I am working on Masquerade from the setup which is in the distance beyond my painting, and also from a photograph that is on the easel to the left that has been blown up to be the same size as the canvas. This is a very detailed painting of two ceramic heads with sparkly masks on them. These figures represent my parents, in the amazing masquerade surrounding my birth, which was by artificial insemination. The Backstory is below for those of you who have the interest and time to read the story of my parents and their desire for a child.
This painting is built on the methods used by classical painters rather than my usual Impressionist approach. I placed a toned ground all over the painting, grey as a neutral tonal base. The idea is to then paint the parts that are red with an under painting of white, over which the red is painted. Red over the dark ground would be rather dull. You see here my initial construction of the forms and the red painted in a few places.
As the painting progresses the reds and blacks get painted in, constructed and painted over and over until the painting is finished. The detail of that figured cloth is a mind bender and has me totally exhausted. There is much more to come!
MASQUERADE The backstory
When I was 50 years old, my husband and I were living with
my mother on Mason’s Island, an island located in Fisher’s Island sound, near
Mystic, Connecticut. One evening I was in the kitchen and my mother came into
the room and standing the whole time, said she had something to tell me. I was
shocked to learn that my father, Arthur Roberts, was not my biologic father, as
he was, according to Mom, sterile, and in those pre-wartime years, having
children was your patriotic duty, and my mother desired a child more than
Evidently, there had been a previous attempt at sperm
donation that was aborted due to her life being endangered. I had heard about
that as a child, but not the part about sperm donation. I was told about that
because I pestered my mother about why I had no sisters or brothers, and I do
recall stories about a great sadness when my sibling was relegated to a lab
specimen to be studied. Certainly, there were many things that most parents
wouldn’t dream of sharing with their children and that was one of them. But my childhood was different, and I knew it even back then.
I asked Mom if she
had records, and she shook her head. No records, and her recollection about
where this sperm bank was located was hazy; New York City, Columbia University
she thought, or near there, or associated with.
She said that Oprah Winfrey said she should tell, and since
Mom was watching Oprah’s show most every afternoon during those years the
secret was outed. I have since learned that all sperm recipients were advised
to never tell anyone, as this was supposed to be protection for everyone
involved. Our society has come a long way since 1941, and it is no longer such
a horror show for people who desire a child and find that sperm donation is the
last resort. My mother told me she was going to leave an account of my origin
in her safe deposit box for me to find after she was dead. She was nervous and
anxious, and I wondered later if she was violating a signed agreement to never
disclose anything about this event. I assumed she felt enormous shame about all
Like other children who didn’t know until later in life, I
had odd feelings of alienation. As a small child, I fantasied that the stork
dropped me off in the wrong house. I never did form a real bond with my father,
although I respected him and later in life was grateful for all the
opportunities he afforded me. But I always felt that he never “got” me,
especially as we warred over my art desires, and he thought it was a nice hobby
but I was never encouraged by him to follow my heart. My mother told me that my
father, my grandmother, and she were the only ones who knew. Although I suspect
that there may have been some Philadelphia medical people who were in on it,
but that’s just supposition.
She had only vague recollections of where this procedure had
been done, and it was odd that she had gone to New York City, since the very
first artificial insemination was performed in Philadelphia, by a professor at
the Jefferson Medical College, where I was born some 50 years later. This was
achieved by William Pancoast, which was an odd coincidence since people by that
name lived up the street and I was an adorable flower girl in the Pancoast
daughter’s wedding. Odd, that one.
I was left with trying to figure out what all this was
meaning, using the Internet in 1991, which was not what it is today, for sure.
Not finding anything concrete, realized that if I wanted more records, or information
I’d have to hire a private investigator and that looked like a lot of money for
possibly no results. Recently I have found that back then they didn’t keep any
records at all, and so it was impossible to track records down, and sperm
donors were paid for their semen, and it was possible that clinics were small,
and not sperm banks as we know them today.
Dominoes fell into place for me that night. I said to my
mother, “so is that why you named me after one of Arthur Robert’s ancestors?”
Yes, indeed, and the masquerade was hyped to the hilt when we 3 made a
pilgrimage to Wales to the tiny village where my namesake was born. I have a
photo of me, at about age 22, holding this antique ledger book pointing to the
entry for Gainor John. Evidently, she, along with many other Gainors, migrated
to eastern Pennsylvania, thanks to the king’s grant to William Penn. I have
celebrated the choice of my name, after I got over wanting to be Susan or Judy!
I realized that night that I was distanced from Dad’s
relatives which I suppose is related to tribal bonds and associations. I never had a need to forge firm relationships with my
cousins although I did tell two of them about my origins and occasionally see one of my cousins.
