I created these four large drawings of my parents using old black and white photographs from the ‘40s when they were a vibrant young couple, just dating, before they got married and raised six children together. I worked on the drawings last year in the fall, the time of year that I believe the veil between worlds, the earthly world and the spirit world, are thin. My father died over twenty years ago, and my mother over ten years ago, yet I often feel their presence. These drawings are an honoring of my parents’ spirits and the rich life that they gave to me.
Essay: Remembering My Foremothers
The Foremothers project began in 2020 when we were in lockdown, but this topic has roots that began much earlier in my creative work. My world was rocked when Ruth Bader Ginsberg passed away and women’s bodily rights—rights I had come to take for granted—came under threat by the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. So I began to reflect on the journeys of my foremothers: my grandparents and other brave women who have fought for the rights of women and whose lives have inspired me.
I began a series of collages using images of my foremothers and other inspiring women as a starting point. I gathered materials for collage: hand-printed papers, my own painted papers, other recycled papers, and boards. The process of collage allows me to construct and deconstruct realities, at once imagining possibilities and finding unique harmonies and dissonances among the elements. Each collage speaks on an emotional level, much like a poem, to evoke a feeling or memories.
Absence/My Grandmother Rebecca
I only knew about my grandmother Rebecca from the stories my mother shared with me and my four siblings. Rebecca’s death from a rare autoimmune disease at age forty when my mother was only fifteen was a tragedy that altered her life in profound ways. And my grandmother’s absence during my childhood years impacted us as a family in complex and subtle ways. Her absence colored my mother’s emotional life. And, as children, we felt our grandmother’s absence at family celebrations and milestones. A few years ago, my mother gave me a packet of old photos that included a couple of beautiful photographs of Rebecca from when she was young. All these years later I realized that I had never really seen my grandmother’s image. Such was her absence from my life.
Presence/My Grandmother Sarah
My father’s mother whom we called Nanny was a presence in my life, but she was largely a mystery to me. I always knew that she had come from the old country, but later I Iearned the name of her village in Ukraine—it was called Ysutta. My grandmother met and married my grandfather here. Grandpa Bennie was also a Ukrainian Jew who had come to start a new life in America. Although some immigrants assimilated fully, my grandmother never did. Nanny never learned to drive a car, so her world was rather small. Within those confines, though, she found joy in growing violets, caring for her parakeets, and tending house.
At Nanny’s kitchen table I can recall my dad teasing her about her overbaked cookies, which she kept tucked away in a tin in the oven. I enjoyed eating those crunchy cookies while the adults kibitzed in a mix of English and Yiddish. I wasn’t able to get emotionally close to my Nanny because of the language and culture gap. She was physically present in my growing-up years, but her inner life was largely hidden from view.
Note: In the spring of 2023, I will be installing my Foremothers artwork at the Meetinghouse Arts Gallery on Main Street in Freeport. The exhibit and related events will take place during the weekend of 19–21 May 2023, so stay tuned. www.robinbrooksart.com
Matters of the Heart
I’m doing crosswords,
cross out words
An ocean between
home, a green
space and a sea
“The water is wide
and I can’t cross
and neither have I
wings to fly”*
to their Summer
I long to be
returning to my
“give me a boat
that will carry
two . . .”
I wrote this poem after a couple of years living here in Ireland. Life has changed and moved on since then.
My most recent exhibition was titled Matters of the Heart for Feile na Bealtaine (Mayday festival). I was conscious at the time of how loss and absence was affecting people due to long COVID isolation and also the war in Ukraine. I was remembering a feeling similar to this from the first beginnings of being away from my former home and friends in Maine.
The paintings came from a presence in my mind, not specifically about war or loss, or about a former life, but about a universal absence and thinking of life transitions—the idea being the actual separation of time from the present. In “portraying” this distance (absence) the images/colors in the paintings convey one thought: “what’s left behind?” These moments are hard to ignore. As Francesca tells Dante, “there is no greater pain than the recollection of past happiness in present grief.”** In displacement of almost any kind we remember good times and look back and perhaps grieve. Our village is filled with recent Ukrainian refugees who have adapted to a new life. Their pain is hard to ignore without comment.
As for my process, I am moving in a more minimalist direction at the moment, which creates its own absence or more specifically engenders a mood or feeling beyond recognizable imagery. Although it hasn’t completely taken over, I feel minimalism can allow for contemplation without distraction, using colors for signaling some sort of emotional impact as Rothko has already shown us.
In my poem above I struck a line through certain words, accidentally causing them to be both absent and present.
* Traditional Scottish Ballad.
** From Dante’s Inferno.
Image at top: Martha Miller, The Milk Wagon, mixed media, 4 x 8 ft., 2021.