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Art in the family: everybody thought I was lucky to have artists for parents. Everybody but me.

Art in the Family

My parents are artists who divide their time between the Northeast and Sarasota. I, their only child, also serve the creative muse, but in Los Angeles, where I edit an arts-related magazine. My friends, who tend to be artists or art-lovers, tell me they're envious of my childhood. "It must have been wonderful to have parents who were artists," they say. "So Bohemian, so unconventional!"

The truth is, for many years I viewed having artist parents as a deplorable fate. Growing up in the '50s, what I really wanted was to be like other kids with parents who were normal. Instead, I was stuck with these two intense, creative people who looked at the world in their own exasperatingly unpredictable way.

Other fathers worked and other mothers stayed home. But my father painted all day and didn't even have a regular job, while my mother did. To add to the embarrasment, our house didn't look like other houses. Not only was it full of my mother's sculptures and my father's canvases, but the walls were painted strange colors - deep purples and maroons - and the garden, carefully nurtured by my father, was an all-but-impenetrable jungle. Why couldn't we have a tidy garden, with manicured lawns and neatly clipped hedges, like everybody else?

My parents had met in the '30s in New York, shortly after graduating from college. They were very young, very poor and very romantic. My mother had always had her heart set on marrying an artist. My father was every bit as determined never to marry or be saddled with children. Yet the day they met, his fate was sealed. My mother had come to see the studio my father shared with a dozen friends from New York's City College. It was her first visit and she was invited to pose. All 12 of the young men painted her portrait, but it was my father who fell in love.

They were living together in a house on Long Island by the time they got married two years later. They had decided that my mother would work and my father would paint. The plan worked until I came along. Then, because my parents accepted Freud's theory that a child's first five years are the most formative, they reversed roles: My mother stopped working to stay at home with me, while my father took a job as an engineering draftsman.

My first five years were full of sunshine and security. I loved cats and dolls and my sandbox in the garden. I remember, too, the great pride I felt at my father's first oneman show in a New York gallery. It was 1946 and I was four years old. One of the paintings was titled "Hail the Newborn," and I knew that meant me.

On my sixth birthday, the gospel according to Freud having been satisfied, my mother went back to work. Since she spoke six languages, she was able to get a job at the New York Times in the foreign promotion department. My father, who loathed his drafting job, was only too happy to return to painting full time and to teaching art classes in his studio. But the new routine did not in the least please me. I wanted to be like all my friends who came home from school to doting mothers and cookies and milk. I, poor abandoned child, came home to a companionable cleaning lady with whom I shelled peas for dinner and listened to the soaps.

Soon after my mother went back to work, she started sculpting on the weekends. But there were many Saturdays when she and I would visit my father at his studio, a vast, decrepit loft in Manhattan. While he stood at his easel painting and listening to music, Mother and I would sit cozily on a dusty old velvet sofa looking at art books together. Sundays were special days, almost always reserved for trips to the museum in Elfreida, our trusty 1936 Packard convertible. I usually ignored the art but was mesmerized by the Egyptian mummies and medieval armor.

My mother had studied to be a teacher, and on warm summer evenings she liked to entertain my friends and me on the front stoop with stories about the Greek gods, the Trojan War and heroes such as Joan of Arc. Thus I learned the rudiments of myth and history. My religious training came from my father's paintings. Deeply affected by human suffering and the events of the era, he was producing works with titles such as "Daniel in the Lion's Den" and "The Sacrifice of Abraham," Biblical parables about World War II and the Holocaust.

When I was nine, my mother, who by then was working for a prestigious perfume company, was transferred to New Jersey, and we moved to the small suburban town of Ridgefield, 10 miles from Manhattan. A year and a half later, just when I had finally adjusted, her job sent us moving again - this time to Paris. A lifelong Francophile, my mother was overjoyed, and my father happily traded his studio in Chelsea for one in Montparnasse.

But I still considered myself the unluckiest child on earth. To be uprooted, deprived of my friends and set down where everybody but me spoke French was tragic! Nor was my mood improved by our Paris apartment, which, heated only by a primitive coal stove, often left us shivering with cold. Visiting my father's studio near the Porte d'Orleans wasn't any better. My mother and I would huddle under blankets while my father painted, wearing a hat, overcoat and fur-lined gloves. He used a lot of red in those Paris paintings, but that didn't help keep me any warmer. Nevertheless, by the time we were ready to return to the States two years later, I had happily adapted and spoke French like a native.

