Mama’s Big Bargain

My mother, Elizabeth Morgan, sewed just about every stitch of clothes we ever wore, woke up at 5:30 AM to read her history books, wrote letters to the editor, and served as president of the P.T.A. (she never said what went on, except she’d never do that again!). Everybody tells me how much I look like my mother, but I only wish I had her steam engine energy. Here she is in a photo my Dad took of her; it was her favorite.

Mama reading about British watercolor artists, about 1985.

She was no delicate, retiring Southern lady; oh, no. Mama was loud, opinionated, well-read, and did not suffer fools gladly. When I saw the character of Mrs. Patty Hogg on the Amy Sedaris show, I had to chuckle: Mrs. Hogg reminds me a whole lot of her: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eot1avrS-rQ

During our childhoods, Mama dragged me and my little sister, Connie, through dozens of antique shops: there were trips to Spring City, Dayton, and Cookeville, but her favorite was Clements’ Antiques in Hixson, Tennessee. Long before it became the biggest antique auction house in the South, it began as a crowded, dusty little shop deep in the wilds of Hamilton County. Mr. and Mrs. Clements seemed to be immeasurably ancient; they knew my mother by name and greeted her warmly every time she showed up to trawl through their sterling silver spoons, china dishes, and furniture, always, always looking for a bargain. At some point, Mr. and Mrs. Clements retired and passed on their inventory to their son, Wallace, and after a few years, he opened up the huge warehouse store pictured below. He filled it with 18th and 19th century antiques and art, some of it bought out of upper state New York summer houses being jettisoned in the sixties by wealthy New Yorkers who wanted more fashionable vacation houses on the Hamptons.

The statues

https://www.yelp.com/biz/clements-auction-hixson

There was (and still is) a line-up of marble statues across the front of the building which fascinated me when I was little, probably because some of them were partly naked. Most of the statues were high-quality 19th century reproductions of Greco-Roman works. It looks as if there aren’t quite as many as there used to be, but there is Diana (missing her good right arm and her bow), two versions of the Three Graces, and a Chinese lion. The statue I remember the most isn’t in this picture, but that’s because it stood on the left side of the storefront: a giant woman with a billowing cloak shielding her strangely miniature teenage daughter. The giant lady was Niobe, protecting her children from the wrath of the gods after bragging too much, a stern warning that Mama would have ignored. Inside, along with rooms full of antique furniture (no junk whatsoever), there were Victorian grotesqueries made of dead people’s hair, artfully arranged under glass bell jars; an enormous canopied bed from 16th-century Italy that stayed in the shop for years (I so wanted to jump on it but Mama would’ve had my hide); baskets full of Stereopticon photos and viewers, always good to while away an hour; and upstairs, shelves that held thousands of leather-bound 18th and 19th books, where I would hole up to read while Mama shopped.

When we were small, every visit was prefaced by a stern warning from Mama: Do not to touch anything!  We only misbehaved one time: I can’t remember if it was me or Connie, but one of us picked up an expensive porcelain plaque of two little angels, one blonde and one dark, just like Connie and me, and it got broken in two. Mama was mortified, apologized profusely to Mr. Clements, then took out her checkbook from her purse (a sturdy little suitcase covered in handmade needlepoint, another bargain from somewhere). I can’t remember if we got a spanking or not, but the little angels were not a bargain. Of course, Mama didn’t throw the angels away; she went to her drawer full of glues, varnishes and stains and fixed the broken angels so well you could just barely see the crack. I wish I still had those little angels now.

Mama stopped by just about every week on the way back from our piano lessons at Cadek Conservatory of Music in Chattanooga. My mother loved classical music, but she probably didn’t love classical music quite as much as she loved antiques, and she didn’t love antiques quite as much as she loved a good bargain. It was a battle of wits between my mother and the antique dealer, but she had immense respect for Wallace Clements: Mama said he knew his stuff. Mama knew her stuff, too, as you shall see.

