Fifteen years ago, Saturday, my mother began painting a large oil portrait of me. That may sound unremarkable, since she was a painter and I am her daughter, but it was highly charged for two reasons: I was busy, healthy, and I hate to sit for portraits. She was weak, breathless, dying of breast cancer, and she had never been satisfied with any of the previous portraits she’d attempted of me.
In her home, and my sibling’s homes, there were plenty of portraits of the rest of the family. Her walls, and the walls of many collectors boasted wonderful images that included the figure of my father, reading. But for reasons I can only guess at, my mother and I were unable to complete this transaction. She had often attempted to paint my portrait, and I sat to allow her to do so, but the results always failed to please her. Most of the time, the cause was a mystery to me.
Now that she’s been gone almost fourteen years, I have framed and hung a number of those unsigned portraits. I love they way they capture the stages of a daughter’s life. I see in them the vulnerability and promise my mother saw in me, and the ways she may have feared for me. Finding these images in her studio as part of my curatorial process made the job slower and more painful than I ever dreamed it could be. I turned to poetry, and finished a book’s worth of meditations on the mother-daughter struggles to define and to let go.
As I prepared to open this exhibit of my mother’s “pretty diary” of Cape May, I expected to feel complete, but I don’t. Yesterday, my brother offered to bring a gorgeous oil portrait of himself that she painted in the 1970s, and I replied, “No thanks, this is a Cape May show.” But I was puzzled by his offer, and worried – have I left my siblings out, the way I felt left out of my mother’s exhibited works?
Art critic Anne Fabbri emailed that she looked forward to seeing the “breadth and depth” of my mother’s creativity. I corrected her, “This is a Cape May show, it doesn’t include her portraits or still life.”
She responded, “I will look forward to the next exhibition of your mother’s still life paintings and portraits.”
The finish line recedes. My father and siblings, the portraits, the still lifes, her paintings from other places, remain to be exhibited. A full retrospective of my mother’s best works needs a village of support— this exhibition of thirty-six Cape May watercolors, many of them from the family collections, took two years of planning and months of work to mount.
Light, Particularly: Alice Steer Wilson’s Cape May, is a beautiful exhibition and you must come see it! However, I remain the Unfinished Daughter, excited by women’s creativity and the hidden side. For today, may the part represent the whole.
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