I see her as she was. Part one

I must tell you this, else you might not understand the metamorphosis.

The sepia photo taken in the late 1920’s is on a creamy background. It’s in one of those sepia coloured heavy paper protective photo frames that would, say, stand on the piano or the mantlepiece when folded out like a card – you know, the kind that the photographer uses to protect the work in getting it to you. This one is ornately embossed on the lower corner and the photo itself has a thread of raised embossing all around, with a floral squiggle in the bottom centre.

Was the background once white, now turned yellow with age ? No matter, the ever so slight blurring of the image gives a soft and dreamy aspect to the beautiful woman holding two dozen roses in her arms, her graduation gown trimmed with white ermine, for a degree in education, I believe. She looks out from wire rimmed glasses, a complex expression on her face, at once filled with certainty and purpose and then, almost the opposite, a hesitation or uncertainty. Her hair is bobbed and her natural curl is shaped in a style called “marcel”.
Her skin is perfect, her face shape a tender oval with perfect features. She has always been a beauty. I used this image in a painting once, when I was first learning to paint in oils. My French professor gave us a task to copy from a well known work of art. This method of painting is abhorred, now, in North American educative circles; but at one time, it was the norm, even de rigeur. Young artists would spend their time with easels set up in museums so that they could observe in detail the methods and the compositions of successful, classically trained artists. The more faithfully one copied, the better one’s artistic merit, it was deemed in the traditional training ateliers.

Education now puts more emphasis on personal vision and imagery; copying from photos is considered stultifying, stilting. It is assumed that the copier is learning nothing and has no creativity.

I chose a painting by Degas of two sisters wearing forest green dresses. When I finished, I felt that I had learned many things, without risk. The composition was already there. So were texture and colour choices. I didn’t have to think about those things while I learned about pushing around paint, mixing colours, finding out how long to let the paint dry before I put some more colour on top. I learned to use thin layers of ground colour thinned with solvent, increasing the use of oil in the successive layers. One could mess around with the technical, physical side of painting without worrying about whether or not the image side of the equation was successful.

When I finished my first two copies, I had advanced quite nicely, I was pleased to find out, how to fill in the image and get it in proportion, how to handle the materials, and how to determine how much paint to put on a brush. I got to know the give of the canvas, the value of glazes, the mixing of tones from light to dark. In comparison to literature, this was getting to know the first paragraph in a large tome of an encyclopedia.

When I had done the two copies of masterworks, I turned to some family photos, some from my family, some from Franc’s family and some photos that I had picked up in flea markets. As I worked on these, my familiarity with paint increased and my style became rather loose. Nobody would claim my paintings for family likenesses. Instead, I felt I had done a series of generic family events – births, communions, school groups, marriages, funerals and then some of just general daily living. The paintings caught the essence of life events, not necessarily the individual personality.

The sepia of my mother interested my companions in the art school atelier. One French student was so enamoured of her beauty that he sighed, upon staring at the image, that if he only had a sou to spare, he would send her another dozen red roses.

I had another photo of Mother at a family party in the fifties where every one of the women was wearing a Marilyn Monroe style dress with fitted bodice and flared skirt. Each had matching accessories – high heel shoes and hand bag, gloves, hats, earrings and necklace, maybe even a bracelet. Mother’s dress was navy blue with white polka dots on it. The French call polka dots petits pois which means little peas and that was about the size of the dots on the dress.

The women were elegant and feminine. Their pride would not allow them to go out in public if they were not looking their best. A year ago when Otto and I took Mother to visit her sister-in-law on the occasion of her ninetieth birthday, Mother insisted on being dressed to the nines, to the point where, if it killed her, she would arrive in paten leather shoes with a tiny heel that threatened to topple her. If she had to wear sensible shoes, she simply could not go.

The birthday girl, my Aunt Helen, was equally polished. It was almost like a contest to see who could be the best dressed for the occasion. Either of them would have been adequately dressed to have tea with the Queen of England.

Every two weeks mother had to go to the hair dresser to have her hair washed and set; every two months, her hair was trimmed. It was getting very difficult to get her out to her favorite coiffeur. At the residence where mother lived in her ninety fifth year, Maggie the on-site hairdresser would come weekly and bring her down to the salon area, to care for Mother’s hair and keep her looking like the princess that she always strived to be. Mother loved Maggie, the latest in a long line of “Keeper’s of the Royal Hair”.
As children, we were trotted out as miniature models of correct dressing and comportment. Needless to say, as the official black sheep of the family and the hippie rebel, I objected to the infinite time and attention paid to this exercise. When I got out on my own in my early twenties, I was determined to fight this rigid vision of how one must dress and therein lay a great dispute between me and my mother.

When I started to work for my company in my thirties, I realized that I would have to revert to the middle class, bourgeois norms of office dress. I officially became a hippie in disguise. It has been the bane of my twenty working years, always trying without success to dress in an acceptable manner. (You know the old adage: If you want to be the boss, you must dress like the boss).

Always Mother could point out that I had a spill on my shirt, or a hair on my sleeve, or a hem coming down, or black pants that did not match the black stockings I was wearing, or did not match the black top I had chosen to wear with. In the same outfit, I was known to be wearing black with a blue cast on one article of clothing, black with a red cast on another and black with a green cast on the third. The horrors of it!

She would shudder when I wore navy blue slacks and black shoes – there is a rule forbidding the wearing of navy blue with black.

As a hippie in disguise, I had miles to go before the disguise was complete. But mother was a princess. She was lovely.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: