"Aunt Marie is one of those people that just does everything perfect!" 8-year-old Oakley was beside himself with delight. Marie Larson, Bennie's aunt, had just moved to New Mexico from Michigan and had purchased a modest little condo in Albuquerque. She had invited us for New Year's Day dinner and had made an Oakley-friendly meal--roast beef, baked potatoes, green beans. Plus her condo was such an interesting place to be. It had nice tall ceilings with vigas, and saltillo tile floors, and for those places that were lacking in architectural charm, Marie had shopped salvage stores for corbels and mounted them in doorways and beside the kitchen cabinets. Although the art this dazzling painter made was very much classic representational, she had an eye for the "found" art object, and her walls were decorated with a vintage snowshoe and sled. Her furnishings were a mixture of simple comfortable contemporary seating and dark walnut antiques, set off by elegant candlesticks and a big jar of her own paintbrushes. We all laughed at Oakley's comment, understanding immediately the truth of it.
Marie's relationships with some of her family members will be remembered as less than perfect. She and her husband divorced rather bitterly when the children were small and apparently, she never completely recovered from the hurt of it. According to her children, she wasn't the perfect picture of the nurturing mother. She freely discussed the perhaps exaggerated shortcomings of their dad in their presence, and sometimes these shortcomings she applied to the entire male sex. She wrote off men as romantic partners as a waste of her time. It was a way of simplifying her life raising two children on her own in the 60s. It was not unlike the way she distilled a composition into the essentials of light and shadow.
She had a gift for portraying the human figure and face. She inevitably tapped into her models' vulnerability and sadness. It was as though the sadness at her own core opened a door into the hearts of her subjects.
She preferred to paint and draw rather than to cook, and at an early age the children learned to get their own meals. Bennie remembers his cousin Paul reporting long afternoons spent as his mom's captive model.
The Marie that Oakley and Flannery and I knew was the more public Marie known by her art students. A Marie who laughed. A Marie who offered encouragement. Once we drove down to Marie's place on the evening of July 4. I made food and we grilled steaks on her patio; afterwards we watched the fireworks from there. Although whatever food I brought was so simple I don't even remember it, Marie said, "Well, I just don't see how you have the time to work and cook." She always expressed appreciation for simple gestures. And as recently as this past spring, I received an email from a former student who was trying desperately to track her down. She wanted to visit her and catch up. (I have met other students of hers, some of whom have become clients of our gallery, people on whose lives she had a dramatic and positive impact.) By that time, however, Marie had moved back to the Midwest to be closer to her children and was living in an assisted living facility. Yesterday she quietly passed on with them nearby. Paul says it was a beautiful fall day and a feeling of peace pervaded the room.
I believe the last time I spoke with Marie it was the occasion of one of her last outings after a serious heart attack. Oxygen deprivation had left her with on-and-off memory loss and she had become quite frail. Soon she would be returning to the Midwest. Paul had come out from Chicago, and he and Marie met Bennie and me at a restaurant. I'd just had my hair cut and one recalcitrant curl kept falling over my forehead. The first thing Marie said to me: "There was a little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good, she was very, very good. But when she was bad she was horrid." We all laughed and had a delightful meal.
I treasure that memory of Marie's remark. It does apply to all of us. We are all part good/part horrid. We can hope that our legacy of good will outweigh the horrid. I believe that in Marie's case that is very much the case. Marie's artful hand fashioned a life pared down to the luminous essentials. And that's good.
(Note: All paintings and drawings in this post are the work of Marie Larson.)