

    Keep writing; I’m still a bit shy about the idea of blogging myself, but I admire those with the courage to publish their thoughts!

    Did you ever leave Austin? I did.

  4. Posted November 13, 2008 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    Hi, Bill!

    This is great! Of COURSE I remember you.

    You were actually there that day, the first time that I met Tamsen. I couldn’t figure out how to fit that in w/o going on and on.

    When Poke and I arrived, you were sitting there listening to Gustav Mahler’s “Das Lied Von de Erde”. I was so impressed – my knowledge of classical music at that time began and ended at Handel’s “Water Music”. I will never forget that you translated the German for us – the piece started out with a Chinese poem, with reference to a bridge over water, and the water reflecting the bridge.

    I could go on, but we will have to catch up by email, ok?”

    Good to hear from you,


  5. Posted November 15, 2008 at 5:11 am | Permalink

    This is a great idea, Lavanna. I love starving artists stories!

  6. Posted November 16, 2008 at 5:58 am | Permalink

    Hi, Lisa.

    Thank you – hearing that from a writer is encouraging – writing is tough for me.

    Thanks for stopping by.

    ~Lavanna Martin

  7. Posted November 17, 2008 at 4:00 am | Permalink

    Hi Lavanna!

    These are great stories! Can’t wait til next Wednesday for the next installment 🙂

    Your paintings are gorgeous – I can’t get over the painting of Kelsey – last time I saw her she was 11 – the painting looks just like I remember her, but more grown up!


  8. Posted November 17, 2008 at 5:55 am | Permalink

    Hey, Kirsten!

    Thanks – awfully nice of you to leave such a sweet comment.

    I’m working hard and having fun.

    Thanks for the feedback about the stories – writing has always been really difficult for me.


    ~Lavanna Martin

2 Trackbacks

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