Portland Museum of Art
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The following essay is reprinted with permission of the Portland Museum of Art. PMA is presenting a retrospective exhibition of works by Maine artist Dahlov Ipcar, "Dahlov Ipcar: Seven Decades of Creativity," October 6, 2001 through January 27, 2002. An illustrated catalogue containing this essay may be purchased through the museum's bookshop.
My Family, My Life, My Art
by Dahlov Ipcar
My childhood has always been important to me, for it was in many ways an unusual childhood. My parents, William and Marguerite Zorach, were both artists. I grew up in Greenwich Village in New York City, in a home full of modern art, of Fauvism and Cubism, in a creative atmosphere, where everything in our home was exciting and different from other peoples' homes. From the beginning, art seemed a natural part of life. My father would be carving in one large room of our apartment, wood chips all over the floor, with his finished carved figures standing about like members of the family. His oil paintings --marvelous, mysterious, semi-cubistic, and colorful -- hung on the walls. My mother would be painting in the adjoining room, which was both studio and living room. I could not have imagined a life without paintings on the walls, and color everywhere. Our walls were canary yellow; Adam and Eve were painted on one wall, with the snake winding down the tree. The floors were bright vermilion, and covered with rugs that my mother designed and hooked herself. She created large batik hangings and bedspreads, and every piece of furniture was decorated, each chair rung a different color.
My father's painting of Leo Ornstein's piano concert, a Cubist work with lots of bright red, hung on the living room wall along with my mother's Cubist painting of tiger lilies, complementing the vermilion floor. In my bedroom hung The Garden (1914) a Fauvist work of my mother's which is now in the collection of the Portland Museum of Art. Also in my room was her large oil entitled The Circus (circa 1925) which she later reworked as a small embroidery, now in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Animals were also a part of our lives, even in the city. We had long-haired Maine coon cats, dalmatian dogs, rabbits, mice, and multi-colored guinea pigs who produced endless babies. Also goldfish and birds -- finches and parakeets. I learned to concentrate by doing my homework while the parakeets screeched and carried on.
My mother designed and made all her own clothes, and ours too. My brother and I went to school in clothes embroidered with fantastic flowers. The principal once called my mother in and tried to tell her that she shouldn't send us to school in such fancy clothes. My mother said, "I can't afford to buy ordinary clothes, and if I'm going to make something it has to be something beautiful." The clothes were beautiful and certainly strange to others' eyes, very exotic. I'm sure to most people we looked like gypsies. "Bohemians" was the word used then. My father said that he started wearing more conventional clothes when he realized that people were more interested in his clothes than in his art. My parents had a vision of a new pastoral world where people would wear beautifully designed clothes or no clothes at all. On my mother's travels to India as a young woman, she did not see the primitive misery; she saw an amazing world of beauty and vivid colors which inspired her to change everything about her life.
Both my parents had gone to Paris to study art in the early 1900s and were caught up in the modern art movement. They were among the very first "modern artists" in this country, and their early years were a struggle. Very few people bought art, especially modern art. My parents were very poor for many years. My brother Tessim created beautiful drawings as a child, but he never wanted to be an artist. He thought the life was too hard. I, on the other hand, was not aware of our poverty. I didn't seem to need money as a child. My allowance was ten cents a week, and I rarely spent it.
My father started out as a painter, but he became a sculptor. In the early 1920s he revived the art of carving directly in wood and stone. He preferred hard stones like granite which took endless time and patience to sculpt. He had a terrific artistic drive, but he was not a very practical man. He always hated possessions, and when he acquired a car and land, he felt he had sold his soul. My mother was also independent and creative, but she was extremely practical and capable of almost anything: running a farm or rebuilding a house, as well as taking care of a family and creating beautiful things. She was primarily a painter, but she raised the crafts she did to the level of fine art, embroidering large tapestries which now hang in museums. She was a marvelous role model for me. But in spite of her achievements she was always very modest and did not promote her own career. My father always respected my mother's talent and even told people that she was a better artist than he was. Theirs was almost a symbiotic relationship; in their lives and in their art they depended on one another.
My family spent winters in New York City and summers in the country. There was usually some friend who had an abandoned farm or summer place where we could stay rent-free. I was born in Windsor, Vermont on November 12, 1917. My parents had been summering nearby in New Hampshire. I was due in September, but October came and went, and it got bitterly cold before I finally arrived. My mother always said I was an 11-month baby, weighing 11 pounds.
My brother Tessim was three years older than I was. In 1916 my mother had hired a "nursemaid" for him. This was a great extravagance, but it gave her time to paint. Ella Madison took me over. She was a large, black woman with crinkly gray hair. She was much more than a nurse. She was like a second mother to us. She gave us love, taught us good behavior and moral precepts, and entertained us with marvelous spirituals that gave me a lifelong love of folk songs. She had performed in minstrel shows in her youth and toured Europe as a professional singer. When she finally left us, she went on to perform in the original Theater Guild production of Porgy and Bess.
I was fortunate in my early schooling. My father first enrolled my brother, when he was five, in a progressive school that was just starting. This was the City and Country School, started by Caroline Pratt, one of the first and most famous of the new experimental schools. Pratt felt that most children are full of eagerness to learn, and that traditional schooling kills this enthusiasm. A year later, when I became three, I was enrolled too. We received free tuition in exchange for my father teaching art.
