A Still Life for Grammie, Part One

My paternal grandmother passed away in October.

She’d been suffering from dementia for several years, so in many respects, the person I knew and loved had already been gone for some time. Still, Grammie was a seminal presence to my childhood and early adulthood, so I couldn’t help but be affected by her passing. Whether she was taking me to the farm down the street to feed the animals, making waffles for special breakfasts, or calling to talk about my classes in college, Grammie was an important, loving presence for me. While I’m relieved that she no longer has to endure her illness, I can’t help but be a little sad knowing that I’ll never talk to her again.

A year or so earlier, my aunt had mailed me this plaster bust that had belonged to Grammie. Attributed to Daniel Chester French, this bust had lived in one of Grammie’s curio cabinets for decades, and I can remember it peering from the corner of the living room during visits, surveying the space with that serene gaze of hers. After cleaning out the home, my aunt mailed the bust to me, thinking I’d be interested in it due to my art history background. Personally I’m not sure it’s a French best, the hair is a little too fussy for him and the facial features don’t fit his generic allegorical type, but that’s beside the point for me. It’s a family heirloom and I’m honored to look after it.

I started thinking about the bust again after Grammie passed. Although I’d done some informal sketches with it, I’d never done a finished painting or print with it. During the winter break, however, I decided to make a painting with it, as making art is one of the ways I process loss.

I started with some detailed sketches of an angel wing begonia my mother had given me. An avid gardener, Grammie had always maintained several houseplants in addition to outdoor flower and vegetable plots, so I wanted to reference the horticultural talents that were always on display in her home. I focused on the begonia in particular because I liked the shape of its leaves and contrast between the olive green tops of the leaves and the warm red underneath.

From there, I brought out the bust and started sketching it with the plant. Given how fragile this piece is, I didn’t want to keep it out on the coffee table for several days, given the cats’ penchant for testing gravity. After sketching the bust from a few different angles, I settled on a profile pose and did a detailed drawing.

Once I had a drawing that demarcated the composition and the modeling in particular, I put the bust away. Now it was time to start painting.

Stay tuned to see how this project turned out.

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