A Painter, a Mother - Elizabeth Brandon (Sulkowski)
As it often happens to writers, by retelling a story, we learn something new about an old subject. How pleasantly surprised was I to come to a new understanding about my own mother when given the assignment to write her story for this magazine.
I put down on paper for the first time exactly what her example has been - a deep commitment to her art, a burning desire to be a better artist and a placed importance on the act of creating and painting. After our interview and my journaling about her (and the two of us sitting over coffee together on the front porch revisiting these ideas), what came about is a map, detailing those things that make my mother a great artist and a great influence on me, as her daughter and as a writer.
Interestingly, Elizabeth Brandon Sulkowski didn't take her first art class until she was 21 years old. After graduating from the University of Georgia, she was on the path to interior design when a close friend asked if she wanted to take an oil painting class in Connecticut for a couple of weeks the following summer. My mother went, not realizing that this small choice would drastically change her life.
By 1974, the year my mother enrolled at The Art Student's League in New York City, the social expectations of a woman artist had not changed since 1874 (or 1774 for that matter). Women painters were not expected to become professionals. It was all right to have a little hobby, but they were not expected to actually make a living selling their art.
At the time, the only thing on my mother's mind was a desire to paint. Despite the crime and bankruptcy that New York City was experiencing, her father agreed to let her go. With just a few things and no art materials, my mother and her friend moved to the Barbizon Hotel for Women on Lexington and 62nd Street. At the League, she enrolled in a drawing class taught by the famous anatomist, Robert Beverly Hale, and a painting class with Frank Mason, the foremost authority in America on Old Master painting techniques, who became a lifetime mentor to my mother.
During the second month of her classes, this petite young woman in her baggy overalls was very intense about her painting. She never took breaks when the teacher called them, and as the 49 other students filed out of the dark studios to have their cigarettes and coffee, she remained focused at her easel, squinting at the canvas and drawing with her brush, studying the subject and continuously working to get better.
She ended up living in New York for five years, attending the League and learning the principles of painting that the Renaissance artists, the Dutch Masters and the Hudson River Valley painters practiced. Good draftsmanship formed the foundation to this technique, studying the anatomy of the human, the animal, the landscape and the still life. In addition, she learned the technique of hand-ground pigment and preparation of linseed oil, according to the old recipes that allow the mediums to keep their integrity for generations.
My mother and father moved to Nashville, just as I was born in 1980. They had my brother, James, in 1983. For my mother, having children fulfilled another dream come true.
She says that in the early years, transitioning between studio and house, painter and mother, was no easy task. The mornings were devoted to her art, the rest of the day and night, to me and my brother. But it wasn’t always as rudimentary as that.
“I first realized at the League that doing the transition from working with the public all day and then going into the studio to be alone with my craft would be a big lesson for me later as a wife and mother transitioning from house to studio,” she explains. “Even now, I am so much more grounded when I go out and do my painting that the rest of my chores and responsibilities feel better when I have that part in my life.”
My mother’s commitment and burning desire to become a better artist, while placing an importance on creativity, has meant everything to her family. Our values are built on these principles. And now, my brother and I shape our future careers on these principles. Much of the time, her influence is action-based.
“I believe by example I’m showing you guys that you can do it, you can pursue your dream in art,” she says. “I also wanted to give you the freedom to pursue your dream in art for yourself whatever way that was. I certainly didn’t feel it was necessary you painted - that had to be your choice. One thing I know about the arts, it chooses you. It’s not something anyone can talk you into. They can open the door to it. Our example was just that you can do it.”
It has been 35 years since she first entered the doors to the League. Now she is a well-established artist, represented by galleries in Carmel, Calif., Warmsprings, Va., and Mayfield Walker Gallery in Franklin, Tenn. She’s won prestigious awards, is a lifetime member of the Catherine Lorillard Wolfe Art Club of New York. She has earned her place at the table with Lebrun, Morisot, Claudel and the rest of the art world’s female masters. Like them, “despite all the odds” she became a better artist and is driven every single day by her passion to become even better.
She has turned that proverbial corner where she doesn’t just believe, but knows the importance of what she’s doing. I’m still watching her climb in her career. COOK’s Illustrated approached her four years ago and asked her to do their covers, and more companies approach her for her images. More and more galleries want her work, and more collectors find her through her Web site and inquire about original oils. In our interview, I heard for the first time that she does feel the pressure that 800,000 people see her work immediately when the new COOK’s magazines come out every month.
“The pressure is a good thing,” she says, which to me means she is continuing to challenge herself. “There’s definitely a connection with people who buy your work - it’s very humbling when someone puts their support into my work and truly loves it.”
The outside support is just as important in reinforcing her work as realizing her personal goals, such as building her dream studio just behind her house this past June.
I expect now that my brother and I are grown and out from under her wing, she will concentrate more on exhibiting, traveling with my father on more painting trips abroad, and attending more out-of-town exhibition openings, getting her images on more products as more companies seek her work. No matter where her career will take her images, she will always be about the original oil paintings - no product can compare to their intrinsic value and beauty and longevity.
As for her influence on me, I continue to watch her example. I am now pursuing what I love, and I apply her lessons from painting, to my own writing. One thing that has always had a deep affect on me is when she says of a painting:
“Don’t be afraid to start over, your time has not been wasted. If anything, starting over will make you a better painter,” or in my case, a better writer. (I love that we share this dialog.) With this approach, everyday, my mother walks out to her studio in the country to answer the call of inspiration.
I will consider myself very lucky if I can accomplish what my mother has by
persevering… because she’s shown me that the act of creating is the most important thing.