We were encouraged in every form of creativity. I most enjoyed painting and modeling in clay. From the very beginning, animals were my favorite subjects, and they still are: from the age of three I dreamed of living on a farm. I tell parents, "Never underestimate how early a child's life plan is made."
At City and Country we studied ancient civilizations: their history, culture, and art. I don't remember much history, but I remember all the art. Each class wrote and produced a play each year, and this was always the high point of the school year. I remember one marvelous Egyptian play about the journey of the soul after death, with the row of judges -- jackal, hawk, ram, and lion's heads -- watching the weighing of the heart, with wonderful costumes in red, black, and white.
I also wrote poetry and stories. But I was never a natural teller of tales. I was more visually oriented. Instead I wrote "mood pieces," descriptive vignettes: a man rowing a skiff in the fog, mice dancing in a twilight room, a city street in the rain. From early childhood my father took me to art galleries and to visit artists' studios, and I listened to artists talk about their work. He took me to museums, especially to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where I was entranced by Egyptian tomb paintings, Greek vases, Renaissance marriage chests, and Indian miniatures. Much later I realized that all this apparently diverse ancient art had much in common -- simple, direct forms, bright colors, and sometimes intricate design -- all of which appealed to me then and still do.
Even my current interest in painting jungle scenes started way back when I was little. My father saved all the pictures I made, and there is one large painting that I did in poster paints at age nine of a tapir in a South American jungle, complete with monkeys, macaws, and a snake in the trees; and it all came out of my imagination. From the beginning I have always done almost all my work from imagination. If I felt the need for accuracy I tried to observe and remember, rarely sketching. I consciously tried to train my visual memory. I still consider this a great asset. I can portray animals in action, because I see them in my mind's eye, and I don't have to depend on models or photographs. When I was 13, I suddenly realized, I don't know how, that the beauty and feeling in a picture are the elements that matter most. There was more to art than the realism that I had been striving for. In the paintings I did that year, it was the mood and the color that were most important to me.
My parents kept the apartment at 123 West 10th Street for 20 years, and I grew up there. It was a very narrow street, and we were directly across from Jefferson Market Jail. To my eyes this huge prison building held no menace -- it was just a marvelous, red brick Gothic castle with towers and turrets and a high wall. Offices of bail bond lawyers lined the street, and strange characters were always hanging about. Everyone thought it was a dreadful neighborhood, but I was happy there and nothing bad ever happened to me. In 1923 my parents were able to buy a farm in Maine for very little, and after that we spent our summers there in Robinhood village on Georgetown Island. Our old 1820 farmhouse was large. My mother papered, painted, and furnished it with antiques which at that time cost much less than up-to-date furniture. She decorated the living room walls with a mural of leaves and animals and nude figures, all done in green. She also put extensive flower gardens in around the house, as well as a large vegetable garden. My father converted an old toolshed into a studio. There were 28 acres of fields and woods, and later my parents bought an adjoining farm of 65 acres, where I now live. The front lawn sloped down to Robinhood Cove. There were wonderful rocky ledges and mud flats to explore, and we swam and fished and rowed. My brother raked blueberries to sell, and he put out lobster traps. I got tired of fishing every day to catch bait for him, but we all enjoyed the lobsters.
My mother decided we should have a cow for milk, and of course then we needed a workhorse to take in the hay for the cow, and another cow because the first cow might go dry, and a riding horse for me. Eventually we ended up with a hired hand to take care of the animals in the winter.
We raised dalmatians, and one of our pups became my own special dog, Boiki. He followed behind me when I rode in the buggy or on horseback. Once I found a baby skunk that I was determined to take back to the city as a pet. I put him in a cage on the lawn, but he escaped during the night. When I came down the next morning in my bare feet, I found the cage overturned, and I kicked the dog, who was blameless. Years later I learned that my father had crept down in the dark and let the skunk go.
My father always had three or four art students in the summer "to pay for the cook." In July Tessim and I, and the students, all took in the hay. We did it with horse-drawn equipment, with pitchforks and hand rakes. My mother got out and worked in the hayfields too, and my father showed up sporadically. We were never too happy to have him there. He was more interested in the physical exhilaration of the work than in the result. His haycocks were lopsided and undependable.
My brother and I enjoyed making hay, but we despised weeding gardens. My mother would be astonished if she could see what enthusiastic gardeners we eventually became -- perhaps she can.
It was in 1932 that I first met Adolph. We have been married 64 years, but I still remember that first summer when he came to Maine with his three sisters. They rented the farmhouse where we now live. His oldest sister was a good friend of my mother's. His youngest sister was very near my age, but I was much more interested in Adolph than in any of his sisters. He was 27 and I was only 14, but he made a wonderful companion. He bad a sharp natural wit that intrigued me. We spent the summer together, fishing, riding horses -- Adolph rode our big black workhorse -- and exploring the woods and shore. We also played chess on rainy days, though I was a very poor player and he was a good one. Adolph says that he never realized what was happening that summer until he returned to the city and started thinking, "I have a friend! And she's a girl!" But I was far from being a "girlfriend."
Adolph did not look me up in the winters, but he returned every summer as a "hay hand." The summer of 1934, after I had graduated from high school, Adolph started a weekly newspaper, handwritten on large sheets of paper. We both worked on this all summer. It was called The Snooper and was full of spoofs and fantastic accounts of family activities. I drew cartoons and designed decorative mastheads, with horses and dalmatian dogs, using all kinds of exotic typefaces: old German, Hebrew, even Greek. But there was a certain tension in the air that summer. Adolph had realized that he was in love with me, and he knew I was too young. I was completely unaware of his feelings -- it was very hard for him. It was also hard for him because he was unemployed. He had given up his job as an accountant because he hated the world of business, but in 1934 during the Great Depression jobs were not easy to find. However, that fall he was hired by Elsie Clapp, a follower and secretary of the progressive educator John Dewey. The Federal Government, Eleanor Roosevelt, Bernard Beruch, and the American Friends Service Committee were starting a resettlement community for unemployed coal miners in West Virginia. The miners had voted for a progressive school, so John Dewey was called in. He recommended Elsie Clapp to be the principal and director. Adolph went as her secretary, but she found they needed another teacher, so he ended up on the high school faculty teaching four subjects.
After City and Country I had gone on to Walden and Lincoln School of Teachers College in New York City. Both were progressive high schools, and both had excellent art departments where I found other students who shared my interest in art. I'm afraid however, that I had little respect for any of my art teachers' ideas -- I had too many ideas of my own. Thankfully they had the good sense to allow me to do whatever I wanted. I shared the current interest in the Mexican muralists Diego Rivera and José Orozco. I liked the large, simple forms in their work. In my last year at Lincoln I began working on this scale, doing over-life-size drawings of workers and World War I soldiers.
I had received a full tuition scholarship to Oberlin, College in Ohio, and in the fall of 1934 when Adolph went to West Virginia, I went to Oberlin, full of enthusiasm. But conventional academic teaching came as disappointment to me. I didn't feel like I was using my mind. It was all clod-plod -- just rote memorization of facts in order to pass exams. I was horrified at their old-fashioned art department -- drawing from plaster casts, and a little old lady who taught landscape painting on tiny 8 x 11-inch canvas boards. I refused to take any such art courses, but they kindly gave me a vacant room to work in, and I went ahead on my own doing large, mural-scale works on paper. Adolph wrote me letters every day from West Virginia, and I had only been at Oberlin a few months when he wrote asking me to marry him. This came as a shock to me. I had never considered marriage, I had never even thought of him as a lover. I couldn't say yes, but I couldn't say no, because I didn't want to lose him as a friend. I felt, however, that marriage was a serious commitment. I was rather old-fashioned in my thinking, even for those times, and I felt that marriage should be for life. So we agreed to wait a while. Adolph complains that I made him wait two years; but still, I was only 18 when we got married.
We spent that Christmas vacation together in Maine with my family. For a week it was 40 degrees below zero. We had spent other Christmases in Maine but never before one like that. We had only a large, open fireplace in the living room and a wood stove in the kitchen for heat. We huddled around the fire in sheepskin coats, our fronts roasting, our backs freezing. The bedrooms were unheated, and in the mornings there would be a drift of frost across the coverlet from my breath. That winter 100 apple trees in our orchard split open from the cold. Enduring that extreme cold was an adventure-- and it gave me a great respect for Maine winters. Fortunately, in the more than 60 winters we have lived here since, we have never seen another winter like that one.
During my spring vacation from Oberlin I visited Adolph in West Virginia, and we rode sorrel horses through the hills where the soil of the plowed fields was the same bright rust color as the horses we rode. Trillium and dogwood and mountain laurel were in bloom, and everything was green and beautiful. Green, that is, except in the coal mining valleys with their rundown shacks and slag heaps and hills blackened with coal dust, where the skeletons of dead trees stood shattered as if on a battlefield.
That summer Adolph pursued his courtship, and I still wouldn't say yes. But I think he influenced my decision not to return to Oberlin. It was an odd romance. Our hired man once remarked, "I can't understand those two. When they ride in the car, the dog sits between them, and when they go to the movies, the old lady sits between them!" But gradually Adolph was winning me over.
I spent the next winter at home in New York City, painting in the studio alongside my mother and learning to cook. My mother was a wonderful cook. She made bouillabaisse and curries at a time when most Americans never dreamed of eating such exotic dishes. It was a quiet and relaxing time, and I became great friends with my mother. We would sometimes argue about things, but she always respected my opinion and never tried to dominate me. She was able to share herself with me in a way that many mothers cannot, to treat me as a person and a fellow artist. I am glad she taught me to cook, because as it turned out, I got married the next fall.
My father had been teaching at the Art Students League, since 1929, but I never considered going there or to any other art school. My parents had always encouraged me to develop my own style of art. They both had undergone conventional art school training, but when they became involved in the modern art movement, they found they had to unlearn everything they had been taught.
They had deliberately left me unschooled in art, wanting to see what would happen if I were left alone to develop in my own way. Of course I learned a great deal from growing up among artists, but none of it was formal art instruction. When you are young you learn from everything around you, and I learned from the art of the past and the present. The danger in being "self-taught" is that in a sense you have to "reinvent the wheel." In art school I could have learned about techniques and materials, but much that makes up art instruction -- composition, use of color, design, and form -- came naturally to me. I know now that in the art courses I might have taken, there would never have been a blueprint for my own special "wheel" -- I would still have had to invent it.
