Aunt Connie

I have a long and diverse list of artists who have inspired me, like Georgia O’Keeffe, Edgar Degas, Wayne Thibaud, Hans Holbein, Hillary Knight, Alexander Calder…and Aunt Connie. 

 Aunt Connie  was an artist whose canvas, her magnum opus, was her house.  

Aunt Connie and Uncle Tut once had a summer cottage by the sea in Westhampton Beach, Long Island.  The great hurricane of 1938 washed away that house and even the land it stood upon.  All that was left was a bucket and an old bookcase.

       They believed it was the Lord’s doing that they and their children were safe in New Jersey when the storm came, so when they found a house near us in Sag Harbor they named it “Grateful Haven” and took as their motto the Bible verse Matthew 7:25;  

“And the rains descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.”

    Durrell and Constance Tuttle, and their children, Bette and Porter, became our family’s closest neighbors and friends.   Aunt Connie was tall, Uncle Tut was short.  She said that when she announced her engagement and was asked to describe her fiance she said, “Well, he’s rather like Napoleon.”  He was Napoleonic in stature only; a mild mannered, soft spoken man who thought Aunt Connie could do no wrong. She called him Daddsy and he called her Dollin’.  She always looked cool and crisp in her summer dresses and spectator pumps.    

    Grateful Haven stood so close to the water that in some of its rooms you felt like you were in a ship at sea.  Nobody knew how it actually came to be–it might have been a warehouse for bootleggers during Prohibition days. 
     There were French doors across the whole front and two large unmatched windows above so that it looked a little like a smiling face winking at you. It had a jaunty tilt and very few straight lines or right angles.

    You entered a great room–so big that a ping pong table sat by the door without feeling obtrusive.  Over that was a wagon wheel chandelier.  

    Who said “Less is more?”  Aunt Connie’s  credo was “Less is a bore.” No wall or surface was left unadorned. The interior was unfinished and in each niche created by the vertical studs was a still life–a picture she had picked up at a junk shop, a piece of driftwood, a little vase with one flower.  She painted roses and ivy all over the old upright piano.  On the wall of her dining room she painted the map of Peconic Bay, with a star where Grateful Haven stood. 
     Painting on the walls?!  No one in my family would dream of such a thing.

     It was a magical house. In a game of hide and seek several years after they moved in, the children pulled up a rug they’d never noticed to find a trap door. 
     They pulled that open and found a room below with a tunnel running a hundred feet under the lawn all the way to a room under the gazebo with a still, proof of the house’s bootlegging days. That was quickly removed by the teetotaling Tuttles.                

   Upstairs was Aunt Connie and Uncle Tut’s bedroom, the same gigantic size as the living room except for a chunk taken out for the bathroom.  It was called Texas because Aunt Connie’s sister, having done a little housekeeping, came downstairs and said,
“Well, I’ve just finished sweeping the great state of Texas.”


    Not everyone was as enchanted as I was.  My grandfather said, “As many chairs as Connie’s got there’s not one you can sit in.” But I didn’t care about comfortable chairs.  While the grown ups talked I would look around and try to decide what I would save if I knew the flood was coming.  I usually chose a china chicken from her collection.

    My teacher, Robert Beverly Hale, said, “One’s work is nothing but the long journey through life to recover, through the detours of art, the two or three great and simple images that first gained access to one’s heart.” 

Look who now lives on top of my kitchen cabinets. 

 When I was grown up I took a friend who wrote about design for New York Magazine to see Aunt Connie’s house and she swooned, “This place is beyond charming!”  Thus confirming my childhood conviction.

Why was Aunt Connie my inspiration? She had qualities every artist needs:

    She was resiliant, After her first house was washed away she gave thanks that her family was safe and then she started over again at Grateful Haven. If you lose everything you have, start right over and know that whatever you’ve made before, there’s more where that came from.  I once left two finished drawings on the subway and I went right back to the studio to do them again while the image was fresh.

    She had discernment.  William Morris said, “If you want a golden rule, have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”  As much stuff as Aunt Connie collected, there was nothing that was not either beautiful or useful, and everything was mostly both, and all arranged with order and a plan.  I hate clutter. Was that house cluttered?  NO. There’s clutter and then there’s abundance. 

She was resourceful. There was nothing that cost a lot of money–she had an eagle eye for wonderful things and if she saw something she liked she could usually figure out how to make one like it or better.  She saw some beach chairs on her travels and duplicated them for our beach.  They were funny looking but surprisingly comfortable and light enough to carry. Not really lounge chairs but Aunt Connie wan’t a lounging kind of person.


She was industrious; she always had a project.  My grandmother would say, “Connie’s always fussing with something.” As much as I loved my serene MomMom, I also admired Aunt Connie’s busy ways. I have learned that when my hand is working my mind is engaged and focused instead of running in all directions as it did in school.

    But industry without imagination can fall flat. I think Aunt Connie’s greatest gift to me was insouciance, defined by the dictionary as “casual lack of concern, indifference.”

I would add joy.  Her aesthetic was whimsical and offbeat and she stood by it proudly with an attitude of “whatever I like works.” She gave me the freedom in my drawings to say, “A pelican in the window? A rhino in the kitchen?  Why not!

    My grandparents’ house was beautiful; solid and austere, decorated with family pictures and Bible verses.  It’s my sturdy foundation.  But Aunt Connie’s house showed me how to let loose and have a little fun.  I’m grateful for both.

Who was your Aunt Connie?


Is it really time for March Madness? The NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament begins next Tuesday so basketball is on everyone’s mind, even mine.Remember the little black books I wrote about a few weeks ago? I pulled out these two pictures from 1991.
These little athletes are playing in New York City’s Junior Basketball League.

Then look at this shot, the starting lineup of Duke University’s basketball team. The caption says “Duke’s starting five, Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy, Jason Williams, Chris Duhon and Dahntay Jones, can be an imposing group.”  Arthur tells me all five went on to careers in the N.B.A. 

They could be the little guys all grown up, although they’re not; the two pictures were taken around the same time. 
Looking at these two photos together makes me think of the Sugarplum Fairy.  

Stay with me here.  

In the second act of Balanchine’s Nutcracker, the Sugarplum Fairy dances surrounded by her court of young dancers, students of the American School of Ballet.She’s the epitome of effortless grace and beauty. 

It’s my favorite moment in the ballet.  They look up at her and see the embodiment of their dreams.  Here they are rehearsing together.

“Stand up straight, hold in your tummy, do this with your hands.”
Ballet is the art of making enormous hard work appear effortless.It’s all about the dream; the seed and the flower. Where does it begin and what’s required of us to make a dream come true?

I saw Mets shortstop Jose Reyes make a diving catch–fully stretched out, flat on his belly on the grass and the next second he was on his feet; he pivoted and threw to first for a double play.  How many crunches and burpees did it take to achieve that easy grace?

Here’s a story from our family legend.  Arthur and my dad were talking—Dad was going on and on about a friend he greatly admired,
“He’s just a wonderful person—a perfect person…Well, I can’t say that because we know there was only one perfect man.”  

Dad of course meant Jesus, but Arthur said,

“I Assume you mean Pete Maravitch.”  

[that’s Pete Maravich of the scraggly hair and floppy socks, all time NCAA division I scorer, played for three NBA teams until injuries ended his career.]

I’ve read that Maravitch as a kid, took his basketball wherever he went-even to the movies. He’d sit in an aisle seat and dribble all through the show.  That may be an apocryphal story, but it rings true; Pistol Pete strove for perfection. He dreamed of playing in the NBA and he knew what it took to get there.


It’s not only with athletes; Mary Oliver said, “Lord knows when I started writing poetry it was rotten… but I kept at it.  With my pencil I’ve travelled to the moon and back several times.”

Pablo Casals, in his nineties, was asked why he still practiced at his cello for hours every day.  He replied, “I think I’m getting somewhere.”

Any gift—a talent, a garden, a baby, THE EARTH, takes work to bring it to flower.

We all know how to get to Carnegie Hall.

My Grandmother

This is how Jessie described a visit Ito my grandmother n her school journal.. 



My grandmother, we called her MomMom, died early in the morning on my Jessie’s 7th birthday.

We were staying  at her home at the time, and after several hours of phone calls and business, after the doctor and the undertaker had left, I looked at Jessie and thought, this little girl needs a celebration. 

So I drove to town to buy a cake, then went to the party store and bought 7 pink balloons and one purple to grow on. I headed out the door. The spiky chandelier in the entry way caught a balloon and POP! I went back, they replaced it for free and I headed out again, this time holding my bouquet very low. On the street I passed a woman with a lit cigarette and POP!  

I went back to the store and this time I paid for the replacement. I headed out again, holding the balloons in a tight cluster. As they rubbed against each other, they heated up, the air and helium inside expanded andPOP!Just like we learned in fourth grade science class. 

I went back.  They were not happy to see me. I asked the helium person not to fill them quite so full and she looked at me like I was speaking a strange language. I finally got the balloons to the car and put them in the back seat.

They rose up and completely filled the back window, blocking my view. I backed out of the angle parking space VERY cautiously and ever so gently tapped an on-coming car. A crabby old man got out to inspect his fender and then drove off ignoring my profuse apologies. I wanted to say to him, “Sir, if you only know the day I’m having…” 

I guess you can’t expect kindness from someone you’ve just dinged. I drove home carefully and we had a party in the midst of the funeral plans.

My Grandmother, Louise Mayhew Russell Swanson, loved the Bible and Jesus, and she held an unshakable faith in the resurrection. In her circle Death was referred to as “Going Home.”

Sojourner Truth, said at the end of her life; “I’m not dying–I’m going home like a shooting star!” I like to think MomMom went home like

a burst of pink balloons.

My Friend, Valerie Bessette

 Yesterday was the birthday of my friend, Valerie Bessette. 

    She and I went to High School together. Val was petite with silvery blond hair.  She played the Good Witch Glinda in our High School production of the Wizard of Oz.   The next year she played the lead in Booth Tarkington’s Seventeen.  Her character carried a tiny dog wherever she went, but nobody in Vermont has a tiny dog–the closest we could find was a forty pound poodle.  Val made her entrance buried under that dog with perfect aplomb.  And that was her way–she could handle anything. 

    The summer we were twenty-one I was languishing in Stowe with a bad boyfriend, a pile of debts and no plans for my future.  Valerie came home from New York City where she’d been going to Parson’s School of Design.  She was living my dream life.  

    She suggested we take a day trip to an art gallery in the next town. Just getting out of town opened something up in me.  I remember one painting, a huge abstract with squares of bright yellow. 
I don’t remember what Val and I talked about that day,

except that she told me she had a two bedroom rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan and she needed a roommate. 

     Talk about a good witch. 

   When I remember that day it has a golden glow. I wish I had a picture of the yellow painting; this is the closest I can get.  
     So in September of 1969 I moved to New York City, got a job in a ski shop and started taking classes at the School of Visual Arts.    We had a great year and mostly got along well.  When we walked together in the rain she always carried the umbrella, even though she was shorter than me. It would bump on my head, but it didn’t occur to either of us that I should carry it—Val carried the umbrella.
Here we are in our apartment, trying out the auto focus in her new camera

 Neatness and order were very important to Val and I was a slob. My messes bothered her so much that she would clean my room, just so she wouldn’t have to look at it.  Years later, when I had learned to appreciate order and had two kids messing up my house, I said to her,

    “I know that with all my messiness I was awful for you to live with, and I’m really really sorry.”

    Valerie just looked at me and said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”   

    Remember what Arthur said about  letting go?

Here We are at her wedding
   Val was a wonderful mother to her son, Ted. They made a pet of the spider who spun  a web in their cellar door and named her Charlotte.
     She made sure Ted was steeped in the rules of civility.  When he was barely three I helped him into a chair and said,
     “Let’s slide your butt back here.”
      He said sternly, “We don’t use that language in this house.”         In May of 2004 Val went for a check up and after some tests the doctor told her she couldn’t go home.  

    It was Acute Myeloid Leukemia.  She died on August 22 of that year. 

    I miss her. I miss the talks we could be having now.  I’m so sorry she never got to see Ted become a man.  
     I’ll always be grateful to her and for her. 

    The last time I saw Val we met at an outdoor cafe in the midst of a sun shower.  I can still see her walking towards me, the raindrops sparkling all around her in the sun.


Thanks to Carol Skinger for filling me in with some details, and also to Jodi and Erica; the Skinger girls were Val’s sisters.


My Little Black Books


How did I get interested in art?  I never got uninterested.  I drew pictures like all kids but I never gave it up and nothing more compelling appeared.  

    I taught art for fifteen years. I loved my students but eventually realized that teaching, along with raising my children, left little time for Art. I couldn’t give up the children so I gave my notice and went back to the Art Students League.  My friend, Rosina Florio, the director of the school, arranged for me to receive a grant that paid tuition for one class and an allowance for supplies. She insisted I study with Leo Manso, an abstractionist.

     I resisted, thinking I wouldn’t get anything from a teacher whose aesthetic was so different from mine. I was mainly afraid that he’d be dismissive of my work. For a month I took a sculpture class. I was hiding out really, afraid to go to Manso. It was good to work in three dimensions, to use my hands and eyes in a different way but I knew I was going nowhere with sculpture. I gave in and went to Manso’s class.   

     He was formidable; not tall but sturdily build, with flowing hair and a mustache.  He walked around the class quietly, the center of attention, looking at students’ work and commenting. When I showed him my drawings he said, 

    “Well, I can see you’re a conscientious person…I see a lot of skill here…but nine to five isn’t art.” 

    I felt my lower lip tremble. 

     I’d worked so hard for that skill.  I’d been taught that the answer to success is diligence. Hard work. Stick-toitiveness.  All through school I was a day dreamer who finished nothing and now that I’d finally started working in a concentrated way, he said it wasn’t art.

I’m not sure why I didn’t zip up my portfolio and leave.  I stayed and got to work.  

    I put away my pen and ink and bought a little blank book, six inches by nine, and wrote on the first page Leonardo DaVinci’s last words;

     “If I could make…If I…” 

The most important thing about my little book was that nobody was allowed to see it.  I had thrown away for the moment everything I thought I’d achieved to try new stuff and I had to protect those raw new ideas.  

I never thought of myself as a writer but that first book is full of words; some my own and many many quotes.

“You won’t lose yourself, you’ll find something in yourself you might not have known was there.”  

“Tired subjects redeemed by freshness of context”

“The dizzyness of too much possibility.”

Manso said; “Art should be psychologically relevant, aesthetically pleasing and well crafted.”  That felt like something I could work toward.

“If it’s not working, check the balance-size, shape…
repetition–is it subtle variations on a theme or just boring?”
“Don’t be book-endish.”

I kept coming back to diligence; “Diligence is the mother of good fortune”. Then in my own thoughts, Diligence is driving me crazy.

Then, from my dear friend and wise counselor, Lenesa, “Keep talking and writing.  Use the words.”

 All that  year and for several years after I worked at those little books. I tore through magazines and newspapers, letting colors and images grab me, not making decisions or thinking hard, just taking things that appealed without wondering why.  

    Page after page, some abstract, playing with form and color, making odd juxtapositions of images and textures.  I raced through the New York Times every morning and grabbed things–I was open to any kind of delight.    

    I thought about the artists who spoke to me, who had something I could use–or steal.  I loved Hans Holbein’s pencil drawing of Lady Cecily Heron, the daughter-in-law of Sir Thomas More, with her wonderful name and her sharp sideways glance.  Holbein put so much meaning and life into those few pencil lines. I made lots of xerox copies and played with her image.  Her she is gazing at a young Georgia O’Keeffe.  

 I quit thinking of my work as a way to  please someone else. I was working just for me, looking for my own reality. It was liberating.

Here’s a quote; “I feel so much at sea–feel enormous conflict, almost like isometric exercise a beast standing at the gate. This is fear of success because it’s competition with M…Also wonder if I’m working to please Manso What’s good and what’s not? When it works I really don’t know why. Not really interested in being Braque or even Stuart Davis. Little work this week but hugely upheaving and searching.” 

I was like a tempest, bringing up treasures from the bottom of the sea and casting them onto the beach for further use. I was having a great time, intensely involved in my work.    

Mark Summers’ portraits were great fun to play with.  Here’s LBJ and a carousel horse.


 I finally showed my little books to Manso and he said, “This makes me think there’s hope for you,” and  then “This is a playground for you.” Then sometimes he’d say, “What have you got for me today, my friend?”
     At the end of that year I thanked him. “I know my work is different from your aesthetic but you really helped me.” He said, “I can tell when someone is serious.” 
     Rosina was right.   Manso had plenty to teach me.  there are elements of color, composition and form that transcend genres and we worked on those.   

But what he really gave me was a sense that it was safe to open up to possibilities, and if I say it’s interesting or worth while well then, dammit, it is.  I didn’t have to give up my hard earned diligence, so rooted in my family history; all I had to do was merge it with my sense of fun, of looking at things from a different angle. and recognizing that my odd angle was valid.

It’s my Valentine’s Birthday

 Arthur and I met on May 11, 1973, the day after the New York Knicks won the NBA championship. Things haven’t gone well for the Knicks since then but Arthur and I are doing fine.

