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SYMBOLISM IN PAINTING





When I was a kid my Great Aunt Hazel, my grandma's sister, had this awesome chair, I called it "the cage" it had lots of bars and it curled around and kind of locked me in when pushed up to the table. I'd always ask to be put into it and I could look out a window very similar to this as I sat at her table. I knew when I set up this painting that this was what I wanted to paint. The distant fall trees are how I remember them, the wood and trim are all from my memory. 


I got some daisies for reference. I wanted daisies because they're my mom's favorite flower and Mother's day was upon us when I started this one. I put them in an old kombucha bottle. Kombucha is basically vinegar, and Aunt Hazel's house smelled like vinegar because she pickled literally everything, so that seemed appropriate somehow. 


Hazel was sharp like vinegar and I'm not afraid to say she had a bit of a bite to her. We were all terrified of her, even my full-grown uncles grabbed their beers and moved slowly away, mumbling about things to do when they saw her station wagon coming, shooting up a rooster tail of dust. But she was our glue. More than a hundred years ago my great-grandfather built some cabins around a lake in northern Michigan and my family still spends summers there. But not like we used to. It's all kind of on life support now.


Hazel took care of it all and kept us all in line. Generations of us kids would run when we saw her coming because she'd put us to work watering trees, cleaning cottages, and painting things that already had 10,000 coats of paint. We were too young to realize what we had. She was a badass. She traveled around the world by herself in the 1920s. She was in Japan during the Kanto earthquake in 1923. She taught in the inner city of Detroit most of her life and was revered by her students. She never met a student that she couldn't teach to read. She was next-level tough. Now that I think about it she deserves a more fitting representation than a kombucha bottle. But on second thought, I think it's kind of simple and unassuming like she was. And in fairness, the alcohol kind of kombucha packs an unexpected punch. 


I honestly should've seen it at that point. The daisies = mom. The chair = me. The vinegar bottle = Aunt Hazel. But I didn't see grandma so I wasn't getting it yet. It took until the final brush strokes to dawn on me. And for me to realize that 3 women raised me if I'm honest, not one. 


So I just kept working, oblivious to this unconscious subtext. And to be honest I don't ever look for these unconscious things in my paintings or anyone else's but sometimes they just pop out. I think this time I just had the daisies in my mind as my mom's flower, everyone knows they're her favorite and that was always my chair when I was a baby and then it just happened. My unconscious mind placed everything and took over. Every once in a while it just happens with a painting.


I have this rough-hewned table top here that I made years ago that works great for these still-life surfaces. I painted it white so light bounces off it. I have tons of light-filled windows here that serve well for these setups. I set up the individual items on the tabletop to get the light and shadows accurate, but this one is painted from memory. I paint till it feels right. Till it feels like how I remember it. Even if I've never exactly been there. This is Hazel's kitchen but not exactly, it's like a dream of Hazel's kitchen. That's how a lot of these paintings are for me. If this was Hazel's kitchen I might've added the beautiful "standard height" cupboards my Uncle Bud built for her that were over her non-standard head. I always remember her up on a ladder getting a bowl.


I was busy focusing on the obvious "rules" or if not the rules of painting, the guidelines. There were quite a lot of tangents I was struggling with on this one. The water levels were lining up too perfectly, the levels of the bottoms of the glasses were even with each other, the tops of the glasses were crashing into the window ledges, that sort of thing, some paintings just fight like that. I was also focusing on how much to mute the distant trees so they felt far enough away and how much texture to give the window ledge to keep them interesting but not let them pull focus. Hard edges draw the eyes and flatten the painting. I love impressionism and seeing how far I can push the boundaries of realism. But sometimes the rules won't get you there and you have to go rogue. Hazel just turned over in her grave. She loved a good rule.


Then you've got to consider the narrative of the painting. My neighbor Tom stopped by and we had a chat about the story on this one and he was asking why not center the chair and the water glass? Why not make the sky a brighter blue? Well... tension, for one thing. Composition, for another. Narrative. Another. Color Perspective Accuracy is another. Too bright a blue and it'll flatten the painting in on itself, you want to try to keep the disance in the distance and that would've pulled it closer visually. A bright, blue sky can also darken it which could've weakened the composition. There's a lot to think about. But there's also the elephant in the room: Narrative. The color of the sky sets the tone of a painting.


We talked about the story for a while. Like where's the chair that's on this side of the table looking out the window? It's probably there, who has just one chair? Likely it's just out of our view. Whose water glass is that? Someone who's just come in from picking those flowers and they were hot and they set their glass down? Why is there only one chair and why is it there? So many possibilities. Life and art are so much more interesting if all of your expectations are not being met with what you expect. Symmetry and bright colors. Using Asymmetry, and color and light effectively you can tell a story and move the viewer throughout a painting and ideally keep them interested but it's all a lot to think about along with all of the technical things is what I'm saying. It gives your unconsious mind time to wander.