My father did not come to Maine that summer. I think he could not bear to watch the developing romance. He even offered me a trip to Paris, which I refused -- anything to save me from marrying Adolph. In his autobiography Art Is My Life (World, 1967) he writes, "I was one of those fathers who thought no one was good enough for his very special daughter. I was desperate about it, but I was wrong."
Adolph was once more a "hayhand" that summer and again without a job. Support for the West Virginia experimental community had been withdrawn, and Elsie Clapp's staff was disbanded. When I finally agreed to marry him, Adolph went back to the city to find a job. By the end of September, he was still looking for work, but he came back to Maine anyhow. I didn't want a fancy wedding, so with my mother's blessing and a small gift of cash, we drove back to New York in Adolph's model A Ford with Boiki, my dalmatian, in the rumble seat. It was literally a case of "love me, love my dog."
We left Boiki sitting in the car while we went to City Hall to get married. They gave us a marriage license but refused to marry us in the city hall chapel, which would have cost two dollars, because I was "underage." We found a judge, but his two assistants wanted ten dollars to arrange to have him perform the ceremony. I was outraged. I felt it was extortion and was ready to call the whole thing off. Adolph went to phone his Uncle Max, who was a lawyer, while I sat and glared at the judge's two assistants. They looked askance at me, not believing any girl would balk at ten dollars to be married. Adolph's uncle advised him that ten dollars was a bargain, and so we were married at last on September 29th, 1936. As we were leaving, the judge said, "I hope it takes."
We rented a furnished room by the week while Adolph went job hunting. Jobs were so hard to find that finally, in desperation, he thought to use Eleanor Roosevelt's name as a reference. That worked, and at last he got a job as an accountant. We found a one-room studio apartment on West 14th Street, up five flights, and we moved in. Adolph's first assignment on his new job was to reconcile the checking account for a large women's wear chain. The checks were brought to him in four large cartons, and by the end of the first week he was still working on those checks and feeling completely disheartened.
Fortunately, we met Caroline Pratt of the City and Country School by chance at a party, and she offered Adolph a job as teacher's assistant for the seven-year-olds. The pay was less, but he was delighted to be teaching again. I taught art two days a week at two different private schools, so that made up the difference. Between us we earned $35 a week and got along fine on that. Our parents and their friends came through with gifts of furniture, cash, and other useful items. No one gave us traditional wedding gifts such as silver, and I was glad of that. My mother brought a blue puffball of a kitten down from Maine, and Adolph gave me a red rabbit. Boiki enjoyed hunting the rabbit about the apartment, but city life was pretty dull for him. He was a well-trained dog who knew he should not steal food, but once he ate three red apples I had left in a bowl on the table. I'm sure he was nostalgic for our apple orchards in Maine.
One of the few things we bought was an easel, and I painted several oils of Maine subjects: a dog guarding skaters' clothes on an ice pond and deer hunters in the snow. These two paintings were accepted for exhibition in the 1939 Corcoran Museum of Art Biennial in Washington D.C.,which was quite an encouraging start for my art career. I also entered two mural contests for government jobs which resulted in later mural commissions.
But none of this produced any income at the time. It was at this point that I first tried my hand at illustrating some stories I had written, hoping to sell them to publishers of children's books. I looked up Anne Eaton, who had been the librarian at Lincoln, my former high school, and was the chief reviewer of children's books for the New York Times. She was a good friend and got me interviews with publishers, but nothing ever came of it. I can see now that the work I was offering was unsalable.
That summer when we returned to Maine, the hired hand of many years had just quit his job. We moved into the farm house on the hill that he had occupied, and we are still living there today. It is a large Cape Cod with two huge horse chestnut trees in the front yard that provide shade in summer and are covered with white blossoms in the spring. There are 15 acres of fields, 30 acres of deep pine woods, and a large pond where we could cut ice and ice skate in winter. That fall we decided to try spending one winter in Maine. Adolph took over the hired man's work and my parents paid him the same salary they had paid the hired man. It was only $50 a month, but we managed on that. Many other people in Maine then were living on that little.
We fully intended to go back to teaching, but we never did. Eventually we built up a herd of Jersey cows, gave up the salary, and went into dairying on our own. When we began farming in 1937, it was in the depth of the Great Depression. We knew that if you lost your job in the city, you could end up on the breadlines or in the "Hoovervilles," shanty towns of packing cases built in vacant lots where the homeless lived. In Maine we knew we would always have a roof over our heads, and that we could grow our own food. There were flounders in the cove and clams to dig. There was game to hunt in the woods. It was a kind of security -- and also a challenge.
