By Edgar Allen Beem
above: watercolor by Betty Beem
Our home is filled with fine and fun art, almost all of it created by friends and family. The art we live with has become an important part of my own identity and I trace this aesthetic definition of self back to my mother. Most of the art in our home is by artist friends, among them Susan Amons, Dozier Bell, Kathy Bradford, Alfred Chadbourn, Howard Clifford, Maury Colton, Matt Donahue, Charlie Hewitt, Alison Hildreth, Eric Hopkins, Frederick Lynch, William Manning, Mathew Pierce O’Donnell, Abby Shahn, Todd Watts and Mark Wethli. But the first things you see when you enter our house are the Twombly-esque scribblings all over the garage wall where I have invited our grandchildren to leave their marks and the big bold flowers I have slathered on the same wall with leftover house paint.
Easily overlooked in this cheerful graffiti is a small watercolor of an iris blossom that hangs on the little landing outside the door to the mudroom. Irises are my favorite flower. I kind of wish the artist hadn’t added the little blue butterfly that is virtually indistinguishable from the iris petals, but then you don’t criticize your mother.
My mother was the only artist I knew growing up. She was an enthusiastic amateur who studied and painted watercolors all her life.
Among my mother’s paintings hanging in our upstairs bedrooms are a sprig of blueberries, a still-life frieze of fruit, and my favorite, a flutter of white flowers, a sort of abstract floral fantasy. There are also a couple of my mother’s efforts in oil. The watercolors are often deft, but the oils – a cheerful pink conch shell and a rather Ryder-esque farmhouse landscape – show the effort involved.
My mother came from humble origins. She was born Bertha Harrison in Bath in 1922, became Betty Gibson when she was adopted in 1926, and then Betty Beem when she married my father in 1948. All of her surnames were given to her by men, one she never really knew and two she loved very much. I’m not sure where my mother’s artistic interest came from. She studied early childhood education at Westbrook Junior College and Lesley College and taught nursery school as a young woman. All of my life she was a kitchen table painter and she took art classes wherever we lived.
When we lived in Groton, Massachusetts for a few years in the 1950s, my mother sent me to Saturday morning art classes at the Paint Bucket. Making clay pinch pots and paper mache animals was my first experience making art unless you count the elaborate battlefield drawings I made about the same time. It’s a boy thing I guess. So my exposure to art as a child was pretty much limited to calendars and her watercolors. On a couple of occasions, my maternal grandmother, a widow living alone on High St. in Portland, took me to the Portland Museum of Art, but all I remember about those visits were bands playing on the High St. steps under the Copper Beech and the smooth, cool deathly realism of Akers’ The Dead Pearl Diver at the foot of the circular stairs in the Sweat Galleries. I thus knew nothing at all about art until I got out of college in 1971. Then it took me a decade or more to understand that a true appreciation of art means unlearning the prejudices of art historical orthodoxy.
As a young man, just about the only work of art I owned was a gilt-framed reproduction of Andrew Wyeth’s iconic “Christina’s World.” I was a Maine boy and Christina was a Maine icon. I was so ignorant of the content of that painting and innocent of all the death, sex and violence in Wyeth World that I imagined Christina Olson as a lovely young farm girl sunbathing in the meadow. Who knew she was a crippled spinster dragging herself across the field? Apparently everyone but me.
Between about 1971 and 1978, I had something of an artistic awakening when my then-brother-in-law, a Jewish interior designer from New York, took it upon himself to educate me in fine art by exposing me to works of Leonard Baskin, Alfred Chadbourn and Ben Shahn. I started going to the few contemporary galleries there were in Maine and began looking at art in earnest, not as décor but as investigation, a search for meaning every bit as valuable as that of science or religion.
By the time I started writing about art in Maine in 1978, I had somehow “learned” that my mother’s art was amateur stuff and that Wyeth’s art, while popular, famous and expensive, was considered reactionary and rear-guard by the art establishment, a romantic throwback no more a part of the ongoing 20th century artistic dialogue than my mother’s aqueous flora.
My function as a reporter and self-proclaimed art critic then, first for The Portland Independent and then for Maine Times, was to be judge, jury and executioner. It was my responsibility to separate the wheat from the chaff, the gold from the dross, the worthy from the rest. Never mind that I had no art education whatsoever, I had a good eye and a way with words. Art objects were open to interpretation and I was good at coming up with a plausible explanation. All art, I soon discovered, is a con job, in a good way of course. Perhaps confidence game is a better phrase. The artist, in collaboration with dealers, curators, and critics, must create confidence in collectors and the public that the useless objects s/he makes have value beyond utility, both intrinsic and extrinsic, critical and commercial.
