“Do you have a clear, defined moment when you knew you wanted to be an artist?” This is a question I think all artists are asked, and many of us have that story. Mine involves the summer I was 9 when I took painting lessons from artist and family friend Betty Watson.
I still have two small paintings I made that summer on the Cape—a house on Commercial Street and a landscape from Corn Hill. The painting of the house reflects Betty’s distinct style, and I can still feel her leaning over my shoulder and hear her quietly giving me instructions.
The day I painted the Commercial Street house began with Betty showing me how to stretch canvas over the stretcher bars and pound in thumb tacks to hold it down. Looking at it now I see the uneven line of tacks pounded by a child’s hand, yet I remember them all lined up equally and it being a perfect job.
We then sat on the sidewalk, Betty explaining how to measure and transfer the shapes I saw onto the canvas by cutting a small rectangle in a larger piece of paper and looking through this as a viewfinder. That specific painting, and sitting with Betty that day, is the direct link to my artistic identity “moment.”
After that lesson I have a clear recollection of walking home and announcing I was going to be an artist. I am not sure how my family reacted, but I do remember I walked around the side of the house to the back where the deck hung over the water—my parents were sitting in chairs, it was bright, the sun was behind them so they were just shapes, the tide was dead low, the mud flats stretched all the way out, and I could see the horizon, far away and endless. I stared over their heads and made my announcement loudly, not just to them but to that distant line separating land and sky.
Possibly they were surprised, but more likely they did not react at all, as they were used to my loud declarations. My previous one, a couple of years before, was to join a convent. My family had been living in Dublin and I had gone through a short but intense time of wanting to be a nun. This life choice was sparked by the delight I received from spying on the Sisters at Christ Church who lived in the convent at the end of our Dublin street, and by the delicate lace veil I highly coveted, owned by the young woman who cared for me and my siblings that Irish summer.
Another day Betty and I sat on MacMillan Wharf with pads and pens, and she wanted me to draw people in the distance. I can see her sitting next to me with her drawing pad, and I mimicked how she looked up at what she was drawing, then bent her head over her paper, then looked up again. People would stop to ask what we were doing and Betty explained I was her art student. I still have all those drawings, really just scribbles, but that day is a solid form in my mind, and her saying I was her art student—the weight of those words that said I was at the beginning of being an artist made the day golden.
I once got to join in with Betty’s drawing group and I sat in her backyard drawing from a model who was wearing a long blue-and-yellow flowy dress. I sat between two older and well-known painters and I am sure they were not pleased. Years later, at my father’s funeral at The Beachcombers, I reminded one of them about that sunny afternoon and he said, “You were very chatty.” I remember being silent.
To this day, in every life drawing class, when the model gets up on the platform to take a pose, for two split seconds I am transported to the Watson backyard. I can see the shadows and patterns the leaves made with the sun coming through the trees, and the dark green shade all around the edge of the yard. The drawing I have from that day is of the trees behind the model. It is possible that I only had a few afternoons with Betty, but my whole summer was absorbed into that tutorial.
Funny about our origins as artists, and that even with my own family’s artistic backgrounds, I know those painting lessons were my real beginning. I can still hear Betty’s voice—the timbre, which was calm and steady. She is still my viewfinder, measuring, and her original lessons reminding me from that summer so long ago, just to paint.
A House on Commercial Street, 1968, 9 x 12 inches, oil on canvas
This is the painting in the above story.
Corn Hill with a Full Moon, 1968, 8 x 10 inches, oil on canvas
This was the second painting that summer.
Corn Hill/I Remember Her, 2019, 18 x 18 x 2 inches, mixed media on wooden panel (clay compound, crushed shells, beeswax, gesso, casein, acrylic, wood, nails, glue, varnish on wooden panel)
My mother owned a house on Corn Hill, Truro, for more than 45 years. I want to believe she is still there in her little cottage. This new body of work is influenced
by those two small paintings I made with Betty and memories of my mother.
Shadow, 2019, 13 x 13 x 2 inches, mixed media on wooden panel (clay compound, crushed shells, gesso, beeswax, casein, acrylic, paper, thread, wood, nails, glue, varnish on wooden panel)
Part of my new body of work. Memories of my mother.
Tree House/Flooded, 2019, 13 x 13 x 2 inches, mixed media on wooden panel (clay compound, crushed shells, gesso, casein, beeswax, acrylic, wood, nails, glue, varnish on wooden panel)
I built three successful tree houses when I was a child in New York: down in our lower field and up behind the house, way in the woods. My mother had not wanted to dissuade me from climbing trees, although it was very dangerous. Years later I found out she used binoculars to watch, keeping me in her sights. Flooded with memories about my mother.
Place in Maine for breakfast? The Brooklin Inn, Brooklin.
Books? Flights, Olga Tokarczuk; The Known World, Edward P. Jones;
Last Stands, Hilary Masters.
Music while in the studio?
In this order:
Opera La Boheme
Citizen Cope The Clarence Greenwood Recordings
Travis Scott Astroworld
Glenn Gould Bach: The Goldberg Variations
Activity outside of your studio? Work as an AEMT and with community paramedicine on Deer Isle.