The Painter’s Wife vs. The Poet’s Husband: Portrait of a Marriage

Shawna Lemay on the Indistinct Line Between Background and Foreground

Sun tremolos on the white table, I set the strawberries down.

These were early days in our relationship, morning in my old and run-down bachelor pad with hardwood floors, deep windowsills, a view of the graveled parking lot, downtown Edmonton. Birdsong and the neighbors’ fighting and making up, the soundtrack. A round, white Ikea table is next to the window and right beside that, the bed. The light flutters in and I get up, make coffee, take out strawberries sliced the night before. There are three pots of African violets and a vase of gaping orange and red tulips. I make toast, set out strawberry jam amid the shadows cast by the flowers. The necklace I’d worn the night before is on the table where I happened to leave it. My Pentax MX loaded with film, 36 exposures, is on the nearby chest of drawers.

Rob gets out of bed and sees something in this scene and asks to use my camera. Sure, I say. The colors are good. The blue design on the Chinese mugs works well with the orange and purple of the flowers, which makes a nice counterpoint to the red of the strawberries. He adjusts a few things, places the knives on the edges of the plates with toast. I watch as he leans over and in, the strap of the camera hanging down, and even now I remember the satisfying sound of the shutter.

He’d talked about wanting to paint still lifes again, which he’d done in his student days. He’d had success painting outdoor patio scenes, and views from the Muttart Conservatory—glass pyramids housing temperate, tropical, and desert plants year-round. He began exhibiting his work right out of art school. We’d met through mutual friends at a few parties and he’d mentioned he was having a solo show. I went to it by myself one afternoon, and I liked his work.

We were young then, but the feeling was that we weren’t getting any younger. And yet trying something new felt risky, felt heavy and momentous. We were 23 and 27 at the time, and something big had to happen. Something good. We really didn’t know anything, then. The way that life can move so slowly, and the way that one object on a table shifted slightly to meet the sun can be enough.

I took the photos to be developed; a painting was made. And then it was exhibited in his next solo exhibition where it sold to the Canadian Embassy in Beijing. As far as I know, it’s still hanging there. We were dating then, but eventually, I became the wife of the artist.

There have been many novels about the wives of. The Pilot’s Wife, The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Photographer’s Wife. I’m not even close to being the first to remark on this trend. In a 2007 article in The Guardian, Judith Evans points out, “So all these novels seem to take the reader with them in a little conspiracy: others may think that the time traveller, kitchen god or Greek tycoon is the main attraction—and indeed, they’re pretty intriguing—but come with me and I’ll show you the wife or daughter in the background who really deserves the attention.” The woman as sidekick is something that Evans is skeptical about. Isn’t it time, she asks, for women to be the center of attention? Why can’t the wife also be the ringmaster, the alchemist, or the tycoon? she asks.

I recently read Meg Wolitzer’s novel The Wife, which is popular again because of the movie starring Glenn Close, who won numerous awards for her acting in the film. I hadn’t read a single review of the book, but I knew how it would end when I read the first sentence in which the narrator, who happens to be “the wife” of the novel’s title, announces that she has had “enough” and is leaving her husband, the famous novelist. Reading the first sentence, we are alerted to the tone in the title: she is not X’s Wife; she is The Wife. In a certain way, she’s the ringmaster, but it’s complicated.

The woman as sidekick is something that Judith Evans is skeptical about. Isn’t it time, she asks, for women to be the center of attention? Why can’t the wife also be the ringmaster, the alchemist, or the tycoon?

In 2014, Jessica Dawson asked why the art world “ignores wives” in a piece for The Daily Beast. She discussed video artist Bill Viola, who at the time had a retrospective in Paris, and who produces work in collaboration with his partner Kira Perov, the executive director of his studio. When Dawson asked Perov about an article in The New York Times that Dawson thinks gives her “inordinate credit,” Perov replied that “the characterization didn’t go far enough.” Her roles are listed as bookkeeper, archivist, and collaborator and I imagine the list could be expanded. Still, when the author later asked if she “felt any wish for co-authorship,” Perov left the email unanswered. Regarding the retrospective, the articles ends, “Did Perov ask for co-billing, or does she even want it? We don’t know. What we do know is that Bill Viola has a major show on view at The Grand Palais, and Kira Perov doesn’t.”

In Wolitzer’s novel, the narrator says, “Everyone needs a wife; even wives need wives. Wives tend, they hover.” She goes on, “Wives bring broth, we bring paper clips, we bring ourselves and our pliant, warm bodies.” Wives are the ones who say, “everything will be okay.” “And then,” the narrator continues, “as if our lives depend on it, we make sure it is.”

