Dialogues with Silence
In 1994, I walked through an estate sale for the first time. I had four little kids with me, two of my own and two neighbor kids. My reason for showing up at this old home in Ward Parkway area of Kansas City, Missouri, was to find a few household items—linens, vases, maybe some gardening tools. What I found was Betty. All around the house I felt the presence of the woman who had lived there for years. It was a formal house. She was obviously a consummate hostess (I counted at least three different sets of china). I noticed then, as I have noticed at other estate sales that the auctioneers and the potential buyers understandably separate themselves from the emotions of the situation, from the personal dimension of what is happening. Estate sales intrigue me artistically and spiritually. A life unfolds; impressions of people and a story evolve before me. I make a connection. I recognize these experiences as being important. I honor the thoughts and the emotions that I feel. Through these experiences, I create a character and paint a story. Someone has died. A household, a home—a life—is being dismantled and sold off in bits and pieces. A personal fragmentation is occurring before your eyes. To be at an estate sale is to witness something about the shape of a person’s life just at the point where that shape is losing its form, where that spirit is perhaps drifting away in bits of cloth, pieces of kitchenware, odds and ends of furniture, the accumulations of a lifetime. These experiences are lessons that remind me how to live.
As an artist, I feel I can give everything I have to the creative process without becoming mired in the issue of whether I’m doing it “right.” I rely on my intuitions. I have few preconceived ideas; I just begin to paint in an effort to create the character. Not being concerned about adhering to a specific style, medium, or format allows me to feel fully absorbed in the question “What are all the possibilities here?” It is not important to me that the final work of art fits into one mold or another, whether it strikes someone as realism or abstraction or something else. What I’m after is a forceful expression of the profound connection I feel to another person after having the privilege of glimpsing into his or her life at a particularly poignant time. My hope is that viewers will feel that connection just as powerfully.
I rely on pastels but I also incorporate other materials which help me convey the traits I think are worth noting, celebrating, even puzzling over. My sheep wool, acrylic paint, pieces of fabric, gravel and newspaper…these are some of the material that I combine to complete my estate sale portraits. The literary selections are created by the words that seem to move my everyday thoughts. I rely on my intuitions. I have few preconceived ideas; I just begin to paint in an effort to create the character and tell a story.
I still go to estate sales. Some are harder than others. When a house is full of a person’s belongings it is particularly painful because it leaves me with the impression that he or she was alone at the end. If the house is empty except for a few items, it’s easier to imagine that the person was surrounded by people who loved them and wanted something to remember him or her by. The house of the woman I call “Ruth” (I change the names of my subjects out of respect for their privacy) was difficult to walk through. There were all her ceramic figurines, all her Zha Zha Gabor costume jewelry, and all her clothes. You are bound to see more than one side to a person when you encounter the possessions of a lifetime.
I have rules for myself on these occasions. First of all, I try to be extremely unobtrusive. I quiet myself. I can listen but I do not talk to anyone. Obviously this is such a sensitive time for family members and close friends, and I don’t want to intrude into their thoughts with my questions. I don’t take or look at any photos. The paintings, as a result, represent who I imagine inhabited the house. A life unfolds an impression of an individual and a story evolves before me. Often, the final piece reflects research I have done in addition to attending the sale. For instance, in the process of working on Voices: The Lagadinovas, I researched plight of Bulgarians during World War II. One of the aspects of doing these portraits that keeps me so interested is that each one poses an emotional, technical, and intellectual challenge. I do other kinds of art—still life, geometric abstract painting, landscapes— which I find enjoyable and rewarding in their own right. However, when I work on these portraits, I am on fire. I am totally engaged.