The story of the Big Bargain happened during the summer when I was about 15, around 1966.  We stopped at Clements as usual, and Mama found something: a dark bronze bas relief sculpture, about 2’x 1′ (actually, it’s only 8 5/8 x 16 7/8 “), with the faces of three people on it. She said she had gotten a terrific bargain, a wonderful bargain! That didn’t mean much, because we all know she didn’t buy anything unless it was a bargain, but she was especially happy about this particular bargain for two reasons: it was signed by an artist whose name she recognized, a fellow by the name of Augustus Saint-Gaudens; and she paid just $5.00 for it. http://(https://americanart.si.edu/artist/augustus-saint-gaudens-4213)

As we got into the car, Mama said, I think he sculpted one of the statues in the Capitol Rotunda! Actually, as nearly as I can figure out, he didn’t– here’s a list of the sculptures in the Rotunda, and his name isn’t on it: https://www.aoc.gov/explore-capitol-campus/art/statuary-hall-collection-by-location – but she was close: he was one of the most famous American sculptors of the late 19th century. She probably read about Saint-Gaudens in Antiques Magazine, which she read from cover to cover every month, or in one of the many art and history books she read. Here’s a picture of Saint-Gaudens at the height of his career:

When we got home with the plaque, Mama was worried because it had a pronounced bend in one corner; my most distinct memory of that day is watching her on the back porch trying to straighten it out with a hammer. She balanced the plaque on the wood shingle wall of the house and gave it a few light taps, but then she chickened out because she was afraid of breaking it. After that, the plaque hung over Mama and Daddy’s double bed and there it stayed for the next twenty five years. A few times, I climbed up on the bed during the day and tried to read the script between the solemn woman and man:

“RICHARD.WATSON.GILDER.HIS.WIFE.HELENA./DE-KAY.AND.RODMAN.DE-KAY.GILDER./PARIS./M.D.C.C.C.LXXIX.AVG.SAINT=GAUDENS/SCVLPTOR.”

Gilder Family Portrait

To say I was uninterested in Augustus Saint-Gaudens at age 15 would be an understatement, even though I already knew I wanted to be an artist someday. The plaque seemed dark and uninviting to my undeveloped teenage tastes, severely plain and almost grim. The lady on the left was pretty but unsmiling, and wore a dress with little pleats along the neck; she seemed to be staring straight ahead, not seeing the man with a big mustache who was sitting across from her (he was staring at nothing too), or the child with long hair in the middle. I had not a clue who they were, but Mama found out, or maybe she already knew. During the years the plaque hung over her and Daddy’s bed, she read all she could about them and their circle of friends in New York City. She found a biography of Winslow Homer, the American painter, and that was when she learned that Homer had been in love with Helena De Kay before she married Richard Watson Gilder! Oh, Mama loved a romantic story more than anything, but I was busy living my own love stories and getting my heart broken more than once, and didn’t pay much attention to her at all. I wish she was here now so we could talk about it over coffee.

Helena De Kay didn’t marry Winslow Homer, although their long correspondence remains.  She did take oil painting lessons from him and learned to draw, being in the first life drawing class at the National Academy of Design. Winslow was apparently a man of few words, and he lost her to Mr. Richard Watson Gilder, who worked with Helena at the offices of Scribner’s Monthly Magazine and married her in 1874.

Here’s two photographs of Winslow Homer:

 

In the first one he’s a nice looking fellow with appealingly sad puppy-dog eyes, but in the second one he looks as if he’s gone a bit sour. That must have been after Helena dumped him, which she probably did right around the time he painted this picture of her:

Winslow also painted this picture of women on the beach which was considered slightly scandalous at the time, because Legs:

The blonde squeezing her hair out is supposed to be Helena, too. My father painted a very nice copy of it because her long golden hair resembled my sister’s so much.

