Christine Rush is – most assuredly – the only woman in Los Angeles County who can list on her resume such distinctions as trailblazing feminist artist, photo stylist for Playboy, and retired elementary school teacher.
“In the teacher’s lounge, I loved embarrassing all the kindergarten teachers with some stories from my past,” says Chris, with a mischievous laugh. “The young teachers, especially. They’re so nice and sweet; they had never heard anything like it.”
To say the least, hers has been a freewheeling, bohemian lifestyle, and she’s loved every minute of it. And – after a cautious start – Chris, age 69, is loving semi- retirement, too. These days, she spends much of her time in her self-described “Cadillac of art studios”. The studio was built for her by her contractor husband, behind their home in the hills of Eagle Rock. There, she creates encaustic paintings in the spirit of Jasper Johns, a lifelong endeavor she had little time for while teaching.
Photos by Sean Hazen
The post-teaching life
“I loved teaching, especially second graders. But it left little time for anything else,” explains Chris. “Now, I don’t have to do anything, and that’s a great feeling. I’m so lucky to have the time and energy to paint. I also take long walks on campus (at nearby Occidental College).”
Proud of her status as the grandma of her neighborhood, Chris – who never had children of her own – embarked on her pathway to an eclectic lifestyle soon after enrolling at her hometown university, Fresno State. “I was 19, and just wanted to do anything that would be considered hip and cool.”
That’s exactly what she found, upon reading a flyer on a campus billboard. Acclaimed avant- garde artist Judy Chicago, an instructor there, was seeking women to create one of the country’s first feminist art programs. At the group’s first meeting – held the day of the Kent State shootings, in 1970 – Chris was hooked.
“I’d only taken one painting class, and had no real portfolio, but I was articulate and enthusiastic and I think that’s all I needed to get in.”
Within a year, Chris and others followed Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro to the newly- founded California Institute of the Arts, where they established a first-of-its-kind feminist art program. A highlight was their transformation of a vacant Hollywood mansion into Womanhouse, where their edgy works defied traditional artistic notions about “housewives” and women’s roles in a changing society.
“We did such weird things. We took chances, and expressed how we felt,” recalls Chris, whose large paintings then featured cakes, donuts, and melons inspired by L.A.’s legendary Canter’s Deli and painter Wayne Thiebaud.
“But after wearing work boots, a long dress and no make-up for 3 years, and driving around in a ’52 Chevy pickup, I guess I had enough of feminism.”
So, her life then took a 180-degree turn. For the next seven years, she lived in San Francisco (“my boy crazy years”), sporting platform heels and makeup, while pursuing life as a painter/ waitress. For much of that time, Chris lived – and painted – in the basement of a storefront apartment with her boyfriend, the leader of punk rock band No Sisters.
Starting a “real” career
When the couple broke up, Chris returned to L.A. to establish her first “real” career in order to support her artistic endeavors. And thus she spent several years working for Playboy magazine, as a photo-stylist for professional photographers, including Helmut Newton. She did scouting, prop shopping, and set design, organizing the elements needed to satisfy their vision for each photo shoot.
“I would have to find the location for the shoot, and get all the props and clothes,” she says. “You know, all of the clothes the models never wore!”
During this life phase, she became reacquainted with a fellow Fresno State student, David Daniel, about whom she had written a poem in onomatopoeia style, earning “the only ‘A’ I got in my poetry classes.” Not long after their eventful first date, they fell in love and got married in 1986. And thus, Chris settled down for the first time. Sort of.
“I kept working for Playboy and I even had my own show, at Bebop Record Store, a hipster art gallery in Van Nuys. Los Lobos played for my opening,” she enthuses. “David was always so supportive of my art practice. We’ve been great together. He’s really shy, but nice, smart, hard-working — and very good looking.”
Learning to teach (and, now, retire)
They mutually agreed not to have children (“I think my eggs were getting pretty old by then, anyway,” she says.) But Chris still longed for children in her life. And that drew her, at age 49, to a brand new career: Teaching.
“Starting so late in life, it was stressful getting established as a teacher. I think I cried the whole first year,” she recalls. “But I eventually found my rhythm, and I grew to love teaching and the kids. Plus, I had the summers to devote to my painting.”
These days, Chris can paint anytime she desires, one of the many advantages to retirement. “With more time, and a little more money from our investments, I have the freedom to truly be myself,” she says. “Of course, I still spend all my extra money on art supplies and classes.”
Chris and David haven’t traveled as much as they would like, but it’s on their mutual bucket list. Especially down the road, whenever he chooses to retire. Chris has decided to take a printmaking class next year in Mexico. She’s also interested in exploring Portugal, since she speaks the language, or visiting relatives in her mother’s native Brazil. For now, though, she’s happy puttering about her beloved house and studio, and following whatever whim motivates her each day.
Her advice for other retirees is to keep moving, literally. “Find something you love to do, and do it. Whatever it is! Stay involved and make yourself known, so you still matter to the world.”