Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Joy and Shit…A Christmas Essay

Wishing to Save the World

Seeking wisdom and inspiration on Facebook the other day, I stumbled upon this quote: “We compare our every day lives to everyone else’s Highlights Reel”…and with that it became perfectly clear to me. We all have shit. Some big. Some small. Some steady. Some intermittent. Some is a gift from others. Some is dredged up from within. Some is very private. Some is out in the open. Some is debilitating. Some dizzying. And some…well, some just happens.

And yet, when it comes to the Christmas Card…or the jolly newsletter…we package it up with sparkly ribbons and bows. We ice over the defeats and sprinkle words like, Division Champs, Backpacking in Bali, Big Promotion, and Best in Show (sorry) like Martha Stewart sprinkles colored sanding sugar on her free-range all-butter shortbread snowman cookies. 

And of course these words are punctuated by photos of happy children with fresh haircuts, black ties and white dresses (always white…or at least sparkly) all of whom appear to have had an absolute blast with their parents on the five-star vacation where this photo was taken.

Possibly…and I may be alone here…but possibly that isn’t how it went. And maybe, those magical picture moments are not where the real joy in your life took place. 

Wishing for Peace on Earth

What if the real joy happen when you got back to the hotel room and the kids wrestled until a lamp broke.

Maybe the real joy happen when you were driving your mom to chemo and she was telling you how to change lanes on a road you’ve driven a thousand times and to watch out because the red car is going to make a left turn…and suddenly you realize you do the exact same thing with your teenager…and maybe in 35 years he'll think it’s cute too.

Maybe the real joy in your life now has nothing to do with husband or kids, but with having mastered the burdens and rewards of wearing the wings of freedom. But maybe it stings just a bit to see people parading their seemingly normal families in front of you as if trying to prove their joy trumps yours. But how do you photograph freedom?

And if you are in the acute stages of loss and acceptance, maybe your joy is to wake up one morning and not cry until after breakfast. (If you send me a smiling photo of you with your branflakes next year, I'll know that it may have been harder to stage than a four-generation matching tee-shirts family reunion picture)

I guess what I’m saying is we all have our shit. We all have our joy. And then there are the Christmas cards and facebook posts…which may have not much to do with either.

My wish for you this holiday season is to know you’re not alone with your shit and to find, recognize and cultivate those small moments of joy in your life as well. Never mind that they cannot be packaged up neatly in your Christmas Card. Remember them, write them down, fantasize about them and keep them forever to bring out when the shit seems overwhelming. 

For in those moments lie the best joy of all.

And Wishing you the balls to stick up for peace, love and joy
no matter what may come your way.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Linda is the sunshine of his life

Linda is the sunshine of his life
Meet Linda…or as my kids know her, Grammy.
Linda is my mother-in-law.

But please, don’t let that baggage-laden unflattering term fool you. She is also my fun girlfriend and I’ve spent many a phone call or visit with her cracking up laughing, crying, commiserating, listening and talking.
Since I have only sons, and will only ever be the mother-in-law, I look to her as an example of what a likeable mother-in-law should be…because not only do I love her as the one who gave life to my wonderful husband, I like her too.
First and foremost, she loves her grandchildren and will sit on the floor with them, get down in the sand and play Hide and Seek or Ghost in the Graveyard. These are treasured childhood memories that exhausted moms are all too willing to allow grandparents to get in on. Back in the day before I had three teenage boys, when everyone was a baby or a toddler, these very special afternoon long play sessions were a Godsend and it was fun watching my kids have fun without actually having to get up and have the fun with them myself.  If toddlers have ever invaded your life, you understand why this is the holy grail of parenting joy.
Though we lived several wide states away, my kids grew up knowing their Grammy in Massachusetts. They knew her animated expressions of joy, her characteristic middle-of-Massachusetts accent and the homemade cookies she’d send every birthday and Christmas. They knew how it was to watch a movie with Grammy…she’d react loudly, with laughter or awe or disbelief, she’d ask questions loudly, discuss the unfolding events, scold the villains and sometimes we’d need to rewind a missed scene. They knew Grammy was a trooper and would go on a hike or a bike ride, even though it tired her out. They knew she’d be loudly amazed at just about everything they did and my kids eagerly showed off whatever talents they happened to be developing that afternoon.
Yes, my kids knew their Grammy. This familiarity grew over the years through the two or three times a year she would visit us in Ohio for much-needed long weekends. Much needed by Grammy herself; her visits to Cleveland were her only respite from the very difficult life she lead in Massachusetts.
Even though she gives off so much joy and vitality, Linda isn’t the leisurely retired grandma you think she is when you meet her. Her life in Massachusetts is immeasurably difficult and I can’t imagine how she doesn’t snap…though she'll be the first to tell you, sometimes she does.

Detail from…Linda is the sunshine of his life
See, Linda is full time caregiver to her beloved husband Harry.  20 years ago Harry, my husbands’ stepdad, was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Since then it has been a sometimes slow and sometimes fast progression into complete dependence on her for everything. Assistance up stairs became help into the wheelchair. Toileting assistance became catheterization. Bedtime ceased to the relief it once was with multiple nighttime turnings to prevent bedsores. Harry’s morning awakening routine became back breaking work as this strong and capable 60 year old woman transfers her husband’s massive 6’5” frame from his bed each morning to his wheelchair and then to the recliner which she sets up as his Command Central for the day.
And as Harry’s body weakened, so did his mind. The plaques that grow on his spine and weaken his body also grow on his brain. He forgets what she has told him moments ago and asks again for ice cream, even as she is scooping it. He perseverates like a toddler about an upcoming treat…a visit from grandchildren, a trip to Ronny’s Clam Shack. Linda loves him with all her heart and she gets no peace.
Harry’s doctors will tell you Linda is the best caretaker in the world. She tends to him like a newborn, cleaning, turning and dressing him to prevent sores and infections. She takes him on outings. She feeds him breakfast, lunch, and dinner with love, sunshine and conversation. She makes his life a really good one.
Linda will tell you she lives this difficult life by the grace of God, with whom she has a special and personal relationship. And I can see that Harry lives his life by the grace of Linda’s love, devotion and generosity of spirit.
She is literally the sunshine in his life.
After she posed for me, this modest woman of an earlier generation told me it was the weirdest thing she’d ever done…but she was honored to be asked and concepted her balls creatively with an eye to symbolism and modesty.
The large one was for extra coverage as well as to represent the giant obstacle in her life; her beloved Harry. The small ball represented her own identity. She saw it as being dwarfed by Harry’s undeniable presence in her life. 

I saw the small ball differently though. To me it was the one tiny white-hot bit of constant sunshine she beams into Harry’s life…and so I asked Linda to hold it proudly and hold it high.  And so that’s where I painted it.

Detail from…Linda is the sunshine of his life

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Leah Runs, Bikes, Swims and Tackles…Paul

Leah Runs, Bikes, Swims and Tackles…Paul

In seeking a man, many girls dream of taming the stallion, capturing the wild mustang or even sitting quietly in the woods to await the elusive unicorn who will come and rest on her lap…enslaved forever by love.

Not Leah though. Her life was very full already…active, fun and social. A prominent professor of dental hygene, Leah is invited all over the world to lecture. She bikes, hikes, exercises, competes in triathlons and laughs and laughs. She exudes the kind of fun that makes you feel more fun too, just for talking to her. Leah had it all going on…then she met Paul.

When they met, Paul was 36 and had, up until that point avoided the gossamer bonds of love and matrimony. He was not opposed, but he also wasn’t going to settle. He had standards and (though I told him on many occasions not to) Paul went shopping with a list…for a woman. Great body, athletic, active, similar tastes in music and of course the sophisticated sense of humor that would find Paul’s brand of wit hysterically funny.

My husband and I knew Paul for years before we met Leah, so after you check out his portrait below, I’ll paint a picture of Paul…with words.

Paul is the Best Man

Paul is my husband’s best friend and had been since they had their third grade rumble at Millbury Center School in 1972. Two mighty 8 year old opponents decided it would be better to join forces and make peace. They became fast friends for life. Together they downed their first bottle of 151 Rum at 14 only to have it return with a vengeance for days to come. Their shared teen experiences became source material for a lifetime of private jokes, catch phrases, keen observations and a sly sideways way of seeing life where nothing is too sacred or in too poor taste to have fun with.

Paul is the guy that dresses up as a free mammogram machine for Halloween. (Picture a cardboard box with his face peering out through extra large exam holes). This year he's looking for the bottom half of a mannequin torso for his Halloween costume…can't even imagine what he's cooking up. Paul is the guy who can lose his lunch, dinner and drinks at his bachelor party and have room for a 4 egg farmer’s breakfast the next morning. Paul takes a long nap after work and then goes to work out for two hours. Paul religiously watches football all day Sunday during the season.  These are his ways, and they are set. And this is just what I can mention here…trust me, there’s more.

Don’t get me wrong, we love Paul. He was the best man in our wedding. I think of him as the brother I never had and, he and my husband Scott crack up laughing like he does with no one else. Their shared history and humor are absolutely priceless and as I’ve known Paul for the past 25 years, their humor has become my history and I actually “get” it now and I laugh too…I like to think I’ve added to the history as well.

Over the years, Scott, Paul and I have taken many vacations together and every time we’d visit Massachusetts to get together, there were stories of women…but no women to actually meet. They were more fun to talk about than to be with I suppose.

Then came Leah. On one of our visits, Paul had told us he’d be bringing a date.  Of course, I got all excited, hoping maybe she’d be “the one”. I always had a sisterly view of Paul and really wanted to see him paired up. Not that marriage is the answer for everyone, but for a man it’s a no-brainer…it’s the woman who makes all the concessions! (Now we’ll see if there are any men actually reading my blog)

Leah by far exceeded our expectations…a hundredfold. When we met her it was like we were being introduced to sunshine. Her laugh, her sense of humor and her contagious joy were a delight, and it was obvious Paul was crazy about her…like I’d never seen him crazy about any of the few women we had met over the past 10 years. And she had this wonderful accepting way to be with him. She totally went along and “got” the bizarre humor without needing to jump in and own it. And she did this all very subconsciously. Her joy took over and there was no insecurity at not getting the joke…she “got” Paul and she was very distinctly herself and that was plenty.

A couple years later at their wedding, her vows included the words, “I don’t need you, I choose you”. Those really stuck with me and I think it laid a strong foundation for taming the proverbial stallion that is Paul.

Over the years, as life, age and time have put obstacles in their path, Paul and Leah have weathered storms beautifully. And Paul has proved to be an incredibly domestic, caring and loving husband (ask him about his shed, their remodeling and his meticulous landscaping). They enjoy each other immensely and even when Lyme’s disease and surgeries have made an incredibly self-sufficient and active Leah need to rely on the kindness and service of Paul, he has come through. Paul even washed and styled Leah’s hair for weeks after her rotator cuff surgery.

And whenever we see them, their love and humor and craziness for each other just spills out all over the room. Leah has tamed the stallion, kept her own identity very much intact and continues to lead a life of independence and laughter, only now with the added joy of love.

Paul may have taught her about football, but Leah got the touchdown all on her own.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Enough about you, let’s talk about me now

Judy has no balls…yet
In honor of my 50th birthday…which happens to be today… I will show you and talk about the self portrait I painted for Chicks with Balls.

It was tricky. It needed to be a prototype of sorts, outside the box, a little riskier than the others. I was, after all pushing my friends off the ledge of their comfort zones by asking them to pose topless with only balls for coverage, I should walk the walk and leap further.

My first concept was this: a full on frontal nude pose with hands down, palms out, an “I got nothing” expression…with no balls. I loved the irony of not having balls, yet posing in a decidedly ballsy pose.

Detail from Judy has not balls…yet

What stopped me from actually posing this way was picturing the inevitable CWB art exhibition opening reception.  Friends, relatives, strangers, my kids and my husband would be present and I would be the only naked one hanging on the wall…chatting away and wondering what people were picturing. I wasn’t ready to abandon that comfort zone yet.

I liked the “no balls” concept though,  so I posed without balls, but, with a carefully placed arm and of course my thrice stretched belly spilling over my painting jeans…perhaps more of an intimate revelation than simply showing breasts. I loved painting the belly in all its dimpled puckered glory…way more fun than abs of steel.

Detail from Judy has no balls…yet

Anyone who is familiar with my other work knows I’m not shy about painting myself and what makes me fascinating (wrinkles, fat, awkward expressions, you know…the good stuff!) And, as Gilda Radner once said, (I’m paraphrasing here) “It’s okay to look as bad as you need to for your acting roles because you can always dress up and look cute at the parties.”

And that is what I intend to do…the painting being more important than my vanity. And I do plan to get a cute dress and shoes for the Chicks with Balls Art Show Opening.

But enough of the physical aspects of me. I get tired of spending precious female bonding time obsessing about body image and talking beauty.  Ladies, (and the stray man who might be reading still) let’s change the subject!