It was like a return to the 19th century: oil lamps for lighting, wood to cut for heating and cooking, ice to harvest, and an outdoor privy. The cows had to be hand-milked. I tried to learn but gave up, and Adolph took over the milking. We had all kinds of beautiful poultry as well as cows and horses and pigs, all of which had to be fed and watered and cared for. We learned it all. A neighbor showed Adolph how to cut wood and harvest ice. We read antique farming manuals and U.S. Department of Agriculture bulletins. Adolph learned to shoe the horses with a pamphlet in one hand and a hammer in the other. I learned to take care of the cream separator. It had 42 two separate parts that had to be taken apart and washed and put back together in exact order or it would go berserk and fling milk and cream all over the room. We did it all ourselves; at first with a single horse, as in my book One Horse Farm (Doubleday, 1950), then with a tractor. The only outside help we had was during haying when we hired one or two teenagers for a month.
And I didn't stop painting. If you get up at 5:00 a.m., you can get an awful lot done. I never worried about combining a career with a family. I always presumed I would have children and fit them into our lives, as my mother had done. I thought two children would be about right, and that's what we had. Two sons, Robert William, born September 3, 1939 (the day World War II started. I never forget his birthday!) and Charles, born August 16, 1942.
People always ask me how I managed to paint when my two boys were small. My children were a joy to me, and there was no problem working with them around -- I just let them play at my feet as I painted. They would even run toy fire engines up and down my easel, but it didn't bother me. The only problem was how to keep them safe when we were doing field work, such as plowing with the horse. Once on a TV interview I was asked about this and I said, "Oh, we just tied them to a tree." When I listened to the program later, I was horrified. The picture that popped into my mind (and, no doubt, into the minds of the viewers) was of two small prisoners bound hand and foot to the stake like Joan of Arc. Of course, it wasn't anything like that. In those days, it was common to tether small children to keep them out of harm's way. It probably just sounds worse to say we always gave them plenty of rope.
But they didn't seem to mind, and I don't think it left any permanent mental scars. Our boys grew up working alongside us on the farm. I regretted that they couldn't have the progressive education I had, but I felt that growing up on a farm made up for it. It was such a natural environment. Adolph and I were always around, and the boys could see what we were doing and help with the work. If I needed time alone for my art, Adolph could keep an eye on them.
I made many portraits of my children when they were young. My first attempts at painting children were rather crude, which is why there are more portraits of my second son, Charlie, than of Bob, my first born. Two Fishermen (1941) is a portrait of Adolph and Bob fishing. In 1944 1 did a portrait of my father. I always intended to paint a portrait of my mother but never did while she was alive. Finally in 1999, 45 years later, I made one of her. I had not painted anymore portraits after 1948 and it was difficult to recapture the technique I had developed. It was also difficult because I had to depend on photos, which I never like to do. But my trained visual memory helped me. There was no one photo that captured the memory I had of her. I took bits and pieces and combined them to create the image I wanted.
In the 1940s and '50s I painted many scenes of farm life. The life we were living seemed to fit right in with the then-current art style of Social Realism. Artists such as Thomas Hart Benton and Waldo Peirce were family friends. We never knew Grant Wood, and I did not care much for his art, but his mural of harvesters eating dinner impressed me. At this time I also was interested in the 16th-century Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder. His series of the seasons seemed to me to portray life as I saw it, and some of my best paintings from that time, such as The Haymakers (1944) and Cream Separator (1945) were inspired by him. His painting Hunters in the Snow is probably my favorite painting of all time.
I have mentioned my early interest in the Mexican muralists. When I first saw Diego Rivera's actual murals exhibited in Rockefeller Center in 1937, 1 was so impressed that I have carried those images in my mind ever since as examples of how murals should be painted. I tried for this quality of simplicity and design, of smooth, almost flat surfaces, but I did not achieve it in any of my early murals. The nearest I came was in my large oil Ice Harvest (1938) later bought by L.L.Bean for their executive offices. This painting had the scale and feeling of those Mexican murals, and it also was drawn directly from my own experience, from my love for the life we were living.
Everything about farming was beautiful in my eyes. I loved the Jersey cows with their softly shaded coats more like deer than cows -- their wrinkled white stockings, and their eyes that looked as if they had been outlined with black mascara. I loved the patterns of haycocks and windrows in the hay fields, and the shine of the light on the newly turned furrows after the plowing. Even the colors of the shirts that men wore were bright reds and blues like figures in a medieval book of hours.
It was the life I had always wanted to live, and no matter how hard the actual work, no matter how little cash we had, I was happy. Money was tight, but we always got by. Even when I could not afford a can of paint to paint the floor, I always managed to buy art supplies. It never occurred to us to borrow money, or ask my parents for a pay raise. Although they had achieved fame in the 1930s, they always lived very frugally, and I presumed they were as hard up as ever. Farm life was not easy. There were tragedies too, like the time when a cow was struck dead by lightning, or when the whole herd came down with dysentery. A friend once remarked that she could not imagine deliberately choosing a life of such hardship. But I felt romantic about farming, and I still do.
The art that was most popular in the 1930s and '40s was not only realistic, but it also was imbued with social and political content. It was the same school of art that survived in Soviet Russia up to the dying days of that regime. Though my art seemed to fit into the category of Social Realism, I never tried to convey political messages. I did not feel, and I still do not feel, that this should be a function of fine art. The quality of such art, except in rare cases, seems to suffer. Art is for me a visual experience, and meaning is peripheral. Of course, every visual experience does convey meaning and emotion, but I deplore the current tendency to appreciate art primarily for the messages it contains. This turns art into a storytelling medium; it is a return to the Victorian approach where art is more related to words than to vision. I am visually oriented. For me the eye is the important organ, just as in music it is the ear. I have heard it said that meaning has nothing to do with music, and I feel that this also applies to art.
