by Sarah Van Arsdale
At six thirty, we push blankets off, pull sweaters on, and shuffle to the bathroom. He squeezes toothpaste onto my brush before getting his own.
“Can we turn the lights off?” I ask.
“The light hurts my eyes.”
He gets the switch. We click our brushes together like champagne glasses and set to work.
This is the part where I’d take a few steps back and then sway forward, shepherding him in circles around the tiny bathroom floor.
He’d look down and say through a mouthful of toothpaste foam, “What is your deal?”
I’d tilt up my chin and gurgle, “You’re my deal.”
Before I can start our
It was in a cold mid-December that I had the dream.
I dreamed I was in a cave. It was surprisingly well-appointed, with Oriental rugs strewn on the ground and benches carved out of the cave walls. Around me, piles of my mother’s things—boxes of her diaries, and letters, and negatives, and photographs. It was not unlike her studio where I sorted through her things in the weeks after she died.
In the dream, I was looking through her things and heard her say (even dead, she got a line of dialogue) that if I wanted to know about being a woman artist, and about being the daughter of an artist, I should look at the work of Helen Frankenthaler.
And then I woke up.
Helen Frankenthaler? What I knew about her could fit in this phrase: Mid-century abstract expressionist painter.
Had my living mother ever said that name to me? Yes. Late in my mother’s life, the children’s book From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler came up in conversation, the way it will, and she called it From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenthaler. I corrected her: “Frankweiler.”
“No, I’m sure it’s Frankenthaler.”
“No, it’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.”
“No, it’s Frankenthaler, like the artist. And they run away to the Met.”
This debate, taking place before one could rush to the Internet for verification of any arguable point, probably ended with her saying “Well, anyway. Let’s make a plan.”
What would I give to be able to have that conversation with her again, and this time, to ask what she wanted to tell me about Helen Frankenthaler? All the Frankenthalers in the world.
But the dead remain unnervingly silent, except the occasional visitation in a dream.
* * *
My mother was an artist, and so am I, and so is my sister. So the question of what it is to be a woman artist, and the daughter of an artist, is not of casual concern to me.
As I write that my mother was an artist, I’m certain someone will call me out and note how very small my mother’s artistic ambitions were, and how short I’ve fallen of my own. My mother’s artistic life began in the early 1950s when there were, I imagine, armies of artists furiously painting in lofts, cadres of poets reading in dimly-lit basement bars to a background of bongo drums and clarinets. My mother, from a social-register Baltimore family, bucked expectations by going not to Wellesley but to Bennington, and then by living in Greenwich Village, taking classes at the Art Students League, and marrying my father, an older, divorced, pipe-puffing psychologist with a beard, two young children, and an ex-wife who was too busy burning up the stages of modern dance in New York City to take full custody of her kids.
My mother devoted herself to raising her two little girls, along with her husband’s kids. She ran the Religious Education classes at the Unitarian Society, she went to civil rights marches, she took us to villages in Mexico, she worked with the School for International Training, she helped bring a group of boys from Uganda to the suburbs one summer.
But throughout all that, there was always a little well of quiet creation: her studio, with a wheel and a small kiln, and later, with cameras and stacks of negatives and rolls of film. After her divorce she earned her money shooting weddings and portraits and had several shows of her work. But did that make her an artist? Did that make me the daughter of an artist?
I’ve inherited her doubt about her artistic ability, along with her absolute certainty about it, and that attitude has become my own, about my own work. This takes the form of my continuing preoccupation with wondering whether I’m just a not-very-good writer and artist or it’s that the world hasn’t caught on to the significance of my talents. Was there, I wondered, a resolution to this in trying to answer the question that came from my dream?
Being a good New Yorker and good daughter of my psychologist father, I took my dream to my analyst, who told me that the art critic Clement Greenberg had written about Frankenthaler, and that she (my analyst, but also Frankenthaler) had known him, the greatest art critic of the 20th century. She told me about Frankenthaler’s invention of Color Field painting and that she had a reputation for being irascible and nervy.
