Art and Memory

By Dorothy Gallagher

Every beginning
is only a sequel, after all,
and the book of events
is always open halfway through
 
Wislawa Szymborska
 
Twenty yeas ago I admired an etching that Dorothy Braudy had made and she made me a gift of it. I have looked at it every day since. It is a powerfully evocative image to me: a young girl of ten or eleven years old, stands all by herself on what seems to be an deserted country road. The girl’s hair falls just above her shoulders, she is leggy and wears a short dress and saddle shoes, above her are the shadows of towering trees.
 
There is not much detail in the girl’s face, although she seems solemn, and she may or may not be holding something in her hand. Everything is suggested by shape, light, shadow. And by feeling. It seemed to me that  Dorothy had captured a moment of self-consciousness, perhaps the very first, that comes to a girl on the edge of adolescence- a kind of contemplative melancholy as she senses life ahead of her, and feels herself to be a separate creature, solitary in the world. I was drawn to the girl and her moment, as if my own memory had conjured her.
 
As a matter of fact, Dorothy had worked from an old photograph of herself, taken when she was safely in her own Kentucky front yard, proudly wearing her boyfriend’s watch. This kind of snapshot can be found in anyone’s collection of family photos. It was art that made me feel about it as I did.
 
Memory takes its own time to become insistent. Decades pass and you go about the daily business of accumulating your life. And then one day-or, in Dorothy’s case, in the middle of one night-the past floods the foreground, and there is nothing but to give it its due. The trigger can be as momentous as the death of a parent, or as trivial as the sight of an old hatpin, and the time comes to everyone. But when it comes to an artist, she knows it is also time to go to work: the job is to use the tools of art to pin down ephemeral memory, and to make what is mundane, particular, episodic, into a story that has universal resonance.
 
Dorothy has painted her memoir. I want to say a word about memoir from a writer’s point of view. A memoir is not true to life. Life, as we know, is just one damn thing after another. It is the artist’s business to find the shape in unruly life, to find the story, and to serve the story. Everything that happened cannot be in a memoir. How could it be? Memory is not only selective, but we are a story-making species, and we tell the story often at the expense of specific truth, but never at the expense of its essence.
 
The trigger of memory for Dorothy was a consequence of a domestic impulse: to finally make order of an old box of family photographs. They are ordinary snapshots, cracked and fading, faces barely recognizable except to the person who remembers them in all the stages of their lives. Snapshots, such as the one on my wall, of Dorothy in her front yard; another of her sitting with her grandmother and aunt, smiling for the camera under the striped awning of an outdoor swing, not hint of the tensions between them; of a blonde child seated in a red and white toy tractor; of two little girls- Dorothy and her sister- in bathing suits on an umbrella-strewn beach; old cars, a family dog, her mother young and beautiful, her father strong and handsome. A happy family as they posed for the camera, a family like any other to uninformed eyes. But as Dorothy looked at the pictures, her vision informed not only by memory but by knowledge, each one became mysterious, precious, as she told me, and she looked very closely at the photographs to see what they didn’t show.
 
There are family secrets not evident in the snapshots. Her mother’s denied Jewishness, her father’s decent into alcoholism and bitterness. If these things can be deduced at all, you are more likely to see them in the small black and white photos, simply because time has worn them, and we know that time is seldom kind.
 
But here are the paintings, truer to their moment than the snapshots. The sun was indeed shining brightly, shadows simply dapple, people smile at the perfection of the day and the pleasure of being together, a father holds his precious daughter tenderly. Never mind what happened before and what will happen later. Dorothy’s art has restored her family.