On a Self Portrait

By Anna Leavenworth '13

Personal Essay

Anna’s essay has its roots in a Personal Essay unit on home and family. The essay starts as a sort of mystery, but one that leads to Anna’s discovery of her mother’s not-so-secret artistic talent –and eventually to Anna’s own discovery about herself and the bonds between mother and daughter. One of the reasons I nominated this essay for The Writing Anthology is its beautiful, poetic prose.

-Keith Ratzlaff

I was just seven years old when I first noticed the painting above my grandfather’s grand piano. The armchair I sat in swallowed me, my feet dangling above the burnt orange carpeting. My left hand lay in a small glass bowl, brimming with chocolate peppermint patties. I ate six of them in secret. However, the evidence was clearly written in the numerous wrappers adorning my lap. I let the chocolate melt in my mouth, savoring its rich flavor, rather than biting into it as my impatient brother would have. This, of course, took time. I heard the clock tick beside me, marking time as I stared mindlessly at the wall. And, somewhere between 4:56 p.m. and my fourth peppermint patty, there it was. It was a portrait of a woman, a woman I did not recognize. Her floppy sunhat topped a head of amber curls pulled back into a loose bun at the nape of her neck. The ribbons on her hat blew in a light breeze. Her long dress swept the grass beneath her and she stood sideways, her hands gripping a bouquet of wilting flowers, some of which fell to the ground, forming a crooked path behind her. Her head hung low, though one eye peeked below the brim of the hat, simultaneously revealing mystery, secrecy, and hidden truths. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.

I was awakened from my trance by my grandmother’s bell, which she rang twice at six o’clock to signal dinner was ready. It may have been the chocolate between my teeth or the silver wrapper beneath the sole of my shoe that gave me away, but either way my grandmother scolded me for spoiling my appetite before dinner. However, she agreed not to tell my mother in exchange for my assistance in the kitchen. Later, as I cleared the table of mashed potatoes, fresh tomatoes, and my grandmother’s famous home fried chicken, a sink of soapy water awaited me. I washed dishes as my grandmother dried them with a towel. I broke the comfortable silence by asking her who had the painted the woman I had seen before. She replied matter-of-factly, “Why your own mother drew that years ago, maybe at eleven years old.”

I was perplexed by the possibility. I asked questions of my grandmother until my hands were as wrinkled as hers from the dishwater. Her answers unveiled a side of my mother I had never been exposed to—her years of private lessons, the handful of blue ribbons, and the closet of half finished paintings. I felt as if I didn’t know my mother at all, and it fascinated me. I was eager to uncover my mother’s hidden past. And, I eventually did. Piece by piece I came to the realization that my mother had created virtually every single painting in my grandparents’ home. The same artwork I once assumed my mother’s wealthy parents had collected over the years—the still-life above the dining room table, the triptych in my uncle’s old bedroom, and the large oil painting hung inside the downstairs bathroom—was simply storage for my mother’s forgotten passion. When I finally asked my grandmother why such paintings were not found on the walls of my own home, the conclusion bewildered me. “Anna,” she said, “Your mother had children to raise. She didn’t have time for her art any longer.”

I would be lying if I said my mother’s artistic nature was a secret, however. The evidence was written all over my childhood. I just never thought to connect the dots. In grade school, I would call my mother over to the kitchen table where I worked on schoolwork by the yellow light of a stained-glass lamp. Together, we would navigate 8×6=48, R-E-S-T-A-U-R-A-N-T, and the atomic number of Helium. Though many times we called in my father for a third opinion, I always preferred the help of my mother because of what she left behind. Her charcoaled fingertips were swept clean on my notebook paper, leaving behind a trail of dusty fingerprints along the margins of the page. I never minded, though. In fact, it brought ease to my frustration. My mother’s fingerprints were simple reminders of the complexity of individuality. I didn’t have to become a mathematician, the spelling bee champion, or the next Isaac Newton. I was responsible for being me. So, I never erased them.

On Sunday mornings, my mother would always wear pockets. She could fit a magical number of items in them: chewing gum, Kleenex tissues, lipstick, cough drops, the list went on. She never forgot, though, to pack a pen. At church, she’d doodle in the margins of the program. I’d watch her turn the pastor’s message into a storybook. The word “truth” became a horizon, “faith” a pair of old sneakers, and “sin” as a Hershey’s dark chocolate bar. I understood her drawings better than I did the pastor’s words. I saw scripture instead of hearing it. My mother and I listened in color, in shapes, and in lines. She must have known too because she always saved a seat for me right next to her on the pew.

