BARBARA ROBINETTE MOSS
Quest for Beauty
edited from interview | copyright © 2003–2017 Jane Robinette* | All Rights Reserved
I never doubted I could be an artist. I always thought that's what I was born to do. I have a series that's called Burning Hands and Jealous Heart, and I think that sums up my desire about art-making. It has always been there. There are some times when I'm drawing and painting, and I feel this tingling sensation in my hands that I call "burning hands." When I'm drawing a figure—and it doesn't even have to be a female figure, it could be a male figure—but if I'm drawing that hip, I can feel the line on my own hip. I have even felt it when I'm drawing a bird; I can feel the line as if my body were this bird. It's really difficult to explain. I've always had that jealous desire to be an artist and to have what the other artists have had. I think it's one of the nobler professions, I really do. I've always made art—always. My mother made art, so I made art.
My art is very personal and is very much family stories. When I first started making art, I did landscapes and I did this watercolor quilt series—all of these kinds of things that really were just making art. Then it turned into personal stories and family stories, and the family stories went on and on, and still there are family stories. A lot of the personal stories had to do with alcoholism. A detox center over in Des Moines at the hospital did a show of my work that had to do with alcoholism. I think that's where it started moving into a broader range. Rather than being just a personal story, it was everybody's story. It touches more people that way.
I don't know that I would have been able to survive without being able to make art. Because it felt like there was so much that happened in my life and there were so many things that were too difficult for me to carry all by myself. And I got to give those out to the world and have all kinds of help. There are so many people who have called me and wanted to talk about the series on alcoholism and abuse. So, I now feel like it's out in all these packages and that I don't have to carry it around so much.
By far, my mother has been the most influential person in my life regarding my art. It was a gift that she gave us all very early—it was something that she did naturally. We didn't have a television or a radio and we lived out away from most people, and that's how she entertained us was singing to us and reciting poetry and drawing pictures. She would buy tea in the big family size, and she would take the big flat flap off of the box and cut it so that it was a square, and she'd do these fabulous little drawings and paintings on these squares of the Luzianne tea box. I still have some of some mallards that she did that are watercolors, and some drawings of a house.
My father was an alcoholic and was abusive on and off our whole lives—mostly to my mother, but he had a way of being abusive in general to everybody. Our family was definitely poor. We drew water from a well. There were times when we had electricity in one room that I can remember—we lived in this little small house. My father kept us poor. It didn't start out that way. They were doing fairly well. But as the drinking progressed, the poverty progressed. When we were little kids, my father was what you could call a weekend drunk, because he worked all week and drank on weekends. He was grumpy as a bear all week, but when Friday night came.... Sometimes he would slip up and do a mid-week kind of thing. By my teenage years, it was pretty common for him to go out during the week, too.
There's a kind of strain that goes with living with an alcoholic—the idea of never knowing what in the world was going to happen next. It also sets you up to be addicted to excitement. And so being just a normal person, you have to learn how to do that. To just relax and let the day go by without feeling like the house needs to catch on fire to get through the day.
My father died in 1990 of a suicide. He had been diagnosed with cancer. I don't think he could deal with being sick. He had one chemotherapy treatment, and shot himself. My mother died last June of an ear infection that turned into spinal meningitis. It just happened overnight—I talked to her on a Thursday, and the next day she was dead.
One of my favorite pieces of my own artwork is a portrait of my mother. She is sitting with a box, and in the box there's one bird for every one of us. The birds have flown out of the box and they're scattered around, and my mother has this grin on her face. It's an acrylic painting, and then there's drawing over the top of that, and the drawing over the painting looks like a bird's nest. The name of the piece is Pandora's Box. My mother could never remember all of our names, so she wised up and just started calling us all "Honey." Right in the middle of the bird's nest is Honey #4, because I was the fourth child and so I was Honey #4. I still have that piece.
As a child, I think I was mildly neurotic. My face very early on started growing...just "off." It grew too long and when my teeth came in, they came in real scattered and real protruded, and pushed my lower jaw back, and it was a mess. I was a mouth-breather. So, I had a lot of problems. But once I had work done on my face to correct some of the problems that it had, I just blossomed overnight into this mouthy person that was so much like my father!
I loved to draw. The very first paint set that I had, my mother bought me for my seventh birthday. It was a paint-by-number, and that started the painting thing. My first things were collies. In fact, when my mother died we went through her things and I was shocked to find that collie, because that was the very first oil painting.
My father had this light-up picture that he supposedly bought my mother for an anniversary present right after they got married. It was this huge, gold gilded thing, and when you plugged it in it was da Vinci's, The Last Supper in 3D. Only we weren't allowed to plug it in, because we might tear it up. So, at some point, I saved and asked my mother to help me, so when my birthday came around, she helped me buy The Last Supper. That was the biggest and I think possibly the last paint-by-number I ever did.
My Aunt Janet and my Aunt Lola, my mother's sisters, would send my mother things in the mail, usually clothes, but sometimes they would send magazines and things like that along with the clothes. My mother would frame reproductions right out of magazines. We had Gainesborough's Blue Boy, and I think it's Monet's, the little girl in the blue dress with the water pitcher. Sometimes she didn't have the means to frame them, and she'd just stick them on the wall with tape. Then there were all of our beautiful oil paintings stuck on the wall—not framed, just stuck on the wall, tacked or nailed.
My mother was Methodist and as small children we went to church with her. My father, of course, didn't go. At some point, my father disappeared and my mother's sister Janet had to come and get us. We lived with her for a couple years, and we went to the same church that my mother went to as a girl. We went to the vacation bible school every year, didn't matter what church, because you got to make art. You know, where you glued the macaroni on the cigar boxes and then spray-painted them gold? I lived for vacation bible school!
When we grew up, we lived out on Mud Street in Eastaboga, Alabama, and our neighbors were all black. They'd come over and we played with their kids. Well, then my Aunt Janet came and got us—rescued us—and took us to Birmingham. We were in Birmingham when the church was bombed, and when they did the March on Washington, and then the March to Selma. My father told me that the blacks weren't allowed to eat in public restaurants and drink out of the same water fountains, and he was telling us about the city bus boycott. I was flabbergasted. I had no idea until that moment that there was this huge separation in their civil rights and ours. I remember being completely stunned.
The first artist that I remember being aware of was a black woman who was in Fayette, Alabama, and her name was Sister Gertrude Morgan. I was nine, ten, eleven, in there, and I knew of her and had seen her work. She did these angels on strips of paper. Sometimes it would be angels flying out of houses or over a landscape, and she did some self-portraits. She wore all white—white hose and white shoes and white dresses—and married herself to Jesus, and made all this incredible religious art. I thought it was fabulous. I think to this day that that influence shows up in my artwork a lot. There are a lot of angels and a lot of the particular kinds of line that I stared at as a child.
About age 13 or 14, I ordered those Tole painting kits in the mail. Didn't have the money to pay for it. I think it was like 34 dollars or something. It was one of those things where you could send the thing off and worry about paying for it later. They actually sent it to me. It had all the little patterns, all the brushes and all the little tiny tubes of oil paint. I was absolutely thrilled! My mother let me stay home from school that day, and I spread it out on the table and painted all day!
Art was the one thing that I could do that drew attention from teachers, from even the other students. When I was in high school, all of the kids would give me their sheet of paper to draw their amoebas and all that stuff. I would go home at night and I worked hard at trying to make twenty different-looking amoebas! I don't know that I thought of it so much as talent, but it was something that would get others' attention—besides this face that was happening. So, it was a positive and I used it for all it was worth.
After I graduated from high school, I lived out in the country—there was no phone, no one close by, nothing. There was no way for me to get a job. So I married the first person who asked me. By the time I even realized I was married, I was pregnant and he was off dating someone else. I think I was married to him a total of eleven months, then I got a divorce. I went back to my mother and had my baby.
I had been working as a dental assistant and then hygienist, and quit those jobs and went to work for the local museum. John B. LaGuard, Anniston, Alabama, had given this huge collection of African animals to the city. So they built this massive museum that when I started working there was nothing but this empty building, and they had all these plans for an African hall and an Alabama cave and a bird hall. I worked there six years. It was incredible to work and to be responsible for an exhibition that's being built.
I married someone else for awhile. He liked the secretary better than me, so that ended, too. I looked at it later thinking, "Well, this is just perfect," because when I finally got out of that marriage, I just took my child and went to Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.
