Can You Keep a Woman’s Secret?

A woman's secret
“Detail from a Portrait of Jan” (can you find this woman’s secret?)

Self-Preservation in a Time of Misogyny:

While International Women’s Day honors the known as well as the unknown stories of those who have long kept a woman’s secret, I believe we honor ourselves when we honor our mothers and grandmothers, ancestors, and women of all races, creeds, and eras. Therefore, I’m not content to confine this activity to one day, or one month: it is a daily practice of awareness.

You may recall that the academic study of Women’s History began in the 1970s, during a time of change. Today, the rampant misogyny of this time frames a woman’s secret as, essentially, self-preservation.

Although some women prefer, or need to remain quiet, the fact is, women are powerful. We are smart. We take charge, we make art. We work around the blockages and blockheads that try to stop us. We fight, yes, and we criticize each other, but in the end, we stand and laugh together. We matter. We resist. We persist. We listen to each other and we create much more value than we’re given credit for.

The Secret of Art

Last week, I was experimenting with a photo-collage in my studio, and I created a self-portrait (Figure 2) from a slide I found in my mother’s archives (Figure 1). The slide captured a moment in her studio, circa 1982, when I was a grad student at the University of Pennsylvania, and she was painting my portrait.

a woman's secret
Figure 1: Archival slide from my mother’s studio, 1982.

 

a woman's secret, shared
Figure 2: Digital photo collage from my studio, 2017

Her studio held other portraits behind the work in progress. On the right, my arm and hands indicate a 1973 portrait “Jan in Blue,” painted before I moved 3,000 miles west. The lower left canvas shows a man’s sleeved arm, the start of a commissioned portrait for the Philadelphia Law Firm White and Williams.

Memory’s Secrets

I gasped when I stumbled upon this record of the ill-fated portrait, and recalled how pleased she had been when I moved ‘back home’ with a scholarship to Penn. We were happy to see each other after a decade apart, but then we promptly got on each other’s nerves. She was trying to quit smoking and drinking; I was on a perpetual diet and I missed California.

We kept secrets from ourselves and from each other. When I came upon this slide with the blank book on my lap and the glass of wine raised as if to toast a triumphant moment, I understood why she cropped me out. At the time, I was a project she likely planned to improve upon–her unfinished daughter. The pink cyclamen was perfect, pleasing, and complete.

She had composed the painting around me. Therefore, in her artist’s eye, I was the crowning element in a studio still life of blank canvases, fabrics, flowers and patterned papers. However, unlike the other elements, I was neither still, nor blank, and certainly not quiet.

A Woman’s Secret spawns a poem

The slide is the sole record of the original composition, since she finally gave up and cut me out, to save the image above. Titled, “Detail from a Portrait of Jan,” and included in the catalog, Alice Steer Wilson: LIGHT, PARTICULARLY, that painting hangs in my brother’s living room. I surprised him on a recent visit when I pointed out the wisp of hair curling around the edge of the stretcher, and on the side, the pink of my ear.

The image of this failed portrait inspired a poem (below), which is one of many I wrote as I combed through my mother’s studio and discovered forgotten stories.

Listen, Celebrate, and Cherish Each Woman’s Secret

My journey with my mother and with countless other mother-daughter stories gives me faith that we will continue to rise, speak, sing, paint, draw, write, protest, support one another, and persist regardless of waves of misogyny. We will protect our secrets until it’s safe to share them. We will bear witness and nurture peace by keeping stories for our daughters, nieces, and all stewards of women’s legacies until they can be received.

In honor of the volumes of Women's History yet to be discovered or written, let us listen,… Click To Tweet

Thank you for living your love, creating your beautiful stories, and keeping them safe and ripe for future generations.

You Have My Ear

What is the biggest obstacle you face in sharing, understanding or keeping your woman’s secret? I’d love to hear from you, so please comment below or reply right now!

Blessings,

Janice Wilson Stridick

 

 

Detail from a Portrait of Jan, Alice Steer Wilson, Oil on canvas, 25 x 15 in, 1984. Unsigned, stretched.

Still Life

           

Pink cyclamen bursts

from honey-brown basket

on undraped table angled

down right. Red diamond rice paper

lifts left corner, blue kaleidoscope

stands by linen-matted

laurel. A potted plant obscures

frames, more art. Chair rail

leads left, to the kitchen.

 

Lower right corner offers light

brown curl cradling pink hint

of ear—last inch of daughter—still

sitting. The rest cut away: no flowered

dress, no wine glass held aloft, no blank book

waiting to be written or read, no blank

face; all out with the trash.

Only her ear remains.

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Comments

  1. Denise Pereau says

    Hi Janice,
    Love the reflection and the poem, and I love how you continually mine your relationship with your mother to learn more about yourself while you strive to help others. You have inspired me to dig deep into my memories, oft times a painful journey, sometimes a joyous watershed, to address my own secrets. Secrets I kept from the woman I loved first, and most in life, and who I desperately wanted to please. I think secrets of childhood spring from that need between all children and their mothers, but especially between mothers and daughters. I hid things from her to avoid chastisement as a child, and as I sprang into the teenage years, I kept secrets from her to hide my shame. In adulthood, those devastating secrets were kept by me to protect her at a very high cost to me, which is another story. Not until she became widowed, did I finally have the nerve to fully divulge my secrets, with the help of a therapist, a catharsis that although liberating to a certain extent, fell flat when she denied knowing anything was wrong during my childhood. Proof that sharing a secret doesn’t always have the desired effect. I have been privileged over the years to have been the vessel for “secret shedding”, to hundreds of women as a stylist/make-up artist, walking miles in place while standing still behind my chair. I think they see me as unbiased when they begin to share, and as I continue to quietly listen, the floodgates open, sometimes accompanied by tears. Women take comfort in having someone to share with when they are far removed from consequence as we all do. Sometimes sharing with their mothers is not an option. And never will be. I’m glad I was able to share my secret with my mother. I’m glad we were able to move away from guilt and judgement, and to truly love as only a mother and daughter can love, by starting a new life chapter. Love you Janice…xxxooo

    • says

      Dear Denise,
      What a beautiful response; I am so glad my journey inspires yours. I hope you will continue mining your mother-daughter stories and writing about them, and I love the image of you behind the chair, “the vessel for ‘secret shedding’, to hundreds of women as a stylist/make-up artist, walking miles in place.” That is a poem in itself. You make art from all you encounter, and I’m excited to hear more from you! Blessings . . . xox Janice