I grew up with a pencil in my hand, kneeling on a chair pulled tight against the kitchen table. The pencil was a Caran d’Ache in a delectable color. The pencils were expensive, and they were supplied one at a time, whenever my mother collected enough spare change from groceries. The pencil most prized by my sister and me was a soft shade of pink. My mother and, less often, my father sharpened the points with a penknife, very careful to preserve the lead. The tiny shavings dropped softly on a piece of paper.
My first attempt at drawing from life was traumatic. I was five years old. I wanted to draw a perfect tulip. The pencil resisted me. I erased the outline so many times I made a hole in the paper. My hand was clammy and the paper turned soft. I tried one last time, pressing really hard on the pencil. I did not produce a perfect image of a tulip. The sides didn’t match up. The crown was jagged and ragged. My tulip was a perfect example of cubism. I didn’t know this, and I was so furious I cried and crumpled up the drawing.
I liked the colored pencils that turned into watercolors when you moistened the tip with saliva. I put the point of the pencil in my mouth and twirled it around. When it started to go soft, I drew a line that was silk and bursting with color.
Drawing with ink had its own torments. Without fail, two sides of the nib split apart, so instead of one nice, thick line, I got two skinny ones. This effectively torpedoed any intention to draw a pretty princess. I hadn’t learned yet to appreciate spatters and blots. After several hours of drawing, the upper inside joint of my right index finger was indented and black with ink. Scrubbing with lemon juice got the stain out, though not all of it. A dark, shiny shadow clung to my finger for days.
The various schools of my childhood and youth – from Montessori to parochial to “experimental” — offered little hands-on training. My strongest memory is of art appreciation class in St. Paul’s School, Cambridge, Mass, where the teaching sisters (order of St. Francis? Maryknoll?) gave each seventh-grader a dove gray exercise book with buff pages and every week passed out a small reproduction, in color, of a “famous painting.” Katsushika Hokusai’s “The Great Wave” left a powerful afterimage.
In the final stages of high school, my sister and I were appointed official artistic directors of the Fall Festival, a position which involved decorating all four stories of the Gothic building with paintings of autumn scenes, the production of which put a permanent dent in my academic career. My grades for the crucial fall term were abysmal, and my shameful record coincided with a blip in boomer babies applying to college, with the result that I was barely admitted to the accounting program at the U of I. The shame lingered through my transfer to Barnard in my sophomore year, and has persisted to this day. There was no question of doing art that disastrous freshman year.
My sister is a strong, professional artist. You can see it in the purity of her line and the deftness of her washes. She pulls extraordinary colors out of the paint box and does something very complicated with her mind’s eye before setting down a single dot on the paper. What emerges is an image that perfectly abstracts the essence of a landscape or a person’s face or a head of garlic. I can’t do that. I see in big blobs of color, and I need lines to discipline the forms. I like to think that’s because my two eyes are totally out of balance: with the left I see only color; with the right, I see line and color. The lines, however, are blurry because I’m near sighted when I’m not wearing glasses.
I have been using pastels, watercolors, inks, acrylics, and pens for the last 40 years. My drawings of stick people, though not as graceful as my sister’s, illustrated a Russian language book in the 1960s. In college and graduate school I studied painting with oils and acrylics and life drawing. My first exhibit, an ambitious collaborative multi-media installation called The 1-800 Museum and Psychomachia, was a sensation in Portland, Oregon in the early 1980s. My series of Designer Condoms, complete with frames painted with alluring pin ups, were another hit and a number of pieces found their way into collections. There were endless cards, notebooks filled with sketches of my travels, painted furniture (including the impressive Cactoire), stage backdrops, diorama sets, puppet theater sets, ceramics, textiles, collages, and an illustrated children’s book entitled The Antic Alphabet (Chronicle Books, 1989).
The paintings and drawings on this site date from around 2008 through the present. In about 2008 I decided to make “official” room in my professional life as a professor for my painting.
"I chose the cloistered profession of the teacher and the writer, but I’ve lived my life on the move, anxious to see as much as my eyes will hold, and in this gluttonous curiosity, pen and paper have been my accomplices.
"I sketch on the road, the air, and by the sea because only when I look with my pen and pencil do I catch the fleeting conjunction between the timeless geography of land and my transient moment and set the stage for memories to come.
"I work in inks or, when the surge of color overcomes me, in pastels, on watercolor paper with a rough hand. My first teacher was my sister Bibi, and my mentors are the artists whose colors and lines make my hand itch to hold a brush."
An article profiling me was published in the Reed College Alumni Magazine and may be read here: