ALINE SMITHSON | Arrangement in Green and Black

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I am the youngest of two girls, born in Los Angeles to parents who did not think it was possible to have children. My mother was a proper, educated, and elegant woman, the daughter of a Hollywood minister. My father was the kind of man who could do anything—he grew up on a ranch in Arizona, and tried his hand at trick riding, carnival performing on the Bed of Nails, drumming, mining, became an automotive foreman, and by the time I came along, had settled into the daily grind of life as a salesman. My parents met in Alaska. My father was working as a photographer for a construction company, and my mother, not finding any suitable men as an elementary school teacher, took the bus from Los Angeles to Alaska, wearing high heels and a hat. I like to think she struck gold in the Yukon. Both my parents were charming, fun, and had a wicked sense of humor. Though my parents supported my artistic leanings, my mother strongly suggested that I become a dental hygienist. Contrary to my mother’s wishes, my dreams led me to New York City and the world of fashion and art.

After a decade of traveling the globe as a fashion editor, I married, had my daughter Charlotte, and found myself back in Los Angeles so that my husband could pursue a graduate degree. I had another child, Henry, and began to stumble around trying to figure out what to do with my life, outside of being a mother. After a few failed attempts at a new career path, I took a photography class, and never looked back.

One morning, my husband woke me up to the words, There is a garage sale across the street. That was enough to make me rise out of bed as if it were on fire, and high tail it to someone else’s junk. The stars must have been aligned as there were three sales on my block: the first provided a small print of Whistler’s Mother (the real title is Arrangement in Gray and Black, Portrait of the Painter’s Mother), which got me thinking about the idea of portraiture, strong compositional relationships, and the evocative nature of unassuming details. The next sale provided a leopard coat, hat and fabric, and a chair that looked very similar to the one in Whistler’s painting. At the final sale, I found a painting of a cat, and I knew I was on to something.

I sought to create a series using Whistler’s painting as a starting point, but add in humor that comes from juxtaposing personality, painting, and wardrobe. For two years, I collected costumes and bad paintings from thrift stores and eBay. Sometimes I would find the costume first and then look for a suitable painting; sometimes it was the other way around. I created a set in my garage and I asked my 85-year-old mother to be my model. She did not understand what I was up to, but it allowed us to spend time together and that was important to both of us. My mother was very fragile at the time. She was in an out of the hospital during those years, and sometimes I had to wait for her health to improve so we could continue.

As a model she often wanted to be dramatic in the images, and I had to tone her down. My favorite shoot was recreating the geisha image. She kept laughing as I was trying to focus and I had to tell her to stop smiling so much. When I finally was able to focus on the whole image, I realized that she was giving me the finger. I printed that one for myself. As I progressed with the series, it become more meaningful, especially because I was bringing joy and laughter into our lives when there was plenty to cry about.

I was amazed at how well my mother embodied each character, and I was still able to capture her elegance, humor, and willingness to try anything. Each time I repaint one of the photographs, I think about her and I see the whole process of this project as a gift, allowing me time to reflect on our collaboration.

My mother died before she was able to see the finished product. She would be amazed that people all over the world have seen and love this work. I too am amazed that these funky sets, built against my garage, opened the door to the world of photography. Personally, I consider that magic.

Published October, 2010, Issue 11

LEAVE A COMMENT (1)

  • Chris says:

    I saw three of these paintings at Cindy’s house and I loved them! You are so talented! Thank you for sharing them with us.


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