Real People Empty Nesting:

Julie Longacre: Artist, Poet, or Both?

By Robin Bonner

When Julie Longacre paints, she is compelled to write poetry. When she writes poetry, she is drawn to her easel. As she explained in a recent workshop, “The creative crossover [is] painting a picture with a poem or discovering the poetry of a painting. Both art forms are examples of a creative expression, channelling one’s emotions through words or art.” Despite her medium, though, Julie finds a way to express the beauty and joy she finds in living. And, in recent years, she has found her experience of that joy and beauty more rewarding than ever because an empty nest gave her the opportunity to indulge in painting or writing without interruption.

Throughout her career, Julie the artist and teacher has proved a cultural mainstay in southeastern Pennsylvania. Growing up near Reading, PA, her life took many turns—to Kansas for college, then to Williamsburg, VA, to begin her career—before she eventually came home. And, her landscape paintings have that comfortable “coming home” feel about them—a welcome respite in a world driven by civil unrest and Wall Street greed. Julie’s old barns and covered bridges adorn offices from banks to real estate developers, from Pennsylvania to California to Florida to Nova Scotia. She painted the mural in the Morgan Cancer Center of Allentown Hospital, and her work hangs in the John Deere Museum, in Iowa. She has also had several major exhibits in Canada. Finally, Julie gives back to the community by sharing some of her historic images with organizations focused on preservation.

Julie Longacre’s work makes one stop and consider the meaning of time and place: In her commissioned work, sometimes she finds it necessary to paint a restoration before it is even begun—essentially showing an historical building as it will look after it’s been restored. (She painted the Frederick Muhlenberg State House, currently under restoration in Trappe, PA.) Recently, she was commissioned to paint an historic building as it will appear in a new location. In contrast, sometimes Julie is hired to paint an historic site that has long since fallen in the name of progress, such as Knight’s covered bridge, in Montgomery County, PA. She strives for accuracy in these assignments by researching and studying historical documents. Julie never knows where her work will take her—to the past, the present, or the future, or to the realm of imagination.

Julie’s writings include her memoir, The Place I Keep, an illustrated book of poems and sketches, shown on her website and available by emailing Julie at She has also recently published the wildly popular Dirty Old Ladies Cookbook, favorite recipes peppered with memories and amusing anecdotes. It is there that Julie ties together her thoughts on joy and beauty with food.

Today, Julie paints, writes, gives workshops on art and poetry, and exhibits her work. She enjoys time with her two sons and their families, including her five grandsons. You can learn more about Julie and her work by reading on, and also by perusing the Longacre Studios Website.

EN: Julie, describe your early years. What do you think influenced you to choose painting as a career?

Julie, about 5, and her kitty cat.
JL: I didn’t choose a career as an artist; it chose me. You could say I was driven to draw. My childhood years were happy. Living in the country, I had everything I needed: a creek to skate on in winter, a stream to dream by in summer, and a mother who kept my feet on the ground by teaching me to cook, clean, and keep my chin up. My surroundings were old farms and outbuildings, which from an early age, inspired me. Our home was filled with music: My dad was a commercial artist and musician, and my mother a homemaker and hobby artist. At 8 years old I was drawing people, landscapes, and Disney figures. Cinderella was my idol. I began my first journal at age 12, and never stopped writing. As a teen I was singing and playing piano, and I picked up the guitar after college, which led to a part-time career as a folk singer and performer. But above all, my painting and drawing occupied every free moment. Art was a natural choice for my major when I entered college.

Julie with her Argus C3 camera, Bethany College, 1962.
EN: You attended college in Kansas. Tell us how that came to be. And, what brought you back home again?

JL: A love story. I always had my sights set on college, but in my junior year in high school, I met a fellow classmate, Newt. I worked for his family business through my senior year. We dated two years before I realized our goals in life were very different. Devastated by the breakup, I decided to continue my education. Late in the summer and too late to get accepted into college but for the hand of fate, by coincidence a magazine arrived that contained an article about Bethany College, in Lindsborg, Kansas. Bethany, which specialized in art and music, was an outstanding liberal arts school at that time. My high school’s superintendent phoned the college and had me accepted over the telephone.