So what are the figurative balls I lack?

I hesitate too much. I think too much. I plan too much and then I miss an opportunity that comes around only once…or twice if I’m lucky. But often I miss it the second time too. And I’m not talking about speaking up when I’m dissatisfied…I’m okay with that, especially strangers and telephone solicitors. It’s telling people the good stuff that I’m more shy about. And the very nature of this project gave me an opportunity to express some of the good stuff…admiration for people who secretly knock my socks off.

And as many women as I was able to include in CWB, I meet many more who amaze me, but I hesitate and then opportunities are lost. As CWB grows, however, it becomes easier to recruit. Now that there is a body of work, a business card and a blog, I can point them to something real, instead of fumbling for words that may be misinterpreted…like “balls” and “topless”.

The other balls I lacked were the artistic ones.

Between my sensible graphic design career that supported us for years and then my sensible full-time mom career, the past 25 or so post art school years forced the passionate artist in me to take on different forms. She has been spliced into the pages of corporate brochures and neighborhood newsletters, wrapped up in teacher gifts tied with raffia and cinnamon sticks, glued into family photo albums, sewn into artsy throw pillows, hammered into the reclaimed lumber of the house we live in and smeared all over the kitchen by little boy hands covered in play-do, melted crayons, tempera paint, hot glue gun glue…along with boogers and regurgitated wet Cheerios.

Detail from Judy has no balls…yet

It is all good. I don’t regret a single moment of the years where the painting was suspended for family raising. (I won’t even insert the funny “well, except for…” story about poop, vomit, or tantrums you might expect here, because all that is good too.  And, as for the truly bad stuff that makes us eagerly brag about the funny bad stuff, I keep my friends’ secrets and I keep my own as well.) For me it is all part of the checkered continuum that my life has and will go through. And now is the time for me release the passionate artist in me, get her up before dawn each day and let her paint obsessively. 

And as the painting comes along, I come out of the closet by entering shows, approaching strangers and trying to show the world what I do. While, yes, painting is a deeply selfish hedonistic exploit for me, the idea of just having that private joy with no one ever seeing it seems a waste…all dressed up and no place to go. I do not paint for other people, but I do want other people to see it and perhaps be moved in some way. So, the risk—rejection and indifference being equally damning—in putting it out there was part of the artistic balls I lacked.

Good news is, the balls are starting to sprout (or descending…for those of you that have prepubescent boys and know that term. If you’ve read this far, you are along for the ride and probably don’t mind a little testicle joke…haha, there’s another one!)

So, there is a second self portrait on my back burner. It will be complete in time for the show at BAYarts next summer (show opens August 9th 2013…I trust its on your calendar already). It will show me with the balls I hope to grow as an artist as Chicks with Balls develops…not sure where to hold the balls, but I’m thinking that future painting will be called:

Judy Finally Grew A Pair

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Susie Makes it Happen

Susie Makes it Happen by Judy Takács
Susie paints in oils, pastels and watercolor. She is a sought after calligrapher. She teaches art and she can paint everything…not just people like I do, but places and things too. ( She is an inquisitive seeker of knowledge, can and will talk to anyone and will actually listen your ear off. She will seek out what is fascinating about you and make a new friend in the time it takes to drink a glass of wine. An involved and caring wife and mother of adult children, Susie is also very much part of the lives of her active and elderly parents. 

Susie is also a breast cancer survivor, but she will tell you it does not define her. She will, however, happily talk about it to inspire and help others, and she has created self portraits during her treatments and also painted fellow cancer patients. This compelling and passionate series is called, “You’re Not Your Hair, A Breast Cancer Survivor’s Story” and was shown at a local cancer support center as well as at several local galleries. 

I asked Susie about posing for Chicks with Balls when I got her alone after a weekend of painting (and bonding) in Chautauqua with some female artist friends. 

While we were with the group during the art retreat weekend I really wanted to come forward and tell people about the Chicks with Balls project I was secretly brewing. We were constantly bouncing ideas and techniques, philosophies and theories off each other.

What kept me from talking is that I really don’t like to talk about art in a group setting without having the actual art to show. I find it very raw and vulnerable to hear an artist explain their art verbally. It’s like describing an intimate dream that has shaken you to your core, but saying it out loud makes it seem silly and trivial. (“You were ‘you’ but you weren’t ‘you’ and then this whale came splashing out of the water and there was banjo music and Tom Cruise was there…” you get the idea. It doesn’t make sense in the light of day. And neither does art when it’s just explained without being seen.)

So I kept quiet.

I also preferred to ask people to pose one on one instead of just throwing it out there as a general invitation. It’s really more like asking someone out on a date…you don’t walk up to a group of guys in a bar and say, “Hey guys…I’m looking for a date… any takers?”. What if everyone says yes? What if no one does…either way it isn't good.

And, without visual aids, the words I use…“posing nude, topless, holding balls, picking balls”… seem somehow funny to say, and I hated the possibility that it would become a joke before it became something serious. Now, a few years later I am much less sensitive about it and will happily joke or hold serious discussions about it…anything to get the party started. Back then, however, it was a very young idea and I needed to grow into it and to own it…and to figure out what exactly it was that I owned. So I kept it private.

Later though, over a glass of wine at her house, I told Susie there was a project that I wanted her to pose for, but she'd have to come over and see it…and I would tell her nothing more.

And so after the second glass of wine she said, “Aww c’mon…tell me about it”, and of course I did. I don’t remember the words I used exactly, but I had started to develop a monologue that my husband later came to call the “Sales Pitch”. And Susie “got it” and, being game for an adventure agreed right away. Yeah! 

A week or so later, she came to the studio to pose for Chicks with Balls.

Susie chose the balls, the pose and even the date for several reasons…she saw the two small balls as her two now adult children. The large red one symbolized her husband, the love of her life. Susie's jewelry was carefully chosen too; her wedding and engagement rings figured prominently. And, the balls on her necklace were chosen as a design element to echo the balls she would be holding…ever the considerate artist, Susie thought of the painting I would be creating and wanted to give me fun elements to work with.

Fortunately for Susie, her past breast cancer involved a lumpectomy and not a complete mastectomy. She chose not to show the scar left after her cancer…like she said, it doesn’t define her. It was something that happened, something she courageously fought but many years of life-defining experiences have happened since the cancer too.

It is notable that the day she posed also happened to be the 8 year anniversary of being cancer free. Thus the big subtle 8 that also resembles a breast cancer ribbon is her shadow. I love when life unfolds around art…and I love when these Chicks with Balls paintings become part of the story they are telling.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Pam’s World Turned Upside Down

Pam's world turned upside down, but still she came out on top


Pam teaches Sunday School. She makes homemade Play-do (yes, on the stove). She will tell you otherwise, but she has made homemade biscuits…and I don’t mean the kind in the tube. Her kids play sports video games, not violent ones, they went to Mommy and Me preschool, not the drop off kind. They do charity work and sing in the church choir. Pam does everything the right and honorable way, and is raising her kids to be polite, compassionate and intelligent souls. For most of her marriage she followed her husband from state to state as he rose through corporate ranks. And in each new location she made a home, cultivated friendships, put down roots and enabled wonderful lives for her family…just like she did for the 5 or so years we were neighbors here in Ohio.

After living in Ohio they moved to another state. They were able to stay put in Nebraska for a while and raise the kids in one school system… but then the rug was pulled out. After 20 years of marriage, her husband wanted to divorce. And he didn’t want to do it the “right way”, where fights lead to counseling and cursing leads to rekindling vacations…he just wanted an end. For Pam this was so very wrong. But, here she was now with this giant divorce project, and the job of keeping her family healthy…if not together.

At the beginning of this difficult transition she visited me in Cleveland. Of course I invited her up to my studio to show her the Chicks with Balls paintings so far. I explained the concept…unrecognized strength and courage in ordinary women. She thought about it for a few minutes, perused the paintings, and promptly announced, “I’ll do it!”.  

Detail of cascading balls

I was thrilled and also scared she’d change her mind…she’d agreed so quickly! I rushed to set up my equipment and showed her to the private room to “pick her balls”…literally.

She took on the project with delight. When she emerged from the room with an armful of colorful plastic ball-pit-balls, she explained that she thought of the balls metaphorically; right now she had many balls in the air; three active children, a part time career that would soon need to become full time and of course all the unknowns of her impending divorce. The words juggling, balancing, catching and rolling with punches could easily be applied to her life.

At this early stage in the divorce they had not told the children yet.  So Pam was still wearing her wedding ring. For the Chicks with Balls pose, however she took it off with conspiratorial glee.

As Pam posed for the several hundred photos I took to inspire the painting an interesting thing happened. She had chosen a seated pose at a card table with many balls cradled in and cascading from her toned and graceful arms. The balls however had minds of their own and just kept rolling away, out of place, off the table. When one was retrieved, another found its freedom. It was constant, and Pam picked up each one that came loose and placed it once again safely back in her arms.

After time passed, however it seemed she was able to tame the balls and not only did they stay put, she had actually unintentionally arranged them in her arms symmetrically by color and position.

This resulting organization was such a perfect metaphor for Pam’s life. See, I was absolutely confident that she would prevail. She will make her world wonderful again, and she will do it the right way, the classy way, the honorable way, and slowly and surely joy will return.

The way this before-and-after occurrence played out was so integral to Pam’s story, I had to paint it as a double image. Pam’s painting was larger and more complex than the others so far, but this project has never been about fitting into a format, its about letting life unfold around the art, and Pam’s story emerged quite magically and it informed the painting profoundly.

And, just to give you an epilogue (I love epilogues) Pam is now, 3 very long years later, finally and happily divorced. I have never seen her so light, airy and free. Her children are happily thriving and I see nothing but good things in her future. Her life turned upside down, but still she came out on top.

Pam's world turned upside down, but still she came out on top
This is the painting flipped to show how she inadvertently arranged her balls.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Learning to Paint Laughing

Detail from  Katie blazed a trail at 8 3/4 months
You already know Katie, the pregnant one, posed without hesitation. It was easier than I thought and she was the first one I asked. Here's how that first encounter went.

From time to time, I hire figure models to come and pose for me and other artists so we can paint them from life. We hired Katie, at 8 ¾ months pregnant to pose for us showing her big beautiful round belly. Katie was my artist friend Carol Medhurst’s ( neice and as I got to know her over the multiple day pose, I found out she spoke her mind and called a spade a spade and didn’t hold back. I kept visualizing how wonderful my first CWB painting would be with a pregnant belly…so round, so firm, so ball shaped and the fun flattened beak the belly button makes. I couldn’t let this opportunity slip, she wouldn’t be pregnant too much longer.

Detail from Pam's world turned upside down
After modeling for the day had finished and Carol had left, Katie and I were alone. Babbling and using too many words, I told her about the CWB project, which at this point was only words. To demonstrate what I was thinking, I felt like I had to take off my own top and show her what I was talking about. In retrospect this was weird and I didn’t do it again, but this whole thing is a learning process.

I also explained the disclaimers and caveats which I was still formulating as I was saying them. No one would ever see the photos…not even the model herself. And they most certainly would not be posted on the internet. With any claim like this there needs to be an element of trust because once a photo is “out there” no matter what was guaranteed and no matter what legal recourse you have, the photo cannot be “brought back”. 

My guarantee was this: I like to create the illusion that I don’t use photographs and I work exclusively from life. I bristle at comparisons of my work to photographs and I don’t want viewers looking back and forth from my reference material to my painting noting similarities and differences. The painting stands alone. So I guard my reference material fiercely. I told Katie that my selfish pride was her guarantee that her quasi-nude photos won’t be parading on the internet…I want to hide them more than she does.

Detail from Leah runs, bikes, swims and tackles…Paul
The painting, however, will go everywhere…internet, books, galleries, posters…anywhere and everywhere. Along with her first name, and a bit about her as a person too.

I also stressed that this was not a commissioned portrait where there was an element of client approval. The model would be doing me an honor, a privilege and a favor to pose for me, but the painting was my vision with their body and soul as inspiration. The intent was not to make fun of my friends and make them look bad, but if I found a physical quality that would make the painting better, and it wasn’t something that THEY liked, I would still paint it.

I gave Katie full disclosure, and she gave me a hearty and quick, “Sure I’ll do it!”

A couple basketballs from my garage and a few minutes of cracking up in front of the camera over how silly this thing we were doing was, and I had reference for my first Chicks With Balls painting. I took far fewer photos that I would for later Chick paintings…at this point, having painted exclusively from life for 30 years, I was a novice with shooting to paint. This project, however with its quick alive and spontaneous poses, was not best done with staged poses where the model holds still for hours. It also made it easier for  regular people to pose instead of professional figure models.