Maybe with all the talking she does, she isn’t really an analyst. But this conversation made me feel supremely New York: my Upper West Side analyst talking about art with me.
Armed with a directive from my mother and biographical information from my analyst, I set out to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, just like those kids in the book, except I had no intention of hiding in a restroom in order to spend the night.
I found there was one Frankenthaler in the Modern wing past the Pollock, after the room full of Rothkos. I dropped my coat and bag on the floor and stood before it, arms crossed over my chest, looking. I turned my head sideways, as upside-down as I could get. It was mostly blue.
I made note of everything; after all, I was operating on a directive from the dead. I saw that I was distracted; people came into the room, students with sketchbooks, tourists in sweatshirts and cargo pants. I had to concentrate. They looked at me, a crazy lady, my jacket puddled on the floor, arms akimbo, frowning at a painting nobody else even glanced at. I couldn’t worry about what they thought or be embarrassed by this breach of decorum.
Lesson One: Keep concentrating.
Lesson Two: The hell with decorum.
Not nothing, but I was sure I still had more to learn about being an artist and being the daughter of an artist, so I went to the Met bookstore. No book on Frankenthaler, nothing by Clement Greenberg. Then I looked through the indices of all the books on mid-century painting, and found just a few references. A few words on Color Field painting— Frankenthaler developed it after seeing Pollock’s dripped paintings. Instead of dripping and splashing paint from a brush, she poured straight from the paint can onto the unprepared canvas so the paint soaked in, saturating into deep, wide pools of color. It was as new to painting as Hopkins’ sprung rhythm was to poetry, as Stein’s refusal to punctuate was to writing, as new as new.
“Frankenthaler is the bridge between Pollock and the possible,” Clement Greenberg wrote, quoted in one of the books that spared Frankenthaler a paragraph.
I left the Met wanting to think about what he meant, but outside the streets were silvered with cold, the air in a rush freezing my head so that I could barely get my gloves on, never mind deconstruct Greenberg’s words.
I walked over to the Guggenheim, where I was told that any Frankenthalers they had were in storage. There was nothing on Frankenthaler in the Guggenheim bookstore. Not even with her name in the index.
I wanted my search to be romantic and otherworldly, but I knew where I had to go, and soon I was on the escalator descending into the Barnes and Noble on East 86th Street. The store was not unlike the underground cave of my dream.
There I looked through all the art books I could find, scanning the indices for “Frankenthaler,” finding not much, and then, as I was pulling on my gloves and readying to leave, I saw a book with a greenly cover, splotches of taupe running down one side, a single spot of pink hovering toward the center. It was called Frankenthaler. It had been produced by the Knoedler Gallery for Frankenthaler’s 80th birthday, just the year before, and gave the biographical list I hadn’t known I’d been looking for all this time.
1928: Born December 12, New York City.
1945: Graduates the Dalton School, New York.
1949: Graduates Bennington College, Vermont.
Bennington College? My mother’s college? My mother was born December 3, 1924. Almost exactly four years older than Frankenthaler. And she’d gone to Bennington, but what years?
Standing there in Barnes and Noble, I felt my heart hammering away, a chill running through me. Had my mother known Frankenthaler? Had they been friends? Wouldn’t my mother, who’d made it clear she’d studied poetry with Theodore Roethke at Bennington, have mentioned this?
I remembered finding a mug my mother had made at Bennington, which she’d inscribed, in her inimitable handwriting: Nan Bennington, 1949.
Or had that been 1947? And where on earth had I put that mug? I shut the book, bolted past the shelves of board games and electronic devices and up the escalator, out onto the street, into the frigid December air.
Surely MOMA would have some Frankenthalers. I hied over there, blowing into the building with a gust of cold air; it wasn’t lost on me that I was on this search right between the birthdays of my mother and Helen Frankenthaler.
At the information desk, I asked the creaky volunteer, who must have been born around the time of my mother and Frankenthaler, if they had any Frankenthalers, and as she leafed arthritically through the collection book with her veiny hands, she said “Are you a friend of hers?”