So many questions? So, that’s why I don’t resemble any of
them, but Mom and I are lookalikes.
I didn’t feel the need for maintaining the secrecy of my
origins, except to continue to protect my mother, who I assumed was laboring
under extreme shame, rather than violation of a secrecy oath. I tried to get my
mother to talk about it again and she shut it off by saying she never wanted to
talk of it again. So, what to do. I told many of my friends, and one of them
called me one day asking to come visit me in my studio. Don arrived waving a
calendar of photographs of Albert Einstein, and he claimed to have studied his
life extensively and knew he was depositing sperm in banks and clinics in New
York City, and therefore I was Einstein’s daughter. I look like him, he said. Hahahahaha!
I laughed so hard. Me who could not add until I obtained one of the first
handheld calculators in high school. Never been far away from one ever since.
To me, it was all I needed to shut it all down. So, I was
Einstein’s daughter and that was enough for me to go on forever. It was a
bizarre and funny fantasy, that I told many of my friends to much mirth, and
probably some consternation, from some quarters. My feelings bordered on anger because
my mother did not want to hear me celebrating her courage for going through
such traumatic times, twice, just before the second war broke out. I was often
left with my grandmother during my toddler days, and “Granny” was my anchor
through many trying times to come. Later she moved to the remodeled carriage
house on the Chestnut Hill property, and she offered escape during the violent storms
in our house.
That night, 25 years ago, Mother told me that my father had
suffered a nervous breakdown and was in a “sanitarium” (what they called mental
hospitals back then), since this must have been hugely traumatic for him, and
honoring his Quaker religion, he registered as a conscientious objector which
was certainly not celebrated by most American patriots. He did many duties to
help the war effort, including airplane spotting, ambulance driving, and
walking the New Jersey beaches looking for German submarine sailors. I do not
know the details of his mental problems but he was scary, as he had a horrible
temper and frequently used it to abuse my mother. I lived in terror that they
would kill each other and lived through a childhood of nightly terrors until my
mother left him, only to be called back from her 20-mile escape to a motel
where she was found by her mother and my father. I was hysterical for hours,
indicating to them that their wars were mental torture for me. My father was an
attorney and during those years he worked for his uncle, where he found out
there were illegal activities in the firm, and I guess Dad had ethical problems
about how to handle that situation. I don’t know how that resolved, or if it
contributed to his mental state, but after I was born, sometime in the 40s he
went to work as general counsel for SKF Industries, where he remained for the
rest of his work life.
Several people suggested that I get a DNA test, but the
results, even a few years ago, would only give you your ethnicity, and some
genetic disease risks. And it was quite expensive.
Flash forward to March of 2017 and I am listening to a
friend in my AA meeting talking about her DNA results which had freaked her
out, finding a relative she didn’t know about. I told my meeting that night
about my genetic history and how I was actually Einstein’s daughter and
everyone cracked up. However, I also said out loud “maybe I should do a
painting about all this.”
Ideas for paintings often percolate in my mind for many
years, and sometimes they reside in my sub-conscious coming forth in dreams and
day dreams. One percolation was to do a painting using masquerade masks. I had
some black ceramic heads that I had used in another painting, and after a trip
to Pier One to look for masks I came home with two masks that I thought I could
do something with. Looking at them left me cold, and putting them on those
black ceramic heads left me colder. The whole thing went back onto my prop
shelf. It would come down when I needed to set up a new painting, thinking that
it might be time to paint those masks. No, cold again. Back up on the shelf
again. This went on several more times, and once again, this spring, they were
put on the table with the idea that I might do a still life of them.
Masquerade; I just couldn’t connect the dots. I left them there and after I
said, “maybe I should do a painting about this” the dots connected! Wow... now
I know what Masquerade is all about! Mom and Dad and the incredible dance they
did to birth me, keep it secret, and pretend about it all the way to Wales and
A few weeks later I ordered a saliva test kit from 23&me
to get my DNA checked.
And the result is that I am NOT Einstein’s daughter! Much to
everyone’s chagrin, including mine. The result of the DNA test showed me the
list of relatives, and a first cousin was the first on the list, with a name
that is not in our genealogic charts, and my ethnicity was listed as 51.7%
Jewish. Oh...my....God! I sent a message through the 23&me website to that
person who was listed as a first cousin and had a reply the next day from his
daughter. I’m not going to use their name, in respect for their privacy, as
this story is going to be on my blog. A few emails back and forth and I have a
photograph of the family that probably includes my donor father. All Jewish!
Wow... that explains a lot; my attraction to many Jewish friends, and weird
fantasies that I should visit a Temple to just see what goes on there. I find
this all extraordinary and incredible.