So the daisies were the focus, this was about Mom, it was Mother's day. But I didn't want any color that would pull focus away, so I thought maybe a glass of water. The first glass was all wrong. It was too short and heavy, it didn't have ice. It didn't feel "right" somehow. I made it thinner and moved it away from the Kombucha bottle a bit. That seemed to work. 


Grandma Fern was a thin, little, wisp of a thing and she and Hazel never got too close or they'd start arguing. Typical sisters a year apart. I added ice and then everything clicked. I think the ice was more of a design thing. It added visual interest and texture. I don't believe it is symbolic. Grandma wasn't cold, she was the family favorite. Always smiling, laughing. But she was German (Dutch, she'd say) she was emotionally distant my mom would say. Maybe there's something to the ice. Vinegar and ice water. Hazel and Fern. I don't know. If I had done it consciously I would've picked Sanka with half and half. But now I'm stuck decoding why my brain picked ice water.


We have this photo of my grandma that we took when I was in high school. She's got on plastic nose and glasses and she's laughing. She really was so funny. I remember when she got macular degeneration and couldn't see well she'd try to take family pictures at Christmas time and swing the camera wildly from side to side and tell us to yell when we thought she had us in the frame. Of course, we were laughing too hard to yell and the pictures were blurry with half of our heads cropped out and we were bent over crying with laughter. She knew she was being funny but she was deadpan straight as she was doing it.


She once "conned" a lady who wanted to donate a wheelchair to someone needy at a yard sale only to pop the trunk and find an enormous framed picture of Jesus staring out at her that my Aunt Carol Jean had purchased (unbeknownst to grandma) at the previous sale. But did our Savior's black velvet gaze move grandma to return the wheel chair? Nope. Jesus rode in the back seat with me, judging me by default, while the real criminal got off scot free and the wheel chair took his place in the trunk. We still laugh about the squawk she let out when she saw that painting staring out at her. None of us knew why she wanted it so badly but when we got back to the lake she gave it to her brother Charles, who actually needed it. I don't know why she didn't just tell the lady she wanted it for her brother instead of making up some crazy story about the little old lady across the street who was crippled. I think she thought she really needed to embellish. She wanted that chair and even the good lord wasn't gonna get in her way, Uncle Charlie was her favorite, Jesus would certainly understand.


She was so tough and strong, when mom got her a walker she used to carry the thing around, up off the ground, and wave it in the air, asking how do you use this thing? She was 4'10" and couldn't have weighed 90 lbs. My memories of her aren't at all cold but I think she went through some things in her life that took a lot of strength and that made her distant in a way. As the grandchild she raised, I might've been allowed closer than anyone, and I know this pained my mom, but grandma was still emotionally untouchable and guarded even to me. 


When I stepped back and looked at the finished painting I got tears in my eyes. I realized that I'd painted a Mother's Day painting more than I'd even meant to. All three of my moms were in there. For the first five years of my life, these three women raised me. 


My mother went back to school to get her Bachelor's degree when I was a baby so she could become a teacher. And then years later when I was in junior high, I watched my younger brother and helped make family meals so she could go back and get her Master's. She took me to class with her a few times. I got my BFA from the same University. 


My grandma and Aunt Hazel were the ones who raised me during those early years when mom went back to school. Both of them also have higher degrees so they encouraged her and supported her decision. My Aunt Hazel was one of the first women to graduate from the University of Michigan. My grandmother always worked and raised my mom on her own as a single mother in the 40s. I always knew that couldn't have been easy during World War II, and I took strength from her strength. 


I've always said that my still life is portraiture. That's how it feels to me. Sometimes it's a portrait of an object. It isn't always symbolic of people, but sometimes it is. This time it apparently is, even though I didn't plan it. My mother always says that she couldn't have done it without those two iconic women. And the way I accidentally represented all three of them here, and even myself as the chair in the shadows watching them, awed by them and frankly staying the hell out of their way, is so accurate it shocked me when I noticed it. I love it when that happens in my art. I remember, even as a child being inspired and empowered by them all. How could you not be?




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5 Comments


Guest
Jun 04

Jenny, your painting and its message(s) took my breath away. I was sorry to miss painting with you last winter but I'm counting on time together next year. Keep sending these wonderful artworks and comments.

Blessings,

Bonnie D.

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Guest
Jun 03

I love the way your mind works and miss your company. I hope our paths cross again soon. Michael

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Jenny
Jenny
Jun 03
Replying to

I miss you too! I promise I will come to happy hour one of these days soon. You really should swing by one of these days. We need to catch up!! ❤️

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You are not only a great painter, but a wonderful storyteller. We are all products of the strong women in our lives. Thank you for sharing this with us.

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Jenny
Jenny
Jun 03
Replying to

So true! Thank you for being one of the strong women in my life ❤️😘

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