I graduated from Ringling in '87, and then went to Drake University for graduate school. At Drake, my mentor was Richard Black, head of the printmaking department. We had very, very different working styles. His work is very tight and very controlled, and mine is very loose and very chaotic, and we fought a lot! I don't think he ever liked my artwork. He felt that a print was a print, and a drawing was a drawing, and he was a real purist on this. I'd take my prints and scribble on top of them, and draw and paint and tear them, and he just hated that! Also, I told family stories. He tried to convince me that art had nothing to do with my family and with where I came from, and that that was a completely separate thing. Well, for him it was, but for me it wasn't. So we had this real conflict. But at the same time, he taught me an enormous amount and I'm very grateful to him as an instructor.
After graduate school, I had a very large studio space in the BMS Building in Des Moines, and I shared that space with Daniel Ellis. That was truly another one of the times that was one of the most creative. I think it was an awakening. I let go of a lot of inhibitions, things that I felt like art had to look a certain way or be a certain way. He was instrumental in my letting go of that.
Then I took a job as Project Art director at the University Hospital at the University of Iowa. I moved to Iowa City January 1st of '93, and I worked there for a year and a half. The program is really a fabulous program. It brings this incredible artwork into the Hospital. But at that time, the job was just packed—I was working seventy hours a week, and getting no sleep. It was almost impossible to get any artwork made. So, I quit and went back to making art.
Shortly after that, a nonfiction piece I had written won the Pirate's Alley Faulkner Society Gold Medal. I was flown to New Orleans and was down there for a week. Shelby Foote gave me my award, and I was thrilled. Shelby Foote wanted to know was this the only story I was going to write? I said, "Well no, there are others." And he said, "Well, why don't you just put 'em together and do a memoir?" So, I did.
My husband Duane, who I'm married to now and plan to be married to forever, is supportive of my art and writing. He's been incredible. Without his financial support I wouldn't have been able to write the book. My artwork brings in money, and I have this little business of selling earrings of hand-blown glass and those kinds of things on the side—but none of that brings in a substantial amount of money. So, he's just a phenomenal husband.
I don't think there's a huge separation between art and writing, because it's storytelling—it's a way of expressing yourself and putting yourself out there. If you go back in my art work, for years there have been sentences or phrases, paragraphs, that are things that I had written, even as a child. I was a big journal keeper, and I still have journals all the way back to the early sixties. And I would take little excerpts from those and make them into art.
I never have had a creative block. I always have this sense that there's just this boiling over in there. A lot of times, when you're working on one, the idea for the next one is there before you can ever get to it—until you do a quick drawing or a sketch and put it aside, because this is going to be your next one. So, it perpetuates itself when you're working.
The work that I'm working on right now actually has to do with me and my quest for beauty. But also, I think it's all women and the things that we do to ourselves in order to feel beautiful and accepted in today's society. That includes surgery and eating disorders and exercise and all these things. A lot of those have not been my problem, but I've definitely gone through a lot of surgery—four major surgeries—in order to get this face where I thought it was my face. It turned out okay, but still sometimes I look in the mirror and go, "Oh, if I just had Cindy Crawford's jawline..."—it's ridiculous that I can go through all of this. My weight stays at 118 pounds, and yet I look in the mirror and it's like, "Well, if I was just curvier, and less gawky-looking!" So this whole body of work is called Quest for Beauty.
There's a lot of humor in this particular body of work that has not been in a lot of my work before. There's this one piece that has this woman from her waist down, she's standing and she has on high heels. And then right in front of her is the same body, same legs, and she's barefooted. Then facing her is a horse that's got his leg stuck out and is kind of bowing to her, and the piece is called Shod. It's a multi-media piece, and it's got ballet slippers—and in the middle of it, it says, "I look taller and thinner in heels."
You think you've got an idea of what you're doing, but once you start creating, it really has its own life and it does it itself, sort of. My son calls it the art angel. Because I'll tell him about some piece that I'm going to do and I'll start working on it, and then when he sees it it's just like, "Well, Mom that's not exactly what you said, but this is great."
The greatest joy is in the making. When you're at that point where there's no time and there's no space and the art angel has flown over and the art is making itself and all you have to do is move around the instruments, that's when it's just…like flying. I don't know another way to explain it. That's when it's at its very, very best. I told my husband sometime that it was right up there with sex. He just laughed!
The advice I would give to a young artist is just make art. Keep making art, and make it all the time, and don't pay any attention to what anybody else says, keep making it. That's it. Just make it.
*Jane Robinette is not related to Barbara Robinette Moss.