It’s a striking image, one you can’t help but notice on my kitchen wall, a woman neck down in a white dress, heels, and yellow apron, stirs something in a stainless steel bowl. She stands beside a bright orange wall and a black and white checkerboard floor.
“It’s called ‘stirring things up’. I love the loaded title. I painted it to be about our voices as women and our ability to actively stir up the status quo, to actively change the world in which we live and… well I do love to bake, there are always cookies at our house.” I answered as the first-time visitor to my house asked about the painting hanging on my kitchen wall.
As I painted my domestic series, I wanted to take my own thoughts and ideas and translate them into a medium that invited others to introspection of their own beliefs. I had to create something that explored these complexities of meaning and experience. Meaning exists when we choose to assign meaning to something. If we want more meaning, it’s not so much that we have to change dramatically what we do but simply become more thoughtful, more deliberate.
The exploration started as something personal, painting a portrait of myself, in a slightly different way, making a compositional choice that framed the portrait to be less about how I looked and more about what I did. After all I would far rather someone judge me on my actions than my appearance. A woman’s body sweeping the kitchen floor near a mid-century table. I titled it “cleaning up the mess”. The apron I wore as I swept the floor was one my great grandmother embroidered, a very tangible domestic artifact of the influence of the women of my generations, and how they found and created meaning in their domestic spheres. It was a piece that was about me, but was also about many women. It was about the complexities of being a woman and about domestic life in an ever changing culture.
I take a view of homemaking that goes far beyond baking cookies and its associated domestic performances. To me homemaking is about creating, and building a culture for yourself and those around you. It is the space where you physically live but it’s this thing you construct that trades daily in emotional capital, love, experience, and resources. It’s far more about your philosophy of influencing people, creating connection, and finding meaning and value in everyday actions and performances. It’s a mini version of the world, where systems play out, but the resources are largely under your control. It becomes a living expression of how our philosophies and beliefs meet up with practice on a micro level.
My piece “who’s there?” spoke well to this, it’s a woman’s figure standing, answering a corded phone. I love its symbolic play on our connectedness, and ability to stop and be emotionally present to tangibly connect to one another.
The domestic series didn’t start as a series though. It was one piece… then the next. Then one morning as I talked with Whitney, showing her a few of the early pieces and ideas, I realized and she realized there was more to all of this. It was a larger series; it summed up who I was and what I needed to say in the world. And I committed to let myself explore it in a way I had never explored anything in my art, to invest a lot, and see this idea through.
When I first set out, I thought I might do 10 or twelve… And so it went, until 18 months and 30 paintings later, when I finally felt that sense of “it’s ready” and “I’m ready”. I had found what I needed along the way and I had created what I thought I needed to, to have the impact I wanted it to have. The thoughts and ideas, the symbols, and meaning had all coalesced. Lined up they were now 75 feet of paintings. I showed them, I spoke about them.
This group had been my companions, they hung out together in stacks in the studio, lined the walls of my house. They had sparked many conversations up to this point in my home, and the various places they were shown and featured, but now its time to be pushed out of the nest; they’ve got to spark more conversations, I need the space to spark ideas. I released them to buyers and knew they’d never all be together again.
So in late October I spent many days wrapping up pieces, carefully fitting them into their custom boxes and mailing them all across the country. I will admit to being a little sad thinking; I will likely never see some of these pieces in my life again. Part of me feels great contentment. I still feel strange pangs of missing them. They weren’t just paintings; they were intimate pieces of me. It was my body, my house, my child, my artifacts. Beyond that, I had given them intimate meaning.
Even as I packed these dreams up, I know I did what I set out to do, or rather it evolved into something I didn’t quite fully grasp at the beginning. I find myself distinctly altered by the experience as much as I think anyone else was. This dream drew a certain intensity from me, one that perhaps requires, I set down my brush for a time and shift energies to other places. But some day, perhaps any day now, another idea will be prompted by a person or conversation or thought or experience, and images, hazy at first, will begin to appear, and clarify, and beg to begin to be experimented with. And another dream of mine will be born.
What does it mean to you to make a home?
Have you ever begun a dream not knowing where it would take you, but you knew it when you had arrived?
How did you feel when you finished? Pangs of sadness?
Leslie Whyte Graff discovered her love of painting as a child; her artistic training includes years of private, academic, and museum-based art instruction. She holds a Masters degree in Marriage, Family and Human development, and has traveled to Kenya, Morocco, Jordan, Philippines, Siberia and Cambodia doing humanitarian work as a child life specialist. Given her background development in human development, Leslie's art explores themes of relationships, influence and women's experiences. She and her husband Allen are the parents of three children who provide her – and us — with frequent comedic relief on Facebook.