( "Dove" by Hope Meryman, 1960s)
I missed class this last week because I was up in San Francisco attending the opening of an exhibit presented by a group called Lost Art Salon, which features historically significant and rediscovered artists whose work hails from 1970 or before.
My aunt Hopie died of cancer in 1975 at the age of 44 (my current age). She was a woodcut artist and a watercolorist primarily, whose prints and paintings still hang on all our walls, an enduring reminder of her talent, her eye, and her spirit, which was indelible. I was nine when she died. I’ve known a lot of people who have died since 1975. Few if any, are as present to me as she is. I can summon her voice in a second. I can picture her walking in my shed right now with every detail in tact, right down to cuff of her jeans. She has been here ever since, and maybe that’s because her paintings have remained such a constant in of our lives. Maybe that’s because she had such a strong personality. Maybe there’s no real difference between those two things.
In any case, through the efforts of her younger daughter – my cousin, Helena – a lot of those familiar prints, as well as some I hadn’t seen before, are once again on public view, providing occasion to look at Hopie’s work, and to reflect upon her life and approach, and see what can be learned from one who went before.
Hopie was my mother’s sister, the eldest of the brood that made painting the signature practice of the family. Three more of her sisters went on to become artists. She herself married the son of an extremely talented New England portraitist and landscape painter, who turned out to be a mentor to my other aunt (the one I attend class with), who in turn spawned two children of my generation who also show and sell successfully. The gene at question would seem to trace to my grandfather, Robert Brooks, several of whose letters to my grandmother from the front of the Great War contain sketches that would, had he chosen to pursue them further, have put him comfortably in the Maxfield Parrish School – but he did not. He became a rancher, and so (or so I have always assumed) we have Hopie to thank and to blame for being our creative pioneer, the first one danged fool enough to think there was room in the world for another artist with integrity.
And I use the term advisedly. I have long tried to gauge the nature of the ambition of my painting kin, to compare it to my own, basically because I think that as artists go, they are a remarkably healthy-minded bunch – almost to a fault. Some of that may have to do with the nature of the painting – a more sanguine activity than writing. Some of it may have to do with the fact that, though all approached their work with a clear professional eye and aspiration, none ever had to shoulder the burden of being the main breadwinner in their families. Still, the art game can be just as ugly as the writing game, fraught with just as many opportunities to lose focus, to forget why you’re doing this, to please the wrong masters and get caught up in destructive resentments and self-pity. And it’s true for anyone who has ever tried to climb a professional ladder, no matter how high or low you are, all you ever really see is the ass of the person just ahead of you. And that’s no fun...Unless you’re a dancer. I guess.
Among the artists and painters in my family, however, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of Rung Envy. I could be wrong, but of the lot, I’ve always suspected Hopie might have been the most at risk. She was a little more fiery than her sisters, and it can’t have been easy working in New York in the 60s when a lot of “important” careers were just beginning to explode. Also, of the sisters, she always seemed to me to the clearest, or most overt, in her determination to work and keep working. That’s not to say she was any more prolific than the others, just that they – my mother, her sister, my cousins even – are all incredibly, almost preternaturally, discreet in the way that they go about their work and their careers, finding ways to fit it in that make it seem, in addition to all the rest they do, a little like a magic trick – attending their openings to find out everything they’ve managed to get done while you weren’t looking. With Hopie, though, it always seemed a little more clear that you were renting her attention – from the work, I mean, and I mean that in the best, most laudable way. Even when I was six I understood that if you really really want to spend time with her, you should probably grab a pad and a pencil.
Whether that level of focus and determination ever spilled over into professional frustration, I have no idea. All I can say, having now returned from the exhibit up north, is that her work shows no trace of pollution. Quite the opposite, it’s about as centered as any statement can be.
In the first place, there is the medium. As I mentioned, she was a watercolorist as well, but the Lost Art show focused on woodcuts, the most mediating of mediums. All woodcuts are ultimately experiments, the success of failure of which depend upon elements over which the artist has not all that much control: the tackiness of the paper, the paint, the humidity of the air, but most of all, the wood. By the artist’s choice, the knots and the grain are the texture of the work and God’s gift to it, the source of all the happy accidents for which all artist are ever in search.