I wasn’t terribly surprised by the revelation at the end of the book as to the extent of the wife’s contribution to the preening, prize-winning husband’s writing. The lack of surprise is perhaps the biggest surprise.

James Tissot’s painting “The Artists’ Wives, 1885” depicts a gathering on a café terrace in Paris on varnishing day, when artists apply a final coat to their paintings that will hang in the annual Salon exhibition. Rob also varnishes his paintings and looking at this image I can smell the recently applied varnish. But I also think about the word varnish, which is quite close to vanish, and is used to indicate a superficial appearance. For all that the painting is about the artists’ wives, and sure there they are in the foreground, there is a higher percentage of fellows. And, in fact, it’s Auguste Rodin, lurking with his beard and top hat like a photobomber, who is named in descriptions of the paintings; in the Chrysler Museum’s catalogue entry on the painting, the wives are referred to as “female companions.”

Rob has had over 30 solo shows and he’s been in numerous group exhibitions. I’ve attended most of the openings, as his wife. I’m useful at these things. I’m actually great at them. I talk to the relatives and to those who would like to tell him stories about how their rosebush is infested with aphids.

Occasionally, there are art buyers who want to meet me. I’m often asked, are you a painter, too? Oh God, no, I want to say, that would be a disaster, but I don’t. It’s hard enough to follow up with, “I’m a writer,” and see the expressions that that produces.

*

We’ve had a good long marriage, the still life painter and me. I consider myself an expert on what it’s like to be married to an artist, given that we’ve lasted over 25 years at the writing of this essay. I have a pretty grand sense of humor about the whole thing, always have.

Case in point: the poem in my first collection, All the God-Sized Fruit, published in 1999, titled, “By the Still Life Painter’s Wife.” I’d been reading up on the still life painters of the 17th century and onward. I remember waking up at 4 am and grabbing the legal pad which I kept on my night table, and writing the poem almost as is. A poem arriving in this way is a miraculous thing for a writer, and I love it for this reason, and also because I think it’s amusing the way these objects appear somewhat magically for the artists.

By the Still Life Painter’s Wife

Did Willem Kalf’s wife say
look, i have brought home this nautilus cup
filled with light
from my merchant brother’s house.
On it Neptune stands on a fearsome whale head
and below Jonah dives from the monster’s jaws.
Or, here is a lemon carefully peeled
the rind a curling ribbon.
And here is a lobster, darling,
i have cleaned all the meat from it
so you may have it in your studio
the brilliant smooth orange-red.

Did Chardin’s wife say
i baked this splendid brioche today
and trimmed it with mint leaves
from the plant in the backyard.
I’ll leave it for you on the sideboard
by the candy dish, decanter, apples and cherries.
In case you’re hungry, dear man.

Did Rembrandt’s wife say
the slaughtered ox has been trussed up in the shed
will you go and inspect it, my darling.

And the wives of de Heem and Aertsen, Bosschaert and Brueghel.
Did they
gather flowers in ditches
arrange them on the console
bake fussy confectioneries
and bread just so
barter assiduously at market for exotic fruit
place it carelessly
in unusual china bowls
buy pears with attention
to length and curve of stem
coax juice from wasting fruit
blend the concoction until pink-orange-red
some unnameable colour.

Reader, I have spent my life bringing flowers home from the grocery store. I have looked for pears with unusual stems. I have arranged apples and grapes in a bowl. I have practiced the peeling of lemons, and I have cleared the table so as to make of it a blank canvas. More importantly, I have made the making of paintings the priority in our household. I have held space for it with superhuman powers. I have also documented his career, maintained his website, and facilitated his social media. We like to say that he works in his basement studio in the 16th century, which is when oil paints were invented. I have contributed to making sure his work is seen in the 21st century. Have I shaped his work in some small way? I think so, and he doesn’t disagree.

I’ve attended most of the openings, as his wife. I’m useful at these things. I’m actually great at them.

Here’s the thing: he also shapes my work. I have a name, and it’s on the front of all my books, many of which are about art, living with art, still life, and living a creative life. In short, he shapes my work as much as I shape his. There is no one more interested in the photographs I take or the words I write. We each work to make the space for each other.

When my essay collection Calm Things came out in 2008, a reader wrote on Amazon, “This small work is a journal written by the poet Shana Lemay on the subject of ‘Still Life’. As her husband is an artist who focuses on painting Still Lifes it is also an effort at description, revelation and perhaps promotion of his work.”

You will notice the misspelling of my name. You will notice that my writing makes “an effort.” And you will notice that I’ve been relegated to someone promoting my husband’s work.

