Volume XXVII Number 2
About 100 years ago, my grandmother was a painter.
I know this because I grew up with some of her works hanging on the walls of our home. There were three of them: the eager face of a shepherd dog from her grandfather’s Nebraska farm, a wild river rushing over rocks beneath tall Colorado evergreens, and a majestic fully antlered moose, splashing in a mountain stream. The canvases seemed textured, thick with oil paint, the colors mostly muted. But I remember the dog’s face glowing with a certain light, the river’s spray frothing between the trees, the moose’s hoof poised, ready to take a step.
My grandmother’s paintings are lovely and skillful; not long ago, a collector praised their excellent brushwork and sense of space. As a girl and young woman in the early 1900s, she must have practiced her talent often, but the dog, the river, and the moose are the only paintings that remain. When she married, my grandmother turned herself to weathering World War I, supporting her soldier-husband and five brothers overseas. She taught, sold encyclopedias, worked on military pension claims, but no painting. She simply put away her brushes and stopped.
Pablo Picasso once said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” What does it take, not to be an artist, but to stay one? Talent, discipline, commitment? Courage and dedication? My grandmother surely had these. The luxuries of opportunity and time? Inspiration? The stomach for self-exposure? Obsession, perhaps? Pain and suffering? An ability to live with failure?
The question is unanswerable, of course. What makes an artist stay an artist is just as complex—moreso, really—as what makes her an artist in the first place. Who knows why my grandmother stopped painting: she never talked about her art. She was a woman of strict standards—maybe “artist” was too eccentric an occupation for a married woman of her time. Maybe painting seemed frivolous to her in the face of the first World War. We found her dog painting unframed in a basement, and she signed only one of the paintings we have left—maybe she didn’t think very much of her own work. Maybe she just didn’t think of herself as an artist.
But I do. When my young daughters show me their latest creations for class projects or school shows, I praise their handiwork and tell them: “You know, your great-grandmother was an artist.”—L.B.