Both of my grandmothers were called Dorothy. My father’s mother was Florence Dorothy – she used her middle name, and this, my mother’s mother had no middle name. She was just Dorothy, pronounced with three full syllables. She was mild-mannered, earned a masters degree late in life, and worked as a reference librarian. This grandmother, who I called Grandmother, was from Wichita.
I finished her portrait a couple of years ago and then finished it again recently. I like to just keep adding layers and in this case the final layer was a couple of layers of uncolored encaustic wax on just her face and neck. Even more so in person it has a nice built up, flesh-like semi-matte texture that clouds her a little. I thought the likeness was pretty accurate when I was done painting, but she looked too crisp. Not that she had no crispness, just that she had many, many layers of self-possession in effect at all times.
She had an adorable way of wrinkling up her nose impishly when something was funny. (I hesitate to bring that up because then when I look at the way I painted her nose I think it looks too straight and skinny. But I’m not fixing it again.) She said, “I eat my peas with honey, I’ve done it all my life. It makes the peas taste funny but it keeps them on the knife.”
This one usually followed: “There was a fox in the hen house one night. The farmer heard a commotion and ran out to save the chickens. He knocked on the door and yelled, “Who’s in there?!” The fox answered, “No one but us chickens.”
Inez Dell Auld was the twin of Ina Bell and like her sister she never married. Bell and Dell had an older sister, Carrie, who died of pnuemonia when they were two. When the twins were four their mother gave birth again and this time it was triplets, but that is another story.
Dell was a talented pianist and moved from Kirkville, Iowa to Boulder in the 1920s to major in musical performance at the University of Colorado. But before she finished her studies she was called home to care for her aging parents as had been their plan all along. Maybe she didn’t mind, but I don’t believe it. She became the town piano teacher. She liked the Bible. She liked the color blue.
My memories of Aunt Dell are all at the retirement home she moved to when she was about sixty, around the time I was born. After a fairly effusive greeting we’d sit in a circle of chairs and take turns giving stilted monologues about our lives while she nodded affectionately. When I was still in junior high she began asking about what major course of study I had chosen in school and I struggled for years, until I actually had a major in college, to explain that the school I went to just didn’t work that way. That always made it seem like she didn’t have a very firm grip of what the outside world was like. She had a small bulletin board in her room that she would take down to pass around so each of us could admire cards she’d received and snapshots of our distant cousins.
I made this painting with encaustic – colored wax. It did not even begin as a portrait of her, but as an abstract floor plan. I find encaustic very satisfying, at least the way I’m figuring out to use it. As with many things, I may or may not be a fraud encaustically because I have submitted to no instruction. I constructed this in many, many, many layers of paper, colored wax, clear wax, oil paint and ink. In between layers I used my nifty little butane torch to melt the layers together and then sharp blades to scrape the surface flat or make grooves to inlay the next color into. It’s tedious! Stream of consciousness! Organic! Belabored, and patinated nearly to death. I do love a belabored surface.
This is one of my grandfather’s sisters, Dr. Ina Bell Auld. She was born undegreed though, in 1896, and earned her Phd from the University of Iowa until 1938. The title of her dissertation is “Women in the Renassaince: The Attitudes of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries.” Her Masters thesis, from 1922, is about the early reading habits of George Eliot. She was a flaming fleminist.
I knew her little brother Lawrence, and her twin, Miss Inez Dell Auld, and it sounds like Bell was what I like to call a difficult person, which also means I would have liked her. I think a little farm girl from southern Iowa born in 1896 who aspired to academia rather than marriage and conventionality had to be a difficult person to make it work. And she did – she was an English professor, travelled abroad, and caused anguish to her parents and siblings back home. She died in 1960.
I started this painting a couple of years ago and finished it earlier this year. I never met Bell so this image was composed in my head from photos of her and from her reputation. Yes, she’s smirking hard, and holding a book/bird/angelic being with the Congregational Church on Clinton Street in Iowa City behind her. I know from old city directories that she lived just a few blocks from there on Iowa Avenue, but I’d bet you nearly anything she was not much of a church-goer as a graduate student.