Degas made a series of drawings of women ironing – strong, sensitive images that show the depth of a woman’s physical engagement in such a task, of her immersion and concentration in skillfully carrying out of such a necessary mundane chore.
In my role of “Lone Arranger” I had to find a model for our Sunday afternoon sustained painting session. People seemed to be quite bored of painting a model plunked down in front of a draped cloth, looking languid and merely sitting with hands decorously and gracefully placed. Yet another “woman sitting doing nothing” scenario was one that did not make me eager to drag my easel and equipment to the hall where we did our painting. I wanted something a bit more toothy!
Our Lady of Perpetual Crisis had been sitting for me fairly regularly at home, and she was well broken in as a model. So, I posed the question to her that she consider sitting for our painting group for four weeks. “You know how you have such a love-hate relationship with laundry” I put to her, “and, especially how you absolutely loathe ironing? How about you model for us doing ironing?” This tickled her curiosity and she agreed this might pose some challenge for the painting group, and much to my delight she agreed to be our ironing model.
I loaded up my largely unused ironing board, and OLPC brought her brand new, space-age, never before put into service iron. At the first session as painters were setting up their easels curious as to what situation they were to paint, OLPC stood up the ironing board, plugged the iron into the wall socket and placed her daughter’s skirt onto the board and launched into a fairly relaxed pose.
Soon, sotto voce grumblings from the painters emerged into the stillness of the studio. “Who on earth is going to want to buy my painting of a woman ironing?” “This is too complicated!” “It’s going to take too long to establish the relative proportions of the equipment and the figure!”
I was very happy with this challenge and tackled the whole process with intent pleasure. The question of selling the resulting painting didn’t even occur to me, I just wanted to take on the business of looking and painting. After the fourth week of painting this ironing study, members of the group insisted politely and firmly that our next model be a nubile young woman in a nice dress who just simply sat there looking sultry and decorative – no more zaftig middle-aged models doing boring mundane chores, please! The “Lone Arranger” was being demoted! Ah, well – such is life.
The following month, a number of us, all local painters, were requested to take part in a fund-raiser for the local women’s shelter. We were to set up individually and spend four hours painting, during which time an audience could walk about drinking cocktails and look at the process of taking a painting from beginning to completion. At the end of the four hours, each work was to be auctioned off and the proceeds were to be donated to the women’s shelter to help outfit families who had left behind abusive situations. This seemed like a worthy endeavour toward which to bend my energies, so I agreed to take part.
OLPC agreed to be my model, and she and I looked at my big book on Degas, so we could find a reproduction which might serve as a basis for a variation on a theme. We found the marvellous image of Madame de Valpincon resting beside a big bouquet of flowers. She looked a bit tired and slightly bored, as if the chore of collecting and arranging the flowers had taxed her and she needed to take a rest. I proposed to pose OLPC beside a huge laundry basket filled with a variety of flowery sheets, with a box of laundry soap and a squeeze bottle of Shout de-stainer, given how OLPC loathed her never-ending cycles of laundering. She agreed that this might be fun to do for a four hour pose.
On the day of this painting performance, OLPC and I carted a carful of equipment – Photo-floods and their stand, electric extension cord, tarp for the floor to prevent making permanent stains, laundry basket, sheets, box of laundry soap, Shout bottle, easel, paints, brushes, solvents and gessoed panel and a bottle of good red wine for OLPC and me to share in order to dispel performance jitters. We set up very efficiently and taped a large reproduction of the Degas “Woman with Chrysanthemums” to the edge of the table supporting the pallette and paint tubes, leaned my painting of “Woman ironing” next to it and laid a small notebook and pen under a sign requesting onloookers to share their laundry stories by writing them into the notebook ( as yet another way for viewers to participate in the process, rather than passively looking on).
OLPC was wonderful – she sat holding the pose, engaged visitors in conversation and encouraged them to write their laundry stories into the little notebook. I collected my personal bubble around myself, inside which I hid and worked largely unaware of having my activity monitored by many strangers. Sounds abated, except for the scrape and scurry of my paintbrushes, the activity of mixing paint, making marks obliterated my nervousness. Drinking the wine also helped numb any feelings of sheer terror I may have had, the painting proceeded. Four hours went by in a flash.
I did not stay for the auction, but OLPC did. She reported that my friend Kay bid up the painting and ended up taking it home. I was outside nervously nursing a cigarette and sipping a glass of wine while reading the curious laundry stories people had written into my little notebook. OLPC came out, excited, and reported to me that someone wanted to buy my painting of “Woman ironing”.
Who’d think that such prosaic subject matter in a painting would capture someone’s imagination, compelling them to part with a sum of money for possession of it? Amazing too is the fact that images are so powerful that they unleash a personal connection in viewers strong enough that they would provoke them to mine their own memories for remembrances of situations surrounding simple activities we generally think of as ordinary, unimportant and which yield such a trove of stories which pique interest.
Thank you OLPC, and thank you Degas for propelling me in this direction the outcome of which was so rich!