Gypsy Sisters pass the torch, but keep the name

Artist, traveler and columnist Jan Wheatcroft turns 80 today, and she’s having none of it.

“I’m really angsting over this 80, let me tell you,” Ms. Wheatcroft said. “It’s a big number. I think that’s a mean number to be put on me. I don’t feel like I’m 80; I feel 12.”

That feisty playfulness has helped Ms. Wheatcroft and her friend Helen Feller, 74, remain at the helm of a beloved local art partnership, the Gypsy Sisters, for 26 years. They’ve put on their twice-yearly shows all over town since 1993, most recently in the basement of Claremont United Church of Christ.

But now the Jan and Helen version of the movable art feast is coming to an end. The Claremont residents are pulling out of management, turning it over to their friend and fellow Gypsy, Aleta Jacobson.

It was a mutual decision, but the spirited duo isn’t heading off into an impressionist sunset without letting it be known that they’re still going strong, if not at full throttle. As exhibit A, not only are the pair keeping their respective booths at the twice-yearly show, they’re taking the Gypsy Sisters name with them.

“Helen wanted to keep that name for us,” Ms. Wheatcroft said Monday over coffee and onion rings at the Village Grill.

“That’s our thing,” said Ms. Feller of the Gypsy Sisters name. “That’s our creation. [Ms. Jacobson’s] creation will be something else. It’s not going to be the same thing. It’s not going to be ours. It’s my life. I’m putting it in my pocket. After I’m dead I don’t care what they do with it.”

The women met in 1985 and became fast friends. They had similar interests and equally animated personalities. Soon,  they were making and selling art together.

“Then we started Gypsy Sisters right after we got that nasty letter,” Ms. Feller recalled.

The missive in question was a letter to the editor of the Progress Bulletin (now the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin) written by a passerby who voiced her disdain after spotting the duo selling art outside the Chancery Lane Bookshop.

“Helen was horrified,” Ms. Wheatcroft said. “This person said they were driving by, and there were these people standing in front of the bookstore with brightly decorated tables…” Ms. Feller interjected, “and they looked like Gypsies.”

“…which didn’t sound bad to me,” Ms. Wheatcroft quipped.

Ms. Feller was so mock-incensed she wrote a letter to the COURIER, “saying that it sounded so awful, and ‘Oh my God, that was me, and wow that we affected somebody that way.’”

In the early years they were joined by a host of other collaborators at more than a handful of disparate locations around town. Once a guy in a wagon being pulled by two massive Clydesdale horses pulled up in front of one of their sales on Blaisdell Avenue.

They’ve set up shop in front of the Folk Music Center; outside Chancery Lane Bookstore (now the Himalayan Collection); at the Claremont Forum, before it was called the Forum Bookstore; in the parking lot of the old COURIER brick building (full disclosure: Ms. Wheatcroft is a longtime COURIER columnist and also worked in ad sales for Martin Weinberger); in front of Rainbeau Rags (now 42nd Street Bagel); at the Packing House; behind Baskin Robbins on Foothill; and probably a few other spots they left off the list, before landing in the basement of Claremont United Church of Christ, on Harrison Avenue, which they’ve happily called home since 2011.

“We started with just two vendors,” Ms. Wheatcroft said. Almost 30 were featured at last December’s show. Many of the Gypsies have been participating for years and years.

“It’s a community,” Ms. Feller added. “We’ve always wanted it to feel like a community.”

They’re a gregarious pair, and a load of fun to talk to, but not everyone who’s entered their realm over the years has vibed with the Gypsy Sisters.

“There’s something that’s wrong about our group for some people,” Ms. Feller said. “Maybe they’re not invited back.”

“…or they complain, or they whine,” Ms. Wheatcroft chimed in.

The Gypsies don’t mess around.

“We’ve had crazies that put their clothes out and run around and grab people,” Ms. Wheatcroft  said. “And I’ve said, ‘We’re not having her back.’”

They admit age has slowed them down a little, but the years haven’t dimmed their playful life force or their endearing, solidly entertaining friendship.

“Well, we really fit,” Ms. Feller said, “and our interests fit. Our sense of humor is a little bit off…”

“…sometimes it’s way off,” Ms. Wheatcroft said without missing a beat, adding, “We really are like sisters. And I’ve always said that between the two of us, we make one person. If she doesn’t remember, I remember.”

Age is a topic that comes up often with these two. They’re generally offended by getting older, and again, aren’t going willingly.

“It’s where you are up here,” Ms. Feller said, pointing to her head. “It’s just that you can’t climb mountains anymore.”

Ms. Wheatcroft agrees, with age comes physical limitations.

“Last Christmas, Gypsies was very hard for Helen and me,” Ms. Wheatcroft said. “It was just physically hard. It was time for us. But I can’t tell you how much it means to me that I can work on up to the [upcoming May show] and not have to worry about the management of Gypsies.”

What’s up next for the duo is unclear, but one thing is certain: the art will continue, and there is absolutely zero chance of either of them retiring from the creative life.

“No!” Ms. Feller said while playfully slamming her fist on the table at the Grill. “What am I gonna do with myself if I give it up?”

So it is true they’re giving up the twice-yearly Gypsy Sisters art shows, but not the ghost, never the ghost.

“I still salivate when I think about all the things that I could do,” Ms. Wheatcroft said.

—Mick Rhodes


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