Painting a life

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Bigfork jazz pianist and singer Babah Hanson, 81, captivates her audience at the Swan River Inn recently. The accomplished musician and artist performs Wednesday nights at the inn. Karen Nichols/Daily Inter Lake

Artist and musician Babah Hanson has created a colorful history for herself

Babah Hanson of Bigfork has sailed the winds of her creativity through a turbulent, riveting life.

At 81, she captivates audiences playing jazzy music while singing in a strong sultry voice at the Swan River Inn. Then, she paints all night in her studio/gallery she named Windwalker after a favorite movie and her image of herself.

"I like that idea of walking on wind," she said with a smile. "That's me a lot."

Artist, jazz singer, composer, actress, writer - Babah was described as a force of nature in "Portrait of an Artist," a chapter by her daughter, actress Lea Thompson, in "I Love You, Mom," a collection of famous women's reflections on their mothers.

"It's one of the things I treasure - that picture of me," she said.

Like a butterfly flitting through sunlight and shadow, Babah's thoughts dart from her many artistic triumphs to memories of bleak despair along her spiritual journey to a hard-won serenity.

Alcohol addiction, divorce, the death of the love of her life, the threat of blindness from macular degeneration - each at times threatened to extinguish her passion for life. But each time, Babah rekindled the fire.

"There are so many despairing people - I want to tell them there is hope," she said. "I feel like I have my life now and I want to share it."

A precocious child, Babah grew up in an Irish Catholic family in Rhode Island. She revealed her many talents at an early age.

According to a favorite family story, her mother found her in the living room holding a book, claiming she was reading when she was 4 years old. Her mother, amused, called her bluff by asking what she was reading.

"I said 'I'm reading 'The Gold Bug' by Edgar Allen Poe,'" she replied to her mother's astonishment.

Babah made her stage debut at the same age. She remembered singing in blackface the song "You Tell Her, I Studder."

She continued performing throughout her childhood, often with her brother Phil, at venues like the Masons. Her father, the Kent County Sheriff, also loved to sing.

"He was an Irish tenor," she said. "I got my talent from my dad."

Her mother, a school teacher, had no performing talents but joked that she excelled in "the heavy looking-on."

Even though she had prodigious talent as a child, Babah said she was cursed with terrible freckles, causing her playmates to tease her unmercifully. She remembers running home crying to her mother but got little sympathy.

"She said 'You're not very pretty but you're smart,'" Babah said.

Her intellect earned her admission at 16 to the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design where she earned a bachelor's degree in fine art in fashion design and illustration. Along the way, she discovered acting and fell in love with jazz via another student's recordings of Billie Holiday.

Those interests, rather than her college degree, provided her with a living after college. She sang with big bands and worked in television and radio.

"I was one of the first women disc jockeys in the country," she said.

Her singing career took off, taking her across the country to work with hot headliner comedians Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Although she outgrew the freckles, Babah said her mother's words still haunted her, causing her to shudder as they introduced her as "the beautiful Barbara Barry."

Along the way, she met Yale graduate and Naval officer Cliff Thompson who proposed marriage just as she was offered a tour of England. The thought of traveling overseas terrified her.

"I married Cliff because I was afraid," she said. "I didn't have the guts my daughter (Lea) has."

Marriage satisfied her desire for children, blessing her with five. Living in Rochester, Minn., Babah raised her children but found time for playing the divas in community theater as well as painting, playing the piano and singing.

She was also drinking to excess.

"Like a lot of performers, I was convinced that I couldn't sing or play great unless I was half bombed," she said.

Even after the horrors of living with her own alcoholic father, Babah became addicted and her family suffered as she had as a child. She now realizes that she inherited a genetic susceptibility.

Finally hitting bottom emotionally and financially, she dragged herself to the doorstep of a 12-step program.

"I was playing in places I considered joints," Babah recalled. "I was out of a job and I couldn't face Sundays at the time."

With help from an extended stay at a treatment center, she got sober, then battled to stay that way with help from sponsors in the 12-step program. Babah celebrates 40 years of being alcohol-free on Aug. 22.

"I got my life back," she said. " I had something I had never had before - an ease with myself."

After a year of sobriety, she got divorced then supported her five children by resuming her singing career. But this time, Babah was singing in the best places.