Detail from…do I really need to tell you?
by Leonardo DaVinci.
Later in the privacy of my studio, alone with the photos,  I discovered another scary aspect of this project. I would have to learn to paint laughter…teeth, gums, cheeks, open mouths, eyes alive and heads thrown back, neck muscles tensed, silliness and fleeting expressions. The experience would be fun, the ladies I would ask are fun, and the posing sessions would have us cracking up. But, painting laughter is not nearly as fun as actually laughing. It is extremely difficult, and can end up looking like a hideous grimace. That’s why you see so few joyful portraits from history…even the Mona Lisa kept her mouth shut.

Detail from Gypsy by Franz Hals

So, I needed to look for inspiration. I could think of only two painters who had successfully and consistently painted laughter…Norman Rockwell and Franz Hals. I looked through their images and got serious about learning how to paint fun…and as time went by, I started to have fun with it too.

Detail from Freedom from Want
by Norman Rockwell

Did you think you were going to see another
whole Chicks with Balls painting in this blog post? Sorry to disappoint, but I really want to build the suspense as we count down to the show in the summer of 2013, so I am being selective about which CWB paintings I show in their entirety. Stay tuned and next time I'm thinking I'll show a whole one!

Images by Franz Hals and Norman Rockwell are courtesy of The Art Renewal Center, (

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Litmus Test

Blue Balls for Scarlet…not truly part of the Chicks with Balls series,
but significant in its development

So Chicks with Balls was now officially a concept, but that and $4.95 will get you a Latte Grande at Starbucks.

CWB stayed on my back burner as I tried to develop my painting skills.
I continued to paint people…friends, models, commissions as much as I could. I sometimes would get together with artist friends and hire a shared model at the art studio in my home.

One such model was my friend Cindy, an active mother of triplets who were now three very active teenagers. Cindy is also a registered nurse and a highly accomplished belly dancer. A few artists and I hired Cindy to pose for us in full belly dancing costume while we painted her.

Cindy is also a devout Catholic with traditional views on a number of things. Over the years, however she has softened to my liberal heathen ways, as my respect for her faith has grown, seeing how beautifully she has used it to raise her terrific kids.

At the end of one of the modeling sessions, Cindy and I were the only ones left. We started chatting about kids, school, her daughter’s experience on the volleyball team and how my paintings were piling up in my studio and home. She said to me, what many people do without realizing just what a daunting and complex multi-layered comment it is, “You should have a show!” It’s kind of like saying, “You should get married!”…while yes, it would be nice, there’s a lot that goes into it and if it’s not right it’s a terrible waste of time.

At this point, I had not yet shown much, nor accomplished much artwise besides occasionally patting myself on the back for painting a convincing hand or capturing a difficult likeness. An actual solo art show was far from my radar since returning to painting after a 12 year baby-producing hiatus. Solo shows were what real grown-up artists did. Not me. Not yet at least. At 47 I was still very young at this.

But, I did have a response to the “You should have a show” comment. I told Cindy about my discussions with the small art center that wouldn’t show nudes.  Then, for some reason, I decided to go out on a limb and tell her about my Chicks with Balls idea…just to see what it sounded like when I said it aloud.  At this point I had only told my husband, who chuckles at my schemes and plans, and assumes I’ll do what I want no matter how he advises me.
a detail…I love painting hands
As one of my more conservative friends, Cindy was kind of a litmus test. She, along with many others in my suburban life had always thought it odd that I painted and drew naked people for my art. She was the last one I would expect to take off her top and hold volleyballs in front of her breasts. I honestly thought her response would be, “Yikes, Good Luck with that Judy!”.

Instead though, she laughed and thought it was a great idea! She actually joked about embarrassing her kids and posing with her belly dancing skirt and volleyballs for coverage. Funny what a day of modeling and breathing turpentine fumes will do for you judgment.

In any case, I was quite surprised but also very excited and encouraged. Maybe this idea could actually fly…maybe I wouldn’t be deported from the suburbs as a housewife pornographer. Maybe people might just “get this” …maybe women might feel honored to be asked to pose, and maybe some might just say yes.

