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The Art of Jean Martin, 1949-1983


Note: July 22, Oakland, sunset.
This piece was originally written in May 2000, before my trip to China that year.  Now in the following July, I am able to finish editing and gathering the images.  All but one of the images are from Jean’s own work, one is mine made the last few weeks to honor hers and/or to take the place of one of hers that is now lost or unavailable.  Each image is marked accordingly.

As I began to work this evening, an old song came to mind, suggested partly by the time of day, and partly by the work that I am doing...

     In the gloaming, oh my darling...
     Softly come and softly go...

The late low sun shines through the dining room window; the chandelier glows with sunset light—that light, that moment always so beautiful for me, that light and moment so filled with the essence of our home here together, mine here now.  (Stephanie has somehow never taken dwelling here, nor have I in her place in Montreal.  Last month when she was here for a few days, I showed her that summer sunset light in the dining room chandelier and said, “I think it is very beautiful.”  I did not speak of the emotional bonding it represents for me.)

 In the gloaming oh my darling softly come and softly go these thoughts about your art that I wrote more than two months ago and of which I will tonight complete the edit and illustrations.




I had met Jean in the basement of the Art Department in the fall of 1948.  She had just returned from summer at an artist's colony on the shore of Lake Aijiji in Guadalajara.  She was exotic and of the south.  I felt myself to be of the north, and the attraction between us was mutual and total.

Jean Martin: Untitled (Havest)
Oil on canvas board, approx 9 x 12 in.

Jean continued to paint in the first year after we were married.  I loved her paintings... of which only a few have survived plus one more as a slide.  The earliest of the survivors is a small landscape painted before we met.  Fields, shocks of grain, purple hills in the distance.  I framed it in an oval frame left over from someone's 1900's portrait, painting the brown frame white and then glazing it with a bluish purple like the one Jean had used for the mountains at the back of the fields in the painting.  Jean told me that Auntie's boyfriend's sister Flo had questioned her about it and had dismissed it as a "daub."  Then Jean stopped painting -- I guess until we met.


Jean Martin: Tree
Oil on canvas, 36 x 24 in.

The second painting of Jean’s that I have from before we were married was made in the
Art Department in the fall of 1949.  It is of the old fruit tree outside my room on McAllister Street in San Francisco.  It shines with the light of our morning lovemaking in that room.

Thinking now, I remember a third painting of hers from that time that I still have... enamel on panel (in those days, we all used enamel from the hardware store), a couple of large, strange forms in simple colors, and one small black form sticking out like a scorpion's sting.

I don't think Jean painted anything during our six months in the Studio Gallery, but after that when we were painting in the loft of the old dairy (in Berkeley and near the campus!), she began work on an immense canvas (four by six feet?), a slough she had seen northwest of Vallejo with an old ferry boat docked there.  While she was working on it, she also made some still life paintings and some little drawings and watercolors.  I still have one of the still lifes.  Another one, the best one, she gave to J. DeFeo the week that J. lived with us after her breakup with Wally Hedrick and before she moved to Ross.  It was in the mid 1960s.  I gave J. a little portfolio of pencil drawings of poppies, and the tall black “landscape" from 1948-49. 

One Sunday morning a year later, I decided we had to go to see the sunset at Pyramid Lake in Nevada, and that we should go to Ross first to see J.  Jean, Tony, Fredricka (and Demian?) and I drove to J.'s.  Jean's still life was under the kitchen sink; the pencil drawings from my portfolio were scattered in a heap of wastepaper in the living room; and the tall black landscape was outside leaning against a tree, the sprinkler system for the garden finishing in the summer what the winter rains had begun.  Hours later we got to Pyramid Lake in time for the sunset -- it was a silent and beautiful slow dying rose on the peaks and cliffs to the east as the water before us sank through turquoise to night -- and then we spent the night driving home.


Jean Martin: Ferry Boat, 1950
Oil on canvas, approx 48 x 72 in.

But back to the big painting of the ferry boat in the slough (I have read enough Jung to see the watery, grassy slough as the unconscious and the ferry as the Self on its journey), and the little watercolors Jean was also making that I never saw.  Sam Francis had found the old barn of dairy for a studio, and we shared the loft with him.  Jean had made a little watercolor of mushrooms in the dawn.  Sam sneered at it as—what were the words?... paltry? women's stuff? trivial? worthless but typical?... Jean never painted again.

Jean saw and loved the small things at our feet.  I looked only for the cosmic signs beyond the horizon.  I never knew what Sam looked for except "fame and the love of women” for whom in the classic phrase of my high school years, "He’s 4F—Find 'em, feel 'em, fuck 'em, forget 'em."

Those little things at our feet: bugs and leaves, flowers, mushrooms, all manner of the small things—and animals too, we always had a dog or two that wandered in and needed love—those were her care.  And somehow too often in all the years we were together, each time her need for expression reached out to speak her love for the fragile beings in the world, some boor (male or female) like Sam trampled them to death.

Those little things at our feet: sometimes I too looked down and saw.  But I did not see the fragile shining things that give sentiment and beauty to life.  No, I only saw the cracks in the sidewalk and the dirt in the gutter, the dark horror that mirrored my own irrevocable sense of sexual guilt and despair.  A few years after our time in the loft over the dairy, during my brief yellow ochre plus pthalo blue plus cadmium red figure painting period, I also painted a still life of what I saw at my feet.  I destroyed it soon after painting it,  but memorialized it as the frontispiece in my "Dirt in the Gutter" booklet of 1987.  I wish now I still had the original painting, but most of all I wish I had the little watercolor of mushrooms in the dawn, because that was what we were then, tender beings growing up out of the darkness and seeking the sun.


My #16 July 2000,
Untitled after Jean’s mushrooms (my third try)
crylic on paper, 30 x 44 in. 
People in art education sometimes excuse their clumsy and vicious diatribes at student's expense by saying, "If they can't stand up to it, they should give up now."  Sam Francis was never an educator, and I don't think he would have excused himself that way even if he were.  He was always too busy building his own ego to notice that its aggrandizement was due to his denigration of those around him.

Jean did not paint again.  After almost a year she moved instead into an area of visual expression no one around her had used at that time and so could not hoist themselves by belittling her.  She began to make what we now call "constructions," that is, assemblages of found objects which can become symbols quite other than the miscellaneous fragments from which they were constructed.  I remember that my father, seeing her interest in putting these things together, gave her some tools to do it with.  The object I remember that she made was a boat—the sail a vertical scrap of woven wire net, a random piece of wood for the hull, a dowel for the mast and a tangled strand of hemp rope to hold it all together.  I thought of it then and remember it now as our ship for sailing among the stars.

The ship and all the other projects like it were soon lost in the chaos of the pregnancy and birth and infancy of Demian.  I finished my work for the teaching credential in June 1951; Sam moved to Paris to make his fortune in the great world a month or two before; and we moved to Maxwell for my first teaching job in late September.

The Maxwellains thought we were an odd couple, and to prove it one of our friends in Berkeley sent Jean a letter addressed to the "Contessa Fisette di Martin."  When the Post Office Lady finished telling her friends, the whole town knew Jean was an Italian war-bride.  The local Lady's Aid Society had already invited her to one of their Women's Afternoon Teas.  After the letter, they never invited her again.  (Meanwhile, the men of the town had already decided that I would not do for their weekly club meeting in the room over the corner bank.  One of them once apologized to me because, "you know, it just wouldn't work out.") And so, we were ostracized.  I painted every night in the garage of our house (how cold in the winter!); while Jean played a lute and sang folk songs in the living room.  The need for self-expression never stops.

Jean Martin: The “Family Altar under the Redwoods,” with The Egg of Night on the left (that’s a winged heart on the inside), and Mom’s Apple Pie (the coffin) on the right.
When we returned to Berkeley in 1954 and then moved to Harrison Street in 1955, Jean began to work in ceramic sculpture, taking a night class with Stephen de Staebler at SFAI.  I still have the apple box of Hesperian Fruit, The Grand High Inquisitor (Jean’s grandmother, mother and aunt all rolled into one hooded monk), her Mom’s Apple Pie in the shape of a coffin, her coffin with lid as a masked Head of Medusa, her Tortoise that Turns the World, her Egg of Night [a winged heart] Fertilized by the Wind, a Dragon-Salamander to go in front of the fireplace (it got too hot and cracked in two), and assorted fragments in the manner of bits Roman sculpture patched into Renaissance walls.

Fredricka was born in 1956.  Soon it was not possible to have the time to take night courses at SFAI, and soon the creative drive that made all those ceramic pieces was drowned once more in the chaos of the daily life of children, jobs and family.  A few years passed and we moved to Monte Vista in October of 1959.  Tony was born in May of 1960, and the possibility of creative work in art further submerged. 

By then, Jean was Curator at the California Historical Society, and all her creative energies went to building the collection, preparing the first significant show and catalog of the collection, and then organizing the first (and only) big fund-raiser event the Society ever had—“A Night on the Barbary Coast,” a huge block party on Pacific Avenue and Gold and Sansome Streets with movie star guests and the just beginning topless joints as draws.

