Let’s talk about knowledge and technique in art. Above are two watercolors by my mother, Helen Burling Ottaway. Neither has a date. The lower one is certainly unfinished and I am not sure about the upper one. I can tell by the technique that the lower one is a much earlier painting. Some of the watercolor nudes do have a year: 1998. That was two years before she died of cancer. I think the lower one is from the 1970s, but the use of wet and dry paper for painting is already apparent, as well as color and line.
Another watercolor, 14 by 27, 1987. There is another older watercolor, no year, on the reverse. Misty mountains. This could be West Virginia, the panhandle where my grandmother lived for a while, or a trip to the northwest.
K for Katherine. The picture is one of my grandmothers, Katherine White Burling. My mother drew this from a photograph with conte crayon. I am named after this grandmother. This is a big drawing, more than life size, 18 by 24. I photographed it through glass, avoiding most reflections. My grandmother is wearing a cameo. We have a photograph of her grandmother wearing it as well. I do not know exactly when Helen Burling Ottaway drew this, early to mid 1990s, I think. The story is fiction but my grandmother could be quite wicked, so she inspired this. After all, Katherine means “purity”.
Don’t get the Willies
“Caitlyn.” says grandmother. “You are 13 now.”
Caitlyn sighs internally. Another lecture about becoming an adult? This is the unpredictable grandmother, sharp as a knife. She will never behave like the book grandmothers. Though some of her friends say that their grandmothers don’t behave either.
“Where is your phone?” says grandmother.
“I left it in my coat.” says Caitlyn.
“I think you should take off your shades, too,” says grandmother gently. “Tea?”
Caitlyn reluctantly removes her internet connected sunglasses. Pale pink, but this grandmother isn’t fooled. Was it her eye motions that gave her away?
“Yes, please,” says Caitlyn politely. Her grandmother has an elegant tea service out and heats water by boiling it. Completely archaic. Maybe this is about net overuse.
“Are you observing males or females or both?” says grandmother.
Rats, thinks Caitlyn. Sex after all. She prims her mouth.
“I want to talk to you about the willies.” says grandmother.
“Being scared?” says Caitlyn. Good, not about sex.
“There is another meaning.” says grandmother pleasantly. “You will encounter certain men when you are old enough to date. I encourage you to study the boys for now, but you are more mature than they are. That is less true with the girls.”
“Hmmm,” says Caitlyn. She is studying her teacup, eyes down.
“Certain men will try very hard to control you. They will make promises that are silly and statements that are lies.”
“Ok,” says Caitlyn. Next comes the embarrassing part.
“You will recognize them in part because there are places they will not go and people they will not speak to. They are very very rigid.”
“As they get older, their territory will shrink further and further. They become more and more isolated. You do not want involvement with one of these, for two reasons. One is that they will try to isolate you.”
Caitlyn smirks. As if.
“The other: well, you know the story of Pinocchio?”
Caitlyn blinks. “Uh, yes.”
“In the story it is the doll’s nose that grows. In people the nose can grow, but it is really other parts that shrink.” says grandmother. “So it is important not to get the willies.”
“Yes, ma’am,” says Caitlyn. And they both sip their tea.
This etching is titled Golden Hills, 2nd Edition, 14/20, 1980. The plate is 4 by 5.5 inches, so this is a lot of very delicate work. My mother used dental pics to draw in the tar on the plate. The darker lines are etched deeper in the acid bath. The shadowed hill is tricky, isn’t it? I think that the texture is a fine piece of fabric pressed into the tar and then lifted, to make the pattern so even.
I think these hills are in upstate New York. My maternal grandparents lived in Trumansburg, New York. By 1980 my parents were living in Alexandria, Virginia.
F is also for Final. Death is frustratingly final. I can keep talking to the person, but they don’t talk back, except maybe in dreams. Even then, it’s my version of them.
F is also for fine art and father. This is a drawing of my father in college by my mother. My mother did art all the time and carried a sketchbook around nearly all the time. Every so often she mislaid it, searched, and started a new one until the old one surfaced. I was two when she did these drawings. My impression of fine art was that it involved continuous practice. My mother thought about art most of the time, as her diaries confirm. I love the sketch books.
These two drawings are on notebook paper. My mother sent them to her mother with letters when I was two. My grandmother was in Europe.
In college, late 1950s and on, they would have a sing. My father played guitar, they would invite all their friends, and sing folk songs. They used the book in the photograph, Song Fest, edited by Dick and Beth Best. Last published in 1955, I think.
I have no memory of the book itself. However, a friend of my father’s bound his copy in 2003 in leather. When I saw it, I searched on line and bought my own. It has words AND MUSIC and a chord progression. When I opened it, I know a song from about every third or fourth page.