One of the exciting events in my career as an artist happened in 1939, when I was just 21. 1 was given a solo show at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Victor D'Amico, Director of Educational Projects, showed all my work from my earliest scribbles through my "mature" work. The show was called Creative Growth and was intended to show how a normal child could develop with proper stimulation and encouragement from parents and teachers. Ironically, I could not attend this showing of my childhood art. I had just had my first baby, and in those days they kept you in the hospital in bed for two weeks after giving birth! I did not quite realize what a great honor it was to be shown at The Museum of Modern Art, but it led to solo exhibitions in other New York galleries in the 1940s and '50s.
Thirty years later we decided to put on this same show at the Portland Museum of Art. All my work had been returned to me from New York in crates, and I had not opened them in all those years. It was like a trip back in time. As I looked at my early works, all the feelings I had when I painted them came back to me. It made me realize what a strong emotional aura a work of art can carry.
My father always told me, "Never do art with the idea of selling it. Do the best work you can. Do it to please yourself. And then try to sell it." But it was not easy to sell; sales of art were few and far between during the first ten years of our marriage. But I never considered giving up my art. There were very few art galleries in Maine in the 1940s and '50s. There were many artists who came to Maine for the summer, but they all exhibited in New York. For the first 20 years after we settled in Maine, I too sent my work down to New York galleries, and I submitted paintings to all of the important out-of-state juried shows.
During those difficult times the mural competitions I had entered in 1937 paid off. I received two commissions for murals through the Treasury Department's Section of Fine Arts. I painted these in my studio in Maine, and they were hung in U.S. Post Offices at LaFollette, Tennessee in 1939 and Yukon, Oklahoma in 1941. Each of these early post office murals provided about $600 cash to supplement our income from dairy farming. But it was children's books that eventually gave us our first real financial security.
I had given up all thought of writing and illustrating books when a publisher, William R. Scott, got in touch with me. He was looking for new young artists and asked me to illustrate a book by Margaret Wise Brown, The Little Fisherman (W. R. Scott, 1945). I made sample illustrations and he was very enthusiastic. My illustrations were simple and realistic, but modern. He wrote me, "This is marvelous stuff!" The book was a success, and they wanted me to illustrate other books. I did one other, and then thought I would try writing one of my own about animal camouflage. Frankly, I was inspired by Margaret Wise Brown's writing. At first I had read her stories and thought, "There's nothing much to this." But as I studied the text, I began to see how carefully she had selected just the right word, with just the right poetic feeling, and how beautifully she had woven her ideas and words together. It was not simple at all -- it was magical.
My book Animal Hide and Seek (W. R. Scott, 1947) was accepted for publication and did well. But Scott turned down my other ideas for books. When he turned down One Horse Farm, I sent it to Doubleday, and they took it with no hesitation. It was published in 1950 and remained in print for over 30 years. It was my first Junior Literary Guild selection. I still remember that I was working in the vegetable garden when I saw Adolph coming down through the orchard waving a check in his hand. The check was for $2,000, and we were both stunned; we had never expected that kind of money. Not all my books did this well, but they all sold well enough to be a big boost to our income. Altogether I have written and illustrated 30 picture books, as well as four novels for young adults and a book of short stories for adults.
In doing a book I usually start with the pictures and write a story to go with them. My book One Horse Farm (Doubleday, 1950) was, of course, based on our life here in Maine. Before we had a tractor, we did all our work with one horse. Several of my other books are based on farm life: Brown Cow Farm (Doubleday, 1959) -- we really did have ten brown cows; Bright Barnyard (Knopf, 1966) -- all my beautiful, bright-feathered poultry; and Hardscrabble Harvest (Doubleday, 1976) -- all those things that can go wrong in the farm garden (and I didn't even mention bugs and blights and drought!). Lobsterman (Down East Books, 1978) came from my early days helping my brother haul his lobster traps. This book is still popular in Maine in paperback. Some of my books were done for the pleasure of exploring interesting and colorful subject matter, such as Deep Sea Farm (Knopf, 1961) -- imaginary undersea life; and The Marvelous Merry-go-Round (Doubleday, 1970) -- unusual carved carousel animals.
It never bothered me that illustrating is "commercial art." I have always been free to do my books the way I wanted to with a minimum of interference from art editors. When I write and illustrate for children, I feel a strong obligation to do my best. I have long felt that a child raised without art is as surely deprived as a child raised without love; and fine art in children's books is the best way to bring art to a great many children. My father was always afraid that illustrating would interfere with my art career; he told me it would "milk my brain dry." But the books just stimulated my brain.
My art was just beginning to sell in New York when suddenly, in the 1950s, everything in the art world changed. Abstract Expressionism took over, and my art was "old hat." My father kept saying, "Come on back to New York and get in the swim." But I didn't want to get in the swim. I didn't want to be just another fish in a whole school of fishes. If you live and show in New York, you have to be ready to accept these changes in art styles.
