As a child, Charlotte struggled with drawing, as most artists do. She labored for many hours trying to illustrate “Heidi.” Inspired by the N.C. Wyeth posters she’d seen in the library, she wanted desperately to put on paper what she could see so vividly in her mind. This was such a frustrating exercise that it often left her in tears. Aggravated by her inability to draw Heidi’s face in profile, she would cover the face over with curly hair and turn the drawing into a back view. She returned to try, yet again…
The Sternbergs were well aware of Charlotte’s interest in art. Unlike many other parents, they encouraged her in every way. She always remembered a conversation she’d had with her father, when she was twelve or so. She asked him if a woman could be an artist. He said, ”Of course. A woman can do anything that she wants to do, and don’t let anyone tell you differently.” He gave her license to spread her wings and fly. This was amazing. Here, in a small city struggling with the start of the Depression, Charlotte’s father Arthur Sternberg gave her complete permission to be herself and risk being an artist, in a most stunning way.
It was a lesson she never forgot, and in turn, would pass down to her students. When she was about thirteen, her parents arranged for her to have art lessons at the trade school in Meriden, after her regular school day was finished. Charlotte took lessons from the same man who taught the young silversmiths the fundamentals of drawing (for Meriden was then the “Silver City,” well known for its silverware industries.) This was Ernst Lohrmann, an immigrant from Germany. He was very exacting. “Observe carefully, Charlotte…”, he’d say.
One of the first lessons was a lemon placed on a white plate. How would you mix the shadow color? The mystery was revealed: small amounts of the complementary color, purple, would solve the problem. She studied classic ornamentation, along with the other students, who would be designing teapots, flatware, and so on. Mr. Lohrmann required them to make faithful “renderings;” these small paintings were done in transparent and opaque watercolors, and meant to illustrate exactly what a cyma-recta curve, corbel table, or egg-and-dart molding looked like. In the old tradition of watercolor, transparent colors were used for darks and shadows, and opaque color was sometimes used to build up the lights and highlights.
In high school, she did illustrations for the yearbook, showing Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Roy Rogers, Wendell Wilkie, Joe Louis and other famous people of the time. She was already known as an artist in town. Charlotte then applied to Yale Art School, entering in 1937.