Life took a happy turn four years later when she met Rob e Hanson, a musician and graphic artist, who was also committed to sobriety.

"We had a child-like romance," she said. "He was great with the kids. "

They lived in Minneapolis where her oldest son Andrew excelled in ballet, dancing the lead with the Minnesota Dance Theatre. About 10 years later, Lea followed him into ballet, dancing professionally by age 14.

Andrew had a career in ballet with the Colorado Ballet. But Lea switched gears to acting at 20.

"Lea didn't have the right body," Babah said. "She didn't have the extension."

She and Rob e became Lea's biggest fans as she became a film star in "All the Right Moves" with Tom Cruise and the ongoing role as the mother of Michael J. Fox in the "Back to the Future" movie trilogy.

Many other roles followed in films and television movies as well as the heroine on the NBC sitcom "Caroline in the City." Recently, she directed and starred in made-for-television movies "Jane Doe: the Harder They Fall" and "Jane Doe: Eye of the Beholder."

Babah said she and Rob e were particularly blown away by Lea's performance as Sally Bowles in a New York City production of Cabaret in 2000. She keeps a book Rob e put together documenting that production.

"She was incredible," Babah said with a broad smile.

She also takes great pride in the talent of Lea's daughter, her 17-year-old granddaughter Madelyn "Maddie" Deutch, who recently sang at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Babah, Lea and Maddie sang as a jazz trio in two performances last December at the Swan River Inn.

Lea and her director husband Howard Deutch have owned a home in Bigfork for about 15 years. She bought a house and studio for Babah just a few doors away on Williams Lane.

"She's taken good care of her mother," Babah said. "I'm able to do this whole artistic thing because of her."

She and Rob e lived an idyllic life with their beloved pets on the Swan River, both continuing their association with the 12-step program. Rob e would rise at 5 a.m. and take joy in seeing Babah wrapping up a night of painting.

"He liked my 'purposive' behavior - living a life with a purpose," she said.

Then five years ago, Rob e was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer. He died just three months later, ripping a very large hole in Babah's happy life.

"It lasted 30 years and I never thought of kicking him out," she said with a smile.

To resist turning to alcohol in her grief, Babah resumed playing and singing jazz. She entertained at the Swan River Inn and put on a special concert of "magical, mystical jazzy music" at Clementine's. She now sings from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. each Wednesday at the Swan River Inn.

She continued painting and selling her work.

Babah said her proudest sale was a seagull painting called "Freedom Flight" to Richard Bach, the author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a favorite book of Babah's. She remembers the letter she received from the author.

"I've seen plenty of seagulls in two years but never any so light and lovely as yours," he wrote. "Is it for sale?"

Bach followed that with a phone call in which they arrived at a deal. He told her that hers was the first painting that he had ever purchased.

Like her music, Babah describes her painting style as magical and mystical. Her works feature bold surreal images reflecting the many faces of her spiritual path. Some have political themes, like her "War and Peace" series.

"I'm not an ethereal painter - I'm a gutsy painter," she said. "These are powerful paintings - not delicate."

Because Babah considered painting the center of her life, she was devastated when she began to lose her sight in the center of one eye about three years ago.

"When I was painting, I would notice it," she said. "It started kind of misty, like a fog."

The first diagnosis, dry macular degeneration, offered no hope of cure. Babah consulted several doctors and tried various treatment with no success. She lost her center sight in one eye.

She had just learned that macular degeneration had started in her other eye, leaving her in complete despair. Then Dr. Peter Barth took a look at her chart and realized her dry macular degeneration had turned into the wet variety in the second eye.

"He gave me a shot in the eyeball," she said. "I felt a little pressure but it didn't hurt. I felt like I was given a reprieve."

The drug, Avastin, worked so well that Barth canceled her scheduled third shot. With her reading glasses, Babah now has 20/20 vision in her one good eye and, with it, her life in art restored.

She now has art showing planned for August and hasn't ruled out meeting another good man. The artist refuses to let her age define or confine her as she continues singing and painting like a force of nature at Windwalker Studio.

Though 81, Babah looks a decade or more younger. Her secret?

"You have to use your gifts," Babah said. "Your gifts are from God and they're special."

Anyone interested in her work may contact her at her studio at 837-2169.

Reporter Candace Chase may be reached at 758-4436 or by e-mail at cchase@dailyinterlake.com.

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