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My Renewed Passion

by Helen Jacobson

I have a painting studio on the third floor of an old converted factory building which used to house Waltham Mills, but is now home to the River Street Artists Cooperative.

The elevator is always out of order so I have to climb the stairs to the third floor. Although I may arrive breathing heavily, I am always happy to get to my floor and turn my key to open the main doorway in the hall. There's something in the air that makes me feel happy as I walk to my studio. This is my haven.

My studio is a rectangular shaped space that faces two sunny windows with a view of a nearby bridge over the Charles River. The space is shared by twenty artists on my floor, so I cordon off my work space with white shower curtains so that my neighboring artists can't see my unfinished work when I leave.

Studio at the River Street Artists Cooperative

A long brown folding table topped with Plexiglas is pushed up against the wall, next to my Italian blonde wood easel. The table is covered in dried mounds of paint colors: crimson, yellows, blues, greens and tans. Brushes rest in glass jars, and plastic containers filled with water (the bathroom sinks are far away) lean against the wall. My easel usually displays my latest canvas, sometimes it is bare.

This is my new creative retreat achieved after raising four children, spending many years going to hospitals with my sick husband, and sixty-hour work weeks at schools where staff and students constantly looked to me for direction. Now I can let my art exude from a well that's buried down deep inside of me.

As a child I was always painting, drawing, and being dragged to museums and artists' studios all over the world by my father. He was a very talented sculptor who gave up his art full-time to work as director of refugee rescue operations, but he never lost his passion for art and instilled it into my sister and me.

After I got married and had children I painted at times in the basement, or on the porch of the many houses we lived in. I took some evening art classes and learned how to use a printing press, but I mostly buried myself in my work with the schools while taking care of everyone at home.

Three children and twelve years later, my first marriage ended. I lost myself in a second marriage, another child, and a very ill, older husband. He died when our son was fourteen.

Where were my paintings then? They were lost far below the tears, the loneliness, the heavy weight of parenting alone and working too many hours.

The last time I really indulged my passion for painting was during the summer, fourteen years ago, when I rented a house in Truro with my young sons. I'd applied for a studio at the Fine Arts Work Center, in Provincetown, and had been accepted. I'd gone there every day during the week to paint large canvases with brightly colored shaped bodies.

My parents came to visit, and when they looked at the work in my studio my mother remarked, "Who knew you had all of this inside of you waiting to come out?"

The Struggle
The Struggle

As usual my father grunted, did not say much about my work, but talked about wishing that he could do art with me and my sister somewhere. As we strolled through the Provincetown galleries, he remarked that we could have rented a gallery to exhibit our work together.

I knew it was never going to happen but I felt warmed by his words and asked him to accompany me to the open model drawing session at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, (PAAM) that Saturday morning. He did attend and we silently worked on our sketches. I felt embarrassed to share mine at home later. I thought he was a much more talented artist than I could ever be.

After retiring in the summer of 2006, I began to feel artistic stirrings; saw colors in my head and shapes forming on blank canvases in my mind. I thought of my sister's words: "Get out of the basement. Go paint in a studio where you'll be surrounded by artists!"

So I trotted out my old work for the interview to be accepted as an artist into the River Street Artists Cooperative. They liked my lithographs from so many years ago, my paintings from years before. Feeling fraudulent because it wasn't recent work, I set out to do a large canvas immediately.

The three nude women I painted were flung across the canvas, united by stripes of red across their bodies and a blue background. I needed to show myself that I could still paint.

My mother is no longer alive, but I wish she could see this work and echo again her surprise at it coming out of me so rapidly and happily.

Sometimes I miss the chaos of my family home, filled with people of all ages, and responding to so many needs of others. Then I drive from my apartment in Cambridge to my Waltham studio, grab a canvas, one of my sketches and ponder what I'm going to do with it.

I know I'm lucky that I have this drive, this urge to express myself, which brings me a special warmth and peace. I realized recently that it is uniquely satisfying; other retirees tell me they envy my passion and wish they had something they wanted to do.

For me it was never a choice; it's in my veins, my breath and my head, spurting out whenever I let it.

Sunset at Cook's Brook Beach

The painter in the studio next to mine said she thought my paintings were all about human relationships, especially between men and women. I thanked her and looked at them in a new way.

This past summer I went to PAAM for a portfolio review. I was one of a few artists there that morning, and certainly the oldest. I took samples of my work from table to table to receive feedback. I was told that my art work tells stories, and that perhaps I should focus on telling only one story.

No, I thought to myself, smiling at this advice but immediately rejecting it. No one will tell me what to do with my art work now. I have waited so long to tell these stories. They need to come out however they can. They are mine to create and I love doing this!

Images published courtesy of Helen Jacobson

Helen Beth Jacobson grew up in the United States, Europe and Latin America because of her parents' work in immigration. This led to her constant interest in learning about diverse cultures, their art, literature and languages.

Helen studied art at Beaux Arts, Geneva, Switzerland, Academie 63 in Haarlem, Holland, and has a Bachelor of Science in Design from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Locally, Helen has taken art courses at the MFA, Castle Hill, Truro, and PAAM. She works in both her home studio, in North Eastham, and also in her River Street studio at Waltham Mills. Her work has been exhibited in libraries, schools, Fine Arts Open Houses, Waltham Open Studios, PAAM and Halls/Walls Gallery in Waltham.

During her forty year career as an educator, Helen set up day care centers, ran high school programs in Cambridge and Boston, and helped to found 826 Boston in 2007, a non-profit dedicated to developing students' creative, academic and literary skills.