    I am often asked how I, coming from such a religious background, with a deep commitment to the Bible and Jesus, could marry a Jewish man?  Arthur doesn’t get it either.  When I tried to tell him about my relationship with Jesus he replied, 

    “I don’t know, Barbara,  I felt a lot better about you when you talked this way about Elvis.”  Irreverent, yes, but his skepticism made me look at my faith from a different angle and I came away with a stronger, clearer commitment.

    When it was time to introduce Arthur to the family I made a date to meet my father at a steak house near Madison Square Garden.  

    Arthur arrived first and called me.  Knowing Dad’s punctuality, I said, “My father’s there–go introduce yourself and I’ll get there soon.”

    “How will I know him?”

    “He looks like me and he wears glasses.”

     Mom later told me Dad’s account of that meeting;

    “I’m sitting at the bar thinking ‘I’ve gotta meet another artsy boyfriend, a theater directer, ah jeez.  Why couldn’t she pick someone like that young man over there–blue blazer, polo shirt, neatly trimmed mustache, looks like an athlete?’  And at that moment the athletic young man walks up to me and says, ‘Are you Barbara’s father?’ ”

    In the scramble to free their right hands for a shake red wine was spilled on Dad’s tie but that didn’t matter. By the time I got there they were deep in conversation about sports and the movies.


       I once said to my brother, Alan, “Don’t you think the secret of a long marriage is a high tolerance for irritation and  boredom?” and he said, 

    “Yes, and inertia.”

    I do have one tip.  Arthur and I have had terrible fights, and we’ve gone to bed angry plenty of times, but we never let a fight interfere with our social life.  If we had plans we’d  put on happy faces for our friends. Eventually he’d say something funny or interesting, I’d remember what it was I liked about him and the fight would be over.  

    He  has brought wonderful gifts to our marriage, like standing up for your friends, abhorring gossip, being true to your word, honoring your work.  These weren’t new concepts to me but Arthur brought them into a new light.  Possibly the most important thing he’s taught me is, “Let it go.”  Troubles just roll off him and they’re forgotten.  It’s hard for me to quit chewing over old resentments, but it’s helpful that Arthur never pours gasoline on fires and his humor never fails us.

    When my nephew was six he told me; “When I was little I saw Arthur in his bathing suit and I said, ‘Arthur, how come you have so much hair on your chest?’ and without looking up from his book he said, ‘Because, Danny, I used to be a bear.’ And for a long time I believed him.”

 I’m not the only one who finds Arthur irresistible,  Here he is with our nieces, Katie and Rachel.


Form Follows Function

Form Follows Function
     In church last week the lesson was the first Psalm: it says that the righteous are “like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and its leaves do not wither.”  One of the hymns we sang had a line about a whale roaming the seas and an eagle soaring the skies. You know how something just grabs you? those two images reminded me of this quote:
“Whether it be the soaring eagle in his flight,
or the open apple blossom, the toiling work horse,
the blithe swan,
the branching oak,the winding stream at its base,
the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, 
Form ever follows function
and that is the law.
Where function does not change, form does not change.”
Who said that?   Louis Sullivan,1856-1924, called the father of modern architecture.  He believed, and acted upon that belief, that a building must be solid, useful and beautiful, and designed from the inside out, with its purpose in mind.
     You can see Sullivan’s only New York City work at 65 Bleecker Street, the Bayard, now Bayard-Condict building. Paul Goldberger called it “a delicate poem, yet a strong one.”and points to the structural expression evident in the graceful yet sturdy pillars. Sullivan found a beautiful balance between the structure and the embellishments.
Does form always follow function?  You might not think so to look at the French Poodle. I always thought this was a silly look with the chest all puffed out and the little pompoms around the ankles but then I learned that the look serves a purpose. The Poodle was bred as a hunting dog–to leap into cold water and retrieve dead ducks. The fluff around the chest protect and warm the lungs and heart, the hind legs are free for swimming, the pompoms warm the joints. Form Follows Function.
This guy’s groomer may have carried it too far, but the basic design is functional.
Here’s a blithe swan by my friend, Carol Way Wood,(

       New York City’s beautiful firehouses, like the one at the top of this post, are perfect examples of form following function and they’re so appealing. I love their red doors, their orderly design and the polite way they nestle into a row of brownstones. Each one has a unique design and decoration. I find it deeply moving about my fellow humans that something so necessary and utilitarian is made to be so beautiful. 

