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. . . .ART AND I

I’m four years old. My mother comes home with some material to make pajamas for me.  Looking at the pretty pink fabric, I have no clue that soft flannel is a luxury in post-war Berlin.  All I see is possibilities.  Wrapping part of it around me, I raggedly cut off what I don’t need and thread a needle like I had seen our housekeeper do every day.  I make long, crooked stitches to sew the material onto one side of my pants.  Standing thus in this chic tube of material, I proudly present my “skirt” to my mother only to hear a shriek--I’ve misjudged my audience.

Thinking back, that experience was a good preparation for the life of an artist.  One tends not to be appreciated, especially while young and alive.  Even if this is beginning to change at last—it comes just as I, alas, can no longer call myself young.

I can’t pinpoint how I got into art, or how I came to appreciate it. All I know is, that art presented escape from a bleak world, made more so by a highly dysfunctional family. Besides, I grew up without a TV, so music and art had to do when I wasn’t outside, roaming the neighborhood as part of a gang of rollerskating urchins playing pranks.

Throughout my life, I have either attempted to make art or at the very least looked at it seriously. One of my first gallery purchases, at age nine, was a small print of Emil Nolde’s “Sisters” mounted on teakwood, and a miniature Toulouse-Lautrec poster similarly reproduced. I still have them.

During my adolescence, having arrived in Washington DC from Berlin at age 15, I wished that I could only communicate by drawing and painting. I never wanted to speak again lest I heard the dreaded “honey where are you from?” for the five-thousandth time in response to my accent. I had, of course, taken English from fifth grade on, which had acquainted me with the Queen’s version, but left me woefully short of American vernacular and the ability to converse like the budding intellectual I aspired to be. I figured that by making art I could somehow fit in--the question that remained was, into exactly what?

Edward Kienholz, "Solid State,"
c. 1965, concrete sculpture with parts
from a Sony television, 7 x 7 x 8 1/2".

Emile Nolde, "Prophet," woodcut
I attended a Catholic, all-women’s high school where the nuns worked hard to mold us into future wives and mothers (or secretaries if all else failed). My pronouncement that I was going to be an artist was met with the warning that I was headed for a life of dissolution. A newly acquired habit to preface every utterance with “like” did not help.

After school and on weekends I headed for the National Gallery, the Phillips Collection or the Smithonian. Museums are free in DC and thus became a second home. Matisse was my friend, Kokoschka an inspiration, and I discovered Georgia O’Keefe and fell in love. I hated Picasso and adored Degas, but found Renoir too saccharine. Mark Rothko held the key to the mysteries of life.

I taught myself to regard art as its own special language, a form of expression that one either understands or does not. It is, in great part, an instinctive, rather than analytical process of learning. While knowledge is certainly needed and valuable, “getting it” is, in my mind, the decisive factor. It’s music for the eyes.

As in many other related enterprises, I learned as I went, guided along by well-meaning friends and acquaintances. I will, however, consign my first art history teacher to Dante’s first circle for handing me back tests and papers marked F because, as he put it, he could not decipher whether I was writing English or German. Over time, I did learn enough English to make a success of school. I moved to California, raised a family and realized my dream of finally studying art in earnest.

I came to writing later in life, after long being convinced that it was something I could really never do. However, things have an odd way of turning out and, ironically instead of graduating college (at long last) in art or linguistics, I earned my degree in journalism.

As the mother of two adolescents, I had to approach my education differently and, instead of interning at a local newspaper, I chose the nearby Bowers Museum. That internship, along with the sensitive guidance of an academic adviser, set me on a path to writing about the arts, with visual art as my chosen field.
It’s been a learning curve ever since, a labor of love and a journey that I would not want to miss for anything. Often, as I wander through a particularly cherished museum or gallery show, I tell myself that if this is work, let me toil forever.