Confessions of an Art Sloth


Wisely and slowly: they stumble that run fast.

William Shakespeare



My husband, Ken, retired December 31 after 42 years working in local television. He’s an introvert, but found his sweet spot as a video editor, facing a bank of tv screens in his quiet office – I called it his “fortress of solitude.”

It’s a good thing when you find a job where you fit. I almost literally stumbled onto my part-time scientific illustration gig 27 years ago, completely unaware that it would come closer than anything else to being my “real career.” This job, drawing illustrations for Professor Tim Gaudin’s articles in scientific journals, has been my refuge in bad times, a place where all my troubles roll away for the afternoon. Most of his work has concerned sloths and various sloth relatives, those slow and clumsy denizens of the rain forest, along with the occasional pangolin. My satisfaction with the job, besides the fact that it’s just about drawing, has been the general lack of stressful deadlines, and beyond that, a lack of any need for speed in the drawing itself: I can work slowly, sloth-slow, which is perfect for me. I’ve finally turned into an Art Sloth, or perhaps I always was an Art Sloth and didn’t know it.


I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.

Douglas Adams


My husband was nervous about retiring, but he’s getting used to it, puttering around, finishing up some projects in the garage, taking care of the yard and even cooking a little.  Retiring is a big life landmark: Time to get out that bucket list! Well, I’ve done a lot of thinking lately about my own bucket list and come to a few conclusions.

The world of illustration has changed a lot since I started working for Dr. Gaudin. After publishing went digital around 2000, manufacturers stopped making Rubylith, that transparent red film that was once used in publishing grayscale – B&W pictures with continuous gray tones. Rubylith had something to do with isolating the grayscale photo of the drawing from the line copy – that is, the B&W printed page  – but I never did really understand. Last I looked, one sheet of Rubylith still sat, pretty as stained-glass but forever unneeded, in a drawer in Dr. Gaudin’s office.

Most illustrators now use Photoshop entirely for their drawings, but I stuck to my traditional drawing techniques, pencil, ink, and a bit of my precious Process White paint. My Photoshop skills lag, being sufficient only to prepare a drawing for modern publication: scan, clean up background, use a few tools to piddle around with the drawing, crop, label. The last refills for my beloved Staedtler electric eraser came from E-Bay and cost a ridiculous amount. My new battery-powered Derwent eraser, pictured below, is less clunky but I’m old and stuck in my ways and can’t get used to it. Process White watercolor paint is still made, but does anybody but me still use it? And I hang on to my lovely old Silverine pen nibs, in the plastic jar below, because you never can tell when an inking emergency might arise.

My old and out-of-date supplies, and the new eraser.


Things are slowly getting back to normal at UTC after the pandemic, but some things have changed there too. The halls are emptier now because a lot of classes are online. Dr. Gaudin is busy writing a description of a new species and I’m drawing the illustrations. Dr. Gaudin, et al, even got to name the new species, but it’s a Secret until it’s published. These drawings won’t be an easy job, because the specimen is at another university; all we have is a 3-D model the size of a chicken nugget (the same size as the specimen), plus photographs and line drawings made by a scientist from South America, I think. The plan is for it to be finished before the end of the year.

Drawing another new species will be rewarding in several different ways, but this will be my last job for Dr. Gaudin. Last week, I told him that when these drawings are done, I plan to retire from UTC. Whether I’ll feel loss or relief when the time comes, I don’t know for sure, but it’s time.


In a very slow way, I found my path.

Alison Goldfrapp


Having graduated from UTC in May ’84, the semester before the university bought computers to teach the new field of digital art, I found myself at the advanced age of 32 (having dawdled about college too) unqualified to do anything except draw. One of my college professors had encouraged me, and I nurtured hopes of somehow getting paid for making art. Beyond that I had no clue. I spent the rest of the 80’s drifting through Chattanooga’s minimum wage market, just as I’d done before.

In her memoir “Giving up the Ghost,” Hilary Mantel writes about having to “write herself into existence.” With much the same need for psychological damage control, I set out to draw myself into existence, or paint myself, it didn’t matter which. I commandeered the small sunroom on the south side of our house and physically pushed everyone and everything else out of it. My father made me a drawing table which I still use. I managed to pick up freelance art jobs here and there, based on my drawing skills alone. My first paying freelance job was a page in Cerebus, an independent comic my husband liked to read. My check was for $127 and change and it was good.

Along with my B.A. degree in Art, I got a permanent college library card which I was delighted to use. One day 11 years after graduation, I returned to campus to check out books about the Pre-Raphaelites, and saw a photocopied piece of paper hanging on a light pole which read, “Can You Draw?” Heck, yes! I thought and marched straight into Dr. Gaudin’s office. I still have the very first drawing I did for him – a horse vertebra he handed me that day. The paper is yellowed now, and there is a slight bend in the paper, but I don’t think I can draw a bit better right now.

He told me to draw it with the light coming from the upper left hand, with no background, and I was the only applicant who did exactly that (there were two others but they putzed around with it). I got the job; I knew I would.

The job turned into a wonderful collaboration between me and Dr. Gaudin. He taught me everything I know about Order Xenarthra, his field of study: Sloths, anteaters, and armadillos, those weird little critters

Pink Fairy Armadillo

who used to be really big.

Extinct Ground Sloth

Dr. Gaudin told me once that he picked Order Xenarthra in grad school because it was a wide-open field, but over the years I’ve worked for him, sloths have become internet darlings. There are YouTube videos showing adorable baby sloths dressed in little pjs being bottle-fed at sloth rescue centers in Costa Rica. The baby sloths make weak cries and flail about as if underwater. People love them. Sloth toys are everywhere: Dr. Gaudin’s office is decorated with sloth paraphernalia that friends and colleagues have given him. After a while, my friends began giving me sloth toys too, and now I even buy “pop sloth” products for myself. One Sunday afternoon my husband and I stopped by the Dollar Store down the street, and they were selling sloth purses, and of course, I had to buy one. The critters do grow on you after a while. Here is my sloth purse being held by a certain Sloth Gentleman sent to me by a friend, Teresa Mayberry. He could use it for a suitcase, I do believe.

My sloth purse held by a Sloth Gentleman.

I’ve never held a sloth, baby or otherwise, only their bones; they arrive in little cardboard boxes from distant universities, every bone bigger than a finger joint neatly labelled with a museum number in miniscule script.

a sloth skull

A modern tree sloth skeleton is a flimsy cardboard-like thing, suitable only for an arboreal creature who does absolutely nothing but climb down once a week to poop. That’s really all they do. Oh, except for occasional sloth sex. In one of the sloth videos, the plaintive cries of the caged female sloths are answered by a male from the forest – eagerly, his eyes shining with desire, but very, very slowly he climbs, step by step up the stairs to the cages. Apparently, he has sometimes succeeded, but the sloth-carers don’t want too many new sloth babies and usually send him on his way. Perhaps they don’t have enough little pjs.

I’ve made many drawings of extinct giant ground sloth bones, too, which were similar in shape but also very different: enormous, blackened by millennia in tropical swamplands, and very heavy.

Cast of a fossil sloth jawbone

You see, over the past 13,000 years, sloth-kind has diminished in size, or rather, all the big ones died. There is some disagreement about whether the Clovis hunters killed and ate every single giant Xenarthran in North and South America and left only the little ones, or a Younger Dryas comet impact toasted the big guys (and the Clovis hunters, too) while the little guys hid under rocks. I prefer a dramatic comet impact, which incidentally would also have wiped out Atlantis. Dr. Gaudin, being a scientist, agrees with current scientific consensus, which is (sadly for Atlantis) No Impact. Either way, the big Xenarthrans got barbecued.

For a long time, I took on other part-time art jobs and freelance illustration in addition to my work at UTC, but over the last few years I’ve let most everything else go. Every time I quit doing something, it was always with the thought of finally having time to do my own paintings, but my own paintings always seem to come last. Of course, it doesn’t help that I’m so slow, and now that I’m 71, a few hours of drawing tiny fossils leave me whacked. My eyes get tired. I go home, climb the stairs to my studio, water the plants and that’s all. The walls upstairs are lined with unfinished paintings I finally have the skill to finish, but not the energy.

Out for coffee the other day a friend enthusiastically told me about an online site for selling art she had discovered. “You need to do this, Julia! It’s called Spoonflower!” I promised her I would look into it, and she probably thought I was blowing her off, but I did look into it, and not for the first time. It turns out the art sales sites have proliferated. Spoonflower puts the artist’s designs on fabric and sells it for you. They even have somebody to help you and a nice book about how to design fabric. I bought the book on Kindle, and it really is quite good, with a lot of helpful hints about Photoshop. A little research and I discovered Etsy, Art Fire, Redbubble, Fine Art America, and online galleries like Pixapp and Society 6, and there are more. At this point I remembered a previous convo with her, after which I’d set up a storefront on Zazzle, designed some things, and then forgotten all about it. I checked and it’s still there. I’d designed a phone cover with a naked angel on it, and some Green Man leggings with a painting I’d done years ago, but their current price for leggings is $60.



