I was only 13. I didn’t know how to manage the materials. When I mixed the oil colors together, all the hues turned out the color of backed-up septic waste. I had a monumental task, way beyond the collages and crayon relief drawings assigned in seventh grade art class. I was driven to express through a single painting what finding out about the Holocaust did to my childhood heart.
Girls my age, infants, doctors, grandmas, laborers, professors and everyone else all met the same fate, no exceptions. I understood even with my naïve young mind that I too would have perished. The painting helped me navigate the morass resulting from my first encounter with evil.
Of the 17 figures on the canvas, one strikes me now as very funny, though it was meant to be serious at the time. It’s Marilyn Monroe, who was my favorite actress, as a concentration camp victim, lying on the floor in a bathing suit with numbers painted where her face should be.
Numbers were painted on all the figures, some on the face, others on the forearm.
During the following 55 years, I used painting and drawing to ask the great philosophical questions, “Who am I? What is my purpose? What is the world about?”
At 12 years old, while I was living in the wealthy suburb of Scarsdale, NY, I drew pictures of poor children and black people whose plights I saw on the evening news.
Unlike Joni Michell, who in recent years has painted hundreds of self-portraits “to take control of her own image,” I stopped drawing self-portraits once I graduated from the Art Department here in 1969. On one is the caption, “me when I am ugly,” another “me when I am beautiful.” I saved only these two, mystifying peculiar depictions from a forgotten mood in time.
Two days after the 6 Day War, I was in Israel roaming around Jerusalem drawing people. In a lecture hall at the Hebrew University, I drew a picture of a nun, so skeletal that she had to sit on a cushion for the duration of the class.
Most of the portrait drawings I saved are of my husband, Sam Slotnick. Whoa! From a nude of him as a long-haired flower child, to a middle-aged man who looks like an evil serial murderer, the many facets of my marriage are represented in horrifying continuance. It’s time for a new portrait!
There were decades when I painted mostly pictures of my children and made-up ones. One of those paintings, two babies hugging, entitled “The Compassionate Baby” hung on the wall of the Sloan Kettering children’s oncology waiting room. It stayed for 20 years until they redecorated and returned it.
Early in the 1980’s, I was hired to teach a yoga class at a retreat near Woodstock. I was directed to a hut and told to wait for the students to arrive. At the appointed time, a dozen people of all ages and sizes entered “au naturel” without so much as a fig leaf to cover their blotchy appendages. Some students I was told would be arriving late since they had to “finish an activity that could not be rushed.” The place turned out to be a swingers nudist colony which provided ample exposed figures for drawing. I saved those too, after all, how many artists have had such an unusual opportunity?
Recently, I removed from their hiding places all these aforementioned drawings and paintings. What are they for? Is it art? Who decides? What is art?
Here’s the reason I make art now: my imagery exists in existential timelessness musings, aesthetic perceptional outcomes of soul travel, emotional storms of irrational transmissions and therapeutic migrational paradigms of higher cosmic purpose, as well as profundities of divulgation. Just kidding! I make art to relax and take a vacation from a scary abrasive world.
I am no Leonardo Da Vinci, some of the stuff is… eh! not so good. I will show them all anyway.
For those of you who have stopped me in the street and sent me e-mails since the 1980’s when I first wrote this column, please forgive me for the unabashed self-promotion on its way.
I am having a retrospective art show, hopefully my last since it is a Herculean task, from May 27 to June 23 at Roost Studios & Art Gallery, located at 69 Main Street in New Paltz. There will be an opening reception on June 1 from 6 to 8 p.m.
All the above mentioned “works of art” will be on display, as well as dozens of more recent works.
I just completed a four-feet wide, three-feet high oil painting of six figures sitting at a table. It’s been five-and-a-half decades since the Holocaust painting. Somehow, by the grace of God, I have become more hopeful for the world at 73 than I was at 14. There are no black, white, yellow or brown people. Now that I know how to mix beautiful colors, the people are different tones of pastel turquoise, green, blue and lavender, unified not by color but intentions. A man is toasting the assemblage. The woman in the center is making the sign for “love.” A child with light in her face is looking upward and smiling.
When I begin a painting, I have no conscious narrative aim. What goes through my mind is hundreds of decisions based only on color and shape. After it is finished, framed and some time goes by, I see the message my subconscious is trying to tell me. “Have faith. We can all get along. Love each other and celebrate at table.” I believe in the message of the painting even after all the recent attacks worldwide on religious people and places. I have hope.