Life in Living Color: Cecile Disenhouse Shows us How

She outraced Yosemite wildfires on foot, crossed sketchy rivers, felt her way down the side of a Norwegian mountain through cold, dark rain.

Indeed, Cecile Disenhouse and her husband “Mountain Man Dave” Jette hiked with a circle of hardy friends across the globe, with journeys to Peru, Nepal, Iceland, Great Britain, Greece, and Italy, as well as hundreds of treks in the Pacific Northwest. And often, she packed her carefully curated watercolor kit—no more than one pound—to pause in the wild. To sit and look. And then, to paint.

Friend and fellow hiker Toby Kramer says that Disenhouse’s painting pitstops meant there were built-in layovers. “We would be in these awesome places, smelling the mountain air. We’d take a break and everyone else had a book to read but she would paint.” He recalls her legendary love of jokes on the trail. “Cecile and I share our Jewish background and our jokes,” he says. “She always laughed at mine, even if she heard them before.”

In addition to leading friends on hikes, the couple also hosted epic boardgame parties and played a mean game of bridge.But those halcyon days changed forever in January 2022 when Dave—master outdoorsman, world-class physicist, and proud Eagle Scout—succumbed to a long illness. “Cecile was an amazing partner to Dave, always supportive. They were such an integral unit,” Kramer says. “I couldn’t imagine how she’d go on without him. But she has.”

“I realized how lucky we were to lead the lives we had,” Disenhouse says about the man she met on a hike in the 1970s, a love-at-first-sight, life-altering event. “He was a real brain, a lot of fun, and easy to live with,” she remembers. “Dave was politically active all his life, going to the South to register voters in the 1960s. A very decent man. Noble I guess you could say.” She pauses and adds, “I had 44 years with him. No complaints.”

So, the artist gets on with it as best she can, volunteering at Seattle’s Lifetime Learning Center, as she has for the last eight years, teaching two watercolor classes a week during fall, winter, and spring sessions, as well as plein air (outdoor) lessons in the summer. A mentor to dozens of students who have taken the class, Disenhouse is a favorite. “She is so beloved. We have many repeat students who come back year after year,” says the center’s director Marilyn Spotswood. “I hear wonderful things about her and the class, which usually sells out.”

One of those repeat students is Mark Rosenblum. “There’s a real esprit de corps,” he says. “I like how kind people are. Cecile circulates around the room, offering positive comments and suggestions. She’s very deliberate, respectful, and well-prepared.”

Vicki Goldstein Seznick has studied art over the years, and as a former professional makeup artist, she appreciates the gentle guidance Cecile provides. “She always tries to raise students to a higher level of ability,” Goldstein Seznick says. “My style is to work small and detailed, and Cecile encourages me to explore a bit, try painting a little looser. Plus, I’ve made friends in her class. A number of us play pickleball together.”

” I’m glad Cecile doesn’t teach painting like she plays pickleball,” Mark says, with a laugh. “She’s pretty aggressive, with a serve that’s hard to return. She’s athletic, with fast reflexes.” She’s also utterly intent on the game, he notes. “Cecile always knows the score when nobody else does.” Playing pickleball at least three times a week, Disenhouse finds the game gives her time off from thinking. “You can’t be anywhere else but focused on the play,” she says.

All that intensity might have something to do with her roots. Born 79 years ago in Manhattan, the daughter of a Polish father and Canadian mother, Disenhouse grew up in the Inwood neighborhood at the northern tip of the island. “Cecile does have that New York personality,” says Spotswood. “My husband is from Brooklyn so I recognize it. I remember the time Cecile came to one of our lunchtime presentations and she introduced me to her friend by saying, ‘Yeah, Marilyn manages the joint.’”

Attending what was then called the High School of Music and Art, Disenhouse went on to earn a degree in fine art from New York’s City College. But it was technology that paid the bills. “Computers were just coming in,” she recalls. “I took a logic test at an insurance company and they hired me. In those days it was all mainframes with decks of cards.”Although her career as a computer programmer was mostly spent at Seattle’s Group Health, painting remained her vocation. Once retired in 1998, Disenhouse turned her attention to the formal study of watercolor technique with the renowned Northwest artist, Molly Hashimoto. Mastering the challenging medium, her work has been accepted in a variety of juried shows including the prestigious Edmonds Arts Festival.

Teaching watercolor, though, that came as a surprise to her. “Molly mentioned it to me but I’d never taught a day in my life,” she says. Still, she took it on. “I was so nervous. I prepared like crazy and I’m glad for the first class I only had six students rather than 25.”

While the class is framed as an introduction to watercolor, in truth, student skills range from beginner to accomplished, with each session focused on a specific subject, including washes, ink with watercolor, and perspective. Sitting at a card table surrounded by students, hair tinted her favorite color of purple, Disenhouse goes over lesson concepts and offers a brief demonstration.

On the table are copies of paintings that illustrate the ideas covered, which students pick from. Then they try their hand at reproducing the work, a method of learning used for centuries: First, copy the masters. “Asking a beginner to come up with an original only leads to frustration,” Disenhouse explains. “But when you copy a work, all the decisions have been made for you—composition, color, perspective—so you can concentrate on the skill at hand.”

She reflects on what keeps her coming back to the classroom. “I want to help people learn to do a decent painting. Anybody can improve and learn. It just takes work and discipline.” Even so, her approach is lighthearted, which is why she tells students not to get overly invested in a single painting. Disenhouse once said that you don’t get second chances with watercolor—you have to do it right the first time. Reminded of that observation, she decides that, actually, you do get another chance. As many as you want. “All you do,” she says, “is turn the paper over and start again.”

See examples of her work as well as a field guide featuring her paintings of Northwest wildflowers at

Connie McDougall is a former news reporter, and current freelance writer of nonfiction and personal essays. A lifelong student and proud English major, she has pursued lessons in flying, scuba diving, tai chi, Spanish, meditation, hiking, and Zumba.

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