Tag Archives: American Art

W- Andrew Newell Wyeth: Letters to Dead Artists…A-Z Challenge.

Welcome to my series of Letters to a Dead Artists, which I’ve put together for the 2018 Blogging A-Z April Challenge. For the past month, I’ve been steadily moving through the alphabet and after writing to Leonardo Da Vinci yesterday, today I’ll be writing to Andrew Newell Wyeth, an American realist painter.The music I have chosen to accompany Andrew Wyeth is Celtic Woman singing You Raise Me Up

Wyeth was born on July 12, 1917 in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and passed away at the age of 91 on January 16, 2009…a very long way from Sydney, Australia.

“I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape – the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.”

Andrew Newell Wyeth

Prior to setting out on this challenge, I had never heard of Andrew Newell Wyeth, and to be perfectly honest, I only found out about him on a Google search trying to fill up the vacant letters. It’s a problem I face every year, where I’m forced to leave something out because certain letters are bombarded with choice, and I’m left desperately scrambling to find anything for others. However, my criterion for choosing every single one of these artists, whether I knew them before, or whether  they popped up in the Great Google Lucky Dip, was that I needed to experience some kind of emotional, psychological and even spiritual connection. It couldn’t just be a case of: “She’ll be right mate”, or any artist will do.

As it turned out, Andrew Newell Wyeth’s iconic painting Christina’s World (1948), grabbed me by the throat and almost stopped me dead. This artist I had never ever heard of before, had never met, and lived on the other side of the world, had miraculously captured my suppressed, desperate, clawing frustration of battling against the muscle weakness brought on by dermatomyositis.

“To be interested solely in technique would be a very superficial thing to me. If I have an emotion, before I die, that’s deeper than any emotion that I’ve ever had, then I will paint a more powerful picture that will have nothing to do with just technique, but will go beyond it.”

Andrew Wyeth

When I first saw the house on top of the hill, and Christina groping her way up through the grass, I could feel her struggle in my own body. Yet, it didn’t occur to me straight away that Christina also had some form of muscle loss. Rather, I thought the painting simply portrayed human struggle, and that clawing desperation to make it up the top of the hill. Indeed, I felt a sort of chill or goose bumps, as soon as I saw the painting. There was that instant recognition of myself, and of course, it helped that I also have long dark hair and there could well have been quite a likeness once upon a time. Of course, it helps that he painted her with her back to the world and we can’t see her face.

Christina Olsen 1947.jpg

Andrew Wyeth, Christina Olden 1947

Indeed, seeing Christina’s World, I was swept into a horrific vortex of memory, reliving when I simply tripped over a broom at home.  Much to my surprise, I was literally swept into a blood-chilling nightmare, when I couldn’t get myself up again.

Rowena with kids Mt Wilga 2007.JPG

How the camera lies. An everyday photo of Mum and kids, except I was in Mt Wilga Rehbilitation Hospital and could barely walk or get myself up off the ground. That was just over ten years ago.

There I was a 36 year old Mum home alone with my two young kids. Mister was about three and a half and at an age where, like a scene out of Dead Poet’s Society, he’d climb up onto our back shed to get a better look at the “mountains”. He was somewhere when I fell, which usually meant mischief, danger or a combination of the two. Meanwhile, Miss was only 16 months old, and Mummy’s little shadow. However, that also meant that when I fell, I knocked her over on the way down. She was crying and this was no ordinary cry either but had that same chilling sensation of fingernails scraping down a chalkboard, which travels right under your skin. Of course, I’d normally pick her straight up. Comfort her. Kiss it better. However, I was weighed down like a sack of lead potatoes, and couldn’t move at all to reach her and just had her cry in my ear.

Instead, there I was lying face down on the tiles and couldn’t get up. Moreover, at this point of time, I didn’t have a name for the horrific monster which had invaded my body and my bloodstream. Not having a diagnosis, in a way, meant that it didn’t exist and that I was just “tired”. It was just part of being a Mum with very young kids… having a baby. Sleep deprivation and utter exhaustion are par for the course, aren’t they? However, this was different…something nasty, sinister, a monster.  While I hurt my knee in the fall, why couldn’t I get up? For somebody with normal mobility, this was so surreal and strange. Quite unlike the sort of panic that comes, when you can’t feel your legs. As far as I was concerned, there was no reason I couldn’t get up. I was just tired, rundown although there was something funny going on with my blood tests. Eventually, I was able to lift myself onto my bottom and I shuffled into the kitchen. For once, the cordless phone was there when I needed it and I rang my husband who was at work a two hour train trip away. Clearly, he couldn’t just pop home and magically save the day. Meanwhile, my call filled him with a sense of dread, absolute powerlessness and horror. Clearly I was very unwell and needed immediate help, and he couldn’t do a thing. In fact, I don’t think either of us even considered calling an ambulance. That was for emergencies and I’d just simply fallen over…

All he could suggest was levering myself up with a chair and that worked. It took a further six weeks for me to finally receive a diagnosis and then I was in a combination of hospital and rehab for about 8 weeks.

“There’s a quote from Hamlet that is my guide… He tells the players not to exaggerate but to hold a mirror up to nature. Don’t overdo it, don’t underdo it. Do it just on the line.”

Andrew Wyeth

So, while it was sensational to find Christina’s World and to see my struggles depicted and represented on canvas, there was also an enormous sense of sadness. You see, like Christina, despite pushing myself beyond breaking point so many, many times, I still haven’t made it to the top of the hill. I haven’t made it home. Not only am I adrift, but there’s also that intense frustration better known as angst where I can see where I want to go. Where I’m meant to be. Yet, I’m constantly clawing through the mud and getting nowhere.

“I do an awful lot of thinking and dreaming about things in the past and the future-the timelessness of the rocks and the hills-all the people who have existed there. I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape-the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.”

Andrew Wyeth

Yet, ironically there is also great strength in persevering through weakness. Indeed, there’s that old adage: “what doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger”. That’s so true and these days they’ve even called this fighting comeback…resilience. Indeed, resilience is now considered one of the key ingredients for getting through life. So, for those of us who received more than their allocated glass and a half, we must be powering all the way to the moon. Well, if only we could make up that darn hill.

By the way, after spilling my guts about how Christina’s World touched me so personally, I had to laugh as these prophetic words of Andrew Wyeth’s:

“I get letters from people about my work. The thing that pleases me most is that my work touches their feelings. In fact, they don’t talk about the paintings. They end up telling me the story of their life or how their father died.”

Andrew Wyeth

I guess it’s not surprising that Wyatt knew and had experience intensive suffering and loss himself. In 1945, Wyeth’s father and his three-year-old nephew were killed near their home, when his car stalled on railroad tracks and was struck by a train. Wyeth has often referred to his father’s death as a formative emotional event in his artistic career. Shortly following the tragedy, Wyeth’s art consolidated into his mature and enduring style, characterized by a subdued colour palette, highly realistic renderings, and the depiction of emotionally charged symbolic objects[1].

Christina’s World was painted a year after his father’s death.

Although this introduction is very rushed and feeling incomplete and inadequate, I’m going to get moving and start writing my letter to Andrew Wyeth.

A Letter to Andrew Wyeth

Dear Andrew,

For the last month, I’ve been trying on the shoes of so many artists and tried to see the world through their eyes, before I take a huge, audacious step and actually write them a letter. As much as it’s been a lot of fun in a heavy research searching for the meaning of life kind of way, it’s also been very challenging, especially as it seems that almost every artist without exception, has experience incredible suffering. I don’t know whether it’s this understanding and empathy with suffering, which has given their paintings added depth and emotional insight, but there’s definitely that common thread.

Do you think artists suffer more than others, and their grief inspires their art? Or, does their art become more of an antidote, a way of releasing the anguish trapped inside?

I have asked God myself why there’s so much suffering, especially at one point where I felt he’d channelled centuries of wrath in my direction and afflicted me with the dermatomyositis. However, ever faithful, he replied and said: “if it’s good enough for me, it’s good enough for you.” I didn’t challenge him on that front again. He’d made his point.

Anyway, I’d like to thank you for giving us Christina’s World. While everybody who sees the painting could well have their own interpretation, her story obviously has a very personal connection for me. Trying to get up hills is particularly hard for me these days. Not so much due to the muscle weakness but due to the associated problems I have with my lungs, which are currently not much over 50% capacity. I don’t know why I’m telling you all this, but you seem like the sort of people I could simply talk to. That you care. That no one’s experiences or struggles are too small or insignificant. Each of us matters.

Before I head off, I’ve enclosed some leftover egg yolks, which I thought you could use to make up your tempura paint. I made a pavlova yesterday and I hate wasting the left over yolks. By the way, I’ve attached my recipe for Betsy. I understand she made a lot of meringues in her time.

Best wishes,

Rowena

wind-from-the-sea

Andrew Wyeth: Wind From the Sea.

A Letter From Andrew Wyeth

Dear Rowena,

Thank you so much for your letter and the egg yolks. I’ve already started on a painting. This one depicts Andy Warhol’s reaction when I received your letter and he missed out. Dad, ever out to compete and do things bigger, bolder, brighter has splashed oils all over the biggest canvas in stock. Mine is more subdued, but you’ll have to wait.

I was rather taken aback to read that you have lung troubles, my friend. You see, I had lung troubles from a very young age and even had one of my lungs removed and the other one wasn’t that good either. So, I was living on less than half a tank never expecting to grow up, make it through middle age and it was the most confusing things after being so terribly ill, to actually see most of my friends pass away before me like Autumn leaves.

So, my friend, there is hope for you yet.

Sorry, I forgot to thank you for the Pavlova recipe. Betsy loved it and everyone’s grateful for a change to meringues!

Best wishes,

Andrew.

By the way, I highly recommend Dan Schneider’s Video interview with three experts on Andrew Wyeth:

 

[1] http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h3707.html

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3374451/

https://curiator.com/art/andrew-wyeth/trodden-weed

 

O- Georgia O’Keeffe: Letters to Dead Artists…A-Z Challenge

“I hate flowers – I paint them because they’re cheaper than models and they don’t move.”
Georgia O’Keeffe in Laurie Lisle, Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keeffe, 1981

As you may be aware, I am currently taking part in the Blogging A-Z April Challenge, and my theme this year is: Writing Letters to Dead Artists. The overall concept is to explore the artists who have touched me through a particular work and then pose them a question. They then send me a reply, and even I’ve been surprised by what they’ve come back with, because much of it has been news to me. So, you can make of that what you will.

Today, I’ll be writing to American artist, Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), who has taken me beyond the bustling streets of New York and up into its iconic, soaring skyscrapers which she loved to paint from the ground looking up like teeny Jack staring up at the Giant. I have never been to New York, and yet I’ve sung and danced to the song with absolute gusto  to a band called Paris Dumper at The Nag’s Head, an English-style pub in Sydney’s Glebe. It was always their closing song, and an electric end to a great night out.

So, Frank Sinatra’s New York. New York is the ideal musical accompaniment today.

Please excuse my ignorance, but I only stumbled across Georgia O’Keeffe two weeks ago when I was desperately hunting down dead artists to fill vacant letters of the alphabet for this challenge. I feel a little remiss in not getting to know her sooner. However, my justification is that I’m Australian, and art seems to be a bit of a nationalistic thing. We don’t always get exposed to artists from other countries. Moreover, my poor, overstretched brain also has its limits. You can’t know everyone. That said, one of the things I love about writing, is how my limits are continuously stretching and expanding, hungrily devouring fodder like a starving teen fueling a growth spurt.

Poppy Untitled 1970 oil

Georgia O’Keeffe Untitled 1970 oil.

 

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) has been described as “the mother of American modernism”. Yet, within this framework, her subject matter is quite diverse. Indeed, there’s so much more to her, than just her infamous, flower portraits. A few nights ago, I was stoked to stumble across her series of New York Skyscrapers 1925-29. These were painted while she and her famous photographer husband, Alfred Stieglitz, were living in a 30th floor apartment in the Shelton Hotel, one of New York’s first residential skyscrapers. It had a gobsmacking view across the city, and they really were living and breathing the New York vibe. In 1929, O’Keeffe made her first trip to New Mexico, where she made love to the rugged, arid landscape, and it soon became an integral part of herself. After her Stieglitz’s death in 1946, she moved to Abiquiu full-time. She lived there until her final few years, when she moved to Santa Fe where she died on the 6th March, 1986.

“When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else. Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not.”

-Georgia O’Keeffe

That’s the condensed version. You see, I’m keen to continue on our travels, focusing more upon the road less travelled, than regurgitating biographical facts. Indeed, I’m much more interested in getting to know Georgia O’Keeffe the woman instead. I never expected this to be easy. However, when I scratched the surface, she burst into a thousand pieces, which have been very hard to put into any kind of order or structure to create a cohesive portrait. I shouldn’t be surprised, but it would’ve been much less work and mental angst, if she could’ve stayed between the lines.

No discussion of Georgia O’Keeffe is complete without mentioning her husband…the famous photographer, Alfred Stieglitz, who gave O’Keeffe her big break.

Georgia O'Keeffe New York Night

Georgia O’Keeffe, New York Night 1929. I have always marvelled at this little boxes of light through the darkness, signalling somebody’s home and wondered who is there, what they are doing. each box is like an illuminated mystery.

Stieglitz created and managed New York City’s internationally famous 291 Gallery located at 291 Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. While Stieglitz was at the forefront of photography, he also introduced some of the most avant-garde European artists of the time to the United States. These included:  Henri Matisse, Auguste Rodin, Henri Rousseau, Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, Constantin Brâncuși, and the Dadaists Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp. This was clearly a man who knew his art. Knew his artists, and was very well connected.

Radiator Building-Night NY 1927

In early 1916, Anita Pollitzer, a friend of O’Keeffe’s, showed Stieglitz a series of her highly innovative charcoal abstractions. He found them to be the “purest, finest, sincerest things that had entered 291 in a long while”. In April 1916, Stieglitz exhibited ten of her drawings at 291 without her knowledge. At his request, she moved to New York in 1918 and their professional relationship soon became personal. She was 28 at the time and he was 52. She also became his photographic muse. In 1924, after he’d divorced his wife, they were married. O’Keeffe and Stieglitz were prolific letter writers and exchanged around 25,000 pieces of paper between them…a mind-boggling volume of correspondence, which covered the highs and lows of their relationship.

At this point, perhaps it’s pertinent to mention O’Keeffe’s battles with mental health issues, which were exacerbated by her husband’s affair with Dorothy Norman, who he called ”Dorothy-child.” Yet, despite this apparent confidence, apparently she experienced anxiety all her life. Yet, instead of making it her prison, she went on and did what she wanted to do regardless.

“I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life – and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.”

Georgia O’Keeffe

Indeed, I wonder whether she might’ve known Dorothy Parker’s poem: Resume written in 1928:

 

Razors pain you;

Rivers are damp;

Acids stain you;

And drugs cause cramp.

Guns aren’t lawful;

Nooses give;

Gas smells awful;

You might as well live.

I tend to feel this earlier O’Keeffe is almost a complete contrast to the fiercely independent, tenacious woman she became in later life, even before her husband’s death. Indeed, I can almost hear her singing from her grave: I Did It My Way.

georgia-okeeffe with her car

This freedom could best be symbolized by her car, which she adapted into a mobile studio and was a critical necessity for her trips to and from New Mexico. As Carolyn Kastner, curator of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum explained:

“She would remove the driver’s seat. Then she would unbolt the passenger seat, turn it around to face the back seat. Then she would lay the canvas on the back seat as an easel and paint inside her Model-A Ford.[1]

After all, the heat in New Mexico was intense and she’d paint with the windows down, until the bees became a nuisance and she’d wind them up until the heat became too much and she headed home.

Georgia O'Keeffe Painting in her car at Ghost Ranch New Mexico

Georgia O’Keeffe painting in her car studio at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico.

 

As much as I don’t really like driving, it does provide that sense of freedom, which can really only be surpassed by learning to fly. There’s a huge part of me, which would love to jump in the car and escape somewhere and immerse myself in my writing, photography and possibly even paint. Indeed, playing my violin somewhere out in the middle of Australia’s Nullarbor Desert has a strange appeal, although my preferred escape has been driving a Kombi up to Byron Bay and going for a surf. The fact that I can’t surf or drive a Kombi has done nothing to dampen this dream, although now that the kids are getting older and my health isn’t quite so dire, it’s been awhile since I’ve been indulging in some Kombi dreaming.

I’m sure many of us indulge in some form of escapism, and I guess that’s where TV can take you on a thousand journeys without even leaving your chair. That ease of entertainment, I guess is something to watch out for. Living vicariously through a screen is a poor substitute for living and going on real life adventures of your own, instead of living through someone else.

Speaking of living, I’d better get on with this letter to Georgia O’Keeffe.

