I was looking through my Gram's old photos and came across this one of my Gram sitting on the back of a Harley in rose red pants, holding her always present cigarette, and looking very comfortable. This was her friend, Tom's, bike and that's Tom's wife, Marsha, in the background. The expressions on all three of their faces are classic. This photo is classic. A professional photographer couldn't have done a better job. I assume my Gramp took it. The costuming and the facial expressions were simply serendipitous. I want to paint it, but it's just too perfect like it is.
Gram was no stranger to the back seat of a motorcycle. Gramp had a Harley after the war and they put many miles on it together. You can see them in the doorway of my never-finished, now-destroyed, painting, below.
They were cool, you know, with their leathers, cigarettes, motorcycle caps, and boots. What fun they must've had. Not like the "fun" I had during my few years stint as a "biker chick" in the 80s. Things were different way back when. At least, I like to think so. I know it was for them, anyway. Things were pretty insane for me.
I painted this picture for my brother. He said he wanted a picture of our grandparents, "Like those Jimmy Dean and Marilyn Monroe pictures where all the dead people are sitting around a table like they're still alive? I want something like that."
"Ok," I said. "I can do that. How big do you want it?" He measured the spot where he wanted to put it and came up with 5 foot by 3 foot. We agreed he'd build a patio cover for me, I'd only have to pay for the materials, and I'd paint him a picture.
The patio cover turned out beautifully, better than I ever expected, and I struggled along with the painting. It took forever and went through a few incarnations before what you see here. I worked from old, black and white photos and not knowing how to really manipulate the figures, I had to paint them the way I saw them. I had Blondie, that's my other grandmother - the one in the white dress, my dad's mom, sitting in a chair with her arms over her head, behind Fred, my grandfather. She was too small and reminded me of the bather in Manet's Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. I had to change it. There was, also, a big, silver coffee pot sitting in front of Fred. I got rid of that, too.
By now, you see I had no preliminary sketches for this painting. I had no idea where it was going, but it started to come together as the story of Blondie and Fred, in a way. Fred died in 1970, in a single vehicle accident. I was nine. He was in Show Low on a job for Arizona Public Service. He was a lineman. It was after work hours when he wrecked. Nobody knows why he left the hotel that night. He wasn't drunk, or anything, but he didn't have his seatbelt on and he was thrown from his vehicle when it left the road.
Life changed immensely for our whole family from that point. My parents are both only children and it was always my brother, sister, Mom and Dad, me, Blondie and Fred, and Gram and Gramp. That was it. We were each other's lives. We camped and fished and hunted Easter eggs together. At Christmas, we had three houses to go to. Blondie and I were thick. She looked younger than she was and when she'd take me shopping, she'd never correct anyone who called me her daughter.
She and Fred always dressed like movie stars. They looked like movie stars. The tough guy with a big heart and the beautiful, platinum blonde. Older versions of Marilyn and Jimmy, except Blondie was skinny and Fred always had callouses and scraped knuckles from work or a fishing boat motor.
After having grown up dirt poor in West Virginia, Blondie wanted me to be sophisticated. "Stick your pinky out when you hold your cup," she'd say, picking the tobacco specs off her tongue, from her filterless Pall Mall cigarettes, with her thumb and ring finger. Her index and middle fingers held the cigarette. Her pinky stuck out. Fred smoked, too, as you can see in the picture, and he used the cuff of his pants as an ash tray. He'd flick the ash in there and rub it. Magically, the ash disappeared. He'd look at me and raise his eyebrows in a smile when I tried to find it. Now, Fred was as gone as his ashes and eight years later, in 1978, Blondie committed suicide. She shot herself in the head.
It was 2006 and I had just graduated from ASU with my BFA when I started this picture. I was thinking Bo Bartlett. I'd seen his pictures in a magazine and was enthralled. I wanted to tell stories like he did. (Undoubtedly, he plans his paintings.) I worked and worked on my picture, on and off, for months, maybe a year, or more. (I had gotten scared, thinking I wasn't going to get famous from painting very quickly, and went to nursing school. That delayed things a bit.)
As the painting began to materialize, I decided I wanted to portray some of the psychological angst I imagined between Blondie and Fred. She had wanted to buy a bar in Payson before he died. He said, "No." After he died, she bought the 100 year old Winchester Saloon, then called the Gay Nineties with his life insurance money and renamed it Mable's Gay Nineties. (To read the linked article on the Winchester Saloon, you need to answer a couple of anonymous survey questions on the Payson Roundup site, before the story will appear.) In my painting, Blondie looks at Fred defiantly, but, maybe, she's just wondering what he's thinking.
I painted a can-can girl painting on the wall behind her to represent the future bar. I covered it later, not knowing what I was going to put in its place. I just knew it felt uncomfortable with that can-can girl there and I didn't have the guts to leave it. I also didn't know how to work Gram and Gramp into the story. I thought having them stop by this southwestern style restaurant, that served biscuits, coffee, and apparently nothing else, on their Harley, happy together, would have to be enough.
My brother hadn't seen the picture. He started asking about it and, finally, I figured I could give him a glimpse. He and his wife came over to see the progress and, with butterflies in my stomach, I gave them a "ta da!"
"That's so cool," my brother smiled. After they left, he called me on his cell. "You know, we're thinking that picture is really too big."
"It's the size you asked for." I said.
"I know, but it's too big," he said. "Can't you do a smaller one like the Marilyn Monroe and Jimmy Dean ones where they're shooting pool with Humphrey Bogart? That's what I was thinking. Can't you just paint that and change out the heads?"
"But, this is the size you asked for," I said. I didn't want to do a knock-off of the Marilyn Monroe and Jimmy Dean paintings.
I continued working on my painting for a while after that call, thinking I'd just keep it for myself, but it was too big.
It haunted me for another year or two, before I took it off the stretchers and put it in the trash.
Now, I've got a new 4 foot by 5 foot canvas, all stretched and primed, hanging white on the wall of my studio. It's for a painting to fit in the niche in my new, two and a half year old, dining room. It's been hanging there for months. I need to plan what I'm going to put on it.