For years I owned an oil portrait of a young woman with red hair wearing a green evening dress and a string of pearls. I don’t know her identity. How I came to have the portrait is the story.
I saw it in an antique store tucked away on a top shelf. The store’s owner didn’t know who the young woman was either or how he had acquired the painting.
“Are you buying it for the frame?” he asked. I mumbled, didn’t explain. An explanation would bring one of “those looks” that mean “too weird.” I bought it because its being there made me sad.
She was a young woman, about 18 or 20, and it must have been a special occasion to elicit an expensive painting: an engagement (although she wore no ring) or a graduation. The hairdo and the dress style suggested the late 1950s or early 1960s. Now, the woman would be about 80 if she were still alive. Maybe she is long dead.
How did her portrait end up in an antique store? Did she have no family that valued her portrait? Was it swept up in an impersonal estate sale and sold with odd bits of furniture and trinkets? Did she get rid of it herself because it reminded her of an unhappy event? It made me sad that nobody cared enough to preserve her portrait. So, I bought it to give it, and her, a home.
It continued to make me sad every time I looked at it so eventually, I gave it away to Goodwill or a thrift shop. I hope someone else adopted her for a while.
Larry McMurtry wrote a long, well-researched and admiring portrait of historian Angie Debo for “The New York Review of Books.” He praised her first-class intellect and her trilogy of Oklahoma Indian histories, but then he said that in her 90s she became “cute” and wore a black bonnet like Queen Victoria.
I was horrified. I know where he got that egregiously wrong idea. I wrote him to tell him of his mistake. I’ve seen the photograph that led to this misconception. It was Dr. Debo as the parade grand marshal of the Prairie City Day celebration in her hometown of Marshall, Oklahoma. She was wearing vintage clothes, including her late mother’s bonnet. He replied politely.
Now I’m worried. Somewhere there is a picture of me in cat makeup for a Halloween party. Might somebody one day assume that since I love cats, I came to think I was a cat?
When I worked at a soup kitchen, one of the Native American homeless guests was a gifted artist. He and his girlfriend had left New Mexico in a hurry to get away from “some bad people” — I didn’t want to know the details — riding a train. When the train stopped in Tulsa, their dog got loose, and they stayed behind to look for it. They lived in a tent.
I met them when they came into my office to try to sell me his painting of a young Indian girl. It was so good — the details of the beadwork, the girl’s eyes — I bought it and eventually several more. These were personal purchases because it was against the soup kitchen’s policy to buy things from the soup kitchen’s clientele.
As winter approached, this desert couple suffered from the cold weather and wanted desperately to get into an apartment. She had a job by now, and he was selling some of his artwork to other people, but not enough to live on. I wanted to help them make a deposit on an apartment, but I didn’t want to give them the money. It was against the soup kitchen’s policy to give money to the diners.
So, I commissioned him to paint my portrait. I didn’t want an official portrait; that seemed pretentious. Whimsically, I asked him to paint me as my favorite saint, St. Therese of Lisieux. He liked to work big, so he painted an enormous 24-by-36-inch portrait. I paid him, and they moved into their apartment just before snow fell.
What was I to do with a big portrait of me as St. Therese? Albeit, St. Therese wearing makeup, jewelry and a big, cheesy grin. The soup kitchen was in the basement of a church. I couldn’t keep it there; I would seem delusional. So, I brought it home and here it reigns, stopping visitors and service people in their tracks.
Conclusion: Pictures can tell stories. Some of them mysterious, some of them wrong and some of them odd.