Painting a Story

My husband’s grandmother, Henley Breaks, immigrated to the United States from England in 1908. She died recently and going over some photos reminded me of all the stories she used to tell us.


Blackberry Jam (watercolor, 30×24; collection of Mary Musselman, Bethesda, Maryland.)

She had grown up in Chicago in the days of Al Capone and had become well known for her singing. As a teenager she frequently performed at churches and other venues around the city. She had some great stories, but my favorite was the one she told her fellow residents at the retirement home:

As Henley relates her passage to Ellis Island, she was 8 and traveling across the Atlantic on a sister ship of the Titanic—it was built by the same shipbuilder and owned by the same company. The two ships had set sail about the same time and she and the passengers on her ship had actually witnessed the Titanic sink in the distance. They were helpless as they steamed on a watched the tragedy of the Titanic occur before their eyes.

We all know that the Titanic sank four years later, in 1912, but Henley didn’t care—she knew it made a better story.


Enduring Derns (watercolor, 24×30)

So what story do you want to tell ? or even embellish? You don’t have to include that ugly telephone pole if you don’t want to. Or, like Frank Francese, you can add those charming telephone poles even if none are there! I have so many students who feel that because it’s there in front of them in the landscape or in the still life, that they have to include it in their work. You’re the artist. This is your story. Tell it your way.

For instance, I started Blackberry Jam (above, right) as images from my youth growing up in the plains. I wanted to combine the sunflowers with quilt blocks. But I was at a loss about the center until I decided to use an image of my younger sister and me in the middle. To me it’s very autobiographical, although other people have no idea what stories are behind the images. It’s still my story.

And in Enduring Ferns (above, left) I wanted to tell the story of things that are enduring. Since ferns have been on earth almost since the beginning of life, they always astonish me. The strips of pattern around the fern suggests granite; another common component of life on earth, but something that has been here perhaps since earth itself. In the corners are ginkgo leaves, another ancient life form. I loved the story of quiet endurance in these images.

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