Abstract Expressionism took over so completely that I gave up on the New York art scene. The only form of abstraction that has ever appealed to me is Cubism, although not the experiments of form without color. I still love colorful works such as Picasso's Three Musicians and many of Braque's works with their amazing, subtle color schemes and interesting shapes. These speak to me in a visual language in a way that Impressionism and Expressionism never have. While Abstract Expressionism can be dramatic and emotional, it lacks form. There is something in my soul that requires sharp edges.
Although I felt no urge to follow the trend, I did feel that I needed a new way to express myself. I began to try new ideas, or old ideas of my own, returning to my early love of exotic animal forms that I had explored in my childhood. Art is like a maze. You have to stop occasionally and reconsider where you are going and why. When I begin to feel that I have been going in the wrong direction or that I have reached a dead end, I will try something different. I feel it has all been a steady process of finding the art form that gives me the fullest personal satisfaction. If you count my childhood art, I have gone through at least four major changes in my style -- not following any fashion, but because of some inner need.
One of my children's books, The Calico Jungle (Knopf, 1960), turned out to have a surprising influence on all my later art. I had made an appliquéd animal quilt for my first son, nothing as complex as the quilt in my story, but I was fascinated by fabrics, especially the small prints in old quilts. I designed and made stuffed animals for my two boys using fabrics with interesting prints: old-fashioned calicos and Indonesian batiks. These later developed into a fine art form. I was a pioneer in "Soft Sculpture," first exhibiting my cloth animals in 1956. Now they bring high prices in my gallery. I had an idea to make a book illustrated with calico cutout animals pasted up in collage form, but the publishers said it would be too expensive to print. I ended up illustrating the book with watercolor paintings, imitating fabrics. Although it is a beautiful book, I feel it would have been even more beautiful reproduced from real fabric. To console myself I did one large collage The Garden of Eden (1961), but although I loved the effect of the fabrics, I never did another. It was too hard on my back.
I felt so inspired by the endless possibilities of patterns, however, that I changed my whole art style. I began to use much more decorative designs In my paintings, on both animals and foliage. Odalisque (1960) was one of my first uses of pattern. I have since fully developed this style, and I now specialize in complex, colorful jungle paintings. I have practically given up painting farm subjects. I still love farm life, but I no longer feel the urge to paint it.
Harlequin Jungle (1972) was one of the first and most successful of my jungle scenes. I still keep this painting by me to "keep me on the right track." I feel I do not want to be either more abstract or more realistic than this; and, when I find myself veering in either direction, this painting will always pull me back. William Blake stated that the most important thing in art is "the bounding line." There are two ways to take this; but I have always taken it to mean a lively line, a line that leaps and bounds through the air. My present art depends on both the liveliness of the line on the surface and on the underlying geometry; a visual mixture I have developed of fluid lines and sharp-edged shapes. This mixture is not a combination but an overlaying of the delicate line and fluid form on the sharpness below -- a variation of Cubism that utilizes geometric shapes as underpainting. The result is a deliberate shattering of the rules of perspective, creating a freedom that allows time and space to interact and overlap -- not on a three-dimensional level, and not on a two-dimensional level, but somehow in a visual dimension, perhaps a prismatic dimension, that is outside the usual three-dimensional universe.
There are very few human forms now in my art. There are many animals, and I paint my animals with flowing lines drawn almost entirely with the brush. I enter, like Alice in Wonderland, into a world where logic is discarded -- a world that can be fantastic, but is almost always based on reality. I no longer like to work directly from real life -- it must be transformed somehow by imagination.
I try to avoid the sweet, the sentimental, the "cute." Sometimes I succeed too well. One viewer remarked, looking at one of my jungles, "What a gory scene!"
"What do you mean?" I asked, "Nobody is being killed or eaten." "Ah," he said, "but they will be!"
Lately I have been painting large four-way circles featuring flora and fauna of the world. The intricacy and the challenge of these circles is exciting. And the final results continually amaze me. My circle paintings are a struggle from conception to finish, but my mother always said, "It's the struggle that makes art good."
People wonder how I have acquired my knowledge of the various animals I paint; they don't realize I have been studying them all my life. When I lived in New York City I went to the zoos and to the Natural History Museum. In Maine, I also looked for exotic animals in zoos; we had a local zoo near us for many years with lovely leopards and pheasants and other creatures. I now learn from nature documentaries which provide live action. I never take photos to work from. Still photographs distort movement and proportions. There is nothing "real" about the usual photograph of a cow -- all one huge nose -- cows are not like that. Cows are not a joke. They are lovely, dignified creatures -- the perfect symbol of maternity.
My method is to start from memory and accentuate the animals' shapes and forms, then perhaps refer back to sketches or books just to check on such things as where the stripes go. But over the years I have learned where they go. When I painted my Australian and Carribean Reef circles I did need to do some research, for the animals and fishes were all new to me. But still I tried to transform them, to make them my own. I do not make numerous plans or drawings before starting a painting. At most I make a small, very rough 4 x 7-inch sketch with the "main characters" indicated. All final drawing is done very freely with the brush directly on the canvas. The result is spontaneous and fresh, not "worked over."
I find it hard to explain my art, but then it doesn't really need explanation. It may seem mysterious or challenging, but all you need to do is to open your heart to the joy and excitement of a new visual experience, to accept a new vision of a world full of the unusual, a world of the creative imagination.