Back again in Ridgefield, we moved into a two-story house with room enough for a studio for my father on the second floor and one for my mother in the basement. My domain was my bedroom on the main floor. There I sequestered myself and, having entered adolescence, passed my time daydreaming and listening to rock and roll. Spurning museums, I spent Saturdays shopping with my girlfriends for lipstick and circle pins. My parents despaired of my moodiness and my conformist ways. Tensions increased when my father gave up his New York studio and started painting at home full time.

It was the late '50s, and his paintings were becoming increasingly abstract and difficult for me to decipher. The Biblical subjects had given way to geometry - lines, shapes and patterns. My mother's sculpture was going through an abstract phase, too. In fact, the whole family seemed to be changing, which confused me and fueled my growing independence. I had always loved to draw, but now found my own turf in literature and writing. I also found schoolmates with similar interests: poetry, jazz, Esperanto and necking.

In college, I continued to study literature but discovered that art, so indelibly instilled in me by my parents, spoke to my deepest emotions. When I was sad or lonely or homesick, it was in art that I took refuge. There were other signs that I was no longer so set against my parents. When I brought friends home, they thought my mother and father were "groovy" and were eager to spend time with them. I started enjoying their exhibitions and realizing how much fun it was to party with their artist friends. Maybe there was something to be said for having parents who weren't like everybody else, who were actually, well, hip.

After college, I moved to Greenwich Village and got a job at an art publication. My work brought my interests and those of my parents closer, and a new harmony and respect crept into our relationship. I found myself taking my more serious boyfriends to their home for weekends, so I could test their mettle in that familiar setting, debating art, philosophy and the fate of the world.

Barely had we achieved this state of grace when life took me 3,000 miles away to Los Angeles. As our contacts shrank to weekly phone calls and annual visits, a strange thing happened: I began to perceive my mother and father less as parents and more as people. And they're people I wanted to know, whose ideas and advice and company I value.

These days, I've started to visit more often. In June, I usually spend a few weeks in the western New Jersey countryside at their little stone summer house with its green and tangled garden. Their home in Sarasota, where I visit in the winter, is the complete opposite. As ancient, dark and thick-walled as the New Jersey house is, the one in Sarasota is new and bright, with floor-to-ceiling windows and light-reflecting stucco walls covered with cacti and vivid red bougainvillea. If the Sarasota garden is not yet a jungle, it's only because my father has been at it a shorter time.

During my visits, my parents and I spend hours in their studios looking at their recent work. My father regales us with puns and witticisms and gives me books and articles about art to read. On leisurely walks along the beach or country lanes, he interprets my dreams of the night before, finding symbolism in their most mysterious logic. Along the way, he points out the geometry of a cobweb, the blossoms of a cactus, the way the fog softens the colors of the mountains to a hundred shades of gray and blue. Like his paintings, his conversation interweaves subtle perceptions about form and emotion.

My mother and I have our most intimate talks as we assemble the dazzling meals she prepares. She arranges every platter as if it were a collage: Tomatoes and radishes are her reds; egg yolks her yellow; what better green than a strip of pepper? No cup or platter matches another. She's discovered each, like buried treasure, at an antique shop or swap meet. As I have for decades, I borrow - and sometimes fail to return - clothing or a piece of jewelry: Chinese brocade pajamas sewn for her by a friend in Paris, a ceramic brooch wrought by a fellow sculptor.

Whether they're visiting galleries, feeding a flock of seagulls or settling a new plant into their garden, my parents work and play together with the glee and intensity of children. Yet in every act they share, their 50 years of love, compassion and companionship shine through. I'll admit it now: Having artist parents is, in fact, quite wonderful. And best of all, they've become my cherished lifelong friends.

PHOTO : Clockwise from left: Ben at his Manhattan studio in 1946, preparing for his first one-man show. Celebrating Joanne's fifth birthday in 1947; all together in 1990 at Ben and Evelyn's 50th wedding anniversary.

PHOTO : Ben and Evelyn Wilson in 1979, with her sculpture "Twins." Ben Wilson and artist Joseph Wolins are teamed in an exhibit this month at The Salon Fine Art Gallery on Longboat Key. The show harks back to the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt's WPAl (Works Progress Administration). The WPA commissioned art, allowing artists to choose their own styles, media and subjects. Wilson was one of the youngest artists to show at the A.C.A. Gallery in 1940 and with the Bombshell Group at the Riverside Museum in 1942. The show at the Salon bridges the time from his early figurative work to his later, abstract constructive paintings.
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Article Details
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Author:Jaffe, Joanne Wilson
Publication:Sarasota Magazine
Article Type:Biography
Date:Mar 1, 1991
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