They aren’t bad, are they? I should buy a pair and wear them around as advertisement but I’m too cheap to pay $60 for my own leggings.

I clam up when my friend makes these helpful suggestions. She knows part of my guilty secret, that I’m hardly selling any of my own art anymore, and she’s trying to be helpful, but she doesn’t know the rest of it: I can’t put my art up on Zazzle or show it in a gallery or sell it online because first I have to finish something new.  Galleries, whether online or in meat-space, and even fans of my painting, don’t want my old paintings; they want new stuff and I’m not doing much.


Don’t struggle about the struggle. In other words, life’s full of ups and downs.

Sean Covey


I saw a therapist a while back, and we talked about the struggle between my scientific illustration and “my” art. She asked me, “If you died tomorrow, would your scientific illustrations be enough?”

That’s hard to answer. One afternoon in the hallway at UTC, I chatted with Dr. Linda Collins, a biology professor at UTC. Out of the blue, she said something to me so lovely and nourishing I have never forgotten it. “You know, the drawings you do will last for hundreds of years. They are part of the scientific literature.” I almost burst into tears! I asked Dr. Gaudin if that was true, because such a thing had never occurred to me, and he said, yes, paleontology is a slow-moving field, not like quantum physics, and the work he does is about species description and will last a long, long time. Even if, heaven forbid, the theory of evolution was overthrown tomorrow and replaced with Creation Science, species descriptions would still stand.

My work at UTC is “work for hire;” I am paid by the hour and don’t own the copyright. When I set up my website I went to the university and asked them who did, and they weren’t sure; I had to go to Springer, the huge European company that has bought up most of the science journals. A prickly German woman answered, very firmly, that Yes, they owned the copyright, and I had to get permission to use my own pictures on my own website. I suppose if I owned the copyright, I could get on Spoonflower and design fossil skull fabric, and somebody might even buy it; it’s even possible that nobody at Springer would ever notice if I did, but drawings of fossils aren’t generally something artists monetize. It does mean that other scientists can freely use my drawings, with attribution, in their papers, as is customary in the scientific community. They are available to all scientists to use forever.

So, the answer to my therapist’s question is Almost. Almost, but not quite. These other paintings, my paintings, live in my head and won’t go away.


The imagination needs moodling – long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering.

Brenda Ueland


Before we married in 1980, my husband introduced me to the Society for Creative Anachronism, an organization begun in the late 60’s devoted to medieval reenactment.  While my husband was getting chainmail-patterned bruises every weekend, I researched Van Eyck’s painting techniques, and taught myself to make my own gesso, do gilding and paint in egg tempera. Sometimes I did these things while wearing a long draggy medieval dress out in the Georgia woods. I got ticks, but none of this involved making any money.

Reading 15th century texts about painting made a little bit of sense, though, because hardly any modern painters painted the way I dreamed of painting. The only place I found any real illusionistic painting was at sci-fi conventions; these were weekend functions for people who liked to read stories about the far-flung future when mankind travels to the stars. There was a lot of socializing and drinking. It was fun; we all read the same authors and had the same interests. Anyway, that was how I met my husband – ironically, there was a lot of cross-over in those days between people who dressed up in medieval costumes and people who read science fiction. We were all dreamers, I see now, not very interested in real life at all.

At the Sci-fi conventions, there were art shows where I could see, up close, the original paintings for the covers for the sci-fi books I read. I found out that these paintings were done by a very small coterie of illustrators who worked with the NYC publishers. There were a few magazines, too, which commissioned B&W drawings to illustrate the short stories they published. There was also a smattering of comic book illustrators at the cons. Their work all seemed quite wonderful to me. Most of the book illustrators used acrylics and airbrushes, at least Michael Whelan did, and he was one of my idols. This was what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know how to paint well enough. Nobody had been there to teach me how to paint illusions that looked real, and there was no one to teach me now. The best I could do was talk to these painters, look closely at their work, and go to the library to read about Van Eyck.

