When Becky Chaffee began art classes at the O’Connor Senior Center over a decade ago with her late mother, she didn’t imagine it would lead her to writing and illustrating books. Life as a working artist was nowhere on her radar as she is a civil engineer by education.
“Well, it started with belly dancing classes, actually” Chaffee said of her efforts to keep her mother socially engaged. “When it got to where my mother couldn’t really do that anymore, we moved on to watercolor classes.”
Chaffee did not take to it like a duck to water, rather more like a fish out of it.
“It wasn’t unwillingness, it was just having no idea what to even do, where to start,” she said. “My teacher had to tell me put your brush in the water, put it in that color, put the color here, and so on.”
That art teacher was and still is Ann Birdwell, retired from Central High School, who’s been an art instructor at the O’Connor Center for more than 20 years.
“It’s really wonderful all the classes they have on offer over there, and Ann is just the best,” Chaffee said. Those classes led her to illustrating folk art musical postcards which led her to writing and illustrating a book encouraging young musicians to practice on their own.
“Have Fun with Your Music” was released on Jan. 1 of this year. The timing of the release relative to the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t intentional, but couldn’t have been more fortunate.
“I certainly didn’t plan it this way, it’s just coincidence,” Chaffee said. “But for all of the young musicians having less access to teachers, the timing was perfect. I’m very interested in children’s education. I come from a musical family, and both my children are musicians. I wanted to do something to help students self-motivate to practice.”
An amateur musician herself (flute), Chaffee was born in New Haven, Connecticut, but raised mostly in Northern California. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering from the University of California-Berkeley and Cornell University, respectively. Her husband’s work brought them to Knoxville 25 years ago where they live just off Northshore Drive. She put her career on hold while raising their children.
Just as her children were getting grown, Chafee needed to move her mother, Maria Brody, from California to Tennessee. She said Maria was born in Vienna, Austria, and escaped the Nazis on the Kindertransport to England when she was 13 years old. She passed in 2018 at the age of 92. At the suggestion her mother’s story also would make a great book, Chaffee said, “you know, that is really a great idea.”
She is currently working on a companion book, “Passion for Practice-A Mindful Music Odyssey,” combining her original artworks with quotes from famous musicians slated for release in April 2021.
Beth Kinnane is a freelance writer and thoroughbred bloodstock agent