    I was walking with Arthur past Engine Company 14, the one that starred in the movie, Ghostbusters, when a hook and ladder came home.  The firefighter at the wheel, who didn’t look old enough to drive, had to turn left but there was a car in his way.  He put his hand out the window with a lovely “after you” wave for the car to go ahead, then made his turn and easily pulled that huge truck into the narrow doorway.

    “That was so graceful,” I said to Arthur.  He agreed.
When something works well, whether it’s a building or a song or just a maneuver, it’s a lovely thing. I try to keep open to the tiny delights life offers up.

The Gates

This week marks the fourteenth anniversary of The Gates, Christo and Jean Claude’s monumental work which transformed Central Park for two weeks in February, 2005; 7,503 vinyl rectangles holding orange curtains, standing along 23 miles of pathways in the Park. 

Bulgarian artist Christo Yavacheff and French artist Jeanne-Claude, or Christo and Jeanne-Claude, are know for their site specific works of art, particularly wrapping large objects, like the Reichstag in Berlin.  They worked on this project for years,  and met with mighty resistance until our mayor, Michael Bloomberg, said, “Sure, let’s do it.”  I love him for that. We were still recovering from the attacks of September 11, 2001. While there are things we never get over, we have to move on and doing something huge just for art, for fun, for the heck of it, had great appeal.

I was able, through the New York Artists Circle, to sign up to become a worker in a gray smock, carrying a long pole with a tennis ball at the tip.  Our job was to stand guard at our station, deter vandals and when the wind wound the curtains around their supports to unwind and set them free.

I found it enchanting.  There was a snow storm the night before my first day and the saffron curtains were even more brilliant against the white.  Here I am at my post, clearing the path and learning once again that shoveling snow is a great way to keep warm.  

Look at the way the puddles reflect the color of the curtains. And doesn’t my pink hat look nice against the orange? I wish I still had that hat in January of 2017.
I thank my friend, Carol Leibenson, for finding this shot in her files when I had lost it.

Here we are getting our smocks autographed by the artists.  I’m a New Yorker and I would die before asking a famous person for an autograph but this was different. I am in awe of these two and what they achieved.

Central Park, so often deserted in winter, came alive.  Every morning I walked past the statue of the King of Poland, looking over Belvedere Castle and the Great Lawn.  Now there was a curtain in front of him and as the sun rose behind him in the east I thought, “Wow, he’s never seen his shadow before! I wonder how he likes it?”

The whole world came to celebrate, especially Christo and Jean-Claude’s biggest fans, the people of Germany.   I asked one visitor, “So who’s running Germany while all you guys are over here?”

There was the most lovely feeling of community under those arches. The whole project was completely open and democratic; it reached every square foot of the park and you couldn’t pay more to get a better seat.  It was for everyone.  A young man came up to me and asked, “How do I get to the Gates?” And I said, “You’re here!”

Dogs are allowed off the leash in the park before nine am, so they’d come out to play and their human companions would visit. 

My partner was a young woman who was also not tall so we couldn’t always reach high enough to unwind the curtains.  A tall man came along with his family and helped us; when he freed the cloth his children yelled, “Yay, Daddy!” 

 The hotdog venders, usually lucky to make a hundred dollars on a winter day, were raking in the money—as much as a thousand dollars a day.

My son, Sam, called me on my cell and said, “Mom, it’s really cold today.  Can I bring you some extra warm clothes?”

The  project was funded entirely by the sale of Christo’s artwork. There were no volunteers. Although many of us would have participated for nothing; everyone got paid. When I received a check for three hundred and fifty dollars Sam said, “Mom, you should buy yourself something nice with that money, because you worked hard for it…and…have you given away ten percent?”  So some of my lessons had taken root.  I asked him where I should direct my tithe and he suggested an organization working to legalize marijuana.
“Uh, anything else?”
He was working as a barista, so he suggested I increase my tips whenever I got coffee. “There’s nothing like finding a five in the tip jar!” So for the next month I was a big tipper.  It was a ripple effect of the Gates.

And then it was over; the gates were taken down and all materials were re-cycled.  Nobody could buy a gate and put it up in their yard.  That ephemeral nature added to the magic.

 I was so impressed–awed, really, that I asked myself what I had done to come anywhere close.  I remembered that when I stood and gazed up at Mount Rushmore I asked myself, “Should I be working bigger?”