Envelope to Georgia O'Keeffe

 

A Letter to Georgia O’Keeffe

Dear Georgia,

A few short week’s ago, I’d barely heard of you, and yet now I’m in raptures. Not just with your paintings, especially your New York Skyscraper series, but with you as a person who was such a strident individual with your own ideas, and yet there was also your marriage to Alfred, with it’s 2500 pieces of paper, the photographs, his affair and then how he didn’t want to sell your paintings. He wanted to keep them all for himself. I’d also love to pile into your Model T with you and drive from New York to New Mexico. I’ve never ever been to America, but there’s something about America and the big road trip which has a certain magic and reminds me of my many trips across Australia’s Nullarbor Plain on my travels between Sydney and Perth. I’d better warn you though. I hope you like having plenty of stops, because I’ve never been an A-B traveller. I always have to stop.

Well, that assumes that I’d be driving the car, which is probably very doubtful. Something tells me that you wouldn’t hand over the keys to your beloved studio on wheels under any circumstances. That said, I think your eyesight started failing later in life so perhaps I would be driving after all.

Georgia, you’re such a woman of contrasts, that it’s hard for me to get my head around the seismic shifts in your works. While my personal favourites hail from your New York Skyscraper Series, my question relates more to the contrast between your mesmerizingly beautiful flower paintings, and the desolate bone paintings who carried out at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico. There’s such a gulf between the two. Could you please explain?!!

There’s so much more I could ask you, but this might well be the beginning of our own series of 2,500 pieces of paper. You never know. I have a hell of a lot of questions and who knows, perhaps you might just have a few of the answers.

By the way, did you happen to meet up with Australian artist, Sidney Nolan? I wrote to him yesterday. While I focused on his Ned Kelly Series, about an Australian bushranger, he also did a series set in the Australian outback about doomed Australian explorers, Burke and Wills. I think the two of you should go on a long car trip together and see what you can come up with. You might even what to take along his mate, Russell Drysdale and author Patrick White, although the last I heard Nolan and White had a falling out. However, one hopes those petty earthly squabbles would all get ironed out somewhere along the between heaven and Earth.

Best wishes,

Rowena

A Reply From Georgia O’Keeffe

Dear Rowena,

Thank you so much for your energetic letter. I could sense your uncontained enthusiasm in each and every word. Indeed, your unstoppable energy reminded me of myself. No doubt, you also have something of my nervous energy, which was a positive negative force throughout my entire life. It drove me forward. I wouldn’t let it hold me back, but there were those times it overwhelmed me like a wave and swept me under.

Sometimes, I wonder if people don'[t have anything better to do than make up fantastic Freudian interpretations of my paintings, when my thinking was very practical. I painted flowers simply because they were there. They were cheaper than models and they don’t move. Quite frankly, I don’t know how my husband coped handled all those models. Sorry, I wasn’t going to go there. We both know what happened with that wretched Dorothy woman, although more than one of my so-called friends told me I’d got my comeuppance.  You don’t always think of that when you’re a young woman caught up in the throws of passion and you have this incredible, world famous photographer falling at your feet. I was just a girl from a wheat farm in Wisconsin, who was dazzled by the bright lights. That’s all.

Anyway, getting back to my paintings of the animal bones, it was the same as the flowers. The bones were scattered across the landscape and I gathered up a barrel of bones and took them home. This was around the time that they were hell bent on finding the greatest American novel, the greatest American play. Indeed, Superman was created in 1938. America was looking for heroes. This was my cheeky contribution to the quest. You’ll notice the red, white and blue of the Stars and Stripes in the painting.

You see, abstract works aren’t always so cryptic as you might think, and I encourage you to release your inhibitions and preconceived ideas and explore more abstract works for yourself. Find your own meaning, if you must. Or, simply enjoy them for what they are.

By the way, I heard you gave up on art as a child because you couldn’t draw your dog. What a pity. No one should ever give up painting, drawing and expressing their inner world through art. It’s just like dancing, which I’ve heard you’ve embraced now that you’re almost 50 and battling this dermatowhatwhat disease. I don’t mean to be unsympathetic, but why do they give these rare diseases such long unpronounceable names? Humph…dermatowhat what…ther’s subject for an abstract work. How would you paint it?

See, I got you back with a tough question of my own!

Best wishes,

Georgia.

PS Rowena, you don’t need a Kombi to go off the grid and you don’t need to drive to the end of the Earth either. You live in such an inspirational part of the world, surrounded by beaches, the ocean but also the bush. Don’t tell me you have nothing to paint!

Sources & Further Reading

[1] https://www.c-span.org/video/?310650-1/life-artwork-georgia-okeeffe

Wikipaedia

The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

https://www.biography.com/people/georgia-okeeffe-9427684

http://artreport.com/exploring-mental-health-through-art/

Georgia O’Keeffe Exhibition at Tate Modern

I Isabel Bishop…Letters to Dead Artists, A-Z Challenge.

Welcome to the Letter I! As you may be aware, my theme for the 2018 Blogging A-Z Challenge is Writing Letters to Dead Artists.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t come up with an artist starting with “I”. So, I had to hit the pavement. Go out on the prowl and pick one up. Since no one was throwing a party, I was back to my old friend Google, who never fails to deliver “something”.

Initially, I was going to write to Australian artist,  Jean Isherwood, who painted a series honouring Dorothea McKellar’s iconic poem My Country. However, since most of my readers are from overseas, I decided to look further afield. Finally, I stumbled across American artist, Isabel Bishop, and let’s just say there was a spark across a crowded room. She’ll be accompanied by Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5

What initially attracted me to Isabel Bishop’s works, was her paintings of young office women in New York’s Union Square. Although they’re clearly from a different era, they reminded me of myself as a young woman working as a marketing professional in Sydney’s CBD. When I look at her Young Woman 1937, there’s real determination in her eyes. She’s heading somewhere. I also felt myself drawn into Tidying Up and could well imagine myself looking in a mirror and touching up my lipstick on my way to a meeting, or heading out for Friday night drinks. Yes, these people were very familiar.

Isobel Bishop Tidying Up Indianapolis Museum of Art

Isabel Bishop, Tidying Up, Indianapolis Museum of Art Collection

Moreover, I’ve also walked through crowded city streets. Squeezed onto over-crowded trains. While I’ve never been to New York, in so many ways, these scenes are even more familiar to me and my world than scenes of the Australian outback. I know what it is to be caught up in the rush of a thousand feet. Indeed, when I was in Sydney with my daughter the other day, I was taking photos as we walked through Central Station Tunnel. It’s a very long pedestrian tunnel and like Union Square, hosts such a menagerie of life…buskers, beggars, the homeless, vendors selling The Big Issue… There’s also that same sense of movement, which preoccupied her work. It’s a movement which I find a little scary, because it seemingly has a life of its own. You’re being pulled along or sucked through this tunnel, and there’s this suction you can’t escape. That if you fell, which for me is quite a possibility and indeed, I was using my walking stick, I’d be trampled underfoot and  disappear…a modern casualty.

Not that Isobel Bishop, portrays the subway in this way. That’s just the horrors of my own over-anxious, catastrophizing imagination and I won’t even blame the movies.

Anyway, I wasn’t satisfied with a fleeting superficial introduction. I had to delve deeper. Find out what made her tick…and tock. What was she thinking? What was important to her?

I read a few bios, but there were no quotes and no real sense of the woman behind the canvas. Then, I fortunately stumbled across an aural history interview from 1959. Yet, although this interview spanned 25 pages, there was only one anecdote which stood out:

ISABEL BISHOP: Well, for an anecdote — this is a silly thing that happened a long time ago. It hasn’t great significance, but it was rather shocking to me. I had gone to Union Square where I had been for years of making little pen drawings because I found them so refreshing to me, and I was doing this and a drunk who was next to me said something which I didn’t answer. I simply went on drawing, whereupon he got up and collected a mob, and this was a most appalling thing because I had been drawing over there and he went and got this man and others and they surrounded me like this and he said, “What do you mean by drawing my picture?” And I and he pulled my book, and his hostile crowd gathered around me, and he said, “She sells them to ‘Life’ magazine.” And I told them no, and there was no use arguing with them. They really were very hostile. So I tore the page out and gave it to him and rescued the book just simply for the sake of my own sense of things and progressed slowly toward the edge of the park. I posted myself by the side of a bench where a neat-looking man was sitting, and I began sketching again because I felt that this is my square, and if I simply shrivel — I mean I’d be routed and it would be no longer my square. This is an issue of the greatest importance. So I drew again with these people hovering around and saying , . Whereupon this man I was counting on, you know, to stand by me, got up and joined them, and “What does she mean? Let’s run her out of the square. What is she? Is she the capitalist or something equally obnoxious?” So I did leave the square and approached a policeman nearby and said, “These people have prevented me from drawing in the square.” And he said, “Do you have to draw in the square?” And he wouldn’t come back with me or do anything about it. So I felt deeply hurt and, though I still live there, I don’t draw as much in the square for it just simply hurt my feelings.

HENRIETTA MOORE: That’s why you went underground?