Does it bother me so much because it’s partly true? When I wrote Calm Things, I was trying to create something in the realm of what Annie Dillard does in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, or May Sarton in her Journal of a Solitude, or Anne Morrow Lindbergh in Gift from the Sea. I was making a considerable and freaking graceful effort to utilize the material at hand. I was trying to make something of my life. In the second chapter Lindbergh writes that one of the goals in writing her book is “to be at peace with myself. I want a singleness of eye, a purity of intention, a central core to my life that will enable me to carry out these obligations and activities as well as I can.” She was seeking a life lived “in grace.”

I wanted to say that my life lived through still life is also steeped in grace, deeply contemplative, and even elegant. I wasn’t writing to hawk my husband’s art.

Meanwhile, though we’re all the way into the 21st century we’re still asking the question Linda Nochlin famously asked in 1988: “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” in various permutations. In a Forbes article, Erin Spencer writes about the question Wilhelmina Holladay, the founder of The National Museum of Women in the Arts, began asking in the 1970s: “Where are all the women artists?” The NMWA is the only major museum in the world, she says, solely dedicated to women’s art. She also quotes a 2017 study “that found that just 13.7% of living artists represent in galleries in Europe and North America are women.” Granted, we can’t rewrite history and insert more women artists into the 17th century.

I thought more would have changed by now. I published All the God-Sized Fruit in 1999 and our daughter was born in 1998. I thought by now—she’s in her 20s—she’d be living in a world that esteemed women artists. In my book I inhabited the voices of women artists, re-imagining their lives and the lives of their paintings. It was through the voices of artists like Artemisia Gentileschi, Rachel Ruysch, Rosa Bonheur, and Paula Modersohn-Becker, that I began to imagine my own life.

There’s an article on Salon, written in 2015 by the writer Anne Bauer, titled “Sponsored by my husband: Why it’s a problem that writers never talk about where their money comes from.” Bauer lays out her money situation in the first paragraph: her husband has a well-paying job with fancy perks like a gym membership. This allows her to work intermittently, and to spend the rest of her time writing. She details examples of writers who have inheritances, rich and connected parents, or, like her, a well-off husband.

Rob and I have often joked about why we only had one child, saying it must be illegal for an artist and a writer to have more than one. We’ve not received any inheritances from long lost uncles, and neither of us have made money on the stock market or from the patent on a secret invention. Mainly we fly by the seat of our pants, and worry a lot, and save our money, and buy everything with cash, and try to live simply. There is the Oscar Wilde line I’m fond of quoting: “When bankers get together, they talk about art. When artists get together, they talk about money.”

But when artists do talk about money, it sounds needy. For painters, if you’re not successful, or seem to be, then your art isn’t deemed worthy by collectors. If you seem too successful, the other artists are resentful. Being an artist means you’re almost always living on the edge.

*

I’m photographing two ranunculus—one dark pink, one a light ballerina pink—but the stems are too short and I don’t want the vase in the photo. I could MacGyver them, scotch-tape them onto the vase so they sit higher up. But instead, I have Rob hold the flowers. He understands immediately what I want. Something poetic, a gesture between the two flowers. He twirls them and manipulates them until they’re in the light I want, and also assuming that poetic gesture. When I post the photo on Instagram, I don’t mention his involvement. It doesn’t even occur to me that I might have.

Though we’re all the way into the 21st century we’re still asking the question Linda Nochlin famously asked in 1988: “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” in various permutations.

I frequently bring home flowers, but Rob also gathers his stems, goes flower shopping. These days, I often use his castoff flowers for my photographs, and sometimes he uses mine. I think of them that way, “castoff flowers.” When they have been manipulated, and prodded, and coaxed to pose for photos, they have a secondhand feeling to them.

When I wrote my novel Rumi and the Red Handbag, which is set in a secondhand store, I had in mind an essay by Hélène Cixous from her book Stigmata. In the essay Cixous talks about James Joyce’s “wombtext”—Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In Ovid’s account of the story of Icarus, his father forges wings composed of melted wax and feathers he collects when birds drop them. She quotes from Ovid: “he came too close to the blazing sun, and it softened the sweet-smelling wax that bound his wings together. The wax melted. Icarus moved his bare arms up and down, but without their feathers they had no purchase on the air.” Later, she quotes Joyce: “Mother is putting my new secondhand clothes in order.”

The essay is full of tracings and resonances, but I have lived with this line for some time: “There is no artist without castoff feathers.” We inherit the feathers, the clothes, of previous artists. We all begin our creative lives packing our suitcases with secondhand clothes—trying on, in my case, the frocks of Virginia Woolf, the black turtlenecks of Clarice Lispector, the kimonos of Georgia O’Keeffe.

Earlier, I said that as artists, we’re flying by the seat of our pants. But Rob and I, we’re really flying by castoff flowers.

