A hobby to keep him busy after retirement has become a painting career now three decades long for Ray Sickles of Lansing

Inspired by the work he’s done ... Ray Sickles of Lansing proudly looks at a painting he created that was inspired by the work he did as a logger for many years of his life. Sickles took up painting at the age of 60 and continues to create his own personal masterpieces as he approaches his 90th birthday this Friday, Veterans Day, a day having dual meaning for him as he also served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. Photo by Julie Berg-Raymond.

Cabin full of creations ... Ray Sickles, age 90, of Lansing stores many of his finished paintings in this cabin he owns in Lansing, most of them featuring landscape scenes as evident in the above photo. His children and grandchildren have many in their own homes; and his house is filled with his own creative work of three decades. Photo by Bob Raymond.

A veteran of the Korean War, Sickles turns 90 this Veterans Day, Nov. 11

by Julie Berg-Raymond

He was named Floyd at birth, but no one calls him that; everyone knows him as Ray. Ray Sickles - native-born to the creeks and woods of Allamakee County; logger; Korean War veteran; much-loved dad - took up painting at 60 years old, after a life of hard work had begun taking its toll on his back.

Three decades later, he’s still at it - having long ago refined his technique, and developing a distinctive style, in the process. “He is not one to sit on the couch,” says his daughter, Deb Grotegut, of Waukon. “He has to have something to do, all the time.”

Ray Sickles was born in 1932, near the Wexford Church in Allamakee County - “in a shanty, where Wexford Creek meets the Mississippi River,” he says. The middle child of five boys and three girls, he attended Wexford School two and a half miles away (walking, of course - but not, he admits, uphill both ways.) A witty, hard-working man, he can talk about the scarcity and hard times of his childhood in one breath and wink a laugh at his listener in the next.

“Nobody had any money; nobody had a job. We had no car, no radio, no electricity. We hauled water a quarter mile from the spring,” he recalls. And then, “I was born in the Depression, and I’ve been in one ever since.” (When asked if he says that a lot, Deb laughs. “He does.”)

“It was a wild country at that time,” Sickles recalls of the Allamakee County woods and hills of his childhood. (As if a listener had asked, “How wild was it?” Sickles explains: “My mother was always afraid an eagle was going to take the baby. She was afraid the wolves might get us on the way to school.”)

In truth, Sickles recalls a childhood mostly spent hunting in the woods he loved and knew well, and fishing in the nearby creeks. Sometimes, he says, his mom would have to come and find him because he would stop with his brothers to go fishing after school. “If we saw the lantern coming up the road, we knew we were in trouble,” he says. “We were a wild bunch.”

After he left school, Sickles went to work in the woods logging and cutting timber. “There used to be five sawmills in the area,” he says. He worked throughout Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, until he was drafted into the Army at 20 years old. Attaining the rank of staff sergeant, he later re-enlisted and did a 14-month tour of duty in Korea.

When he left the Army in 1957, he returned to Lansing and married Carole (Heim). He worked construction for six years as a carpenter - all over the state of Iowa, building forms for culverts. Following the construction job, he went back to logging as a timber-cutter and did that until he was about 60 years old. In his spare time, he built the house in which his children grew up. “I dug the basement by hand,” he recalls. “I mixed the concrete by hand - and I dug my own sewer and set down the pipe. I started in 1964; we built it as we could afford it.”

While the house was under construction, the family lived in an old house they owned. When the four bedrooms were completed in the new house, all 10 of them - including the children’s grandmother, Carol’s mother - moved in. “It was -35 degrees some days, and I worked all winter building this house,” Sickles recalls. “I was a brute.”

Deb remembers moving into the new house - and she remembers how hard her dad worked. “He used to get off work on Friday night and drive all the way home, so he could be home all weekend and work on the house,” she says. “Then he’d drive all night on Sunday to be back at work by Monday. He’s just worked so hard, all his life. We try to get him to take it easy, being that he’s going to be 90; but I have to remind him to take a break. When he starts something, he is determined to finish it.”

In 1990, he started working for Tom Kerndt and re-mortared old buildings in town and did that for about 10 years. Around the same time, his wife suggested he try another outlet for his creative talent - painting.

“Mom was a creative person and knew dad was creative with woodworking so I think she saw him as someone who could do whatever he put his mind to,” Sickles’ daughter, Karen Wilkens, of Postville, says. “He built our family home. He has made impressive wood furniture and even wood carvings with a chainsaw. His ideas flow from his mind to his hands with incredible creativity.”

Not one to do anything half-way, Sickles set his mind to learning how to paint and began reading a lot of art books, many of them gifted him by his children. “I looked at the techniques they used and watched a lot of documentaries on painters and their various techniques,” he says.

And - like so many other artists who found early inspiration in the same place - he watched Bob Ross and his wildly popular PBS television program, “The Joy of Painting,” which ran from 1983-1994. Though Ross’ television show was only an early catalyst - Sickles’ own desire to create and his own long-honed skills as an artisan would be the real signposts of the new direction in which he was moving - his own life did parallel in some interesting, if small, ways the life of his unlikely new “mentor.”