My mother and father were not overt bigots, but they did not
pal around with Jewish people, and when I brought home a few boys that had
Jewish names my father was very persuasive with me to discontinue that
association. I dated others when I was older and kept it secret from my father.
I am left with many more questions that can’t ever be
answered. I have no need to pursue my paternal family further, since it doesn’t
seem to make much difference in my life at this point, at age 75 when just
finding out these details is enough. But the charade, the masquerade my parents
lived is explosive in my heart. Very early in my young life, I was maybe 6 or7,
I had fantasies of committing “sewerside”, which had to do with jumping down
the storm drain on the street near my house, and finding something like an
Alice in Wonderland awaiting me. I felt that my parents would finally be
peaceful without me being around, as somehow I KNEW that I was the problem. I
guess because I spent hours listening to their arguments through the heating
grate in the bathroom down the hallway from my bedroom.
So, the masquerade masks are off now, and now I know I WAS
My painting is about the play of tangled love and weird
interpersonal relationships, where we all wear masks, some more horrible than
others. But masks are intended to hide behind, and in my life, there were
certainly some very big masks to be worn! I guess I grew up skewed, in some
way. I formed friendships with girls who had “safe” homes and spent many hours
with them. The truth of my birth does close many doors and open a few others. I
vacillate between thinking there is more to know and not being willing to spend
any more time on charts, census reports, and genetic history. I am willing to
spend time with my painting, and the Masquerade painting, which is in progress at
this point (June 13, 2017). I think it is the final door that I am either
opening or shutting, I don’t know which.
Yes, this is the final, as I decided to sign it and have my Thursday students witness my signature. Odd idea, as I've never had that idea before, and I doubt that I will have it again. But I knew I was going to sign it on Thursday, October 20, and that is the day my students come to my studio, so it seemed appropriate to have them see the end of this painting that they have lived with for all this time. I started to dismantle the set up in my studio later that day, and it will be odd to have all that stuff stowed, and returned to owners.
After six years of wrestling with "Shame" I decided to have a party to mark the end of that episode and many of my friends came and we dismantled the still life that evening. I contemplated doing that again, but it seemed to be more of an effort than fun, so I scrapped that thought as quickly as I had it, and settled on the quiet and easy end of Guilt as you see it above.
My last post was 3 months ago! I thought I was close to the end then, but all sorts of interruptions came between me and Guilt, so it had to wait for me to get those things done before I could come back to it. I have been working on it for quite a few sessions this month and I believe it is finished. I have not signed it yet, waiting for some last minute repaints to dry before I call it quits, just to make sure it doesn't need anything else. I was unhappy with the lace fabric on the left side of the painting, and it has required two repaints since the last post! But today I have just finished repainting those lace do-dads and think it is OK now. What a lot of effort that has been. Note to self: shoot me with that rifle if I decide to do black lace again!
this was two days ago when I tackled that lace again. In the background you can see Miss Puss asleep on the bed, and the photo blowup of Guilt against the wall and the 3-d set up of the paintings behind my head. I am working with a 20-0 brush. Insanity!
I will probably sign it tomorrow. I have a "rule" that after one of my paintings is signed it is done and I very seldom work on it again, so I need to make sure it is really done before I put my name on it.
I am pushing to get Guilt finished. This past week I have about 16 or 17 hours into it and I am happy to say that the end is in sight! Wow, what a lot of work, time, energy, focus, and eyestrain! I do have more details to finalize. It is just the finishing go-through of tweaking here and redoing there.
Work is progressing well! I spent Sunday working on the pink drapery coming out of the black suitcase and spent a lot of attention on the iridescent drape attached to the drawer handles. It is beginning to have a "finished" look to it now. Good... perhaps the end is in sight. I am ready to move on!
I have been concentrating on the left side of the painting working on items in the bookcase and finishing up a few of those bags and boxes. The paper bag on the floor is probably finished and the drawer handles are much improved, but not finished especially on the middle and right drawers. I worked on the black suitcase as well.
I did get a great deal of work done, but it is not immediately apparent. The bookcase is coming along and I painted on the red briefcase and the brown pocketbook on the middle shelf. The big thing I did was paint the drawers and I decided to paint out the drawer hardware and redo the handles. Each one was a different size and the drawing was not great. So I decided to cut a few stencils and I am hoping that will give me the handles in a uniform size. We shall see when I try it after the paint has dried. There is much more to do!
It doesn't look like I did much in the 5 hours I worked today! But the photo below shows that darned laced wrapped around the edge, and it is OK but not perfect. Well, none of it is perfect, and if you could see it close up you would know that it isn't photo-realism! I am now going through the entire painting again and wrapping up areas. Today I worked on the front of the table and the bookcase, on the left side where you can see that I toned down the highlight on the wood upright. The right side remains to be done another time. I also painted the box on top of the bookcase, and began to work on the brief case on the first shelf. Now, it is one item at a time, putting on more paint, working on values, and making sure the drawing is right.