I earned my degree and had two years of teaching experience before my high school sweetheart reappeared and asked me to marry him. (That was 44 years ago.)

EN: Tell what it was like raising your family. How did you balance family life and career as your sons were growing up? How did you spend “quality time”?

Newt and Julie, c. 1958.
JL: My husband worked long hours at his family's business, the milk processing plant at Longacre's Dairy, while I taught in the public school. Quality family time was rare, and what we had was limited to family gatherings on holidays, a weekend vacation to the shore in summer, and an annual trip to my family’s summer cottage in Ontario. The kids played in the creek at the Longacre Farm, where in spring we gathered meadow flowers and in winter played in the snow.

Both Newt and I were compelled to work long hours. To satisfy my creative appetite, I had my teaching and my domestic projects: I braided the rug for our living room out of wool scraps readily available at the mills. One project led to another until we moved to our new home in Barto, PA, where I began to paint in earnest. Acrylic was my medium, and balancing an artistic drive with a domestic love was the challenge.

By 1971 I had two sons, a teaching career (I loved kids), and a passion for painting, which I did nights and weekends while the boys were either asleep or out in the yard exploring nature. As long as they were happy, I didn’t mind cleaning up the mess. They built dirt tracks for their toy trucks, mud was their modeling clay, and mounds of cut grass in summer provided hours of play. Indoors, I had a few tricks up my sleeve: By placing my younger son, Jason, in his high chair with a bowl of ice cream, he could finger paint with it, smear it, or even eat some. He was content, and cleaning up the mess was a small price to pay for the hour of creative bliss I gained.

Jason, keeping busy with a fudgesicle while Mom paints.
My boys went with me to art shows and played on site when I had a commission to paint a farm. Later, when I began to play guitar and sing at folk festivals, the boys stood by the stage and watched, cashing in the rewards for good behavior after the show. My sons enjoyed much the same childhood that I did: riding bicycles, playing in the meadow, swimming, sledding, and finding mischief when readily available.

When the boys were little, I had made enough extra money from the sale of my paintings to employ a high school girl to help with chores and babysitting after school. Our home was a haven for teens whose parents supposedly “didn’t understand them.” We provided a home for them during those difficult years, and they in turn loved caring for our children, becoming part of the family.

Everyone on a farm helps with the chores: Little Newt, shucking corn.
Providing for my family was a joy no matter how many we embraced. I loved to cook, making up my own recipes and creating easy tasty meals; I placed these recipes on index cards and illustrated them. (Index cards weren’t paper thin in those days.) Those recipes became the basis for my cookbook, and the experiences the material for my books.

I need to mention that all through the years I was raising a family, I kept a journal, writing about the ups and downs of the day. This helped me maintain my sanity and a wholesome sense of humor. To this day, now that my boys are married with sons of their own, they love to hear me read from these journals. My grandsons listen with interest as I relate stories about their daddies when they were kids.

I can’t stress enough the value of keeping a journal. When I lecture or meet an interesting person, I stress the importance of logging their thoughts and keeping an account of each day and their reactions, then invite and encourage my listeners to do just that. How I would love to read a journal written by my mother or grandmother, if only they had kept one! Never underestimate your importance in the lives of those around you.

EN: Describe your “typical day,” or if no one day is typical, then a couple of representative busy and interesting days you’ve experienced recently.

Julie, with grandsons Dylan, Daulton, and Devon (in carrier), and daughter-in-law Tee.
JL: There is no such thing as a typical day for an artist/grandmother. No busy day comes to pass without an unexpected turn of events. Having five grandsons qualifies me for just such an occasional day. One phone call, and I pick up my things and go to the rescue. Recently, my daughter-in-law Teresa was under the weather, and I was called in to help with the kids, four of them, six years old and under! I was visiting with my 90-year-old mother when the distress call came from my son. I left immediately for their home, an hour away. That evening after dinner, we turned the TV off and played a game with the kids: I interviewed them, asking them all kinds of questions to get them to think about themselves, their likes, and their dislikes. They loved the attention, as anyone would enjoy having the focus on them for a moment in time—such as this interview I’m enjoying doing for Empty Nest online magazine, which is providing me the opportunity to share my life with you, the reader. I used to do interviews with my third graders years ago and got the same positive results.

Newt, Julie, and grandson Chase in the playhouse.
During the summer three years ago, my other daughter-in-law, who is a reading teacher, needed me to care for my three-year-old grandson Chase on Fridays. He loves the outdoors. Their home is in the woods with a marvelous little spring-fed stream that runs along the edge of the yard. Standing ankle deep in the stream with Chase running up and down throwing pebbles and picking up sticks brought back memories of my childhood.

Now, a typical day begins with journaling, oatmeal, and a list of things to accomplish in the studio. Seldom does a morning flow without interruptions. Keeping my head intent on the project at hand is difficult when I have to stop and refocus. When I have a serious commission, one requiring much concentration, I will move to my private studio, hidden away in the woods where I can work uninterrupted. I love caller ID, and I only check my emails at night, so I’m not distracted by a new transaction from my website nudging me in another direction.

Friday: I meet my four girlfriends for breakfast. From there I stop by the studio to pick up two paintings and listen to my messages on the answering machine. I have an agenda today, so I don’t check my emails; my day is already jam-packed with meetings. I meet Robin for lunch and begin our interview. We discover a mutual interest in the way we approach a day: Both striving to live in and enjoy the moment, having experienced a similar lifestyle of channeling the surges of creative energy that drive us into a high-speed multitasking existence.

Painting of “The Speaker’s House,” as it will appear after restoration, Trappe, PA.
After lunch, I go to the restored farmhouse that serves as an office at Haines and Kibblehouse, Inc., to hang two of the 15 paintings commissioned for its walls. I’m confident that the subject, color, and framing I pictured is perfect. Relief! Now, my cell phone rings, and it’s Patty. Did I forget to pick up the vegetable soup at church? She’ll wait until I get there and “don’t forget the two Dirty Old Ladies’ Cookbooks someone requested to buy!” I have the books with me. On the way home from St. Andrews, I stop at the bank and call my husband by cell phone, asking him to meet me in the dairy bar at 4:00 p.m. A dish of maple walnut ice cream with walnuts on top hits the spot. I had to have my sugar fix before we enjoy that vegetable soup for dinner, then it’s home to let the cats out and check my email, when the phone rings. It’s a customer who wants to know if the blue prints arrived for the home he is building. My part in this project is to imagine the home in its setting and paint it before it’s built so the township will issue a permit based on my work. Pressure! At this moment in time, I have one large canvas to finish for a customer who has patiently waited two years for his house portrait, preliminary drawings to complete on Knight’s covered bridge, and a landscape painting to complete for my friends in Denmark (the first photos of the house are in the email). I’ve lost the information to another commission in the muddle. Then phone rings and a little voice on the other end says, “Hello, Nana, what are you doing?” And all the pressures of the day fade away.

The vegetable soup was tasty, and I feel great: I got some of the answers correct on Jeopardy.

EN: How did the writing of the Dirty Old Ladies' Cookbook come about? How has that experience enriched you?

JL: The first seeds of the cookbook were already germinating in the early 70s when I created recipes for my family and illustrated them. About 30 years ago, I met several women with similar interests in art. We became steadfast friends (food and the artistic nature go hand in hand). Food was an integral part of our gatherings; we not only nourished our souls, we appeased our appetites. I was inspired to write “Searching for the Lost Spirit”, an essay on the joys of kindred spirits and the joy of food, which included the recipes of the breads and desserts we so enjoyed. I wrote the essay to acknowledge my gratitude to these women who brought so much fun into my life.