I learned to airbrush at one of my little art jobs along the way, doing photo retouch at Olan Mills, and managed to paint a few acrylic fantasy paintings which I entered in the art show at a local sci-fi convention called Chattacon, the local convention my husband and I had been involved in. Then, in 1994 I entered a couple of my paintings in the art show at Dragoncon , a huge sci-fi and media convention in Atlanta attended by over 20,000 people every year. Without any substantiation whatsoever for my wild claims, I brazenly entered the Professional Illustrators category and won two top prizes. I have never been so amazed in my life.

One might have been justified in hoping that this would lead to professional work in the field, and I did get some, but even though I dutifully sent out my portfolio to top markets like Wizards of the Coast, I got very little top-level work, except for the horror magazine Cemetery Dance. I did get work from several smaller companies and did a good bit of small press illustration. I lacked the fabled Male Gaze, which gaming companies relied upon to get illustrations that appealed to their almost entirely male audiences back then. They had very good commercial reasons for wanting guys who could work quickly to paint pictures of busty babes, and although I could certainly draw a realistic naked woman, my heart wasn’t in it.  It didn’t help that I didn’t much like muscle-bound men either.

I can see now that I was nowhere near prepared for a fulltime career in the field. Even when my paintings were good enough, almost as good as the roughly one dozen illustrators who did virtually all the Sci-fi and fantasy book covers (I counted them at a World Science Fiction Convention art show once), it took me forever to finish a painting. The Brothers Hildebrandt worked at top speed, started at each end of a painting and met in the middle, their work matching perfectly! When I listened to pro illustrators talk about working 11 hours a day, 6 days a week, then driving their finished work to NYC (they all lived close by), to get under deadline, my heart sank.


Slow and steady wins the race.



Going to these conventions, though, I ended up meeting a lot of people who created fanzines, and this turned into something wonderful in my life, even though I never expected it. Up through the nineteen sixties, sci-fi fanzines had been mimeographed, but mimeo was old school by the 1980’s. By the time I began doing fan art and writing, most people used photocopiers to make their little magazines, where they reviewed books, seriously discussed polyamory before it became a thing on TikTok and drew little cartoons as illustrations. There was a bit of crossover between professionals in the field, and fans; fanzines sometimes interviewed pro writers, and sometimes pro artists would contribute a sketch. I drew pictures and wrote articles, and they would get published in these little fanzines, and people would tell me they liked my work. I didn’t get paid but at least I was drawing, and I could sell my art at the Sci-fi conventions. Well, theoretically.

The top-of-the-line fan art I did was for Mimosa, a fanzine that had already won many Hugo Awards. It was edited by Rich and Nicki Lynch, who had lived in Chattanooga before moving to the DC area. Rich and Nicki sent me envelopes full of clippings from their fan mail – yes, fanzines got fan mail – from folks who liked my art. I got invited to be a Fan Artist Guest of Honor at Chattacon, which was lots of fun. I also got invited to be an artist guest at Hallowcon, put on by another friend, Dutch Stulce. (I’m putting in links for everything because some of you will have never heard of any of this.)

In 2000, I attended Worldcon in Chicago to show my art and make a little money theoretically selling art prints. Usually, I did well to pay for my travel and hotel, but it was fun, and I met a lot of interesting people. That year, Mimosa was nominated for the Best Fanzine Hugo again. They didn’t win that year, but after the awards, Rich and Nicki invited me to the Hugo Losers party. I ended up with a bunch of other people on a California King bed drinking very good champagne. At some point one of the winning authors crashed the party and casually threw their newly won Hugo into the middle of the bed. If it had been an Oscar, this geekette could not have been more impressed!

Two guys who had won the Fan Artist Hugo many times between them plopped down with me and told me they loved my art and I needed to get on the Hugo ballot! O joy! I had mentors! They then proceeded to give me advice; I listened very attentively while drinking a lot more champagne. The two Hugo guys informed me that Rule 1 was of paramount importance: I must never, never, never act like I wanted a Hugo award. Okay, I knew I was screwed already but I kept my mouth shut and eagerly nodded my head Yes. Of course, I would have loved to get a Hugo, or even get nominated, having noticed other fan artists wrangle their awards into what looked like bigger art sales and more professional work. Go ahead, sue me. Rule 2 was to send my art to lots of influential fan editors, which meant editors whose zines got nominated for Hugos, and this was when doing fan art often meant giving away originals. (Rich and Nicki Lynch were exceptions and always returned my work.) Since I was already staying up all night working on pictures to give away, it was unclear to me how to further convey my level of devotion to my craft, but once again, I nodded my head, yes, yes, I would prove I was in this only for the love of drawing. After that, things got kind of fuzzy, or fizzy; that was the best champagne I ever drank.

I never heard much from my Hugo mentors after the convention, but I tried to do everything they told me. I really did. An “influential fan editor” in England wrote me (this was before email) that my art got damaged in transit, and anyway, he didn’t like my art very much. Thanks a bunch, Editor Limey. Another editor kept pressing me for more original art but hoarded it instead of using it in his zines and kept asking for more. I finally caught on to using a copier and tried to send out copies of my original art, but some editors still only wanted originals. There were a lot of editors who loved my work, though, so I kept doing it for a long time. One friend, Irvin Koch, wanted to put on a large convention in North Carolina, and at his request I painted a picture of a kitten with wings (Kitty Hawk – get it?) that people liked, but he didn’t win the bid.

“Kitty Hawk,” by Julia Morgan-Scott

A number of years later, another friend named Michelle Rogers tried to put on a big convention and asked me to do some art, in addition to being the artist guest. Then that convention went under amid accusations of ultra-far-right political associations. It seemed that the invited author guest, a fellow named John C. Wright, was published by someone named Vox Day. Vox Day was a former president of SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America) who had pissed everyone off and ended up at the forefront of the so-called Rabid Puppies. Rabid Puppies was the, well, rabid successor to the Sad Puppies, and the Sad Puppies were, well, read about it here. The whole Puppies thing was started as an objection to Hugo nominations being based on Progressive political views and not writing (according to fans on the Right), and about Fascist fans not wanting any Black lesbian authors to get nominated (according to fans on the Left). My friend was more or less accused of being a Nazi by people she thought were her friends. I’d been out of fandom so long I didn’t even understand what was happening until the convention was cancelled – along with my friend, who got cancelled before cancelling was a thing. My friend was in shock, not to mention out a big chunk of cash. I had to do some research to even figure out what had happened (I’d never even heard of the Sad Puppies at that time), and looking back, I’m ashamed I didn’t do more to defend her. It all just seemed so bizarre I couldn’t wrap my head around it; when my husband and I had been active, the two political affiliations among people in fandom were Classic Liberal and Lassez-Faire Libertarian, but that time was no more. Suddenly fandom had turned ugly, and my art seemd to be the kiss of death.

That was the last fan art I did, although I continued attending the local convention to sell my prints. Well, theoretically. I never won a Hugo award, although once I got some pre-nomination votes but not quite enough to get on the final ballot. Of course, I wasn’t supposed to pay any attention to how many pre-nomination votes were cast for me. I failed utterly at Not Caring About Getting a Hugo. I cared because I knew the truth: Every print I sold was one more day I didn’t have to work at Taco Bell, and I knew that six months of Taco Bell would erase forever those real paintings, the paintings I was going to paint someday.


We revel in the laxness of the path we take.

Charles Baudelaire


In spite of everything, even perversely, I persevered, doing whatever art jobs came my way. Over the years I did just about everything a person whose only marketable skill is art can do to make a few dollars. For several very hot summers, I drew caricatures at the Tennessee Aquarium. That job taught me to do quick cartoony gesture drawings of people in 100-degree heat without an umbrella while sweat dripped into my eyes and onto the paper; I still, however, need to look up the spelling of “caricature” every time I write it down.

My friend Neil Robinson helped me get a part-time job at Senior Neighbors teaching oil painting – to people around my age now.  My Senior Neighbors students wanted to copy postcard reproductions of Impressionist paintings, or the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, or kitsch paintings of lighthouses, and they expected their copies to look exactly like the expertly painted images they brought with them. To me, painting was like climbing Mount Everest to recover a holy secret that had been lost. My students saw it as an amusement or possibly a relaxation technique but expected to master painting with proper perspective and correct anatomy in one week or perhaps two. Nevertheless, I made some long-lasting friendships from that time, and some of my students managed to learn to paint pretty well. Neil told me that I would learn more than they did, and that was true.

I was doing all this at the same time I was working at UTC, along with selling real estate for a while, temporary office jobs, engraving trophies, and making lattes along the way. Of course, I was thrilled at every small art job, thrilled to do illustrations for game cards and small press magazines. My little bit of income had to be painstakingly catalogued along with expenses for taxes. All through this, though, always I had my dream paintings to be painted in the future in my head. I made lists of the titles while answering phones. These imaginary paintings evolved; at some point they stopped being illustrations for sci-fi novels and evolved into something for a gallery somewhere. I knew that whatever I was doing now weren’t my real paintings. The real paintings floated around in my head, mixed together with stories and poems that I scribbled down in the journals I carried in my purse.