The party was a big success; it even made money for the Society.  Shortly after, Jean was offered the job as Registrar at the Oakland Museum of History, under Henrietta Perry as Director.  By all accounts, Henrietta was a complete nut, the kind who stays in civil service jobs forever because no one knows how to get rid of them.  Soon enough, all Paul Mills’ efforts at the Oakland Art Gallery to build a new museum for himself bore fruit.  However, the new museum would include not only art, but also history and science—and Paul would not be Director.  A consultant, Alan McNab, the Director of the Art Institute of Chicago, was selected to advise the museum board on how to proceed and what to build.  He chose Jean as his adviser for design and development of the history section, and then offered her the job of Registrar at The Art Institute of Chicago.  In order to get her, he offered me the job of Head of the Design Department of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

We both declined—by that time I was Administrator of the Art Bank (the position is now Director of Exhibitions and Public Programs) and Executive Secretary of the San Francisco Art Association; and Jean had been promised the job of the Curator of the History Division once they got rid of Henrietta Perry.  They did get rid of Henrietta, but gave the job to Tom (I no longer remember his last name).  Jean was a woman with a BA in Art; Tom was a man with an MA in Anthropology.  Jean left the museum world, saying never again would she have a job where if you decided to leave there were no other nearby jobs you could go to.  She went back to school at Merritt College, got an AA in Computer Science, and then a job teaching computer science at a local trade school run by Control Data, then big in the world of information, now I think long gone.  She stayed at Control Data, teaching 5 hours per day five days per week with a two-week vacation until the mid 1970s when, once again, she was passed over for the Directorship in favor of a man with less experience.  She resigned and went to work for Del Monte Corporation as a programmer, then systems analyst, then Manager of Information Services.


Jean Martin: Babies in the Sky
Collage, approx. 10 x 6 in.

About Jean's art during these years.  Those 1950’s years at the Oakland Museum were the years of ceramics.  During the years at the Historical Society, the development of the Society’s collection and the public world became her creative focus... although she began to make collages from pieces cut from 17-18th Century engravings of famous paintings.  I still have many of these, made during the Control Data and early Del Monte years.  Jean entered these in juried exhibitions, being accepted once but usually not—after all, it was the days of late Pop and early Conceptual.  During the later years at Del Monte—late 1970’s and early 1980’s—Jean began to make tapestries and also what were regarded as quilts.  She entered these in quilt, fabric and textile exhibitions—surely there would be no men in quilt exhibitions to shove women and sewing aside as being "paltry, trivial women's stuff."  We were, however, in the period of "creative" textiles, when women rejected women who did not weave tree branches into their tapestries and quilt boulders into their coverlets.  Jean was rejected as "old hat."


I matted this collage of Jean’s in a faux marble paper that I made after she died.  I also made the little gold plaque that says, “Jean Martin after Veronese.”
The collage is 12 x 16 inches.

When Jean's cancer was diagnosed in summer of 1982, she began to sew large, meditative/symbolic wall hangings.  There was much hope at that time for imagery as a part of cancer therapy.  In the event and in her (our) own case, the cancer overcame the meditative sewing... perhaps because the world of imagery and the unconscious is far more complex and devious than we in our day world know, and also perhaps because when you wish (and there had been times before the onset of her illness when she had wished she were dead) sometimes you get it.


“Prudentia,” collage, 22 x 12 inches.

Made from an engraving of the frescos in the
Farnese Palace in Rome?   

If I were to sum up what I experienced then and I now think and know of Jean's creative life, I think she had great drive and talent—and in those "creativity studies" terms, she had fluidity, flexibility, originality and elaboration.  What she did not have was opportunity.  Like most women of her generation, care and love of children and the obligations of jobs and household simply thrust aside the yet unquenchable need for self-expression.  The work would rise to a great height and then be snuffed out again and again first by family and second by the art world's own personalities and events and fashions.

And in that snuffing out I too played an unwitting role.  Although I regarded her art to be as important to her as mine was to me, I was yet the artist in our family and she was the amateur.  Secondly, and an example of this attitude even in myself, shortly after we moved into Monte Vista, I decided to move out of what we had always agreed would be my studio over the garage and to move into the large basement area.  Thus, Jean would have my large space over the garage to work on her ceramics and sculpture—in fact would have “a room of her own.”  There will never leave the imagery in my mind the sight of Fredricka scrubbing the studio sink (I had left it filthy with old paint) so "Mother could move in."  About that time, summer vacation began for school kids and no mother could do anything after work but tend to her children's demands.  In a month or two, I decided the basement was much too noisy with the pounding of little feet immediately above, that Jean was not doing anything in the in my old studio anyway, and that I should move back.  She could have for her work space the small basement storage room at the bottom of the kitchen stairs.  We put her things there and she did not touch them again.

 It was a few years later Jean began to work in collage—by then Demian was gone to UC Santa Cruz and we had a free bedroom upstairs for her studio—and then from collage she went into sewing.

Sewing.  What a seemingly "paltry, trivial, women's thing."  And what a great battle Jean sewed in the imaginal world, her allies a winged heart, a flaming torch and a dancing dragon of gold, her enemy the endlessly secretly proliferating cells of a breast cancer whose metastatic hunger knew no bounds.

Her life confirmed in me what I already knew: the great work of every artist is made not in the art world of museums and galleries but in the secret and silent world of the artist’s heart.