I had always wanted to start an exhibition program at my church.  I served as co-chair of a capital campaign to restore the church’s south wing, an 1874 McKim Mead White Gothic Revival that had suffered some years of neglect. One of our dreams was to hang art in the beautiful Great Hall. But after raising more than a million dollars and overseeing design and construction and listening to the church members who hadn’t done the work but didn’t like the results, my co-chair and I took some time off from church work.

Then Christo and Jeanne-Claude inspired me.  If they could pull off the Gates, after twenty years of negotiating and planning, surely I could persuade the church to hang some pictures in the Great Hall.  I presented my idea to our pastor, Jon Walton, and he replied that a church in the Village should serve the artistic community.   The result was Art at First, a program of exhibiting art by emerging or unknown artists.  We’ve had some great shows.

 It’s much more fun to be in the game than to watch it, and if you think you can’t do something, just give it another go.  You might be surprised.

Addendum To Brown

In talking about things I love that are brown how could I have forgotten Lucy?
After Jessie and Sam left home I knew it was time for a dog.  Arthur kept saying all the mean dad things like, it’s too much work, you won’t take care of it, on and on.
But he was planning behind my back and on my birthday this little bundle of love flew in from Council Bluffs, Oklahoma.  Her kennel name was Stormy but thank Heaven we changed that.It was just like when I met Arthur–I knew at once that we were meant for each other.
I described Lucy as “the love of my life” in front of Sam, who reminded me that’s a term I should reserve for my husband.  Well, yes, Arthur’s very nice, but he doesn’t wiggle all over with joy every time he sees me.

This year for my birthday Molly made Lucy’s portrait.  It’s a great likeness, don’t you think?




color is made for the perpetual comfort and delight of the human heart.”

John Ruskin

I agree with that. Color is one of the things that make my life worth living. On the other hand, the wrong color can send me into a tizzy.  When my church installed a brown rug with orange zig zags in the lobby I hated it.  Just thinking about it kept me up at night.

    “How could they have picked it?” I whined to my friend, David.  “It’s so awful, it makes me feel parched just looking at it.”  And, worst of all, “Nobody asked me what I thought.” 

    David said, “You know how people with perfect pitch hear a wrong note and it hurts their ears?  I think you may have perfect color pitch, and you’re extra sensitive, because, really, Barbara, I didn’t even notice that rug.”  He was right.  Some colors have all the powers for me that a cookie had for Marcel Proust.  Have I read Proust?   David says when asked that question we should always answer, “Well, not in English.”   I haven’t read Proust, but I’ve read about his magic cookie and the transporting powers of our senses.

My mother loved color.  She said,  “When you shop, don’t flip through all the dresses —just glance over the whole rack and only look at the ones that catch your eye.”
 In other words, it’s the color that counts.

She always dressed me in red.  Here I am in a red jumper—but look at my shoes.

That famous painter, Winston Churchill, said this about color; “I cannot pretend to be impartial about the colors. I rejoice with the brilliant ones, and am genuinely sorry for the poor browns.”

I used to agree; Brown was boring and even depressing. I keep two water jars on my drawing table to rinse my pens and brushes—one for the reds and one for the greens and blues. I hate the muddy greenish brown you get when you mix too many colors.

I once spent the summer in a house that was all brown–brown rug, brown walls, brown imitation marble kitchen counters. The sun never came out, it was rainy and chilly and I wore the same ratty blue sweater every day.  I thought it was the fault of all that brown until I remembered that it was the summer my grandmother died and oh yeah, I was in mourning.   

But  then I had a dream of a beautiful rich brown–yes, a dream that was just about a colorbrown with a lot of red and gold flecks, and tiny green sprouts springing from it. It was gorgeous. It woke me up to the glories of brown.  It’s all the colors together in various combinations. It’s the earth, birthplace of so many good things.  

Then along came Molly Louise, my granddaughter.  After generations of only blue, green or gray eyes in our family, hers are a deep luminous brown. Can you be sparkly and velvety at the same time? 

I will never speak ill of Brown again. Hazel, chestnut, umber, sepia, sienna, cocoa, fawn, bronze, amber, auburn, russet, mahogany; I love them all. 

Did I mention my mother’s maiden name is Brown?

Oh, yes, and chocolate.

In the house at the top Brown plays a supporting role–bringing out the reds and greens.  Here’s Brown as the star of the show.