There is more to life than simply increasing its speed.

Mahatma Gandhi


I managed to succeed in not ever having to work for Taco Bell, and I’m not sorry I learned to do all these Art Things. Obviously, I have a bad case of Art ADHD. Even when I’ve managed to paint a few of “my paintings” along the way, it never seemed to be quite enough at one time: an artist, even an Art Sloth, needs to have at least a dozen paintings in the same style to show a gallery. I kept thinking I could do everything – the medieval reenactment, the fan art, the caricatures, the small press illustrations, teaching, along with all the non-art jobs. My children grew up, and then my parents grew old. One by one, I let all of the jobs go, until now it’s down to the scientific illustration.

It scares me, because what if I’m too old? What if I’m still not quite good enough? And the real fear: What if I up and die before my slow, slothy self gets those paintings painted? Lately, I feel as if every day is a gift, anyway. Who knows?

Nothing to do but keep going, slowly but surely.

I know what general direction I want to go. In spite of doing some really silly pictures in my day, I have always been pretty darn serious about it; maybe it’s time to relax and have some fun, like my students at Senior Neighbors. No need to impress any game card companies any more. What I really want is to find a way to use the skills and styles I learned along the way doing fan art and illustrations – cartooning, fantasy, the dark horror I did for Cemetery Dance Magazine, and even the icons I painted in the SCA – and combine it all. Can I put egg tempera through an air brush? Gonna find out.  I’m not done yet, and my bucket list is long.


You’re only here for a short visit. Don’t hurry, don’t worry.

Walter Hagen


About fifteen years ago, I had a strange dream: In a tall, silvery skyscraper there was a room, on the very top floor under the roof, where I would create wonderful things having to do with art and writing! In the dream, I stood in front of the elevator waiting to go up to that room under the roof, but the door never opened. Finally, I had to leave the building and walk up a fire escape on the outside. It took me a long time, climbing each step very slowly and it seemed, painfully, like the sloth climbing the stairs in the sloth rescue place.

About a year after the dream, my husband and I went to AVA’s Studio Hop, where various artists around the city open their studios and visitors come in and look around. We followed the map until we arrived at a location on Market Street. The moon was full that night, and it shone on the tall building’s light bricks, giving them a silvery sheen. I realized I was looking at the silvery skyscraper of my dream: the old Chattanooga Bank Building had been turned into artist’s studios. After looking through several artists’ spaces there, I decided the dream was a sign, and rented a good-sized space, quite expensive but I decided to take a chance on it. That studio space was like a dream itself: the coolest of cool north light filled the rooms, which were big enough that I could teach large classes, and the classes paid for my rent. There was an elevator to my studio (which I could get on anytime), but my space was on the fourth floor, not under the roof. It was such a lovely space, but of course I was working at UTC, and teaching too. I only managed to paint a few of those paintings in my head, and after a few years, the owner sold the building and we had to leave.  After that I had another studio at Chattanooga Workspace for a couple of years which was very nice, where I painted a few more paintings. Always my endless little side hustles (if real estate can be called a side hustle, but for me it was) sucked away my time and energy. After that, my husband and I bought a new house, and we especially liked the converted attic space with its large skylights, although the light wasn’t quite as perfect as before. Soon, though, I figured out how to cover some of the skylights and control it, and the space became my new studio.

We’ve been here almost ten years now, and in that time, I’ve had two knee replacements. One day, climbing the stairs slowly and, yes, painfully, slow as that sloth climbing the stairs in Costa Rica, I remembered my dream of the silvery skyscraper with the wonderful space under the roof. Oh gosh, I thought, here I am! Here I am at last, in the studio of my dreams.


In a very slow way, I found my path.

Alison Goldtrapp





The quotations are from Sloth Wisdom, compiled by Talia Levy and Jax Berman, Peter Pauper Press, 2016.








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:

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

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://(

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: – 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:


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. 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:

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:

Graham & Sons, Inc., has moved around the corner, and is now Graham Shay 1857 Gallery:  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.  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:,Boston%20and%20the%20Adams%20Memorial%20in%20Washington%20DC.

If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy reading this:

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:

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.



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