Monday, April 30, 2012

Jeanne Miles: Reflections on Jeanne, Genes and Art

Sound of Children's Laughter, 1954
Gold leaf, oil on canvas
28" x 29 1/4" 
I only met Jeanne Miles (1908-1999), a painter and my grandmother's older sister, twice that I remember.

The second time was 1987 when I was in my teens. Jeanne was almost 80 by then and a bit frail, or so it seemed to me in my robust youth. She was in town to receive an Alumni Achievement Award from George Washington University.  Jeanne had been the first woman to admitted to the art school there. She spent her career as a working artist and sometimes teacher. 

I remember standing in the crowd milling around after the GWU ceremony and watching her speak with some enthusiastic young man, and the way she turned her hand to gesture, making a point. We have the same fine-boned stance, so if I had been paying attention, I might have noted the similarities in our bony wrists. But as a teenager, I doubt I was paying that much attention to genes or Jeanne. I have no memory of the rest of the day, if we spent time with her or if we were just passing members of the audience, showing our support for family. 

What I remember more vividly is meeting Aunt Jeanne the first time, when my family went to visit her at her Greenwich Village loft in NYC, when I was around nine years old.

Her apartment had deliciously high ceilings, tons of sunlight, warm wood floors, not much furniture, a galley kitchen, and a window that we all stepped through to a enter her rooftop city garden. We sat in the sun at a wooden table with a cloth over it, listening to the taxi cabs honk below us. I have the idea that there were delicate china cups, but that might be an embellishment to real memory, adding a festive tea party element.

#105, 1991
Oil, gold leave/bronze on board
40 " diameter
Her place also had an attic/loft area full of all kinds of interesting junk. I know, as I was sent up the ladder there to fish out a dehumidifier a relative was borrowing from her, and would have stayed up there in the dusty wonderland with large wooden trunks and a dressmaker mannequin much longer had I not been summoned back down.

Jeanne had all kinds of stuff, not just in the attic loft, but elsewhere, paints, paintings, tools, brushes. Her rooms were alive and focused on the process she engaged in. Her whole apartment reminded me of my father's workbench in the basement, or the corner of my mother's bedroom dedicated to her sewing, places where ideas fermented. Jeanne's apartment was no staid parlor. It was a studio -- a living-and-breathing environment.

The best part of her apartment: an easel with a half-done painting sitting front and center in the middle of her living room. Geometric with gold leaf, circles and shades of red, it added its presence to the conversation as clearly as another person.

Jeanne's NYC Bohemia sang a far and deliciously different note from my suburban upbringing where everything matched and creating was done in secret behind closed doors.

I didn't know that people could live their lives and make their livings creating things in their living rooms, not normal every-day people that I was related to. 

And by the time I was a teenager, I'd forgotten that possibility.

By then, I assumed that I would follow the life that most of my peer group would, and that would include dressing up in uncomfortable clothes to shuffle into an office and chatting by the coffeemaker about budgets.

I spent ten years in cubicles, meeting lovely and kind, and a few not-so-kind people, and being less than engaged by billing spreadsheets and mortgages. I wished that I could find the intellectual satisfaction that seemed to come so easily for coworkers, missions they could embrace, career paths and expertise growing over the years. The passion for traditional business worlds eluded me. Instead, I fled those offices for graduate school in creative writing. From there, after trying and failing again to find the perfect cubicle, I edged my way into freelance work.

A relative once described me, when I was bemoaning my tendency to balk at the mainstream, as "being just like Aunt Jeanne -- you just do whatever you want."

Poor quality photograph of one
of Jeanne's prints.
Family collection. 
While I certainly didn't feel like that was true at the time -- what I was conscious of wanting then was to fit in the mainstream, to be easily stamped acceptable without comment, and more to the point, to be happy -- I now hope that it will be increasingly true in the future.

I don't know all that much about Aunt Jeanne's life. I've read a few articles on her and gleaned info from probably faulty family gossip, but the few facts I do know intrigue me. 

In 1937 she spent a year in living in Tahiti (blue-green waters!) on an art grant. I know she lived in Paris for a time (a city I'm slightly in love with even though I've only spent a total of five days there) and that she had some trouble getting out of France because of the war. She was, by any estimation, an adventurous soul.

I know some of her art, from the pieces scattered through family homes and from what I've gleaned online. With familial pride, I'll say I think it's pretty darn cool that she exhibited at the Betty Parsons Gallery and has work in the permanent collection at the Guggenheim. Her work became increasingly geometric over her career and included reflections on the spiritual significance of those shapes, with an emphasis on mandalas.

From a brief marriage to another painter, she has a daughter, Joanna Miles, an Emmy-award winning actress living in Los Angeles whom I've never met in person, but sends me a Christmas card every year (no, I can't get you a meeting with a producer; don't ask).

I have dim memories of Jeanne from those two meetings, but largely, I was just tagging along after the grown-ups. I didn't know that we would turn out to have commonalities in tastes, nontraditional lives, a tendency to find painting absorbing and an affection for shiny things (metal mobiles for me; gold-leaf for Jeanne).

It may just be I'm searching hard for that connection now, to feed hope in my own artistic explorations. I've been slow in committing to an art life, lacking her nerve and crystalline talent, but still I find, I circle back. Jeanne was a bolder person, and I look to her for inspiration.

To a friend, when my art leanings became increasingly apparent, I noted "What I want is inconvenient." And in some ways, it is.

But for the people we really love and the passions that are really ours, we do the work, make the connections, travel the distances literal or psychological to get there. We give up the dinners out or a measure of social approval and slosh through awkwardness and missteps, because the trade-off is worth it.  For me, that means days spent immersed in creating images and worlds, tweaking sentences and refining ideas, studying craft and wading through frustration, solitary time and time with people who amaze and challenge me, these some of many elements that bring artists to the next new, gorgeous vista.

I want a life of paint-splattered, ink-stained exploration, not an exercise in polite endurance.
From family collection

I have a very large easel standing in the middle of my living room, inviting me to create every day.  And while the easel won't be moving with me, too long to fit in my car, the idea it represents will travel with me.

I'm listening now, Aunt Jeanne. Thanks.

More information on Jeanne Miles:

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