This took me aback. “No,” I said. Was there some new rule that you had to be a friend of the artist in order to view her work? The woman peered at me over her glasses, lowered her voice conspiratorially. “She was a real b—rhymes with witch.” I leaned in to listen to her report: she’d been a young secretary for the attorney who represented Frankenthaler, and whenever Frankenthaler called, she was imperious and condescending to her, making it clear that she—the elderly woman now a volunteer at MOMA—was just a secretary.
If you want to know what it means to be an artist…I thought unkindly.
Still art wins; she told me I could find the one Frankenthaler in Gallery 43.
But in Gallery 43, no Frankenthaler. I asked two guards who shrugged their disinterest. Had it been taken to another gallery for the Abstract Expressionist New York show? But there were only about two or three pieces by women in the show; they should have left those out and just called it the Abstract Expressionist Men of New York.
Back down to the membership desk, no one there knew where the Frankenthaler was. And no one seemed at all concerned. The Frankenthaler Has Gone Missing! I didn’t shout.
Instead, I went home and, the next day, called Bennington College. Since my mother never graduated, the only record they had was that my mother was scheduled to graduate in 1947 and didn’t. Frankenthaler, they said, graduated in 1949.
the mug must have said. What on earth had I done with it?
So they could have overlapped, if only by one semester. And if they did, so what? So what, so what, so what?
I had to know. Because of the dream. Because of my own eternal angst about my own art. Because my mother, like Frankenthaler, was an artist. And yet, my mother was an artist totally unlike Frankenthaler.
Frankenthaler was one of those rare, brilliant artists who invented her own method. She broke the rules and wound up creating something wholly new, and she knew it. “There are no rules. That is how art is born, how breakthroughs happen. Go against the rules or ignore the rules. That is what invention is about,” she said.
Her response to being an artist in one of the most inventive times for art was to watch Pollock, thin her oils with turpentine, lay raw canvas on her studio floor, and pour. Later in life she returned to gestural painting, but only after decades of creating her huge, wildly unique Color Field paintings. Her first solo show was in 1951, just two years after she graduated from Bennington.
Further she was a woman in a decidedly man’s world, a world dominated by Pollock and de Kooning. But she was in that world, marrying Robert Motherwell, one of the daddies of abstract expressionism, in 1958, the year after I was born.
Contrast with my mother, marrying my father and leaving Greenwich Village for New Jersey to raise her family. My mother had turned her back firmly on her parents’ world of tea parties in segregated Maryland, and maybe that took all the mettle she had; maybe there was simply little left for making great art.
Was Frankenthaler a distorted mirror image of my mother, a real artist, talking long into summer nights on Long Island with Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock, absorbed in her work for days on end in her studio on 10th Street? Two blocks away, my mother, having abruptly left Bennington for Manhattan, living on Charles Street. The war was ending; she’d broken off her romance with a Baltimore boy who was in the Navy. She wanted something more, a bigger life than the flower-arranging and sailing promised by her family.
Then she met my father, in a jewelry-making class at the Art Students League.
I have considerable proof that my mother was an artist: boxes of her negatives and slides and prints, a photo of her lying on her stomach on the floor of her first professional studio, chin in hands, cigarette between her strong fingers; a photo of her photographing a baby doll flung onto a swing in the snow. Page after page of reviews of her shows, notifications of prizes won: $70 for first place in “Landscape.” Invitations to her openings, rejection letters from publishers.
This meant that, after she died, I spent several weekends cleaning out her house and studio. Toward the end of her life, she’d moved to a small town near Bennington, with a fantastic view of the valley and a front room for her studio.
My sister, a painter, didn’t want anything from our mother’s house. Can’t we just get someone to come and take all this away? she sighed. She was busy; her kids were little, and she had to get back to them, and to her own studio, and the painting classes she was teaching, and what on earth would she want with all this junk anyway? She shivered at the stacks of our childhood photos, cringed when I told her I’d found our mother’s poetry books from Bennington. When I referred to our mother as an artist, my sister raised an eyebrow. “I have to get home,” she said. She was, after all, a mother and an artist, with no time for such nonsense.
After the dream, after my visits to the museums of New York, after calling Bennington, I wasn’t sure I’d learned whatever I was supposed to learn from the dream.
By late December I got to thinking, that for all my organizing of my mother’s crap, I’d left my own storage bin unattended; maybe I could dig up that Bennington mug or some other piece of evidence. I asked Peter, the man I was I seeing, to come over. We went down to the storage bin in the basement of my building and dragged box upon soggy box up to the apartment. It was mostly junk, my old journals, framed photos of my niece and nephew that my sister didn’t want. Three cartons of my first novel, which I bought out when it was remaindered.
After a lot of sorting, we walked down to the Little Red Lighthouse, which sits like a bright mushroom sprouted under the George Washington Bridge, like the mushrooms my mother sewed on pillows and carved from wood in the early 1970s. I was despairing of ever finding anything that would help me with my dream. “Maybe being the daughter of an artist just means you have piles and piles of crap to get rid of,” I said.
When we got back I took one more look, in another box, and there it was: my mother’s photo album from Bennington.
I’d found it when I’d cleaned out my mother’s house and packed it promptly away: pictures she’d taken at Bennington, artful shots of the buildings, Gothically spooky in the autumn light, her school chums fooling around; even then, apparently, my mother was more at ease behind the camera than in front of it. There wasn’t anything that indicated any nascent genius, just the photos you’d expect taken by a college girl with a new camera when cameras were a new and thrilling thing. There weren’t any photographs under which Helen was written.
Lesson Three: Remain Persistent
Lesson Four: Have someone you love, who loves you, to help.
I’d tucked the album away along with a packet of letters my mother had given me from Jere, the Navy man she’d nearly married and with whom she’d corresponded while at Bennington.
I’d always known about Jere; she’d talk about him sometimes, how he would have been a better husband to her than my father had been, except that she would have been bored out of her skull. She’d wanted someone who would understand the artist in her. He wrote to her from his Naval assignments on the West Coast South Pacific. He wrote to her from Singapore, from Hong Kong.
The letters, I thought, could hold a clue about whether my mother knew Helen Frankenthaler. I wanted to find something like “This Helen you mention, she sounds like a good artist.” With my acute detective skills, I ordered the letters by their dates, then read them through. The handwriting was controlled but slanted so steeply it was hard to make out the words. But there was something so interesting that I forced myself to be able to read it: that my mother was thinking of taking a break from the college, and the college was urging her to. But why? It was all vague. Something about, incredibly, a “vice squad” she was part of. Or was that a joke? There was no answer in the letters about why she dropped out of Bennington and nothing at all about art.
Nonetheless from Jere’s letters, I got a clearer picture, and I pieced the dates together: my mother left Bennington at the end of the fall semester, 1945. Frankenthaler graduated from the Dalton School in the spring of 1945, so she would have gone to Bennington that fall, my mother’s last semester there.
Imagine that: my mother an upperclassman to Frankenthaler, a freshman. Did my mother befriend her? Or was my mother too distracted by whatever was driving her to leave Bennington for New York to notice some new kid?
Under the packet of letters from Jere, there was a packet of letters that my grandmother sent to my mother at Bennington. My grandmother, born just before 1900, was in that maverick group of early—and white—women to go to college. She was educated well and championed women’s suffrage, wrote essays and poems, and raised her three children.
“One reason I checked my own interest in writing (one reason in addition to the one that I just wasn’t quite enough of a writer),” she wrote to my mother, “ was that you three children had become more important to me than the writing. I really wanted terribly to do something with writing in my early thirties. When I was your age I had not nearly enough self-confidence, but the desire came to flower later. But I felt I had to put one or the other first, and I choose you. It is not necessarily such a conflict I believe. If an artist becomes conscious of herself and her ability early enough she can have some achievement to her credit before getting swamped with the process of having a family…”
Was this conflict about being an artist and a woman, wanting a family but wanting to make art, simply my mother’s inheritance, as my conflict about how much of an artist I am is mine? Was my conflict embedded in my DNA, or at least as much a part of me as my grandmother’s love of fresh flowers, her good posture, the pull she felt to travel in Mexico?
