In 1962 my parents took me to the Dallas Museum of Art where I saw Andrew Wyeth’s painting That Gentleman.
The painting drew many to the museum — there were long lines with stanchions and velvet ropes to control the crowds. Was it because curious onlookers wanted a glimpse of a painting of a black man? Mind you it was a simple scene of a black man seated, in dusky light, a moment of repose. It’s of Wyeth’s neighbor Tom Clark. To me it seemed a radical move for the museum to buy a painting of a black man especially at a time when segregation still existed in the South. I remember water fountains with signs for whites only, for blacks only. This was 1962, years before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Perhaps it was the shock to the public that the museum had purchased the painting or maybe, it was, as I would like to think, that there was tremendous interest in seeing a masterwork by a great American artist. Either way there were people, lots of people waiting for their turn to view the painting.
The line moved slowly in a kind of reverential prayer and when it was my turn I stepped up in front of the painting to gaze with wonder not only the power of the image but the incredible finesse of the brush work. Something in my young heart was deeply moved. At that moment I made a commitment to art. I made my pledge to become an artist. That an image could have such an incredible impact on me and the people who had come to the museum was something that I too wanted to accomplish. On that day, at age twelve, I knew that wanted make something that would make a difference — to make art that would shine a light on injustice in the world.
VINTI: One Year
In the winter of 1987, when my friend Dino Vinti was diagnosed with AIDS, I asked him if we could work together for one year to create his portrait in and over time. We had no idea what twist and turns our journey would take or that our one year would be the last year of his life. When we completed our portrait study, we knew that our undertaking was important and needed to be shared. Together we searched San Francisco for a perfect place, a gallery or artist space; somewhere that could not only house the all of the artworks but could also lend a meaningful resonance to our efforts.
Intersection for the Arts was housed in an old building on Valencia Street that was once a mortuary. The ramp corridor in the back of the building was once used to move the caskets from hearse and the ground floor up to the third floor embalming rooms. This space had not been used for years. When I saw it, I know it would be the perfect container for the exhibit. With a coat of fresh paint this somber ramp was transformed into a perfect gallery to present VINTI:One Year.
VINTI: One Year is a multi-media, three-dimensional study of the emotional and physical transformation experienced by Dino Vinti, a San Francisco art dealer and gallery owner. Composed from over a year’s worth of weekly meetings, the 55 diverse images of Vinti reveal a struggle between moods of anguish and panic on one hand, serenity and courage on the other. In the end, they are not just images of his face; they could belong to any man or woman who knows their death is near.
Dino lived to see the installation at Intersection for the Arts and to know about the popular and critical acclaim the show received. After Dino’s death, VINTI:one year was exhibited at the National AIDS Convention in San Francisco in 1989 and 1991, the University of Delaware in Newark, DE in 1992 and the Fairfield Civic Arts Gallery in Fairfield, CA in 1993. A video, produced about the project, has aired numerous times on community access television in conjunction with World AIDS Day.
Out of that remarkable endeavor, I developed a genre and methodology I term “portrait installation.” I have gone on to explore and create many portrait projects touching on such themes as aging and Alzheimer’s; mixed media investigations of a person/persons to find and fulfill a series of life-affirming images.
Unlike traditional portrait painting, my images represent more than just static poses. For me, a portrait is not just how a person looks. It is a summation of the lines and crevices, the events and junctures of a life.
Instead of a plexi-photocube, a 4” x 4” wire mesh box became a container of entrapment. Only the back side of Vinti’s head is posing: is his face is turned away? or is he turning inward? This sculptural piece was included in GET OUT OF JAIL FREE, an exhibition exploring the theme of imprisonment as a metaphor for illness that was organized by Visual AIDS for the Marin Community Foundation.
How old women die…
For years, for the College of Marin and Santa Rosa Junior College, Art For Older Adults program I have been an art instructor in convalescent hospitals and senior centers, working with students who are dealing with a variety of physical and psychological challenges. To express both the grief and the joy I experience while working in this demanding situation I embarked on a project to speak about the warehousing of the elderly —out of sight, out of mind.
“How old women die…” is the story of a woman who was abandoned by her family at a nursing home. To simulate a convalescent hospital setting and to convey a feeling of constriction, the gallery space was configured as a long, narrow hospital corridor and was infused with sounds recorded from nursing homes. In an effort to engage all of the senses, the sounds, lights, and the shape of the exhibition space were all designed to contribute to the viewer’s experience of the work. Panels of photographs alternate with story panels that guide viewers through the exhibition as if they were reading a book.It culminates in a wall text with statistics about the number of elderly now in convalescent homes.
In addition to the exhibition, there were adjunct events and conversations to engage the public about the tough decisions we all face when deciding how to best care for elderly family members.
When I draw the faces of my students, I marvel at what time and gravity has accomplished. I look without the predisposition of contemporary fashion which judges wrinkles as an anathema. In our culture with its youth mindset, elders just by their age become veiled, become invisible. This portrait series celebrates the beauty of age; the faces of women of a certain age.
With graphite on silk scarves (veils) I draw the folds and lines of experience, expressing the topography of the well lived face. A portrait is not just a drawing of the outer person, it is a summation of the life lived: the lines and crevices, the events and junctures of experience.
Five of my veils were included in The Veil: Visible and Invisible Spaces an exhibition of work by 30 artists which began its journey in 2008 and traveled until 2013 to some 30 venues: schools and universities throughout the United States. Here are photos of the installation. There are 20 portraits in the complete series. Each veil is 44″ x 44″
Richard and I recently retired from Electric Works his fine art atelier in San Francisco and are now spending hours each day not commuting. Tops on our to-do list was to re-inhabit home and our surrounds. We longed to realize T.S. Elliot’s words from Little Gidding in the Four Quartets:
We shall not cease from exploration.
And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we
started and know the place for the first time.
So we are now happily “working from home” that includes appreciating the place and getting to know our neighbors who share our love of a rural lifestyle, fresh air, and gardening.
It was a shock when, in November 2015, I was diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma on my face and Richard with melanoma on his shoulder. We both underwent successful surgeries and as we like to shout, they got it all. Then I discovered that the neighbors on all sides of us have had a bout with cancer. Because we each have had different kinds of cancer, we do not fit the standard definition of “cancer cluster” but we do happen to live in proximity in one of the most environmentally conscious places on the planet.
When I asked my neighbors if they would “sit” for a portrait, I was thinking of the traditional relationship between the artist and the model. But along the way, I realized that, in addition to rendering the likenesses of my subjects, I was interested in the sites and sounds we have in common. The image vignettes on the prayer flags are windows into life on Tamal Road and represent many of the experiences we share — the geographical location, the garbage cans rolled out on Thursday evening, the worms deep in the garden.
Thanks to Larry Rippee, Dave Cort and the San Geronimo Valley Community Center staff for all that they do to keep the arts alive in our community.
Thanks to my neighbors and friends for their willingness to participate in this project. So glad to get to know you better.
Thanks to Richard Lang, my husband, whose encouragement makes everything possible and who enlarged my idea of home to include the whole world.