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Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies & Gender Issues 7 (2004) 217-228

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A Life in Art (1)


Even as a very young child, I knew how to draw. One day in fourth grade, when I was nine, the teacher told us to draw pictures of ourselves the way we would look "grown up." Most of the children filled their pages with childishly rendered cowboys, pilots, ballerinas, and mommies. But I was developing early, and not only artistically. I already needed a bra, and I thought "grown up" meant being like the full-figured women I saw on TV. Imagining one of those sophisticated secretaries, I drew myself wearing high-heeled shoes, a starched white blouse, and a tight sheath skirt.

I knew how to make geometric objects look "real" by using shading. The breasts on my grown-up self, I decided, would be so three-dimensional, they'd cast a shadow. I was immensely pleased with how "real" the drawing looked and was so absorbed that I didn't notice the excited attention of the other children as they pointed at my drawing.

Then I felt a hand on my shoulder.

I remember the dreamy feeling of surfacing from my imaginary drawing world as the teacher, coming to see what the other children were giggling about, said, "Judy, maybe you'd better come with me." She picked up the drawing, and I followed her down the corridor to the principal's office. She placed the drawing on the principal's desk and said, "Look at this." Until that moment, I didn't know that something was wrong. I thought she was sharing with the principal her pride in the superb realism of my drawing. This would have been unprecedented but plausible.

When the principal said, "I think we'll put this away until your mother comes to get it," it started to dawn on me that drawing the BREASTS was a BAD mistake. A parallel subterranean knowledge confirmed that there was something shameful about my own developing female body. [End Page 217]

Thus I learned something that would continue to both nourish and disturb me for all of my life as an artist. I realized that I understand about things by drawing them. And I found out that drawing what is "real" to me might make other people uncomfortable and even angry.


As a grown-up artist, I came to be a regular visitor to an old-age home, where I would go to draw the residents. Many of them spent their days strapped into wheel chairs, diapered, bibbed, and drooling, or calling out in high-pitched, keening cries, disoriented and agitated. "This is also how a life might turn out," I thought.

Elinor's room smelled of urine, and her eyes were cloudy with cataracts, but she liked me to sit with her while she told me the one story she remembered. As I drew her, I heard that story over and over again.

In the telling, she is a young girl of six or seven, her voice thin and high, like a child. Her father is the captain of a barge on the Erie Canal, and she and her younger sister, kept home from school, are allowed to play on the deck of her father's riverboat. It is spring, and they wear dresses with sailor collars, ribbons in their hair, and straw hats with brightly colored straw flowers. They call to the sailors on passing barges and wave to the children who run along the banks of the canal. Elinor is very proud that her father is a captain, She is proud to be the older sister. She remembers and tells every detail about her dress and her hat and especially how much fun it was to stay home from school and run in the breeze on the deck of the barge.

One day, I asked Elinor if she would like to draw a picture of her father's boat. With great concentration, she gripped the pencil and drew...


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