*

I’ve never really thought of myself as the wife of the still life artist. But I wonder if our understanding of the way art is produced has evolved?

On Instagram you will see young women posing in various locales looking sensational, but spontaneous. Rarely does the viewer wonder who is behind the camera. Probably the photograph has been taken by what is known as an “Instagram husband,” who may be “any gender and sexual orientation, and he doesn’t have to be your actual husband” according to an article in The Atlantic titled, “The Instagram-Husband Revolution.” The men who are behind the camera now want to get their due; they’ve begun organizing in the form of Facebook groups, Instagram reveals, and hashtags (#instagramhusband). Being an Instagram Husband for an influencer (who might make in the millions) is a full-time job requiring a wide variety of skills, including photography, but also scouting locations, making videos, shopping, online marketing.

In reference to one such husband, the article notes, “it can be hard for some men when their wife finds fame.” He emphasizes that his role isn’t “demeaning yourself; it’s about building something with your wife.”

I find it interesting that Instagram Husbands are concerned that their role might be considered a demeaning one, a role without dignity. Their invisibility causes embarrassment. Obviously, the dynamics of every single relationship are unique and artistic relationships are no different. I can’t help but look back at that review of my book and my offense at it being called promotion for my husband’s work. Because when you make a life in art, you really are building something, and it’s rarely done alone, in spite of the persistent myth of the solitary and temperamental artist.

I have lived, so far, a life in art, a life steeped in the making of art. Ten years into our marriage, I wrote a poem titled “Daring Instruction,” which used still life as a metaphor for our marriage. The constant shifting, the impermanence, the precariousness, the way you add and take away, recompose, speaks to what it is to cohabitate over time. The focus in the poem is the dailyness, the light that comes and goes, and the sturdy table at the center of it all.

Still life is a useful lens through which to look at how art is made, too. There is the absence of humans, but human touch is everywhere in it. While outside of narrative, often a still life is placed at the emotional core of a story, saying something unsayable. We might view art-making as a solitary, romantic endeavor, but what makes the practice possible is friends, like-minded people, family, and partners, a neighbor handing you a flower or a bowl of tomatoes over the fence.

Still life is a useful lens through which to look at how art is made. There is the absence of humans, but human touch is everywhere in it.

And like the art-making practice, a still life comes together very often thanks to a community. It’s a mash-up of the public and the private. The strategies of still life are a “particularly productive focus for exploring the way the distant affairs of the world might reach into the life of the individual,” says Bonnie Costello in Planets on the Table. She says the still life is a “threshold genre” and connects the private and public spheres. Rob’s still life paintings are made in our home, comprised of things from flower stores and grocery stores, imported from all over the world.

Still lifes holds a trace of all who have touched the objects, whether it’s the farmer who picked the lemon from the tree, or the potter who turned the bowl. While a still life isn’t labeled with arrows saying where the flowers were grown, or marked up with the provenance of the objects, these are all intrinsically part of such a painting. So many forces come into play to make a single picture that it’s astounding.

And it’s the magic trick of still life: when you’re looking at a painting of a bowl of plums beside a single pink rose in a narrow vase, all you’re thinking about is the way the light hits each of the objects, and the way the shadow sprawls out on the tablecloth. Sure, someone pricked their skin when plucking the rose, someone washed the plums under cold water, arranging them just so, but the lived moment of the painting dominates. Arresting are the paint strokes, made by another human hand practiced for years, in conjunction with an eye noticing, refining the ability to mix and apply color to capture the tones, shapes, forms, depth, shadow and light of an object. You’re hovering in front of the painting, held by the force of the paint, and by all those castoff feathers and petals. You have gained purchase on the air.

Should you wish to email me after reading this and ask if I’d like some portion of credit for Rob’s work, would I leave it unanswered? Yes, yes, I would. I’d like credit for my own work. More importantly, I’d like the space to do my work. I’d like women from all backgrounds to have the space to do their work. I’d also like Rob to continue to do his work. I love the back and forth that we’ve developed, the flowers that we share, the objects on a table. The way at lunch one of us will gently push the bowl of plums on the kitchen table, into the light.

Shawna Lemay
Shawna Lemay
Shawna Lemay is the author of The Flower Can Always Be Changing, brief essays, and the novel, Rumi and the Red Handbag, which made Harper’s Bazaar’s #THELIST (must-reads for Fall 2015), the “Most Anticipated” list on 49th Shelf, and was selected for Maria Shriver's fall reading club. Nathalie Atkinson chose Rumi and the Red Handbag for “Fall's Must-Read Fashion Books” in the Globe and Mail. She writes the blog Transactions with Beauty.





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