I often feel I am "out on a limb." There are no other artists I know of who are painting the way I do now. But then, ever since coming to Maine, I have been pretty much isolated, artistically and physically, at least for half the year.
When we first came here, there were only three families that wintered in Robinhood, and we never had much contact with them. When I said goodbye to one family that was leaving, I apologized for not having seen more of them. The wife said to me, "If we'd wanted to see more of people we wouldn't have been living in Robinhood."
In the 1950s one of my best friends came to live near us, but she didn't last long. She was very unhappy. She told me, "I'm sick of all this natural beauty. I want people!"
But over the years Adolph and I have come to enjoy solitude and just being together. We have a small group of close friends; also, my son Charlie and his wife Judy, and my sister-in-law, Peggy Zorach, now live nearby. Maine has always been a busy place in the summer, and I used to love that "lonesome feeling" when all the summer people left. Now they don't leave, and the winters are equally crowded. We remain, by choice, on the fringes of the new social scene. But we have carried our share of community work.
When, after 30 years, Adolph sold the cows and gave up the dairy business, we both became involved in numerous art and environmental causes. One environmental victory was the purchase of the waterfront and a woodland park of 30 acres in Five Islands in Georgetown. Adolph led this fight and raised the necessary funds to buy this land for the town and protect it from developers. In 1966, Adolph served as director of the Maine Art Gallery in Wiscasset. It was a period I enjoyed too. We both got to know all the artists in the state and put on a continual program of art shows. We knew how much encouragement young artists need, and we tried to provide it. Adolph was one of the cofounders of the Maine Festival, and we both served ten years on the scholarship committee of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Together in 1972 we received the Maine State Award from Governor Curtis for "significant contributions to Maine in the broad field of the arts and humanities."
In 1978 1 volunteered to decorate the children's reading room of the Patten Free Library in Bath, Maine. I had not painted murals since my post office projects in 1939 and '41, and I enjoyed once more working on a large scale. I painted life-size jungle animals on all the walls. This led to other mural commissions. In the last 20 years I have done many murals for schools and libraries under Maine's Percent for Art Program. The most important, completed in 1979, is in the Narragansett Elementary School in Gorham --106 feet of corridor, in three parts, representing Maine animals of coast, farm, and forest. Another mural, of African animals, 21 feet long, now hangs in the atrium of the Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children in Springfield, Massachusetts.
I always thought one had to be in one's 90s and barely able to totter up the aisle before one received an honorary degree, but I had just passed 60 in 1978 when I received the Deborah Morton Award from Portland's Westbrook College (their equivalent of an honorary degree).This was followed by honorary degrees at several other Maine colleges and universities: a Doctorate of Humanities from the University of Maine, 1978; a Doctorate of Fine Arts from Colby College, 1980; and a Doctorate of Fine Arts from Bates College, 1991. In 1986, along with other notable Mainers including Margaret Chase Smith, I received a Living Legacy Award from the Central Maine Area Agency for the Aging. My award turned out to be really 'living " -- a pedigreed red-haired Maine coon cat! Finally in 1998 I received the Kerlan Award for children's literature from the University of Minnesota.
In our old age, we have dropped out of most of our community activities. But I am still painting. Adolph is 96 now and still healthy. When people tell him how well be looks, he says, "I have a good mortician."
Although Adolph and I never travel, our two sons have traveled all over the world. Bob is a motion picture cameraman, always flying to far-off countries. He was the cinematographer for three art documentaries about Frederic Edwin Church, Winslow Homer, and John Frederick Peto for the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. He and his family usually spend a month in Maine every summer. Charlie spent three years in Ethiopia in the Peace Corps teaching Science and leading mapping expeditions. He earned a Ph.D. in Economic Geography from Michigan State University. He has since returned to Maine and lives in Richmond, not too far away, where he continues our fight on environmental issues.
Slowly, the Maine art scene has improved. There are now dozens of high-quality galleries, many of them showing the work of younger artists as well as the work of established ones. I show my work at Thomas Crotty's Frost Gully Gallery in Freeport, Maine. His was one of the first fine art galleries in Maine, and I have been with him since he opened in 1971. I have never been "put down" by men in the world of art or elsewhere. The men in my family -- my father, my brother, my husband, my sons -- have all been supportive. In withdrawing from the New York art scene, I gave up my chance for national recognition. But I don't regret it. Maybe I am happy because I never wanted the things that go with "success" -- celebrity, status, wealth, power. My drives have all been creative ones. I just wanted to be allowed to do my art in my own way. I have had only a few shows outside of Maine; but I have work in the permanent collections of museums such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Brooklyn Museum of Art, all in New York, and also in all the major art museums in Maine. I have received much recognition here in Maine, and that has given me encouragement enough.
I have never written much about my family, my life, or my art. But now as my life winds down, I am glad to have the opportunity to express my feelings about art. In the past I never wanted to exhibit my work alongside that of my parents; I wanted to be independent. Now everything falls into place, and now it seems truly appropriate to join in this celebration of the Zorach family and our art tradition.
Read more about the author in our article Dahlov Ipcar: Seven Decades of Creativity (8/16/01).
Read more about the Portland Museum of Art in Resource Library Magazine
This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 6/3/11
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