Life is rarely what we picture for ourselves. Certainly, having children changes the course of everything for some of us, and in profound ways – not only our bodies and our daily routines, our careers and our priorities, but fundamentals: our points of joy, and surprising sources of fear.
Before I became a mother, it was all about me, my friends, my ambitions, the “self” I was trying to reconstruct, which was no small task after a childhood in which everything was about my mother. She could be cruel and her moods were unpredictable. When I wasn’t the bit player acting out in the shadow of her latest dramas, my role was to remain her devoted audience.
As a child, I sought safe haven in words and pictures. I loved them equally, needed them equally, and though I wanted to be a writer, I also hoped to be an artist. I had no grand expectations of my minor talent, yet I still longed to be good enough to design, to decorate, possibly to create fashion.
My greatest fear? It was to lose my vision – my imagination or my eyesight.
I could say the same today.
I’ve never wanted the flow of words and images to slow – not in my active dreaming, and not in the long hours I often dedicate to zeroing in on the right language for my specific purpose. Nor have I ever wanted to lose the pleasure of standing in front of a work of art – entering its rhythms, its lines and colors – asking questions of the more raw compositions, and basking in the lucid beauty of others.
Exposed and Exhibiting
For all her shortcomings as a parent, her exposed nerves and manic tendencies, my mother served as an extraordinary model in several ways: she exemplified the value of hard work, the importance of learning, and the gift of a genuine passion for the arts.
Ours was a household with little money, but an abundance of books and pictures. Tables were stacked with texts, and walls displayed an eclectic assortment of objects and images – everything from 18th century etchings she’d snatched up for a song, to riveting and unusual works of the early 1970s.
These seeds of curiosity and creativity were planted young, and I’m grateful.
By twenty, I had dropped the sketchbook and charcoal for other pursuits including writing. It wasn’t until my thirties that I had the means to return to contemporary art, and did so with enthusiasm. I put a tentative toe in the water as a collector at first, later as an art writer, and to my delight, as the mother of an artistically gifted son.
As to that young man, there’s no question that he’s clever, quirky, and capable of provoking enormous worry, and was in particular, as a young child.
My Son, In a World of His Own (Making)?
My firstborn was – and is – an incredible talker. He never kept quiet, and to be frank – I loved it! In contrast, his baby brother rarely opened his mouth, except to hum or to laugh at his sibling’s antics.
For the joy that I take in experiencing art, I am grateful to my mother – and to my eyes. I am grateful to those who spend their lives creating for no other reason than the necessity of it and their own (often obsessive) discovery process. No artist is in it for the money, believe me. (And I might say the same of most of the writers I know.)
My own home is in a constant state of disarray, or so I term it. While it isn’t overrun in quite the same way as my mother’s house, thankfully, I’m constantly trying to de-clutter and organize. In part, this is due to a small space, which doubles as the place where I work. Nonetheless, everywhere you turn are books and pictures – some, gifts from artist friends, and the rest, the remains of a downsized collection, with many works by my younger son. And so I am grateful to him as well – for the beauty he has brought to our home through his vision.
Cars? Clothes? Gadgets? None of that matters to me.
Words. Pictures. The people I love. That says it all.
Modest Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition
19th century Russian composer Modest Mussorgksy wrote a remarkable piece of music I heard for the first time as a teenager. It was played by four hands on two pianos, and it’s called “Pictures at an Exhibition.” One of the men at the piano was my teacher for several years, and someone I called a friend as an adult. We have long since lost touch.
The story of “Pictures at an Exhibition” is inspired by Mussorgsky’s friend, Viktor Hartmann, an artist and architect, who died suddenly following an exhibition of his artworks.
The musical composition that resulted is a masterpiece. I have no vocabulary with which to describe music; I can only say that these four hands on two pianos recreate the vibrancy and tenderness of a superb showing of images.
In my own mind, I revisit my mother’s walls as clearly as if I were sitting on the worn brown sofa in her den. I see my walls, art hung salon-style, filled with whimsical watercolors, mixed-media works, and the outsider art which I adore – rebellious, whimsical, fierce – and a bit crazy.
I gaze at a 19th century image of an angel that once hung in my grandmother’s dining room, where my Russian grandfather used to sit and eat and tell his stories. He was a bear of a man, a musician, and son of a musician in Russia, one who lived at the time of Mussorgsky and Hartmann.
Not only do I see pictures of generations past, but of the future – my son, whose talent and work ethic makes me proud, but more importantly, it makes him happy. I can recall the first time he picked up a blue ballpoint at 4 years old and drew – to our amazement. He was barely speaking at the time (and spoke little for years), yet his fascination for line has never left him.
I see the pictures he’s drawn at six and ten and thirteen and fifteen, and one gorgeous painting which he completed at 17. These are the pictures at my exhibition that I treasure above all the others.
I hope my son will construct a future that will bring him joy, that his vision will fulfill him and enable him to earn a living (a legitimate concern in creative fields), and that he will leave a meaningful legacy for others.
One more pleasure in watching my younger son?
I didn’t raise him with music, and more’s the pity. But he took to it on his own as a teenager. His art is filled with the undulating contours of musical rhythms, his passion for the piano, and I’m thrilled to recognize the continuing legacy of his great grandparents, and their parents before them.
As for my greatest fear, it no longer has anything to do with losing my words or my pictures. My dreams and memories are amply stocked. Like most parents, my terrors reside on the flip side of my most fervent desires – that my children be well, that they know joy, and that they lead meaningful lives.
Mussorgsky, and Rekindling Friendships
Remarkably, on Youtube, I found two faces and four hands I once knew so well.
I offer you a few minutes of extraordinary music, “Pictures at an Exhibition,” performed by Anthony and Joseph Paratore. Listening to them, seeing their faces and their blissful immersion in Mussorgsky, I’m taken back thirty years. I’m simultaneously energized and content.
And it’s glorious.
Image of Chicks Sketch for Trilby, Wikimedia, Public Domain; Viktor Hartmann, watercolor, 1871
All other images, Yours Truly, artists as noted where possible. (Ruffino Tamayo, Pierre Alechinsky, Christopher Parrott.)
Inspired by the 5-day writing challenge at Momalom, Five for Five, subject: “pictures.”