Inspired by new and old

Cave drawings influence Udell's art; 5-year-old sparked career

Special to the Union Leader
March 07. 2014 12:26PM
Luann Udell in her Keene studio. She draws inspiration for her artwork from the prehistoric drawings in the Lascaux Caves of France, to which she was introduced as an art history student at the University of Michigan. (Melanie Plenda/Union Leader Correspondent)

KEENE - Luann Udell looked at her 5-year old daughter at play. There was so much that she wanted from the world for this quirky bright light of her life.

"I remember watching her play one day, thinking, 'I hope she makes it through life and life doesn't smack her down. I hope she follows her dream whatever she wants to do in life. I hope she knows what she wants to do and that she can do it," Udell said, recalling that day.

"So I'm sitting there, all teary eyed, going, 'Did my mother want

that for me and just not know how to do

it? And if I want that

for my daughter, how come I don't want

that for myself? And

if I want that for her, how is she going to know what that looks like unless I do it for myself?' "So it's like my kids gave me the courage to finally get serious about my work."

Since that day almost 30 years ago, Udell, 61, of Keene, has become a nationally exhibited artist and a double-juried member of the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen

in stitchery and non-metal jewelry. Her wall hangings, sculpture and jewelry, inspired by tribal and prehistoric art, have appeared in books, newspapers and magazines across the country. She's also become a published writer, with a book, various articles, a magazine column and a blog to her credit.

But it was a long road getting there.

Udell grew up the oldest of seven kids in the small farming community of Gladwin, Mich.

"It was a great place to grow up, very safe," she said. "We'd be out riding our bicycles all day. My mother would have no idea where we were and didn't want to. It was quite idyllic."

The down side of that was that it was a pretty poor community. There was a tiny library and no bookstores to speak of. If young Luann was lucky, she could raid the small stock of drugstore paperbacks in town for some culture.

"So I grew up not seeing art, not knowing anyone who was an artist, not being able to immerse myself in any artistic activity," she said. "I just didn't know how you got to be an artist."

That said, she knew it was inside her. She was fearless when it came to crafts and loved to make things. "I just loved it. Sometimes you're drawn to something because of something someone says to you and sometimes you just know.… From my elementary school years, I couldn't wait to get to high school and take real art classes," she said.

"And then I got to high school and there was not much going on there."

When she started high school, the local schools were hit by huge budget cuts leading at one point to shorter school days and cancellation of all extracurricular and enrichment classes, like art. And even when the art classes came back, they left a little something to be desired.

"My art teacher was also the girls' basketball and volleyball coach," she said. "We had a kiln that didn't work and we had very few art supplies."

So, she thought, college would have to be where she could learn to be a real artist.

"I wasn't accepted into the art program there," she said of her alma mater, the University of Michigan. "Because I didn't have a portfolio."

She also couldn't draw. And because she couldn't draw, she thought she could never become an artist. Daunted, she took a different tack.

"Well, what do shadow artists do?," she said. "They study art history. And that's what I did and I loved it. I loved it."

Classroom to caves

Back then, it was all about looking at huge projections of art from around the world and over the centuries. Sitting there, in the dark classroom, surrounded by all that beauty and knowledge, hers to take, Udell saw for the first time what would later be her muse.

"You're sitting in the dark and you're a little anxious about what's coming next, and all of a sudden in front of you is a giant image of a horse on a cave wall. And then a bison on a cave wall. And then a bull. " Projected on that wall were drawings from the Lascaux Caves, a series of complex of caves in southwestern France where some of the best-known Upper Paleolithic art has been found. The cave paintings, estimated to be more than 17,300 years old are mostly images of large animals.

"Oh my God, I wanted to cry," she said. "Tears would come to my eyes I would be so deeply moved (by those cave paintings). I could've spent hours there. … I was just blown away."

Udell graduated from Michigan and embarked on a long career of miscellany.

"I got an art-history degree and never actually used it, although I think

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I would have liked working in a museum," Udell said. "I worked in fast-food restaurants and, oh gosh, department stores and I worked at a microfilm company before we had computers. And I actually went back to school to get my teaching degree."

Artist or bust

She was in her late 30s and adrift, envious of others who were doing exciting things. Then came that day with her daughter. She knew what she had to do.

"When my husband came home I said, 'We have to talk,'" she said. "I started crying and I said, 'I have to be an artist or I'll die.' I'm a little dramatic.…" But there was a second aspect to her cathartic moment that she thinks was critical: "I said, 'I don't even care anymore if I'm a good artist.' So I walked into it with no judgment anymore. I just said, 'I don't care if I'm a bad artist.'" Clearly not wanting her to die, her husband agreed. They worked out a budget and she set up a room to serve as a studio. When it came time to figure out what she'd create, she immediately went back to the Lascaux images. She said she ultimately chose them as inspiration for her work because of the profound effect they had on her. She said to create something that left others with the same feeling.

"Whether my art leaves a mark on the world, whether I become famous or not— it's more about, 'This is in you, and it has to come out,'" she said. "You start out your artistic life believing that there's no place for you or you don't have what it takes or it's restricted.

"I don't even care about that anymore, it just has to be done."


For more information about Udell's work, visit

Human InterestArtsKeenePhoto Feature

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