By Cynthia Close
Being born on Picasso’s birthday, October 25th, always seemed like an omen to me. I started copying Degas when I was 12. My parents did not discourage me, as long as it was a “hobby”. My mom enrolled me in things like weekend ceramics classes. She came along and liked to select a piece of greenware; the ready-made but unpainted horse head bookends, roosters, ballet dancers in various poses that lined the shelves of the ceramic studio where we found ourselves nearly every Saturday morning. The instructor showed her how to apply glazes to pieces that would be fired in the kiln later, to be picked up by us and taken home the following week, but mom never had the guts to actually take a hunk of clay and make something. She was only comfortable playing by a predetermined set of rules. Uncertainty was to be avoided at all costs and she was uncomfortable with the mess usually associated with making a work of art. But if you evaluate her based on a guidebook of parental rules, most would say she was a “good mother”. She kept the house very clean. There was always milk in the fridge. She cooked all our meals. She arranged music lessons (violin), made costumes for trick or treat, enrolled me in Brownies and then Girl Scouts. She attended my dance recitals and school plays. She was there at the school Christmas concert. She marched stoically through life like a robot. She was my mother.
Now grandma was another story. I loved my grandma. She lived in Queens NY most of her life, in a house on 198th Street where I was born. She was a petite woman whose hair stayed more pepper than salt her entire life. I would beg to stay with her and my grandfather every school vacation. I can still see every room in that house. It was laid out a little like the Archie Bunker house in that now long gone sitcom, but cozier with more interesting “stuff” around. It had an attic. No other house my family ever lived in had an attic. My grandma taught me how to roller-skate. Not only that, she let me practice for hours in her basement. (These were four wheeled, metal, outdoor roller skates. Can you imagine the racket the endless scraping of metal against the concrete basement floor would have made.)? She never complained. Above the crash and clang of ball-bearings against concrete she’d call down from the top of the basement stairs every now and then “how ya doin’ hon?”
Everything I appreciate or have a feeling for in nature came from the endless summers with my grandmother at our family shack on a cliff overlooking Long Island Sound. My parents would ship me out there as soon as the closing bell of school rang at the end of June. Gram and I would explore the wild, overgrown strawberry patches and, like gleaners, pick the remains of the potato fields after the farmers were done. We’d cook our meals together; she’d always let me “help”. She was relaxed. Happy. She loved me.
New York City was our regular stomping ground. I loved the city best. My grandparents would take me to Rockefeller Center to ice skate at Christmas. Gram and I would explore the city like we did the tangled, overgrown, dirt paths out on Long Island in the summer. One day, I had read about an art exhibition at MoMA that I had to see. It was a Max Ernst show, his first retrospective in NYC. I was 14 at the time and Grandma was in her 60’s. She had never been to MoMA. She had no idea who Max Ernst was or what Surrealism was either, but when I suggested that we go, she was eager. I will never forget the look on my grandmother’s face when she confronted those huge paintings for the first time. Her jaw dropped. “How did he do that?” she asked as she nearly touched her nose to the canvas (the guard yelled at her and she snapped back.) We spent over three hours at the museum that day. I felt a great joy then, knowing that she and I shared an ability to wonder at creation, to experience life. She taught me that no matter how old you are there are still things to learn when you are willing and unafraid to look.
With an MFA from Boston University and following several productive careers in the arts including Instructor in Drawing and Painting, Dean of Admissions at a Boston Art School, President of a documentary film company, contributing editor DOCUMENTARY Magazine, contributing writer ART NEW ENGLAND, Cynthia now lives and writes in Vermont with Ethel, her 100 lb St. Bernard/Golden Retriever mix puppy. [email protected]