Here is a photograph of Richard Watson Gilder in 1873:

Mr. Richard Watson Gilder, I must say, has really got it going on here. Yay, Helena. You go, girl. He became the editor-in-chief of the Century Monthly Magazine, and he was the Chairman of the New York Tenement House Commission whose report was responsible for the Tenement House Law of 1901 requiring designs that allowed more light and air into tenement apartments. He and Helena also wrote a lot of letters to one another when they were apart; I guess today’s equivalent would be a thumb drive with all a couple’s text messages, which isn’t quite as romantic. Richard wrote poetry to Helena, which she illustrated for him in his books. Oh, and they hung around with all the NYC intelligentsia and had regular Friday night salons at their house that were very popular. They were friends with Emma Lazarus, Cecilia Beaux, the famous portrait painter, President Grover Cleveland and his wife, William Merritt Chase, John La Farge, Helena Modjeska, Stanford White, Eleonora Duse, and William and Henry James. Gilder and de Kay were the models for the characters Thomas and Augusta Hudson in Wallace Stegner‘s Pulitzer-prize winning novel, Angle of Repose (I’ll have to find that book). They had seven children: the oldest one died in infancy (there must be the source of the faint sadness that always struck me about the portrait), and one of their daughters died in young adulthood, but Rodman de Kay Gilder, the little boy with long hair in the plaque, grew up to became a writer like his dad and married the daughter of Louis Comfort Tiffany.

But back to the tale of the Big Bargain! Looking through her papers, I see that in 1974 she contacted the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, just to see if they might be interested. https://www.nps.gov/saga/index.htm There was a bit of bait dangling, but nothing came of it.  Then one day in 1988, Mama opened up her new issue of Antiques Magazine and saw an ad for Graham Gallery, located at 1014 Madison Avenue in New York City. The ad said they specialized in fine American art, and were looking for works by a long list of artists, one of them being Augustus Saint-Gaudens. There was a phone number to call, and this time Mama wasted no time. Yes, they were interested, very interested. Photographs were taken out on the patio.

Mama, enterprising lady she was, went through Antiques and wrote some other galleries in NYC, including Hirschl & Adler, just to get a feel for what the piece might be worth; they were interested too, but apparently after negotiating not quite as interested as Graham Gallery. So one fine day, Mr. Cameron Shay, representative for Graham & Sons, Inc., flew down to Chattanooga and came to my parents’ house on Signal Mountain to pack up the Saint-Gaudens piece and take it back to New York. Daddy fried him a mess of freshly caught fish for lunch, and while he sat at the table with them, Cameron said he had plans to go to Lookout Mountain and meet Mr. Lupton, scion of the Coca-Cola fortune, to get a piece of art from him too. Mama was in the Big Leagues! She got a check for $60,000 from James Graham & Sons, Inc, and an ad with “her bronze” appeared in Antiques Magazine, January 1989.

How do you think Mama went out and spent her money? Did she buy jewelry? A fur coat? A new car? No, she most certainly did not; Mama was not a flighty person who did unwise things. She invested it carefully in a bond fund and paid the undergraduate college tuition of every one of her four grandchildren with it.  Now, none of them went to Harvard (except my nephew, Andrew, but that was as a postdoc fellow); Mama believed a state university provided a perfectly good education, and she was right, for the most part. My son, Alex, told me, “When I hear about someone else’s student debt it’s like hearing about someone getting murdered. I’m glad it wasn’t me, but I hate that it happened to anybody.”

Buoyed by her fabulous art sale, Mama became a bit of a collector, and managed to wrangle almost all of those purchases into profits, too, although nothing was ever as spectacular as the Saint-Gaudens bas relief. She found a nice seascape by Charles Henry Gifford, a painter in the Hudson River School, but it wasn’t in his Luminist phase, so it only went for $17,000; a pair of little oval Luminists with indecipherable signatures; a small watercolor of some faraway beach, possibly the Isles of Kerguelen, by Captain Robert James Elliott, a British watercolorist (that’s what she’s researching in the photo); some interesting oil paintings by women artists, including a California scene by Joanne Cromwell; and an adorable, if saccharine Cupid by Egon Sillif Lundgren, a 19th century Swedish kitsch painter. She probably put all that money away in a bond fund, too. There were a couple of dozen pieces she bought and sold, and she kept careful records of every expense, from relining to shipping, and calculated exactly how much she came out ahead. A couple put her in the red, but not very many. She had a good eye; I did not. One time she took me along with her antiquing and I bought an oil painting, but when I had it appraised, it was practically worthless. Nevertheless, I helped her sell off her little collection, and got to know some of the gallery owners.

