The painting featured at the top of this blog is 36″ x 48″, acrylic on white duck canvas.
It is the second in the collection of three paintings that Grace Harwood calls “The Hiroshima Series.”
The image arrived last week in an email in which Grace explained,
“I’m attaching the Hiroshima painting that I would rather you use. The original is a green pastoral, and this, the second, is after the atomic explosion. The third is the white wash of that horror.”
In her profile picture on Facebook, she poses in front of the third, the “white washed” painting.
As I scroll endlessly through the images on Grace Harwood’s Facebook page, I find this photograph, part of a series called “Bonnie’s Redwood Door.” I haven’t asked how many there are, but on her page there are fifteen photographs of this door.
The first time we talked, Grace told me this:
“All my life I’ve been told I’m a writer, and photography is writing with a light and paintings are another form of talking.”
Of this particular photograph, this “writing with a light,” Grace says,
“The question of narrative in an event of art is an endless and endlessly fascinating discussion. However, sometimes the call to narration rises up and clubs one over the camera with a 2×4.”
I don’t think Grace Harwood misses much. Certainly in the art she creates–with camera, brush, and pen–I’d guess there is very little that is not mindful and deliberate. She makes the connections, and the results have power. The actress Lily Tomlin, one of the collectors of Harwood’s paintings, wrote of them,
“In me, Grace Harwood’s paintings produce a visceral, physical response (a mysterious and compelling reaction). Her work reminds me of walking in the woods and coming across a deep and hidden waterfall you simply didn’t expect. You want to stay and refresh your connection with your soul. These paintings speak to universality, to connection, to depth of heart, to expansion of time, and examination of perception in a way that many of us have looked for so long we had forgotten this is what we had in mind.”
The Guru Series: From the Darkness to the Light: This 40″x30″ acrylic (2006) is in the collection of Lily Tomlin, Los Angeles, and is part of a lengthy series I did on this theme.
During our long conversation, I warned Grace that I wanted to hear the story of her life. She laughed and said, “I think it is really the ‘stories’ of my life, and I’m writing them now.” And, in a section of Facebook called “Notes,” Grace is doing a great deal of writing.
In a piece called “Coffee Break,” a dialogue between Grace and a young man who has noticed the painting she has propped against a wall while she orders her coffee, there is this exchange and a beginning of a window into just how Grace Harwood thinks about her art:
“‘Well, what does it mean?’
I could sense that he wasn’t being a smart-ass, so I chose to respond from a deeper place. ‘The question is, what do you think it means? What does it mean to you?’
‘Well, see, that’s the thing. My mind won’t quit trying to find the meaning of it. I keep going to the center to see if maybe it’s there.’ He steps forward, leans down, looks more closely.
I notice a few others waiting for their orders have formed a little semicircle around us, but standing back, reserved. To listen, but not to join in. I don’t even want to breathe loudly, so as not to influence his thoughts, his communion with the spirits who brought out this painting through me.”
The spirits who brought out this painting through me.
I recall a dinner many years ago at the home of another California artist, Joseph Raffael. The few of us were gathered informally and when Joseph didn’t appear on time we started eating. When he arrived, not too long after, he was breathless. He had just finished one of his huge canvases and he struggled to find the words for his experience in the studio. He was always a little stunned just after a painting was complete, and I had heard him talk about his work often enough to know that he was sure about one thing. Something other than his skill had “brought out” that painting. He was amazed and humbled by what he saw on those canvases.
Grace Harwood. Writer, photographer, painter.
Grace Harwood, A rusted red doorknob in a ragged door with peeling gray paint.
Grace Harwood. The Hiroshima Series.
“I am a voice that tries to connect
the enduring spirit of the universe
with contemporary American life.”
“Love Is Not Always Opaque’
Poem on manipulated image, 11″x14″, paper, printed
“I am defined by what I love:
the earth, the animals, smart compassionate caring people,
books, music and art in all its forms.”
“I think beyond the mire and illusion of this life
there is a real life.
As a voice I try to show people that other world.”
“La Prima Vera”
“Other than that I’m just a person walking my dog,
buying my groceries,
doing my laundry–
trying to get through with some sense of dignity and honesty.”
“I love humor, have written comedy for years. I have a rare sensibility about words and their importance so I try to serve that in a post-literate age.”
In her Facebook Notes, Grace has created a character she calls “The Goddess in Daily Life” and has written a series of “Goddess poems,” that appear with titles like:
Goddess in Daily Life Gets Her Boots Shined
Goddess in Daily Life Grows Tired of Walking in Circles
Goddess in Daily Life Does Her Laundry
Goddess in Daily Life Walks Her Dog in the Cemetery
Goddess in Daily Life Talks to the Plumber.
Of course I asked Grace where the idea of the Goddess in Daily Life came from, and this is what she told me:
“It’s based on the idea that there is a faulty construct, that there was only one Buddha, one Christ, one Mother Theresa, and so on. We should all try to be Buddha and not use the crutch for our bad behavior that ‘we are not saints.’ We should all try our best and not pretend we aren’t better people because we aren’t Ignatius Loyola. We all have the potential of living gods . . . . So I was thinking on that and on the magical things that happen to me and around me pretty much every day. So I came up with the GDL concept. The title of the book, when finished, will be ‘The Goddess in Daily Life Walks Her Little Dog.'”
It occurs to me that, despite my early question, I have told very little of Grace Harwood’s life story. I haven’t written about her father, who was a housepainter–what they call a ‘color man’ who could mix paint by eye–and a storyteller, or about her mother’s dinners for people from all over the world. By this time, they lived in the university town of Bloomington, Indiana, and I especially like the image of the exchange students from Turkey who did their prayers on the parlor rug. I haven’t told about the small farming community where she grew up, or about her early education, or that her mother’s uncle, Chauncey Hooker, invented the mouse trap, or about her move west, first to Denver, then on to the San Francisco Bay. Haven’t listed the jobs she had, the open mic poetry reading she ran in the city, the poetry she wrote, the journal she edited, the years she worked for attorneys because she could type 100 words a minute accurately.
I haven’t told Grace’s life story. Grace Harwood has lived for thirty-eight years in the same rent-controlled apartment in a 1913 building that was originally built as a residence hotel. If she stays in this spot on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland, California, for too much longer, she tells me, they’ll make her a national park.
Grace belongs to her neighborhood. She is at home there.
One day when she was fifty-five, she was looking at the images of a friend who came from a family of artists.
“‘I always wanted to paint.’
‘Then why don’t you paint?’
I told her I couldn’t draw.
‘Well who on earth told you painters can draw? Mostly they can’t.'”
Grace did 55 canvases her first year and sold about two-thirds of them.
“It was like a house fell on me.”
I certainly haven’t told the story of the people sitting outside the cafes downstairs and across the street from her the weekend after 9/11, the people who actually stopped her as she walked to her car and applauded the painting she was carrying, the one she called “World Trade Center.”
Grace Harwood: a woman who, as a child, was by her own description “pathologically shy,” and who now says of herself, “I am a voice.”
Shy Grace Harwood, social activist and ardent feminist, artist, neighbor, force of nature.
“We’re given a blank book and what we write on that is our choice. One thing interesting about me is that I talk to everyone. There was a guy on the step crying so I sat with him. Foxy got up on his lap and kissed his face. Later he told me what he was upset about and we talked about real life. People are interesting.”
Grace Harwood. Find her.