Portrait of an Artist (as a young woman)

This was a poem published in San Diego Poetry Annual 2014-15, a tribute to my second (ex)wife, who passed away last year after a long bout with cancer.  After watching the docudrama, Mr. Turner (an exploration of the last quarter century of the life of the great, if eccentric, British painter J.M.W. Turner), I have been thinking about what it means to be an artist and about the business of art and the human ways of seeing the world.   Maggie, like Turner, had the drive to create and was unimpressed with what the human world had to say about her (though, like Turner’s, her work was well-received).  She painted what she saw.  Her irrepressible spirit enabled her, through her painting, to rise above a difficult childhood, and in the end made her into a talented painter of high integrity.


Portrait of an Artist

for Maggie (1945-2014)

In grade school she won every race

and never faced the boys

who laughed.  Embarrassed,

harassed she taped her breasts flat,

didn’t want to be a girl,

just wanted to run

and never look back.

Her father alone

in a Palo Alto bar,

her mother at home,

silent in failure with

vodka, tonic, and cigarettes.

Left with her paints

she changed her life

with color,  particularly blue.

She painted their new TV blue,

then to her dad’s dismay,

painted his new car blue too.

Too blue, too blue,

all the car’s mahogany,

enamel blue.

Twenty-two, in art school,

her parents divorced,

she set a new course,

left the boyfriend who beat her up

and moved in with me.

Pregnant, she decided life was big,

bigger than her best expectations.

Then every small thing became big.

She painted big, she painted

a giant orange pig,

hung it over our living room couch.

After the baby

she started to drink,

had the affair,

stopped getting out of bed,

painted our living room

enamel red.

After work one evening I found her

sipping, tipsy, sorry

watching bright blue morning glories

close up for the night.

But how I like to think of her

is sitting before her canvas

white shirt, face, hands

all covered with paint,

fighting herself to create:

a woman on the beach,

flat white space for a face,

a woman in a wild field of foxtails,

straining to face backwards,

a woman with long tubular arms,

blue business suit, no hands,

a woman, sideways, huge with child,

in a blue bathing suit, trying to stand

without any feet.


3 thoughts on “Portrait of an Artist (as a young woman)

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