It's not quite done....the lace, I mean, not the painting. I still have some touching up to do on the lace fabric on both sides, and I need to work on wrapping the image around to the sides. That's another exercise in tedium! It is coming along, slowly. I am now thinking about the next painting, and wondering how that's going to be accomplished. Much to think about, and software must be bought and learned before I can dive into that one's complexities. I still have much to do on Guilt, however, even though it looks quite well along. Now that the lace is done I feel somewhat relieved to go on about my way on the rest of it.
This represents about 6 or 7 hours of painting, not including the hours of preparatory work making a clear plastic overlay, then transferring that to the canvas. Obviously there will be 6 or 7 hours more painting, but I'm totally exhausted and I'm quitting for today.
This tedious exercise is one that I hope I don't do to myself too many more times! What you see is the lace fabric partially painted, after a lengthy transfer to the canvas using several transfer methods. On the left side I used Richeson Transfer paper that seems to disappear when painted over, but it is hard to see on a dark field so I use my own transfer paper that I learned to make in an Egg Tempera workshop. Pigment of any color mixed with Denatured Alcohol and painted onto tracing paper. Some colors are better than others, and what you see here is my own transfer paper made with a yellow ochre pigment. Sometimes I need to go over it with a yellow pastel pencil. It is, as I said.... tedious!!
My last post was quite awhile ago, but I have been working steadily on Guilt over the past months. It is very hard work, indeed, as the painting is physically large, and requires a bit of an effort to haul it around my studio. The work itself is also hard, as it requires incredible focus on my part to get everything right. The still life is still sitting in a corner of my studio, gathering dust, and it is an invaluable aid when checking values and colors. There is still a great deal of work to do, but it is finishing work, and so I feel that I am on the down-slope.
The tedious work has begun! It is now just about tweaking and refining, drawing and checking values. Then rechecking values, then searching for the right color in the huge collection of odd tubes I have in my paint drawers, and then reconstructing and improving the drawing as I go. I find that I work for about 3 or 4 hours and can't tell you what I did! It looks about the same as it did this morning. However, there has been much done on the painting since Thanksgiving, and I have to say that I am pleased with the progress. I wish I could work on it more consistently, but life has a way of commanding attention from a myriad of problems. And now Christmas looms with its associated parties and gatherings, all of which require food and some baking here and there. The good news, for me, is that Christmas is a painting day with my dear friend Carole Flagg, and that is always a joyous way to spend 3 hours. No gifts, no big dinners, no cooking, and no singing! YES!!!
I have worked on Guilt on and off for the past month and it is slowly coming along. It is very difficult work, as I get very tired working on this canvas. The subject matter doesn't help much, although I work to divorce myself from the feeling, and concentrate on the painting and technical aspects of looking at where the light falls, and the infinite details in a painting of this scale. I added one small item since I last posted, and it barely shows, but there is a pretty cross in the bookcase, on the bottom shelf, which I have lightly blocked in. I saw this in a sale rack and grabbed it up, as it seemed to resonate with GUILT, although I don't feel guilty about religious things any more, I can tell you tales of guilt that will make you laugh and cry at the same time. Anyway, I wanted to add that piece to the whole mix, but I also wanted it to be very subtle. Anyway, for what it's worth, this painting is coming along much better than I expected! Thankfully, on Thanksgiving!!!!
You can see that Guilt is coming along nicely. I have worked on it today and yesterday for about 9 or 10 hours total and I must say that I am exhausted and looking forward to a day away from the house tomorrow. It is very tedious work but I am really happy with what I have done so far. The canvas and the "good" paint I am using is such a treat. I generally work on canvas that is store-bought and nice, but not as nice as the elegant Belgium linen double oil primed canvas that I am using now. My usual paint is cheap! It is nice, and the colors are good, and it mixes pretty true, Soho from Jerry's Artarama, but for this painting I am using Winsor Newton, Rembrandt and a few Gamblin colors. There is a huge difference, especially in the drying times, as the Soho has been treated so it dries out very rapidly, and with these paints the drying times are vastly extended. Also, working over the burnt sienna toned ground gives the colors that are laid on top an optical mix that is very exciting, and nearly impossible to capture well in the camera.
I am a painter, working in oil, pastel, watercolor, egg tempera, and monotype. I love all art and artists. I have been doing art all my life and range around many subjects and types of art. Sometimes I have a lot to "say" and sometimes I'm just checking into shape and color. I need you because art is a two-way affair and without you, my viewer/audience, my efforts are only half done.