My Brother Was “the artist in the family”

Daily Prompt: What’s your favorite way to express yourself, creatively?

Only non artists “express themselves.” Artists do what they cannot help doing and no amount of pressure from inside or outside will stop them. In a sense, I now feel there’s nothing LESS relevant than self-expression. Anything we do will express who we are, and in ways we probably don’t even understand. This painting, for example, of cornflowers. I seriously set out ONLY to paint cornflowers, still, they couldn’t have been painted this way by anyone else.

Oil on panel. A bee actually tried to land on the painted flowers, so I knew I had the color right.



I started my adult life (college) as an art major. The thing is, my mom strenuously disapproved of this and made sure it didn’t happen. I majored in English because, in my family, well, here’s the story.

Abstract Expressionism Christmas 1981. Denver, snow on the ground. Clear, still, silent, star-lit. Kirk and I take a walk after dinner. My brother is an artist living in the moment of grand opportunities. A visit to his apartment in Colorado Springs requires painting animation cells for a feature length fully animated film, Leafy Wanders in Space, Leafy being my brother’s two-dimensional alter ego. This year, his wife and daughter are having Christmas dinner at his mother-in-law’s house. His father-in-law hates him and once went after him with a shotgun, so Kirk is with my mom and me.

I’m a visual artist, too, something I was never supposed to bring up, acknowledge, admit to, or otherwise claim as an aspect of my identity. It is OK if I write, but if pencil hits paper and drags behind it a line that does not turn into a word, I have overstepped my boundaries. One summer afternoon my grandmother Kennedy upset everyone by proclaiming, “Martha Ann is the REAL artist in the family!”

Artistic vision is highly individual, but still artists can be competitive, and my brother is even though our work is completely different. He is primarily a cartoonist; his other work is illustration. He loves book illustrations of the ’30’s, the work of Howard Pyle and Disney’s cell animation. He believes in studying anatomy in order to draw the human figure then carefully rendering the proportions with a pencil or crow-quill pen on Bristol board. I believe in grabbing a conté crayon, looking directly at naked people and capturing the life behind the flesh in gleefully drawn gesture drawings on rough newsprint.

Earlier that year — much to his horror — I had a one man show of my paintings, mostly gouache on paper, flat paint, flat surfaces; figure paintings of headless bodies. I sold two before the show opened and more at the show bringing in a few thousand bucks. I thought that was pretty good for a one shot deal. It was more than I’d made from writing. “The thing is, you’re an abstract expressionist,” he says suddenly. I do not know what that is. Anyway, I had moved from painting to linoleum cuts. I didn’t have very good tools, but I use what I have and have a lot of fun. I am about to have more fun because, in the next few days, I will get better tools and my brother will teach me how to sharpen them. He smokes a pipe; it keeps his hand warm inside his coat pocket. His hair is short and curled; he is clean-shaven, lean and very handsome. He is my best friend.

The snow crunches as we walk. I talk to him about art and everything I am thinking. It was during those days that I got the idea that art and god were some how entwined. We laugh. “Well, Martha Ann,” he says, “if you’re looking for God, you need to play Black Sabbath backward at 78. And you need to get some emery paper, honey.” Hilarious and deeply profound. The search for god has always involved arcane and absurd ritual (like listening to Black Sabbath backward at 78) and the sharpening of tools, the perfecting of craft. Well, there it was.

Fafner - work based on a dress and pendant I had as a college student, my short career as an artist's model, and a guy who took photos of me after a modeling session


Oil on panel, metallic paint (fun) Based on a night I spent in Munich.


Learning to paint reflections -- the waterfall near my house. Oil on canvas, sold last year.

Descanso Falls

Mysterious painting that came from godnose where. Oil on panel.

The World is Out There

Ironically (or is it?) I have made all of $150 from my writing. I’ve made several thousand from my painting and my work has been in several juried shows. Still and all, none of this (thank you mom!) has been done “for” money. The best thing she ever did was abuse me out of following my dream. Sometimes having a dream is more necessary to life, to survival, than living the dream.  And at this point in my life, understanding that self-expression is inevitable, I try to express more than just myself. After all, part of my SELF is my relation to the world. Any real art is a journey beyond the self into a larger world. I’ve learned this in both my writing and my painting. It might be Ariadne’s thread.

35 thoughts on “My Brother Was “the artist in the family”

  1. I like your conclusion “Sometimes having a dream is more necessary to life, to survival, than living the dream.” That is probably saying something similar, from the other direction, than I wrote in my post on this subject today.

    Having a dream is “living the dream.” Being a professional is not “the dream” unless you have the kind of salary, sense of purpose and affirmation that you imagine comes with it– and most do not. The ability to keep the dream is to be alive to the dream.

    • I agree. From what I’ve seen, being a professional artist can kill the dream because an artist becomes invested in his/her market. Too much hangs on that, necessarily, just like for me continuing teaching has had some relationship to my evaluations from students and bosses. I am not now — after 35 years — anything like the teacher I started to be and the change has definitely resulted more from outside pressure than internal motivate.

  2. Beautiful paintings. I love the cornflower painting, such natural colour and it lives. Now I have discovered my jealous strain, which I did not have yesterday on the prompt. My husbands paints, but I am just the looker of the paintings.

    • If the evil buyer sends it back, I’ll send it to you. I want it to be loved and part of me belongs in Switzerland. In a way, a painting doesn’t exist at all until there is a “looker.” It’s like Zarathustra saying to the sun, “Oh great star, what would you be if not for those for whom you shine?” It’s true. 🙂

  3. Wow Martha. Great Paintings! That’s an interesting point at the end, that your mother’s steering was a blessing in disguise.
    No talents were wasted on you. Well done.

    • It’s joy — I’m always amazed (and here at WordPress, too) by the idea that creative labor is a punishment. Sure, if you want to do well you need to be able and willing to apply the principle of disciplined effort which means self-criticism and improvement, but that’s part of the joy. In my life there’s just been so much that’s been out of my control in no good way. With painting and writing there’s still a lot out of my control but that absence of control is like a free new highway. I don’t really know how to explain it. I suppose that as my life turned out, writing and painting became completely elective activities, self-driven and that’s liberty.

  4. Love the philosophy, love the paintings. Completely agree that being invested in the market can kill the dream. But on the other hand, writing doesn’t exist until there’s a reader, like painting and a looker. It’s one of those dichotomies I hate.

  5. One of the worst decisions I ever made was my brief foray into professional photography. It was awful. Not the work, though there’s not a lot of self-expression in babies, weddings, and bar-mitvahs … but the clients. It’s worse than having a boss. It’s like having dozens of bosses, all unreasonable and more than a little bit irrational.

    • Yep. I’m grateful to my mom for telling me I couldn’t major in art and making it financially impossible for me to take that road. I wasn’t even able to deal with being a member of an art co-op because it made me think of painting as producing something for customers… Won’t do it.

  6. Martha, I would not let one beothch stop me form selling my art on Etsy. You are letting one beothch run your life. Never give in to an idiot. Then that person has the control. You art is marvelous. Some folks have the need to complain and that is how they go about life.

    • You are so right. Some people just complain as if it were a built in trait. Ultimately, it wasn’t the buyer (who was definitely a beatch). It was the way Etsy dealt with ME that made me pull my stuff out (it’s back, though). I generally think the customer is always right, but even after I offered to refund her money and pay the shipping (by then I wanted my painting back — godnose what she did to it), she continued sending me emails I thought were really abusive — and left a really mean review. I went to the forums for advice. My postings were pulled down and I got a message from “admins” that I should not “bad mouth” a buyer. I hadn’t. I’d simply written down the facts and asked for advice from people who were more experienced. NOW I have a more realistic view of Etsy (basically, I dislike the people who run it) but it is a place to market my work — not a very effective place, but I don’t think it’s smart to eliminate such an easy option.

  7. I have a painting signed by Kirk Kennedy…gnomes in a forest, along with a squirrel and green fairy…could this be your brothers work?

    your paintings are beautiful, by the way.

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