Local artist has debut show 36 years after first picking up a brush

By: Sara Kandel | Roseville - Eastpointe Eastsider | Published October 12, 2011

 Lynne Lassen, an 83-year-old retired hairdresser, stands by her first-ever painting, a picture of the Cutty-Sark on a turbulent sea.

Lynne Lassen, an 83-year-old retired hairdresser, stands by her first-ever painting, a picture of the Cutty-Sark on a turbulent sea.

Photo by Sara Kandel

ROSEVILLE — No one would describe her as young, but after five minutes with her, it’s hard not to describe her as possessing a certain youthfulness and passion that’s surprising for her age.

But in Eastpointe two weeks ago, it wasn’t her personality or her age that wowed guests at her debut art show — it was her talent.

She brought more than 100 pieces with her to display at Half-way School House. She left $1,000 richer and with only about half the paintings she had brought with her.

For 83-year-old Lynne Lassen of Roseville, it was a long-awaited dream come true.

“When I was young, I used pencils because I couldn’t afford colors,” Lassen says. Many of her paintings are reminiscent of New England, where she grew up.

The art of hairdressing

“I says I wanted to be an artist and my foster mom says, ‘You know what? A hairdresser will always make money. An artist will be rich one day and poor the next. Make a living and then be an artist,’ which is exactly what I am doing.”

At that time, Lassen was doing hair for women around her Connecticut neighborhood at a rate of 50 cents a head. She was orphaned as an infant and grew up in the foster care system after, at age 4, she was determined to be unadoptable. She calls it “an experience.”

“It was an experience from the standpoint that my foster mother, well when I was 15, she was 65, so she was pretty elderly, and I was the last of a batch of 14 children she raised,” Lassen says. “She wasn’t one to be huggy. She never says, ‘I love you.’ She was very stern, but very giving.”

Lassen’s foster mother made a big impact on her, though, as she raised her own children with her foster mother’s “New England idioms,” as she refers to them, quoting such classics as “a stitch in time saves nine.” And it was her strict upbringing that she credits with helping her forge an independent lifestyle at a young age.

She moved out of her foster mother’s house at 17 and took various jobs as live-in help for wealthy families while she went to school to become a hairdresser. Lassen passed her state boards, and when she was offered a scholarship to study hair styling in New York City, she jumped at the chance, even going so far as to take on a wild commute just to get there.

“So I got up at 4:30 in the morning and took two buses across town and was on the train by 6 o’clock and in New York by 8:30 a.m., where I’d go into Central Station into the ladies room and fix myself up, my face and my hair, for the New York streets. Then I’d walk 13 blocks to my class,” she says, describing her time in New York with a nostalgic wistfulness.

She eventually moved there. She got a job and lived there for two years, working at Fifth Avenue Salon, which she said only serviced the wealthiest of Manhattan socialites.

“Back then, hair was designed. It was created,” she says. “We worked with a mirror in every direction and one above our heads, so we could create the overall design, the illusion of oval, because we were taught that the oval was the center of the Greek art of design.”

She eventually moved back to Connecticut, where she worked as a hair dresser at a salon there; then, while on vacation when she was 25, she met her husband. She says they only went together for two weeks when he proposed, and they were married by the end of the third week. They had met each other before at backroom dance parties when the sailors — he was an officer in the Navy — came to town. He moved in with her, and for a while, they made their home in her one-bedroom apartment.

They moved to Detroit after he retired from the service and took a job with Chrysler, but she says Detroit has never really been her home.

“I’m still a Connecticut Yankee that gets homesick every fall. I’m homesick now. That’s why I started doing my fall colors.”

‘That’s just me’

It was here in 1975 that Lassen learned to paint. She took a class from an old nun at St. John Berchmans in Detroit. She learned a few techniques with oil and then set to work on a painting of the famous Cutty-Sark ship.

“It has a history,” Lassen says, “but I don’t know the history, I just know I loved it, so I painted it.”

She says the first one took her six months, because of the large canvas she used, and while she loves the way it looks, she won’t work on such large canvases anymore. “I don’t buy my bananas green anymore,” she says.

She also doesn’t use oils anymore. Since she retired 20 years ago, Lassen has survived two heart attacks, a bout with cancer and almost a dozen surgeries ranging from knee replacements in both legs to back surgery and eye transplants. But she doesn’t let any of it get her down. Her age and her health are mere footnotes on pages of a life where heart, passion and creativity rule strong.

In addition to being an artist and retired hair stylist, Lassen is a mother of three, a grandmother of seven, the caregiver to three adopted dogs, a volunteer at Beaumont in Grosse Pointe, and a self-described ambassador to the elderly, poor and down-trodden at her church’s weekly Wednesday night supper.

She attends St. Gabriel’s Episcopal Church in Eastpointe.

According to Susan Bock, pastor at St. Gabriel’s, Lassen is a “positive, generous and nurturing” parishioner who every week meets with a prayer group whose members call her “Mom.”

“The church is the center of her life. Even though she’s quite elderly, she really gives so much to the church and the people,” Bock says. “It’s her caring nature. She’s really just so energetic and positive and giving to the church.”

“I’m the one going around to each table asking everyone if they’ve enjoyed their meal, and if someone looks a little down at the mouth, I will go sit down next to them and chat for a minute,” Lassen says of the Wednesday night suppers. “After all, I am inclined to be a bit loquacious. I also tend to get a little artsy, but I think everyone that knows me knows if I am looking a little flashy, that’s just me.”