A note about the painting above… “Blue Balls for Scarlet”. This painting is not part of the Chicks with Balls series. As of today, Cindy has still not yet decided to actually pose…though she loves the idea. And she knows she has an open invitation. Blue Balls for Scarlet is the painting she posed for in her belly dancing costume. I added the nude woman on the floor for a compositional challenge. The hands with blue balls were offers to Cindy to pose for Chicks. I also knew I needed practice at painting hands holding balls.
another detail from Blue Balls for Scarlet
Why did I call Cindy Scarlet? Cindy has told me on several occasions she would make a good Scarlet O’Hara. Though, when she poses for Chicks with Balls I will need to use her real name, and reference the fact she is a mom of triplets. I think I might call that painting “Cindy: Three Times a Lady”

Monday, July 2, 2012

Inspiration from Iowa

For Laurel of Peace and Wisdom, this is Just Another Day

Around the time Chicks with Balls was secretly flailing itself from side to side inside my cluttered brain, I had the opportunity to attend the Portrait Society of America International Conference in Washington DC. This was in May of 2010. I was invited by my fun, talented and ballsy artist friend Susie Porges (, to whom I shall be eternally grateful for this pivotal point of inspiration. She had heard about the conference from our mutual artist friend, internationally renowned pastel portrait painter, Judith Carducci (

When I look back on certain turning points in my art life, certain pieces of art stand out as jolts of electricity that show me what is possible to me. They show me a light, they change my way, they focus my vision, they push me into the water, they throw me a rope. These art encounters shine because they show me what is possible and that it is possible for me.

The River…by Puvis De Chavannes
According to family legend, when I was three and we lived in NYC (before we moved to Ohio when I was four), I visited the Met with my dad many times and was fixated on the Puvis de Chavannes Nude bathers painting called “The River”. I didn't remember the painting specifically, but those early classical nudes must have gone into my subconscious.

Painting of a Woman by Amadeo Modigliani

As a child, I remember hiding behind the couch reading these mini art books my parents had sprinkled around the house. The one featuring Modigliani was a favorite because he painted ladies like I did, some portraits and some nudes and in my 8 year old mind, I thought, “I can draw better than him and he’s a real artist with a book an everything!” (I’ve never had a problem with personal confidence…it’s selling it to others that trips me up.)

As a middle schooler, I remember my art teacher Mr. Kovacs showing me a drawing by a Hungarian student a few years older than I was. It was a delicately shaded, sensitively drawn, meticulously rendered little pencil drawing of an ordinary hand drill. I thought, “Wow… a kid did this…and a Hungarian kid like me no less. ” That kid was George Kozmon, ( who many years later became my very inspiring figure drawing teacher and friend. That drawing also showed me that art wasn’t just made by dead painters and “professionals” from New York. It could be made right here in Ohio…by people like me…by me. I could be that good…and now I am actually way better than he is. (Hey George, if you actually read this and tell me so, I’ll take it out and tell the truth, but until you see it, it stays…ha!)

Anyway, I won’t belabor the points of inspiration point. I’ll fast forward to the Portrait Society of America 2010 Conference.

Mrs. Zimmerman by Rose Frantzen.

At this conference, I had the privilege of meeting artist Rose Frantzen (, seeing her dynamic demonstrations, listening to her talk candidly about her path as an artist and viewing her show at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC. Her show of 180 portraits (!!) was called “Portrait of Maquoketa” and it really touched home.

Rose Frantzen is a crazy good painter of people, she has limitless energy and she comes from a very small town in Iowa. She set up her studio at the Old City Hall on Mainstreet, Maquoketa and invited the citizens to come and pose for her for 5 hour portrait sittings…two a day (!!). She painted a 12 by 12 a la prima portrait of each and every one who signed up. Townspeople would sign up for shifts to come and pose while others would gather and watch the painting process.

This is brilliant on so many levels. First and foremost it is a dream come true for the portrait artist. When you are a painter of people there is no greater luxury than to have willing models of all ages, races and personalities lined up to pose for hours on end and signed up for months to come.

The other idea I loved about it was that she brought great art out from behind the hallowed walls of museums and by-appointment only galleries. She made it fun, friendly and welcoming. And she made the people of the town part of the creation process.

And she was from Iowa…another invisible square vowel state like Ohio. She was from the Midwest, and she was going to stay there. She wasn’t taking her talents to New York to make it, she was bringing the spotlight to Maquoketa by making great art right in her own back yard. And her paintings are good enough where the spotlight does indeed shine on Maquoketa. She hosts sellout workshops with extensive waiting lists. She sells her art nationally right from her gallery on Mainstreet. She creates masterpieces of everyday life, from life, in the tradition of Zorn and Sargent. And she is a star among portrait luminaries internationally.

I saw inspiration and I saw a painter of people making it in the Midwest.

This life changing encounter threw another log on the fire in me that was Chicks with Balls. I could make it happen right here on my mainstreet in my home town.

I was nobody from nowhere…and THAT was the point.