Like Ross, Sickles didn’t complete high school (Ross did one year, and Sickles left after eighth grade). Also like Ross, Sickles worked for a while as a carpenter (it’s impossible to miss both painters’ affinity for trees, in their work), and served in the military - Ross as an enlistee in the Air Force, Sickles as a draftee (who later re-enlisted) in the Army. Both took classes while in the service - Ross in painting and Sickles in surveying. A staff sergeant, Sickles worked as a surveyor ahead of the infantry in Korea.

As Sickles would later be introduced to painting by Ross’ television show, Ross learned the technique with which he would make his name (wet-on-wet, where oil paint is applied on top of still-wet oil paint) from another, earlier television painting instructor: Bill Alexander, and “The Magic of Oil Painting” (PBS, 1974-1982). The wet-on-wet technique served Ross well on a half-hour television program because it allowed for his compositions to be completed quickly. Sickles, while also painting in oils, went the old-fashioned route - allowing the paint to dry completely between layers. A Sickles painting might take six months, from start to finish.

Sickles sold his paintings on consignment for a while at the Red Geranium in Lansing when it was located in the old grain elevator by the Mississippi. Today, many have found homes with children and grandchildren; hundreds are kept in a cabin near his home, and dozens more line the walls of his basement studio, where he still works.

Early on, his wife ordered frames for him; but when he became dissatisfied with the quality of canvas, stretchers and frames, he started buying very large rolls of quality canvas and started cutting and assembling his own stretchers and frames. He spends summers making the frames and stretching canvases (when he’s not busy working outside); he paints mostly when the weather gets colder, in the fall.

Most of Sickles’ paintings are landscapes. Many of them include creeks and small waterways; virtually all of them include trees. “I think his love of trees stems from growing up hunting, fishing and climbing hills in the Oak Springs area (near Wexford) during his youth,” Karen says. Deb is especially fond of one of her dad’s paintings where the paint, itself, has been applied in such a way as to mimic the texture of a tree.

But a large number of Sickles’ paintings feature mountains - not a topographical feature of the Upper Mississippi River valley, where he has spent his life. Sickles says he usually paints from his imagination. He doesn’t use photographs as guides - or even, much of the time, specific memories. He did spend time in the mountains of Korea when he was in the Army; but the mountains that are expressed on his canvases almost always come from his own imagining of a scene that has somehow captivated him.

In one of the relatively rare Sickles paintings that features the Mississippi River, the historic Black Hawk Bridge is backdrop to an image of the artist’s longtime fishing buddy, Everett Stahl, working his trot line. (A trot line is a fishing line without a rod or reel attached that need not be held in the hand or closely attended. Today, a few states regulate the use of trot lines, not allowing them to be left unattended for more than a few days; but back in the early days of the commercial fishing industry, fishermen used baited lines that they ran along the bank shoreline. “‘Trot’ was the word used to describe their method because horses were used to pull the lines up and down the banks of a channel or river. The word ‘trot’ is from an old Dutch word, trodden … ‘to follow along.’ “Running the Trot Lines” by Neal Murphy. scttx.com).

Another painting carries a more somber backstory than does the rest of Sickles’ work. “Old Baldy” depicts the mountain (known then to the military as “Hill 26,” in west-central Korea) that saw five engagements in 1952-1953. “Reminiscing about the challenges the troops encountered while there inspired his vision of the mountain onto canvas,” says his daughter, Karen.

In another painting, Sickles’ years as a logger are memorialized in a brown-and-white image of tree cutters in the woods, with the horses that aided them in their work. The painting features an interesting technique whereby the artist has superimposed for dramatic effect the image of a tree over the entire scene, removing it from the traditional boundaries of the picture plane. The handmade frame is of pine wood.

When Sickles’ kids gather for his 90th birthday celebration over Veterans Day weekend, their mom, Carole - who died in 2019, will be there in spirit. “He and mom were married for 64 years; they loved to fish together,” says Karen. Their mother, too, was a talented craftsperson who made ceramic ornaments, fabric gift bags and other crafts. “We treasure the creations he and mom have made,” she adds.

Together, Ray and Carole raised seven children: Debra (Gary) Grotegut of Waukon; Floyd, Jr. (Bob) of Lansing; Jim (Christina) of Lansing; Becky (Jerry) Christianson of Postville; David of San Francisco, CA; Mark (Barb) Sickles of Sheldon; and Karen (Delbert) Wilkens of Postville. They have 20 grandchildren, 19 great-grandchildren and five great-great-grandchildren. Today, the kids visit often and help their dad take care of the house; two daughters share meal preparation to stock him up for a week at a time. “We’ve all got a soft spot for him,” Deb says. “He’s our favorite veteran.”

Sickles sometimes talks about selling some of his hundreds of paintings, or at least about doing an exhibit at some point. The kids say they are up for that. “But I’d be perfectly happy with keeping each and every one within the family too,” says Karen.