my mother, my artist

And what a great feeling is it at nine-years old to know that your mom is alive in the world and making stuff?!

This post should have happened yesterday, as it’s a mother’s day post. But it’s also a spring post, filled with the memories of bright, squeaky clean spring days. It’s about what my mother taught me about art and creativity, even when, I guess, she wasn’t trying.

The spring memory is of illicit lilac hunting – under cover of darkness with scissors, the black-handled ones that had my mom’s maiden name initials in what seemed to be pink nail polish on the blade, MBA, and which always reminded me of her life before me. The biggest lilac bushes, and those with the least guilt attached since they weren’t in someone’s yard, were in the back of a dairy just north of our house. The dairy is still there, but the lilacs have all been taken down along with so many other flowering trees and bushes in town. (One of the heartaches of living where you grew up is knowing what came before, the lovely, gentle things that gave their lives for strip malls and pavement.) After our cuttings – and I was only allowed to go a few times, this was mainly an adult nocturnal excursion – mom arranged them in a big cream-colored pitcher. It seems like now there are only lilac-colored lilacs, but then there were all hues: light violet and darker violet, a piquant magenty purple and a deep dark plum, and finally pearl white. Together, they filled the old pitcher in an artful way that I remember ruefully now as I fill a mason jar with lilacs and they stick out every which way. By comparison, my mother’s lilacs were a compositional marvel, and in my child’s memory, they lasted for days.

Art was in flowers, but it was also in our house and in the things we did. We didn’t have much money, so I knew at some level that if we spent money on something, it was important. In the summers when I was even littler – under eight, for that’s the year we moved – my mom took me first to swimming lessons and then to the Des Moines Art Museum for lessons. They were the best lessons – charcoal drawing in the large park behind the museum, clay work that was fired in a kiln on site, and plenty of looking at the museum’s collection. Specifically, I remember a dog in a painting who would watch you no matter where you stood in the gallery.

And there was the Christmas when my mom bought my dad a large print of Janis Joplin by a local artist. “Didn’t she o.d.?” my grandfather asked dismissively. I didn’t care. I loved Joplin’s music, but more so, I loved that my mom had bought my dad art as a present.

Levine collage

After we moved – moved on the day Nixon resigned, in fact – my mother blossomed, removed from a small suburban city and placed back in her college town. She returned to school and studied bookmaking. I loved the printer’s shop, with its particular smells. Was it just the ink I was smelling, or was there linseed oil or some kind of turpentine? At any rate, I associated it with my mother making things. And what a great feeling is that when you’re about nine years-old? To know that your mother is alive in the world, learning new things and -best of all-making stuff?! I was so proud of her. The other moms I knew seemed to mainly be home making peanut butter sandwiches, but mine could print and bind a book. She took a photography class and came to school and took photos of my friends and me. She calligraphed the nursery poem “Wink Blinkin and Nod” on an accordion book she made. As an apprentice for Windhover Press, one of the leading letterpress’ in the country, she set the type for books of poetry by W.S. Merwin and Philip Levine. A few years ago she gave me a signed copy of a Levine book she’d worked on. “Put it in your safety deposit box,” she’d said, “it’s worth a lot.” But I couldn’t. It’s too lovely. Every few months, I like to get it down and just feel the creamy white paper under my fingers.

In junior high, I helped start an art history club. I’ve no doubt that my mother’s art books and the trips she and my dad had taken me on to the Art Institute in Chicago precipitated this interest. My mom wasn’t an artist per se – nor was my paternal grandmother, who had introduced me to batiking in the cellar of her farmhouse – but she loved art and she made enough of it to appreciate the work that went into it, to have a tactile love of the process.

ArtNightCollageLast Friday night, a thunderstorm brewing outside, my kids and I sat around the table and made art. Tobey was deep in another book project, drawing droids and alien robots. Bella made a collage of “living things” for her teacher, complete with a scientific report on what constitutes a living thing. While I made a present for a friend. Three hours of perfect harmony, as the thunder rumbled, Pandora played songs that riffed on “Octopus’ Garden,” and we all shared pieces of our work that gave us particular joy.

I can think of few better gifts to pass on to my kids from my mom, whether she knows it or not.


6 thoughts on “my mother, my artist”

  1. Awwwwww! I am truly flattered. And I had forgotten all about Winkin, Blinkin and Nod. Thanks for all the good memories.

  2. this post arrived just in time, and i mean JUST in time… i am freaking out because at this very moment my kids are turning our kitchen into an artistic war zone… in the ways only two and six year olds can… but instead of barging in there to put a halt to the eye-popping mess, i am going to stay right here and read this article over and over and over to convince myself that the cleanup will be worth it! i KNOW it’s worth it, but it doesn’t always seem so in the moment. and this is one of those moments…

    great words!

  3. And another family member joins in with memories of my mother (your paternal grandmother, Jen) spending hours looking at reproductions of paintings by the great masters, studying what each artist was doing and learning their names. And listening to Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms…and yes, Broadway musicals but I think that was to stop me from listening to stupid “kids” music by Uncle Don. This started when I was 4 years old. Then came books about Toulouse-Lautrec, one of my favorites at the time which led to other books about Paris which led to…and the list goes on.

    Yes, let’s hear it for mothers. I enjoyed hearing about yours.

  4. Just wanted to say your mother sounds like an amazing woman. Balancing children, work, education, and household can be a daunting task, as sure as it is a necessary one. I’ve been struggling with the idea of going back to “work” (my children are 2 and 3 yrs) in the last few months, but just until the writing career becomes profitable (lol), knowing even at this young ripe age it would be the best example I could set for my daughter. Thank you for sharing. And by the way, I planted a white lilac bush two weeks ago. It’s glorious.

  5. How beautiful! I didn’t know any of those things about your mom. I really hope our future kids are into sitting around doing art for hours!

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