* * *
In January it occurred to me that maybe I didn’t have to rely on the museums, which were clearly rather lax about their holdings of Frankenthalers.
And so I turned to our dearest helpmeet, Mr. Google, who told me to go to the Ameringer Gallery on West 23rd.
I sent an email saying I wanted to see any Frankenthalers they had, and I received back a very kind reply from one Miles McEnery (which seemed like the perfect name for someone working in a gallery) saying they would be happy to show me their Frankenthaler at my convenience, and if there was anything else they could do for me, they were at my service.
I realized Miles McEnery thought I was rich and that I was in the market for a big painting that would cost about a million bucks. More! So I went with what my mother taught me: honesty is the best policy. I told him I was just writing something about Frankenthaler, and he kindly told me to come anyway.
To complicate my story I went to the gallery with my stepmother. By the time of this story, she had become a good friend of mine, and we’d settled our hash, as she would say, with one another, and now we could go together to look at art.
We were invited into a viewing room. I’d never before considered that there were such things, but of course, if you’re laying out thousands (millions!) of dollars on a piece of art, you ought to be able to get to know it first, kind of like a first date preparing for an arranged marriage.
We were escorted into the room, and there it was: a color-soaked canvas, saturated with pools of blue, and green, and a muddy-ish pale brown spreading from the center, like an oil spill or a birthmark. It’s different seeing a painting this grand in a small room, sitting comfortably, than it is in the echoing halls of a museum.
Diana and I were left to watch the painting, and I fell in love with it. I never wanted it to leave. After a long time, someone came back in the room, took it away, and brought the second one, which I didn’t like as much but Diana loved immediately, and we sat there and watched it.
Yes, watched it. Watching is what you do when you’re looking at something that changes before your very eyes. And it did. Gradually I saw that the background color was raspberry; it was raspberry all over, with other colors poured and brushed onto it, and two playful drops of yellow and orange. “Playful,” Diana said, and “You want this painting, don’t you?” and I said, “Yes,” and we laughed.
We watched it for so long I thought she fell asleep, and I just kept watching it, and I thought maybe she had died, right there in the chair next to me, and I thought that wouldn’t be a bad way to die, to just drop away looking at a really great painting you love, but I didn’t want her to die ever, so I looked to the side, and there she was. She was awake, just mesmerized like I was.
And then we put on our winter coats again and walked to Seventh Avenue where she got on one train and I got on another.
The relentless winter continued into January, with a rough bitter wind whistling all around my apartment’s leaky, leaded windows.
* * *
By early spring I’d settled my hash (as Diana would say) with the dream. I had my answer: my mother had known Frankenthaler, or at least they’d overlapped at Bennington for one semester.
But then a friend, who knew of my dream and my interest in Frankenthaler, told me that the Knoedler Gallery, which is Frankenthaler’s gallery, had a big Frankenthaler show on. Even though it’s a wildly windy and wet spring day, I decide to walk from 110th Street, and an hour later, I come down East 70th, my hair all messed up by the wind, looking, I’m sure, more like the crazy lady blown in from the street and than like a customer ready to pick up a piece of Great Art.
It’s a Saturday, and inside, the gallery is hopping. Two women talking loudly to each other about Frankenthaler’s prints, how she made them, something something something, whatever it is, I don’t want to hear. I just want to look. After all, the dream said, “look at the work of Helen Frankenthaler,” not “listen to gabby art-collectors talk about the work of Helen Frankenthaler.”
And so I press my fingertips against my ears, holding them closed, the way I do when I’m in line at the movies and don’t want to hear the person behind me giving away the story, knowing that now I look even more like a wind-blown crazy lady.
I look at all the paintings without reading any of the tags, letting the colors absorb me: a deep, mesmerizing raspberry, the same color, I think, that Diana and I saw at the other gallery. A brilliant, jewel-ish green. You can tell that this gallery was once a townhouse; the rooms have wide-planked wood floors, polished so highly they look like marble or stone. Each room looks just like a room, a big, gracious room, with no furniture. Only paintings. Color. Light. The hush that descends in a room filled with art.
I’m dizzy by the time I go up the curving staircase to the second floor. There’s a vase of tulips on a desk at the top of the stairs, a vase of bright yellow daffs in the main room. The smell of the daffodils is almost overpowering, a bright, hopeful smell.
What am I looking for? Oh yeah. How to be an artist. How to be the daughter of an artist. Back downstairs, I look at the dates and names of the paintings. 1957, one says, the year I was born. Another: 1966, the year my mother made me a birthday party featuring a huge stuffed Dalmatian and paper table cloth with black polka-dots.
And if my mother had instead been laying huge canvases on the floor of a studio in the village, pouring paint onto them? Where would I have been then? In those early years, before her marriage started its slow implosion, she was just the kind of mother you’d want, gazing for hours into my infant eyes, each of us fascinated by the other, and as I grew, pressing my tiny hands into clay to make a pinch pot or making sure I always had paper and paint to hand. I was imprinting on her from the word go, because she was there to imprint on. Taking photographs or modeling things of clay, but turning her camera always onto us, me and Laurie, making those mugs decorated with our names and little bluebirds, little duckies, sewing cute aprons for us, and always, photographing us with her artist’s eye.
When her marriage began to fall apart, she started drinking heavily, and her preoccupation with her own grief and regret eclipsed her concern for me. I was left on my own to navigate my way to my slightly creepy boarding school, traveling alone through Port Authority at 14, 15, 16. My father, preoccupied with meeting Diana and leaving my mother, was similarly absent, and I’d often come home from boarding school to an empty house, and stay there alone until I could head back to Vermont. My mother, in those years, was unable to be a mother to me, even though she was able to hold her photography studio together. She eventually stopped with the drinking and the maundering and came back around, and in her later years we could talk together about art and writing.
Still in those early years, she was a good mother; and yet what had she left behind?
At the Knoedler, once I’ve regained my footing, it occurs to me they may have more biographical information about Frankenthaler, and I smooth down my windblown hair in the best imitation I can muster of someone who is not a windblown nutjob and ask the woman at the desk if she can tell me when Frankenthaler arrived at Bennington. She taps at her keyboard and says Frankenthaler didn’t go to Bennington until March of 1946; she stayed in New York during the summer and fall of 1945 to continue studying with Rufino Tamayo. Rufino Tamayo, the Mexican artist, and I can hear my mother’s voice saying his name on one of our trips to Oaxaca.
So they weren’t at Bennington together; they just missed each other: my mother arriving in New York City, in the winter of 1946. The war coming to an end. What was going on in art then? Imagine her taking a cold-water flat with another girl, maybe another Bennington dropout. Signing up for classes in psychology at The New School, taking painting at the Art Students’ League, taking the fabled jewelry-making class at the New School, where she meets my father, with his unquenchable curiosity about the world, with his own lineage as the son of an illustrator, with his worldliness.
Meanwhile up in Bennington, Frankenthaler was arriving, stretching a canvas, already accustomed to the brisk smell of turpentine and paint. Three years away from her first painting, “Beach,” being included in a show at the Kootz Gallery in New York.
My disappointment is piercing.
Why do I want them to have met? Would that change anything? I look through the boxes of photos of my mother when she was young; I flip through the pages of the book the gallery gave me. The two young women, my mother and Frankenthaler, look similar, both with a slightly eager, uncompromising look. They’re both beautiful young women, and they aren’t, either of them, the women you think of when you think of women of the 1940s: not pin-curled, shoulder-padded, lip-sticked gals wearing clunky heels and sequins, giggling behind a white-gloved hand. They’re both those other women of the 1940s: denim jeans with the cuffs rolled up, white men’s shirts, more at home in an art studio or behind a camera than at a cocktail party.
I told the woman at the desk at Knoedler why I was looking, why I was interested, why I was a disheveled nutjob coming in on a Saturday to mingle with the art collectors in their over-sized, black-framed glasses and their clouds of perfume.
She asked what I thought of the work, now that I’d been researching it, and I told her that I wanted to crawl inside it, that I could taste it, and it tastes very good. I want to wrap myself in her paintings, I said, stammering for some way to describe what they made me feel. “Hold on,” she said, and returned with a copy of the book, the book with the green cover that I’d seen in the bookstore, in which I’d first read about Frankenthaler going to Bennington. And then she answered my question, before I could even ask it: Frankenthaler wasn’t well, didn’t like receiving visitors.
I walked out of the gallery still unsure of what I was looking for. But it was okay that I wouldn’t meet her; I knew that it wasn’t really Frankenthaler I wanted to see.
It was my mother who I wanted, more than anything, to see.
* * *
I put all my mother’s slides into a box, and for a while, I even bought sleeves and organized them, then gave up. There were simply too many; it would take the rest of my natural life to get them into order. I did get far enough to find that there are sheets labeled Early Mexico and Family and Teenaged. These, the random photos of me and my sister when we were kids, are the slides she didn’t organize; the art slides, the close-ups of corn, the apples tumbled from a basket, the headless doll on a dark, grassy lawn, are all neatly organized and named.
It strikes me that the slides from my teenaged years are particularly a mess; that was her most productive time as an artist. And the time she was drinking the most, the time her marriage was collapsing under her feet like a sinkhole. And me, sent out alone in the world, wandering in the wilderness.
Has this search told me what it means to be a woman artist and the daughter of an artist? I’m still not sure. I have published four books of fiction and one narrative poem, the most recent illustrated with my own watercolors. I have collected stacks of rejections, and I’ve wondered why my writing hasn’t yet hit the publishing world the way I want it to. I wonder why I spend hours in my studio making watercolors, and I don’t know what to do with them.
My own success as an artist has been, we could say, limited; yet I can’t seem to stop making things, not out of any undaunted spirit, more just because I’ve always made things; I come from a long line of people making things: my father’s father illustrating for magazines and painting in oils, my father carving a garden and artesian well and entire pond out of a swath of land behind our house, installing his own stained glass windows in the barn, and my mother earning her living as a photographer, and my sister painting and teaching others to paint, and my older stepbrother making wine, and watercolors, and violins.
For a couple of years, after trying and failing to get a novel I believed in published, I gave up writing altogether, steamrolled by the rejections, certain I shouldn’t be spending my time on something that had become synonymous with pain. I started painting instead, making little drawings of pen and ink and watercolor, which friends called “delightful,” and “charming.” I made them into short films. I animated a poem, a couple of classical music pieces. I messed around with line and color. And didn’t write at all. One year turned to two, and then it was the middle of the coldest winter I could remember, and then I had the dream.
And what stays with me throughout this search is the rest of that letter from my grandmother to my mother.
“…I think you are going to be a writer, not an escapist, in a world of make believe, but a person who lives fully and distills experience into effective artistic creation. To do that requires time for development. Also, you have the handicap that the family so far has produced no other satisfied artist. It may be that it will take several generations more, that you come too soon.”
I think that must have broken my mother’s heart, to think she came too soon, that she would be an artist, but not a “satisfied artist.” And yet, the raft of negatives and prints, the bottom-heavy hand-thrown pots she made that fill my cupboards, tell me she persisted.
Am I that “satisfied artist,” carrying the banner of artist that my mother passed along to me in her way and that was passed to her by her mother? Now that I have two illustrated books published, along with my other three novels?
In the end, I put my search away. It’s enough to know that my mother was the artist she was, and that Frankenthaler was the artist she was, and that I’m the artist I am. But still, if I owned a Frankenthaler, I would happily give it away for just one more conversation with my mother, for seeing her walk in the door, hearing her say, “Let’s make a plan. Let’s get on with the day.”