Masquerade Oil on Linen 24 x 30
work in progress
June 13, 2017
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 anything.
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 this.
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 back.
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 the problem!
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.