This little watercolor of a Scottish castle is one I miss:

When I told my friend Leslie about my mom’s fantastic bit of luck, she came back to me and said, “Julie, nobody believes me! Nobody believes that your mother bought a sculpture for $5.00 and sold it for $60,000!” It’s hard to believe, I know, but it’s true.

Before I wrote this post, I did a bit of research to see if I could find out where Mama’s bronze was now, and here it is at Hirschl & Adler, NYC:

https://www.hirschlandadler.com/galleries-inventory/augustus-saint-gaudens-1848-19074

It turns out that after Graham & Sons bought it in 1988, it went into the collection of Richard J. Schwartz, the CEO of the Jonathan Logan clothing line, which included Simplicity Patterns! Oh, I wish so much Mama was still alive so I could have told her this! I still have Simplicity Patterns she bought and used for our dresses. She would have been thrilled. Here’s a link to Mr. Schwartz’s estate sale, which was quite a doozy from the looks of it:  https://www.christies.com/features/The-Collection-of-Richard-J-Schwartz-8235-1.aspx

Graham & Sons, Inc., has moved around the corner, and is now Graham Shay 1857 Gallery: https://grahamshay.com/  It looks as if Cameron Shay owns and runs it now, and they still have works by Augustus Saint-Gaudens for sale.

Lately, Saint-Gaudens has been in the news; the Shaw Memorial, in Boston, dedicated to the first volunteer Union African-American infantry unit in the Civil War, led by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, has been defaced numerous times over the last several years. https://www.wbur.org/artery/2020/06/03/16-statues-memorials-damaged  Mama wouldn’t have liked that at all, but she wouldn’t have given a hoot about the Confederate statues being torn down across the South. A lot of the history books she read were about the Civil War, and she was extremely vocal and adamant that the war had been about slavery, and even wrote several letters on the subject to the Chattanooga papers, usually when some Confederate sympathizer wrote saying the war was about states’ rights.  We were taken on vacations throughout the old Confederacy to various plantation houses so Mama could look at the furniture and woodwork, but we were also shown the cabins in the back and gravely told why they were there. In South Carolina, we were shown the docks where slave auctions were held. Mama’s great-grandfather was from McNairy county in West Tennessee, but rather than join the Confederates, he led the 6th Tennessee Cavalry for the Union forces. Family legend has it that he had a bounty put on his head by Nathan Bedford Forrest, the founder of the KKK, who lived over in the next county.

If I told you that my mom bought a wall plaque for $5.00 at an antique shop, and that my parents were the first in their families to go to college, you wouldn’t think much about it. But if I told you that I grew up in a house with a bas relief by Augustus Saint-Gaudens over my parents’ bed, you would think my family very privileged indeed, and you would have been right, of course. In many, many ways we were very privileged, and I knew that even when I was a little girl in Pikeville, Tennessee. But I realize now that our truly unique privilege was symbolized by the wall of books, so heavy they broke the main joist of the house. My mother’s greatest privilege was her mind.

The Saint-Gaudens bas relief of the fortunate Gilder family, so severe and pure, faintly veiled in sadness, that hung over Mama and Daddy’s bed for so many years – in a way, it symbolized them, more than Mama could have known when she first picked it up in her hands and looked it over. She and Daddy were fortunate people, more fortunate than most, but after Mama died in 2011, I don’t think Daddy ever really smiled again.

Here are some other links to the people and places in this post:

http://helenadekaygilder.org/

https://www.winslowhomer.org

https://www.nps.gov/saga/learn/historyculture/the-shaw-memorial.htm

https://saint-gaudens.org/about-augustus-saint-gaudens/#:~:text=Augustus%20Saint-Gaudens%20%281848-1907%29%2C%20the%20most%20renowned%20American%20sculptor,Boston%20and%20the%20Adams%20Memorial%20in%20Washington%20DC.

If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy reading this: http://hinterlandsblog.com/nekkid-statues-fallen-girder-statues-family-guy/

Painting Icons: The Black Madonna of Czestochowa

An earlier version of this post appeared in my Live Journal blog Dureresque on September 14, 2010.

I’ve painted a number of icons over the last twenty years. Here’s a small one I painted a while back: Pantocrator copy

It was supposed to be in the Russian Pskov style. Really, the Pskov icons were so rough looking, though.

Here is an icon of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa I painted, in 2008, in egg tempera on a wood panel I gessoed with gesso I made myself.  Black Madonna 001This was something I did in my old studio.  I had already started the icon a while back and hadn’t finished it because the gold leaf kept flaking off.  I had thought I could fudge and use fake gold leaf but it wouldn’t stick until I finally used real gold, and a lot of it.  It finally developed a sort of matte finish but it still looks like real gold and thus very nice.

Black madonnas are something of a fetish of mine, I guess.  Cathedral of the Black Madonna by Jean Markele is a book I have several times.  He suggests that the black virgins in Europe are related to ancient sun goddesses, which appeals to me.  Another good book is The Cult of the Black Virgin by Ean Begg, published by Arkana Books.  Then there’s Longing for Darkness, by China Galland, which is more of a travelogue memoir of her pilgrimage to Czestochowa to see the original icon.  There’s a new, scholarly book out that I want to read:  Pilgrimage to Images in the Fifteenth Century:  The Origins of the Cult of Our Lady of Czestochowa, by Robert Maniura.  It is pretty pricey and I’ve been putting it off, but just typing out the title makes me want it again.  I may have to try to get it by interlibrary loan.

I also discovered in my internet trolling that Our Lady of Czestochowa is associated with a Voudoun loa in Haiti, Mambo Ezili Danto or Erzulie Dantor.  There she is considered very fierce, and sometimes is shown carrying a knife.  She is the protectress of single mothers and gays.   Here is a link to an interesting blog which goes into great detail on the relationship between Erzulie Dantor and Our Lady of Czestochowa: www.google.com/imgres

I painted the drapery in a different style than the original icon; it’s based on much earlier Byzantine icon called The Virgin Hodegitria, which is very angular and stylized.  The name means “The Shower of the Way.”Hodigitria

The existing icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa is painted in a primitive style and has been reworked numerous times.  Here is a picture of the original icon from Poland: OriginalBlackMadonna I probably should have changed the draperies and made them smoother.  Now that I look at it again, I did at least try to make the blue draperies a little more flowing than the original Hodegitria source. The gold border is actually larger on my picture but it wouldn’t all fit on the scanner screen.  She’s downstairs now sitting in the hallway on a chest of Native American relics my father dug up many years ago.  Like I said, the gold is real gold, and the green background on mine is real malachite.  I had to tone it down with yellow ochre because it was so green.

I wasn’t going to include the scar on my icon’s face (the original Madonna of Czestochowa is scarred, supposedly from a Hussar’s sword), but a mark appeared on the paint there as I painted. Yes, a mark appeared on Her face and I could not paint it out. Strange. It was as if She had an agenda and She was going to look the way She intended. But I never got her facial expression exactly right.  She looks a little mean and sour where the original icon looks sad and sweet.  It’s a very subtle expression.

Well, now I have to go get dressed to work at UTC.  Today I’m drawing a cat skull, inside and out.  Usually I don’t have to get dressed up to work, which is great, but today I’m going to see a really cool show at the UTC gallery — two figurative painters, one of whom studied with my idol, Odd Nerdrum.  They appear to be quite the bomb from the color card I got.   I’ll report later!

