Although I managed to regain my drawing skill in limited ways within a year or so after my brain aneurysm, it took me some time after that to feel that I could manage the complexity of a painting again.
To begin painting, since my physical ability to move was circumscribed, I decided to “cast” my own characters in and around my home. After all, Morandi had an entire career of “tabletop” art, and so had my former painting teacher, William Bailey. So, this series became a depiction of the drama of everyday life and an immersion in the world of little objects around me. Domestic items became the stars of the drama. They were models, avatars really, for confronting my own process of premature limitations and natural aging as such objects were shown to be consumed. Whether they were toilet paper rolls, bars of soap, or tubes of toothpaste; the big step for me was imputing consciousness to objects which were so quotidian that they most often became invisible to the mind.
Also, I saw that making drawings and paintings of these household items were a way of honoring the capability and devotion of my mother and grandmothers, whose work at home had been taken for granted by me as I was growing up. My mother, in particular, had managed to balance for some time her professional ambitions and the work of running our household. She had a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Chicago, attained in the early 1950’s, a time when women scientists were most often discouraged. In fact, without any concessions to women by her faculty, my mother had managed to give birth to my brother and me while completing her PhD. For years, this second Dr. Newman in our family had worked in science labs. But the household demands of taking care of two children and running things to help my father, a very busy surgeon on whose skills the lives of others depended, simply would not allow her to be a Principal Investigator with her own lab. And without that, her lab work meant always doing the bidding of others, of men, in their labs.
Meanwhile, my mother utilized her investigative nature as a maven of our kitchen. Our home was filled with her Balabuster efforts. Cooking, sewing, arranging music lessons for my brother, and ballet for me, vacation planning, etc. In particular, the good food and pastries were always there—whether it be for the string quartet evenings or any number of major secular or Jewish holidays. Large dinner tables with many invited guests ate her delicious and ample servings. I thought about my mother’s work a good deal as I moved around my house setting up the varied Domestica tableaux.
Each pose, each avatar, required all kinds of decisions on my part, except not about cooking (or science), but about painting. For the grater or egg slicer, how could I use light logic to make their functions clear to the viewer? For my match boxes, how could I make it seem as though they were engaged in a sort of “conversation” with each other? And the feminist questions arose in my mind, too: are implements such as the potato masher not thought of as “tools” because they were always associated “with women’s work?”
In my studio behind the house, I enjoyed the freedom to take risks in my art and see what emerged. I found this to be freeing psychologically, which makes it sound as if it were some kind of therapy, to express unacceptable feelings. For me, however, it was not a diversion. Rather, it was the main event.
I spent several years retraining my spatial mind. Believe it or not, my right-brain injury resulted in something called “left-neglect.” For example, my early efforts to draw objects would result in the entire right side of the paper filled and the left side empty. Other times, the right side of the artwork and the left side would not connect in the center. I was actually unaware that this was happening while I was making the drawing. I began to use simple techniques that would remediate the problem. I’d turn the paper upside down, so that the right was now on the left and the left on the right. Then, there was the challenge of color. How would I “set the table,” so to speak, so that the foreground was laid against an appropriate and active background? At the very least, this lab of mine allowed me both to model myself on my mother and supersede the physical limitations under which I now lived.