My mother was a painter. That was what she did first and foremost. She was extremely gifted. In fact, I will go out on a limb and say her work is among the best I’ve seen of her time (approximately 1930 -1980).
As a young adult, she went to art school in Berlin, which is where she got the name Franyo (her real name was Marga Victoria); later, after moving to New York, she went to the Art Students League. To me, her studio was the most exciting place in the world, but I wasn’t allowed in it unless I agreed to be quiet and draw. There were always models coming in and out, or people sitting for portraits. Probably I was jealous of all that activity, but I learned the essentials of drawing and painting from those days in my mother’s studio, and also about discipline and hard work.
Franyo was exacting. If a painting wasn’t right, she did it over and over again, her own harshest critic (and everyone else’s, too). If she’d lived during the time of the internet, her career might have been different. But she was shy of publicity. She once told me a fat, cigar-puffing agent looked through slides of her work, barely seeing them, and said, “Not interested.” Even though she’d won awards and had gallery shows and representation, I think his off-handedness had a really bad effect on her. She just didn’t want to shop herself around.
Another mark against her was her gender. It was harder for female artists back then. Even today there’s something of a bias against female painters if one listens to remarks like the one made recently by renowned German artist, Georg Baselitz: “Women don’t paint very well. It’s a fact.” With all respect, I have to say, what an asshole. Franyo went on painting, day in, day out no matter what anyone said. I’m not sure she cared much what happened to the canvas once she’d finished it and moved on to the next. It was the creative act itself, the question, challenge and execution that interested her.
There was a time when she pestered me non-stop to get her some marijuana to try. I felt very weird about that, and refused. I must have been about twenty-five and just didn’t feel comfortable sharing a joint with my mother. But she continued to nag, so finally I gave in. I was terrible at rolling joints – no problemo, she puffed hard on the lumpy thing and then I left her alone, thinking it might be a good idea to go up on the roof to sunbathe. She remained in her studio. After awhile I realized that the buses on Third Avenue sounded awfully loud and that I wasn’t quite in my body. And then I remembered my mother and began to worry about getting down the ladder that led back into the house. Paranoia had set in, but I managed and found my mother sitting very calmly in her studio. “I didn’t feel anything from the marijuana,” she announced. “But I did realize something about that painting.” She gestured at her easel and I turned and saw that she’d slathered thick black paint over her painting. “I realized it was no good and there was nothing I could do to save it.” She would never admit that the marijuana had anything to do with her act of destruction, or that it had made her feel anything at all. But she did pester me for more.
Franyo went on painting into her early eighties when she couldn’t anymore because her hands were destroyed by arthritis. I have only a few of her paintings. My sister has the lion’s share. But that’s another story.
**An episode from this memoir is published every Thursday for those following!