My sister and I memorized the songs. We both had hundreds of songs memorized, many from this book, or from records. We photocopied a Beatles record insert and memorized all the words on a long car trip once.
I don’t know much about the Intercollegiate Outing Club Association, but there are still copies of Song Fest on line. My parents had to edit a number of the songs for two small children, since we were picking them up. They chose silly songs, “Dead Girl Songs” (Banks of the Ohio, Long Black Veil, My Darling Clementine, Cockles and Mussels) and work/protest songs. They rarely sang sentimental songs, except for lullabies. I loved to sing. We used to have reel to reel tape with my little sister singing a fifth off when she was three or four, but it disintegrated.
My father, Malcolm Kenyon Ottaway, was a fabulous musician. He sang in prep school, in college, in choruses on the east coast, in Rainshadow Chorale from 1997 until his death in 2013. He loved Bach and the Band and loved to encourage other people to sing. He was in our Community Chorus for years, to help new singers. People must try out for Rainshadow Chorale, but Community Chorus is for anyone who wants to join and sing. After my father died, men would say, “I would try to stand near your father in Community Chorus, to help learn the part. He was so good.”
Here is one of the lullabies from Song Fest:
At the Sings, my parents would start with a song and then go around the room, asking other people to pick songs. Sometimes people were shy, but my folks were really good at getting people to sing. Sometimes we’d have multiple guitars and other instruments. My sister and I had favorite songs too!
Oooooo surely it’s evil to make up new words. Or to verb words.
I think that my mother, Helen Burling Ottaway, was thinking about Winnie-ther-Pooh’s Heffalumps when she made this. This etching is another small one, 3 by 2.5 inches. She did many tiny fantasy etchings. This is a proof, for me. An artist’s proof is an experimental run, before the final edition. She might change the ink color, or put the tar mixture back on the plate and change it.
I have had this album since I was very little. Winnie-ther-Pooh with a Brooklyn accent, but really really wonderful!
Ooooo, B is for Brag. I can brag about my mother artist AND I got to do work with her. In the 1980s I ask if I can write poems that she will do etchings to illustrate them. She had done a series with a friend when I was a baby. I was jealous and wanted her to illustrate mine.
“Yes, BUT,” she replies, “The poems have to rhyme. I don’t like free verse.”
I laugh, because the man she did etchings and poems with before did all free verse.
This was right after I had finished college and wanted to write, but was certainly rather terrified about submitting anything. My degree was in Zoology and Scandinavian Studies, so I did not exactly have the writing connections.
I sent my mother ten poems, all rhyming. One was written with a finished etching in mind, but she did etchings for the rest. Almost all are about animals.
She had a friend who runs the Lead and Bread Press print 50 of each poem on etching paper and then started running the editions. We had a gallery opening together in the 1980s in Alexandria, Virginia. This did not make me rich but it certainly made me pleased and proud. Bragging rights are mine. The prints and poems are in a book as well, of women sibling artists. We got in even though we were mother-daughter rather than siblings.
A friend of mine died in February. She has known me since I was born, because she was in college with my parents. In fact, my father got arrested for having her graduation party, though it was thrown out of court. Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1963, and the problem with the party was that it was mixed race. Luckily there were no drugs and no minors drinking. I was the youngest minor, age 2. My mother was left with me, terrified that she could be lynched.
Anyhow, this friend is an artist, like and unlike my mother. I spoke to her daughter-in-law a few days ago and she says she is in the anger stage of grief. Yes, I know what she means. And new grief brings up all the old grief. How annoying. March 29 was the day my little sister died of cancer, so that all comes up too.
I keep reading that we should be positive. I hate it and I disagree. Sometimes we can grieve and go through stages of grief. Anger can be an indication that we are in a bad relationship or that we are being mistreated. Sometimes it is connected to old past anger, though, that needs to be cleared out. Have I succeeded with that? I don’t know.
Is anger evil? I do not believe any feelings are evil. Acting on them may be evil, but it’s complicated. Feelings are information, part of our senses. This doesn’t mean that we always interpret things correctly, so sometimes we need to check. “When you said this, I interpreted it this way. Is that what you meant?” I usually have to wait a week if I am upset about something, so I can have the feelings calm. I get better and better about not acting on anger. I do not mind feeling it.
A is for Adam and Eve as well. This is one of Helen Burling Ottaway’s etchings, titled “First Valentine”.
For the process of making an etching, read here. This is from 1982, number 29 out of 35, a limited edition each run and signed by the artist.
Refugees welcome - Flüchtlinge willkommen I am teaching German to refugees. Ich unterrichte geflüchtete Menschen in der deutschen Sprache. I am writing this blog in English and German because my friends speak English and German. Ich schreibe auf Deutsch und Englisch, weil meine Freunde Deutsch und Englisch sprechen.
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