As the years wore on, my intent to publish a cookbook with true-life stories became a reality. Being practical, I couldn’t put years of work into a project without realizing some financial gain, so I decided to name the book, The Dirty Old Ladies’ Cookbook, knowing full well that few who read the title could resist sending a copy to their girlfriends, their wives, and any newlyweds they knew, and so it came to pass. I remember phoning my husband from my summer home in Nova Scotia. After spending a month working on the book there in the quiet repose of the Cape Breton landscape, I asked him what he thought: Finish the book and go for it, or give it up and just allow family and friends to enjoy it? He said, “Go for it!” It took me another year, 24/7, to complete it. The first 500 issues were published Thanksgiving 2008, then signed, numbered, and sold, all in three days. With two subsequent reprintings, the rest is history.

Writing the book was the best thing I could have done in my empty-nesting years. I recalled my childhood experiences, but the stories practically wrote themselves once I tapped into the lost recesses of my memory. Humor wove its way through the manuscript, as I recalled all my funny, misfortunate episodes in the kitchen. I highly recommend writing your stories and keeping your family recipes for those you love, who will follow you.

The Dirty Old Lady Cookbook tea party, March 2011.
One episode, not in the book, was a day in the tumultuous life of an artist, an overworked, emotional PMS sufferer, long before the onset of hot flashes. Dinner was ready, I was stressed and tired, and HE wasn’t home from work on time, even though he promised he would be. I had made a roast chicken dinner with mashed potatoes and all the trimmings. The scene grew grim when he entered. I was enraged, but my younger son, 15 or 16 at the time, was hungry. For some reason in those red-blooded days of womanhood, throwing things seemed to sooth the beast in me. So, at the height of the argument, the food seemed to leave my hands on the way to the floor, but Jason, patiently ducking under the flying dishes, didn’t let my temper tantrum disrupt his appetite. He grabbed a big plate and cautiously loaded it with food before I slung it onto the floor. I can still see him ducking under my arm, pilling the mashed potatoes on his plate. He rescued the gravy from the war zone and took it with him to the safety of his room, where he ate in peace. I can still see it, like a slow-motion movie: Violence verses the innocent bystander.

After cleaning up the mess, I decided there were more civil means to solving an argument.

Recently, I decided to have a “Dirty Old Ladies’ Tea Party.” Ever since the book hit the stands in November 2008, I’ve wanted to have a party, not to buy anything, but to exchange laughter and ideas, and to enjoy the company of other kindred spirits. In my business, I meet people, women from all walks of life, and many I wish I had the time to know better. I invited about 30 to my party. We decorated with silk roses and passed a basket of laughs around the table that contained quotes of wisdom and jokes from everyday life. All the women in the group had grown, married children, so we had much in common besides our creative, care-giving personalities. The menu comprised recipes from the cookbook, including chocolate-covered strawberries, Wedding soup, and decadent chocolate cake with Longacre’s Cherry Garden Ice Cream. Catherine made the favors of handmade, painted candy boxes, and everyone went home with smiles and requests to do it again.

EN: How did your life change after your children grew up and left home? How do you think you are still growing professionally, and as a person? What advice do you have for new empty nesters in meeting the challenge of finding a “life after kids”?

JL: My life didn’t change much after the kids left. I was still me, but I had more time to explore the many channels of creative output available to me. I still get a chill when the phone rings late at night. My prayers always include the kids, their families, and the other set of grandparents. All of the experiences of the past embellish those of the present. I don’t seem to move forward without a backward glance of gratitude. I find it difficult to embrace all that I’ve accomplished, and I find it even more embarrassing when I receive a compliment for my success because it was mostly fun doing what I loved doing. I admit it wasn’t without its hardships and tears, but if there are no tears, there’s no reason to dry the towels.

We’re all born with a creative seed. When that seed germinates into motherhood, we are destined to a career that nourishes our creative spirits within the boundaries of domesticity, and we find solutions to an uncharted menagerie of circumstances for which there is no guide. My advice to the new empty nester and to the “Nanas” out there is to embrace each moment, be it filled with laughter or swept away with tears. Don’t question a notion, an idea, or a suggestion. If you think it, do it! Become an explorer of your own inner desires. There isn’t a man or woman who can’t paint, write, or cut a picture out of a magazine and paste it into a scrapbook of memories. You are the sum total of your experience—write it down and pass it on!

Robin Bonner is editor of Empty Nest. For more about Robin, see About Us.

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