The woodcut artist has furthermore sacrificed the immediacy of her own line, since all the lines must be carveable and carved. That’s what provides the end-products their built-in tension: the blockiness and stolidity and flatness of the printed shapes versus the grace of the artist’s line, which in Hopie’s case so often chose to depict moving things – athletes, animals, children at play. All are stamps of life, with all the paradox that phrase entails.
And yet as much as she gave up, or gave over, to the wood in terms of line and texture, she took back in her choice of subject matter. Again, more so than for the sisters who followed her, subject matter is a pronounced feature of Hopie’s work. Not to say that her sisters don’t make careful and purposeful decision about what to paint, but in the grand scheme of things, they are never very spectacular decisions – nature based, light based, commonplace, closely observed, and all informed by the same basic understanding that it is the artist’s job to play the hand she is dealt, draw beauty from the subject, any subject – any flower, any tree, any hill -- through their own gifts and limitations. To put another way, what they choose to paint is not quite as important as how they paint it, and this puts them in league with the vast majority of working artists and writers.
Not so with Hopie (and in this respect I suspect I may feel an abiding kinship.) What she chose to look at WAS the point. To stand before a print by Hopie is to have one’s attention forcefully directed to what interested her, to the point that she often let her subjects float in the open space of the page (not something any of her sister would ever do, at least for the purpose of showing in a gallery). And that makes sense, of course, given the burden of woodcutting. The sheer labor intensivity of the process almost requires an extra-delight in the subject. It’s only such delight that sustains one through the labor. (If it took a sledgehammer to type every letter on a keyboard, I warrant there'd be fewer novels that take place in kitchens and living rooms.) Hopie’s choices were, as such, a little more varied, a little more idiosyncratic, a little more focused: A pigeon with its wings inverted downwards; two lacrosse players shouldering into one another; even the flow of a river around reeds and rocks has clearly been chosen for its design element – a forced collaboration of water and wood. Her decisions are all deliberately made, but fondly and personally and with the complete confidence of an interested, and interesting, observor.
Combine these basic features of her art – the generous surrender to the medium, the equally generous delight in and fascination with the subject – there’s not a lot of room left for preening or preciousness or any of the other things that, fragrant as they may seem at the moment of conception, wind up stinking in the long run (and no, the irony of the sentence is not lost). But it’s likely because of that – the presence of such a confident guide, the absence of any self-interest or self-consciousness – that Hopie’s prints and watercolors make for such pleasing company. I know to certain ears that may not sound like the nicest thing to say about a person’s Art – should Art not on some level displease, trouble, fester, etc. etc.? Maybe, but again it’s the quiet but powerful companionship her work provides that helps account for the fact that it holds up so well, witness the fact that pretty much everything hanging last weekend sold, which the more you think about it is kind of amazing. Art does age, after all, and nothing ages quite so quickly or hideously as a painting or a book or a song conceived to please the current arbiters of taste; most popular art becomes artifact in one spin of a wheel. That a forty-year-old print, attached to no great name or reputation, should find such instant appeal among of gang of strangers – and make no mistake, the buyers here were strangers to us all - speaks volumes, both about the work and its maker.
But to spare yourself any more of those volumes, the reader is invited to go see Hopie’s work for him or herself here. My final point, in context of this blog, dedicated to exploring and expanding the broader creative context in which I am trying to see my own efforts, is to express not just my renewed admiration for the work of a departed relative, but also just how comforting, how reaffirming and correcting I find it to be reminded of the legacy to which I was born and in which I was raised – as opposed, for instance, to the literary legacy I seem to having such trouble discerning. More so at this moment than ever, and at these crossroads, I do well to remember that, however high or low the writing takes me, I am in the end just another one of the Brookses, and I would have it no other way.
So thank you, Hopie, and thank you, Helena.
Next Post: Last Class of the Semester.