How to Raise an Artist

Apr 21, 2020 | Art

Dear Mom,

I just finished reading a book about the life and art of one of our favorite contemporary painters, Jim Ingwersen. We’ve often visited his gallery on Old Stage Road and sat beneath the grape arbor talking to he and Phyllis about his alla prima portrait painting technique, a style of painting you never embraced because you can’t go back and fix anything. Instead, you finish as you go with a lot of wet paint on the canvas. I remember you once asked me if you could take one of your paintings down off our wall and change it, not in alla prima.

Your painting of Jessie planting herbs – oil

Your artist’s eye transcends one life. The great grandchildren you may or may not live to see will look at the portraits that you’ve done of our children and say, “Mommy is that you gardening? Look at your short hair!” or to our sons, “Look how red your hair was!” or “Look how blond your hair was!” We will stand in front of the painting of your mother, Mary Jane McGreevy (Goggie) and tell them all about her iron will to survive so many serious illnesses and how Aunt Jessie came to take care of all 5 children during her bout with Landrys Paralysis. We’ll brag about how their great-great grandmother lived to be 93 when so many predicted she wouldn’t even live a “full” life. We’ll tell the story of how the quick thinking nurse splinted her feet upright when the paralysis took hold or she wouldn’t have walked out of the hospital. Your art gives life to stories that otherwise would be long forgotten. Thank you.

Our grandmother, Goggie

Like your gift of teaching, your artist’s eye passes down the line by genetics and by cultivation. You have four grandchildren who are artists, Ben –  the photographer, Caleb – the pianist (entrepreneur), Jessie- the dancer and Nathaniel – the drummer. I list their main artistic pursuits but there are many others. So good genes help, but it takes more than that, it takes freedom to raise an artist. You gave us space to explore, to live messy, to get dirty fingerpainting with big thick jars of crayola paint and newsprint pads longer than our legs. If you wanted the “perfect” house your artistic temperament didn’t allow it. We lingered in our childhood. When you took us to see the Thorne Room Miniatures at the Chicago Art Institute we did, but we strayed to the Impressionist galleries until they announced, “Museum is closing in five minutes.” When my pansy garden waned, you let me plant a terrarium for indoor gardening. You drove me to flute lessons and youth symphony several train stops away because “the inconvenience was worth it.” You cheered me on as I sang into my hairbrush, never shaming me as I chased “Star is Born” vocal dreams. Hey, you loved Barbara Streisand too! While the kids in Mrs. Piggle Wiggle stayed up all night playing Parchesi we stayed up late playing “Masterpiece.” Do you remember this board game, the players wheel and deal for great works of art and learn about the painters along the way? Thanks to this game I learned about cubism because you never took me to that gallery:) 

Caleb at Pebble Beach – oil

When we cleaned out our basement recently, I couldn’t part with the sketch books created by our children. Oh, the wonder of craypas in the hand of an eager child determined to capture the fountain in Adams Park. Aside from Tasha Tudor, I believe you must be the only grandmother who helped her grandchildren paint oil paintings in elementary school. Do you remember helping Caleb paint this one of the ramparts on top of Glenbard West High School? 

First oil painting by Caleb – third grade

You taught me not only how to grow flowers, but how to arrange them and how every room must have a touch of black for contrast. Building on light and shadow, bringing the outside in, attending to tiny details, “God is in the details,” how well you’ve lived this Mies Van deRohe quote, even down to the way your front hall stand held a basket of fresh picked roses from your gardens and you let the petals fall to the floor and then you left them because they were beautiful detached.

Nathaniel in the Adirondacks – oil

Thank you for spending your artistic eye on all of us. 

We see you, and to see is a great gift.

So much love dear Mama. 

I will see you as soon as these Coronavirus restrictions lift, 

and I will come with an armful of flowers.