[Note: I put Her out in my studio one night on Open Studio Night, and she seems to have disappeared forever. I should have known better to leave her out without a frame, just the perfect size to slip under a jacket. She sits on someone else’s mantel now, stolen, and looking sour and pissed off about it. Then, months later, a man from Brazil contacted me, to find out if I was just kidding about the mark appearing on Her face. I told him, no, I wasn’t kidding. He made some cryptic comments about Mary being raped by the Roman soldier Pantera, which I have heard before, and asked for a high-resolution scan. I gave it to him, even knowing he is probably now selling prints on the streets of Rio. She moves where She wills.]

The comments attached are from my LiveJournal blog, from my old friend Rosemary.

 

 

 

 

What identifies a black Madonna? I.e. how is that different from any other painting of the Madonna?

Posted on Oct. 4th, 2010 04:16 pm (UTC) | Link | Thread | Reply | Delete | Spam | Screen | Freeze | Track This

 

black madonnas

 

None of the madonnas you are likely to see in Renaissance or medieval paintings from Western Europe are black madonnas; they are usually blond or brown-haired with fair skin, as was considered most beautiful. The black madonnas are either statues associated with specific churches throughout Europe, or icons from Eastern Europe. They seem to have a mysterious aura. Some of the statues have very black skin; the icons tend to have golden or darkish complexions; all of them have European features. The traditional explanation was that they were dark because they were very old, but some of them were obviously made black in the first place, and were even re-darkened periodically, and were the objects of pilgrimages, especially by women. The modern explanation is that they hark back to pagan goddesses.

 

rajasn

Black Madonna

 

Oh the Black Madonna….I call her the icon who is herself an iconoclast. Could it be that just a glimpse of her could shatter the smug illusions of those who view humanity through the lens of partial, exclusionary validation; those who are safely couched in their Anglicized image of this dusky Semitic desert-dweller? Could she spark an epiphany in such a person to consider viewing humanity as one common soul and that there can exist goodness, purity and worth beyond one’s own clan? I believe that this has most certainly happened, how may times and to whom is unknown, but in contemplating this possibility we are reminded once again that art is not only candy for the eye, but it also has the potential to heal the psyche and the soul. Julia, if I may be allowed to offer my own assessment of your lady’s expression, I would say that it does not reflect anger but a plaintive, although not overly accusatory plea to the onlooker to allow her to have such an effec

 

Evolution of an Art Lady

I’ve been mulling over various random ideas about women and art for a long time, trying to connect the dots. I’ve hesitated for a long time writing about it because it’s very personal. Strange. I’ve always been quite the girly-girl my whole life, except in art, where I’ve often stared wistfully at the boys’ tree house.


I stumbled across The Art of Dora Carrington by Jane Hill at a used book store last year. I was familiar, of course, with the Bloomsbury group, Lytton Strachey, and Dora Carrington (she went by the name Carrington for most of her life) in a general sort of way, but I’d never read as much about them as I had about, say, the Pre-Raphaelites. I bought the book and then let it lie around for quite a while, as I am wont to do, before finally picking it up one day. By that time I’d already watched the movie Carrington, starring Emma Thompson, when it came out in video. Or most of it. It appears I may have fallen asleep on the sofa before it was over.Carrington

Although I rather like Carrington’s portrait of Lytton Strachey on the cover of the book, I’ve never really been passionately drawn to her painting. The Bloomsbury style’s slightly chalky opacity, naivety, and broken brushwork doesn’t immediately appeal in a visceral way. (Of course that means very little. My attractions to various painters are quite irrational!) As I read the book, though, she and her painting began to grow on me, especially as I learned about her shyness and dislike of self-promotion. She painted anything and everything. Her charmingly painted furniture, for instance, has been oddly influential. Even now, almost a hundred years later, you can see similarly decorated and repurposed furniture, almost identical in style, in many shops. She even painted signs for pubs! I felt a kinship with this eclectic side of her, because I’ve done so many different things over the years, often to the point of being extremely scattered.

But I also began to feel exasperated at the woman. First she fell madly in love with a gay man. Nooooo, Carrington, No! I confess, I have very little patience with women who do that, in spite of almost having done it myself once long ago, and catching myself just in time. And then, oh hell, in the last chapter she shot herself — before she was forty! What? I was truly shocked and appalled. How could I have forgotten that part? (See above.)

Finally, there was this zinger Carrington quote I couldn’t get out of my head, which was the last straw: “I should so hate to become one of those stout old ladies painting watercolors.” This is not exact, because after I read that line I threw the book into a corner in a fit of pique and then returned it to the used book store for credit. So I never quite finished it and now I don’t have the book to look up the quote and I didn’t even get very much for it because the cover was bent.

Like Carrington, I always dreaded becoming what I call an Art Lady, a slightly pretentious middle-aged or older woman with minor local reputation as an artist about town. She dresses a bit eccentrically in flowing purple, with lots of hand-crafted jewelry, appears in small gallery shows, goes to gallery openings, takes classes and teaches. I didn’t want to be an Art Lady any more than Carrington did.

Carrington mercifully escaped the shame of becoming a stout old lady painting watercolors. I, however, failed utterly to expire at the appointed time, so here I am, quite stout (Kristy Alley says I should call her friend Jenny Craig, and I think I shall), painting in oils and egg tempera and acrylics. Despite all my protestations official Art Ladydom has overtaken me. Well, it’s not so bad, Carrington!

I can hear some of you saying that there might actually be certain advantages to being an older woman painter. As long as our health cooperates, we get better technically. We have more confidence, or we certainly ought to by now. There is a certain relief in being older and freeing ourselves from our earlier insecurities. And there are certain problems I won’t have to face anymore, like the gaming publisher who wants to see my portfolio, and then in the elevator lets slip about his “open marriage.” Nope, I won’t miss that.

But that brings to mind a secret fear. Sometimes this little voice chips away in my head, and I find myself wondering if now that I am no longer young, I may simply be ignored, just another “Art Lady,” relegated to the stuffy Art Lady sub-basement for aging Carringtons. There’s a bunch of them down there now sculpting dream journals out of coffee grounds and acrylic medium, and they’re calling my name! Well, I won’t go. I’ll just hang around up here, jangling my handcrafted jewelry.


When I went to college I was clueless. I imagined that someone in the art department of a state university could teach me how to paint real-looking people, as if anyone there knew at the time. An attitude of corrosive hostility toward realism, and most especially towards narrative painting, pervaded the department. I should add that a) there were some nice people there, sometimes even “Professor Rothko;” and b) I work at this very same university to this day (in another department, thankfully!); and c) things might be changing over there.

At the time, there was considerable subtle pressure to stop painting realistically (all A’s went to non-figurative work), and if I did insist on trying, I was instructed to make it look as flat as possible. Well, I can be quite the little people-pleaser in other areas, but I had no choice here: I knew exactly what I wanted and nothing else would do. But all the other women students in the art department went either abstract, semi-realistic but non-figurative, or conceptual, and they made better grades than me, except in drawing, where a lone wolf traditionalist professor encouraged me.

I’ve discussed with other women painters the question of whether female art students in departments dominated by abstract and conceptual teachers are pressured to give up ambitions to draw and paint realistically and, because they are feminine and compliant, more often yield to that pressure. After many years of observation, I believe they do. In my case, I experienced a sense of exclusion, an intangible penalty for continuing on my own path. You know what it felt like? It felt like being the bad girl. And it took its toll: for five years after graduation I did not paint. I met another woman years later who had the very same experience at that school and she had the same reaction. She stopped painting and I don’t know if she ever started again.

I still haven’t quite gotten to the bottom of why women artists are pushed into polite, pastel abstraction so often. About twenty years ago, I almost caved, and painted a semi-abstract painting for a local show. It was gray and pink. Everyone loved it! “Why don’t you paint more like this?” they cried in unison. I walked around the show three times before I could find my own painting. It was wallpaper. Invisible.


The following is a confession of sorts.

Not long ago, I met a painter, a very young woman. I had seen her stupendous studio work online, stacked with huge canvases, but when I finally connected her in person with her work, and realized who she was, I was openly stunned, slack-jawed with amazement. “You painted all that?” She was very gracious, but later, I was embarrassed by my reaction and carefully examined my possibly prehistoric attitudes. I couldn’t help wondering if I would have reacted so had she been a young man. Was I really thinking, How could such a very young woman who looks like a model be so talented and accomplished?

As I sat pondering later, I realized that, although my studio is nowhere near as spectacular as hers (in spite of having forty extra years to work on it) and I do not look like a model, people had said similar things to me a few times. On open studio nights someone would walk up to my paintings, look at me with a puzzled expression on their face, then at the wall of paintings again and say, “Did you do that??? It’s flattering, for a minute, but sometimes they kept going: “Did you draw that?” Or even: “Did you trace that?” NO! No, I did not!

But who exactly do people think does that? Well, that’s why I started wearing paint-stained jeans, topped with a Christian Dior jacket bought at Unclaimed Freight in Scottsboro, Alabama, to open studio night! The outfit works wonders, even if Tom Wolfe ridiculed paint-smeared jeans in “The Painted Word.” I may get a beret, too. Sadly, I cannot grow a beard. Yet.

By the way, have any male representational painters out there experienced “Did You do That”? If you have, please comment! I could be completely off base about it being a gender thing.


I used to get nice handwritten notes from fantasy magazines saying, “We like your work, but it’s very romantic. We will keep your portfolio on hand. Thank you.” After I got a few of those, I lined up some prints of my paintings and made up a man’s name (Scott T. Morgan sounds very professional and completely heterosexual which is important to get the Male Gaze thing right), wrote it on a piece of paper like a pretend business card, and put it next to my own work.

Did it look different to me? Yes, it did! It looked, somehow, less “feminine.” Less “romantic.” Strangely, a man’s paintings of ruffles and pretty women looked . . . better! They actually looked better, even when I knew perfectly well I had painted them myself! Damn, I cried, stamping my tiny feet. This Scott T. Morgan fellow could draw better than me! What was wrong with my brain? With my eyes? More importantly, what was wrong with that art director’s eyes?

After my Male Gaze experiment (meaning Male Gaze as both imputed creator and potential observer), I considered sending out a portfolio with this talented upstart Scott T. Morgan’s name on it. That idea foundered when I realized the art director might actually call me on the phone. “Hullo. Scott T. here.” I didn’t think I could carry it off.

So I started avoiding painting my beloved satin, ruffles, and flowers at all cost in an attempt to “man up” artistically. At one point this involved painting my next-door neighbor with flies coming out of his mouth. I also bought a doll at the Goodwill, burned holes it, and photographed it under a tree in my yard as photo reference. I got my husband to pose tied up in his fencing shirt like a straitjacket and then painted him with blood dripping out of his mouth. I ended up painting some pictures I could not even look at, much less hang up in my house or studio, although they did get me into a juried show sponsored by Heavy Metal Magazine.

Happily for my family and the neighbors, I finally decided that avoiding everything cute and feminine was counterproductive, and stopped making them pose for me as hideous vampires and zombies. Women should be able to paint feminine confections if they want. Oh heck, I may paint another kitten with wings! And fairies. Fairies with gauzy wings.


Well, those are my random thoughts. If I were eighteen again, I’m quite sure I would be heading to some atelier to study. But I had never heard of such a thing, and neither had my parents. So here I am, a “stout old lady” painting as best I can. I’m thrilled to see that girls are now climbing into the boys’ painting tree house in droves, paintbrushes thrust rakishly into their belts, and even building their own tree houses, too. Good for them! Meanwhile, I’m just trying not to trip over my purple caftan and fall into the workshop down there in the Art Lady sub-basement. The music is loud and they are drinking wine whilst gluing bits of cat hair and glitter onto used greeting cards. I intend to persevere as I always have. And call Jenny Craig on Monday! Sixty is the new Forty!

Carrington, you would have made a great Art Lady, too.