My mother taught me the complexity of a night sky through Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” I knew pain through Frida Kahlo’s “The Two Fridas” and forgiveness in the Sistine Chapel. While other children played catch, my mother and I were regulars at the local art museum. For hours, we would sit on the bench in front of Edward Hopper’s “Automat,” contemplating the woman’s sad hat and cold coffee. I once looked at a painting by Picasso and said confidently, “A child could paint that.” My mother made sure I knew I was wrong by taking me to the public library and slamming down a stack of Picasso’s lifework in front of me. “Here,” she said, “Here is a man who could paint.” I believed her, too. For Picasso, details were too easy. His real artistic challenge was exploring simplicity and fragmentation. His art mattered because it was different. Because it made people think. I took it all back, and my mother and I framed “Hand With Flowers” above my bed so I wouldn’t forget what genius looked like.

But what I took away most from my accidental art education was what I learned about my mother herself from her own work. Her artwork gave me a gateway to her principles, her humanity, and, above all, her vision of the world. My mother, I found, was not like other mothers—mothers who hid behind loads of dirty whites, batches of burnt cookies, and old feather dusters. My mother was complex, original, and she had a backbone. She had the ability to see. To really see. My mother saw the world upside down and inside out. Backward, forward, and turned around. And somehow, she made sense of it all. I knew because her paintings were simple, they were honest, and they were real. They were her. She accidentally leaked into every paint stroke she made.

It wasn’t until my brother and sister left the house to attend college, however, that my mother faced a flood of free time. Instead of filling her afternoons with recreational tennis and the PTA, my mother began to search for herself. And sure enough, she found herself packed away—hidden behind fishing rods, opened paint cans, and a tangled string of Christmas lights—in an old cardboard box exploding with pastels, with sketchbooks, and dried out bristles. We cleared the dining room of the antique armoire, the drop-leaf table, and the heavy curtains masking the large windows looking out to our backyard. Light returned to the room, the same way it returned to my mother, and the empty space was soon filled with acrylic paints, a wooden easel, and white canvas taller than me.

I spent evenings studying my mother study her subject. Though I fell in love with the rolling hills, abandoned barns, and wild, untamed grasses of her Iowan landscapes, I was truly struck by her ability to translate people onto paper. My mother had a natural ability to look inside her subject. She saw past crooked teeth, beyond gray hair, and behind deep insecurity. My mother painted flaws into character so believably that I could not help but wonder how I had ever seen differently. The first time my mother painted me, I watched from behind the easel a woman with a stunning resemblance to the painting above my grandfather’s grand piano. Her one eye peaked behind the canvas, communicating a familiar, yet mysterious beauty—a secret truth I’d never before identified. And when she finally revealed to me the finished product—the softness of my skin balancing the chaos within my green eyes—I stepped back. I finally knew how a mother ought to love her daughter.

Though my mother may not have known the number of eggs to prepare a properly moist cake in the kitchen, I considered her a master chef of color. She mixed red and yellow until it set fire, green and blue to the point of drowning. My mother is responsible for new shades of purple my eyes have yet to adjust to. I learned very early on, however, that my mother had a secret ingredient. Though she never told me explicitly, my years of observation more or less passed down to me the recipe. My mother rarely began with a white base. While she preferred red, my mother experimented with purple, with blue, and even black canvases. When a painting was completed, which it rarely ever was in the perfectionist eyes of my mother, it was hard to tell she had done so at all. The preliminary color was masked by layers and layers of other color—rich and creamy to a point that I could taste it, thick like molasses.

As her art collection grew, and the walls and basement reached their maximum capacity, she began to sort through her old work. My mother created a pile of paintings she held no attachment to. One by one, she painted over them. However, she never fully let go of what once was. Instead, my mother combined old and new to create an overlap of pigment, of figures, and of vision. She painted synergy. One painting in particular was an exception to the rule. My mother pulled out a large, square canvas she had worked on throughout the previous year. Though I was originally struck by its visual attractiveness, I was ultimately drawn in by its abstractness—a collage of choppy, textured sunflowers atop limp stems, hugging a cloudy web of disconnected brushstrokes. A contour of disassembled lines, of disproportion, of harmonious dissonance. The painting had balance in the absence of symmetry and order in the midst of absolute clutter. It wasn’t at all like my mother’s normal aesthetic: structured, detailed, and precise. It felt loose and free, as if the painting had a mind of its own. It was wild. It was new. It made me think. I watched my mother in real time dip her paintbrush into a wet pool of paint, ready to paint over genius, and “Wait!” I yelled. She dropped her brush. With that, I nailed my mother’s “unfinished” painting above my bed, right next to “Hand with Flowers.”