I participated in this aesthetic conspiracy for a dozen years or more, merrily pronouncing this artist important, that artist not so, this work fine art, that applied, this piece a work of art, that a craft object, etc. Sort and dispose. It is not enough to know what you like, I reasoned. A viewer who could not distinguish between serious art and pretty pictures was as culturally impoverished as a reader who could not distinguish between great literature and chick lit, Romantic poetry and Harlequin Romances. The one was an act of engagement, the other an act of escapism.
Of course, my idea of what constituted value in contemporary art was borrowed largely from New York and the slick art journals where a premium was placed on individuality and originality. Most, if not all of what I knew about the art enterprise I knew from talking to artists and observing them at work. Writing for publication gave me entrée to the studios of artists ranging from Neil Welliver, Alex Katz and Andrew Wyeth to Dozier Bell, Celeste Roberge and Abby Shahn.
I learned a great deal from talking to and observing dozens and dozens of artists in Maine, but it was an offhand remark by Abby Shahn that first threw a monkey wrench into the finely-tuned and well-oiled gears of my art critical machinery. I was visiting Abby at her home and studio in Solon, talking to her about her art and art in general while she transformed some frozen squash into one of best bowls of soup I ever ate, when I chanced to ask her opinion of an artist, perhaps Wyeth but definitely one problematic in terms of both content and style. “Given a choice between bad art and no art,” said Abby, “I’ll take bad art.” That generous, open-minded comment made me start to question my whole judgmental approach to appreciating and writing about art. And once you get beyond seeing art through the distorted lens of quality, you start realizing all the other biases that operate on our perceptions of art, art history tending to be an exclusive Eurocentric male view.
Abby Shahn’s comment began a re-examination of my own elitist male prejudices about art that eventually led me to the realization that there really is no such thing as bad art.
I probably knew this a priori as a child, but it came as something of a revelation to the “sophisticate” I had become. On a moral scale of human activity from genocide at one end to sainthood at the other, all art making, whether that of children, amateurs, outsiders, fine artists or geniuses, is way up there at the divine end of the spectrum. It’s a good thing to do whether the art establishment or the art market values it or not.
My approach to writing about art has evolved such that I now attempt to see and accept all art for what it is and what I imagine it is trying to do. I endeavor to be the best audience an artist can have, someone who will look long enough to ask questions and think about what the artist is up to whether they are trying to save the world or just make it a little more beautiful. To the degree that I can help the average reader find ways to approach difficult art that is what I want to do as a writer. But you do have to know a little something about art history to understand why a rectangular block of rusty steel by Richard Serra or a compacted bale of tin cans by Adriane Herman, to name two of my favorite pieces of art in Maine, are important works of art. But that’s a story for another time.
My long-winded point here is that as I matured as a writer, I came to a renewed appreciation of my mother’s modest achievements as a watercolorist. Watercolor, except in the hands of a few painters such as Winslow Homer, John Marin, Georgia O’Keeffe and Andrew Wyeth, tends to be seen as a lesser medium than oil, acrylic, casein or tempera. Watercolors are humble things, a little powdered pigment mixed with water, the stuff of school children, illustrators and amateurs.
Watercolor was my mother’s medium. Her wet-on-wet still-life, landscape and floral paintings were only seen in the homes of her family and friends and once a year at the holiday art show at her church. Something about watercolor spoke to my mother and now she speaks to me through it.
The last two paintings we acquired – a lily by DeWitt Hardy and a pair of dark, brooding views of the apple tree in his New Brunswick backyard by Stephen Scott – are watercolors. It was not until a visitor saw the Hardy painting and asked if it were by my mother that it dawned on me that a lot of the appeal of the lily and the apple trees is that they are fluent in the fluid language my mother tried to speak.
During the last two years of their lives my parents’ world was reduced to a shared room in a nursing home. Other than family photographs, they took precious little with them when they could no longer live in their own home, but one of the few things my mother took were her watercolors. As she approached 90 and eternity in the nursing home, my mother created an identity for herself beyond that of old lady, invalid and patient. She painted small watercolors for staff members and fellow patients, taking special requests and sharing her time and talent right to the very end. Painting gave her an identity. Betty Beem was an artist. I know that now, but I didn’t always.