ISABEL BISHOP: That’s right. I was driven underground. I find no one watches me at all. I draw down there and nobody notices me. 1″

I’m not sure how much this reveals about Isobel Bishop the person, but it was a good story. It provides something of her, the artist behind, or perhaps I should say, in front of the canvas.

One last thing I wanted to mention, is that Isabel Bishop was married to a neurologist. That was quite a red flag to me. If you’ve been reading through this series or following Beyond the Flow, you might recall that I live with the neurological condition, hydrocephalus, or fluid on the brain. It was only diagnosed when I was around 27 and despite having an Honours degree from the University of Sydney, my mental capacity plummeted on just about every front…memory, movement, personality the works. The ambitious, career-focused young woman was dead in the water and I never really came back. Sure, I had surgery and they put in a shunt to drain away the fluid and reduce the pressure (my head must’ve been something of a pressure cooker with stew spitting out my ears beforehand.) However, I was different. As soon as I woke up, I knew someone had turned down the volume. I don’t think about this very often. The wound is still so raw, that if I even touched it with my pinky, I’m know there’d be a never-ending scream. Yet, life goes on. I became someone else. Paradoxically, in many ways, I was allowed to become myself. After all,  I really am more of a writer and creative than a business soul. Pursuing that almighty career, had cut me off from all of that.

Anyway, without any further ado, here’s my letter to Isabel Bishop…

Letter to Isabel Bishop

Dear Isabel,

A few nights ago, I stumbled across your work online, and was touched by your portrayals of young office girls and how you brought them to life. Indeed, you took women out of the home and opened their horizons back at time when the world was just opening up.

Thanks to these trailblazers, women like myself could launch themselves into the business world without a second thought. Well, as it turned out, there was a second thought further down the track, as we tried to launch through that invisible glass ceiling. Important principles of gender equality, like Equal Pay are still a dream.

What is wrong with the place? How can what’s between your legs determine your pay packet and your trajectory up the corporate ladder, instead of what’s between your ears and how hard you work? You don’t hear much about this anymore but occasionally the ripples rise up into a wave, and actually make it onto the news.

However, this is not my battle anymore. I’m just trying to make it out the front door. Have a coffee with a friend. Actually, seeing my friends has also become something of a pipe dream. We bump into each other somewhere for a passing chat, but who has time? Who can find a mutually vacant hole in the uber-busy schedule? How I’d love to stand around and chat to my friends like the young women in your paintings, especially without someone telling me to hurry up and putting me down for talking too much. Is it asking too much to borrow ten minutes from “mother time” to be myself?

Humph. I had no idea I was going to share all that with you. It just came out…an impromptu rant. I’m sorry, but I won’t delete it. Cover up my longings like you might paint over a mistake. I wrote it. It’s out. Let those thoughts have their own life, and see what comes back. Not everything is meant to be covered up or painted over.

By the way, I’d love to spend a week sitting with you in Union Square. I’ve never been there, or even to America but I’d love to see it through your eyes and hear more stories. Not just about what it was to paint, but also to be there. Absorb it all like breathing…in through your eyes, and out through your pen and brush. How incredible!

Warm regards,

Rowena

PS Thought you might like to hear this again: Frank Sinatra: New York!

Letter From Isabel Bishop

Dear Rowena,

Each person has their own patch of ground…their own road to walk. Not that I’m suggesting that we’re islands, but you can only ever be yourself. That’s like a symphony with so many different notes and instruments coming together, that often it becomes a cacophony, and not a song. That’s okay. We often make noise, before we find our song.

Don’t be so hard on yourself! It just takes some of us longer than others. You’ve had some pretty monstrous challenges, and yet you minimise how far you’ve come. Try to be the violinist or the dancer who has conquered the odds. Yet your capacity to write and express the challenges of the human soul, didn’t pop out of a box of Cornflakes. You made that happen. No one else.

Just because you haven’t finished that book yet, don’t put yourself down. You’re still finding your words, and getting closer every day. Your time is just around the corner. I can sense it. Indeed, you should go and get one of your notebooks and etch your name on the spine. Feel what it is to have your very own book. Feel it in your gut, your soul, in every part of your being. Only then, will you have enough faith to make it happen.

Good luck.

Best wishes,

Isabel.

PS Stick this photo montage up on your wall. Have faith!

Sources

1 https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-isabel-bishop-12431

http://www.phillipscollection.org/research/american_art/bios/bishop-bio.htm