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This article was prepared for the May 4, 2005
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Art in the Kitchen
by Euna Kwon Brossman
Nine o’clock on a Sunday night may seem like an odd time to carry out
an interview but for two mothers with three children apiece, it is
actually a time that is quite logical. But when I call Rachel Bliss at
our appointed hour, Bliss sounds somewhat harried, and I tell her I
hope I haven’t pulled her from something.
No, it’s okay, it’s poetry month at school, she explains, and her
six-year-old will be reciting a short poem about a little snail by
Langston Hughes. Which is why Bliss – who has been described by Donna
Dvorak in the journal Art Matters (December, 2004) as an artist "who
finds beauty from ugliness, expands her paintings to a level that
forces people to gaze and reflect on a different side of life, the
real side, devoid of pretty and bright concrete images that we’ve come
to associate with art" – was spending her night putting the final
touches on her daughter’s costume.
"I found a dress that has green, and it covers her feet and arms. For
her head I found a piece of pink fabric. I hot-glued pink tissues on
it so she looks like a flower. She’s actually a rose. She drew a snail
on paper. I mounted it on cardboard and put it on a chopstick and
she’s going to hold it so it looks like it’s walking slowly up her arm
as she says her poem."
Bliss opens her second solo show at the Morpeth Gallery in Hopewell
with a reception on Saturday, May 7. She holds a gallery talk on
Saturday, May 21.
Many of the paintings in this exhibition of recent works are portraits
– some human, and some animal. The pictures are sometimes jarring,
even scary – visages with large and staring eyes, eerie-looking
children juxtaposed with images of death, animals with mouths full of
jagged, cutting teeth. A press statement from Morpeth Gallery
describes her work as sometimes "frightening, often sympathetic,
always compelling, a world of publicly lived emotions, the fears, the
joys, exposed in all their complexities."
James Dickinson, curator of an exhibition of her work at the Rider
University Gallery several years ago, had written that "reflecting the
new urban reality, her subject matter is often uncompromising and
disturbing. Her subject matter comes from her own experiences and
observations as a young mother living in a working-class neighborhood
devastated by deindustrialization and political neglect."
Bliss would agree that much of her inspiration is drawn from her
experiences as a single mother to Elijah, 14, Freda, 12, and Rosalie,
6. "It’s kind of a drag that sometimes people never bring it up, the
fact that I’m a mother to three children. I would define myself as an
artist but hands down, I’m a mommy first. It’s a weird tightrope at
times. How do I take care of myself and honor my commitment to
creativity and be the kind of mom my kids deserve. I’m never doing
both. I feel like I fail at both all the time. I have great kids.
They’re amazing. Sometimes I want to kill them but most of the time I
feel like I got lucky."
They live in the Southwest Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia in
a house that she bought in the early 1990s for $5,000. "It’s part of
12 or 14 little rowhouses connected together. We’ve got a mix of
everything here and Caucasians are the minority. It’s pretty much a
horrible inner city neighborhood but it’s my neighborhood, and it’s a
neighborhood because it’s not transient, people know each other. But
that is not always a good thing because sometimes there’s no privacy,
and everybody knows what everybody is doing."
Bliss doesn’t buy into the image of the struggling artist living by
choice in a poor neighborhood so she can surround herself with
inspiration for art. "I mean, come on, would you want to live in a
really crummy neighborhood with three children? I would move out of
here in a heartbeat if I could."
But she can’t, she says, because she’s discovered that critical
success doesn’t necessarily translate to financial success. "I have 20
small pieces in the Philadelphia Museum of Art but I don’t have an
agent or a publicist. I’ve had one but they took 50 percent, and they
wanted me to buy these huge ads but to me it was a waste. I’m in
people’s private collections but I can’t get a grant from their
Some of her larger works have sold for $2,700 to $3,000 but what she
pulled in from her paintings last year still put her below the poverty
line for a family of four, which, according to the U.S. Department of
Health and Human Services, is $19,350. She doesn’t have health
insurance, so if she or her children get sick, she has to pay
out-of-pocket for healthcare.
"The last bill I had was $3,600 from two years ago because I had some
abnormal cysts," she says. "I just finished paying the last of that
off, went in for a Pap smear, and found out I have to have another
colposcopy. I drive a car that Rosalie’s grandpa gave me, a
1990-something Toyota Camry but it’s got well over 200,000 miles on
it. Sometimes because I don’t have cash I barter. I barter with the
mechanic. I barter with tutors, I barter for classical guitar lessons
for my son and drum lessons for my daughter."
She paints in her kitchen on top of an old 1950s enamel-topped table
where she squeezes the paint right on. She describes her house as "two
little rowhouses squished together and in the winter I can’t afford to
heat both sides. I paint in the kitchen because it’s the quietest room
in the house. I put in smaller pieces in the oven because the warmth
will dry the oils quicker."
She often uses her own children and people she knows as her models.
"Sometimes I use a composite of (art) students I’ve had. I’ve used
neighborhood kids, friends’ kids, I pick people around me. I work from
photographs but I’ve found that a photo never has enough information
so I have the person sit for me as well."
Sometimes she gets emotionally attached to a piece of art and won’t
sell it. One of those works is "Miss Lou," a portrait of her daughter,
Frieda, done in 1996, an oil and acrylic on canvas. Dickinson at Rider
University called the painting "deeply evocative" and described the
bird she holds in one hand to be done "in the manner of Bronzino’s
portrait of Don Garzia de Medici. In her other hand she holds a Power
Ranger as a crucifix, a talisman against evil."
Bliss explains that her daughter had actually been holding a cookie in
one hand. "To me the cookie looked like a heart so that’s what I had
painted at first. But she said, I don’t want to hold a heart, I want
to hold a bird, so I had her hold a bird instead. In her other hand
she had been holding a Power Ranger toy that one of the neighbor boys
had given her, and I made that into a skeletal doll figure instead
because it would have been strange to have her holding a Power Ranger.
I wasn’t trying to be macabre. For me to render it into skeletal form
was natural. I didn’t mean for it to be the loss of innocence that
everybody read into it."
Bliss was born in Rochester, New York, in 1962. She grew up there and
graduated from James E. Sperry High school in 1980. Her father and his
brother started a graphic design agency. Her mother, who had met her
dad in art school, didn’t pursue a career but defined herself as a
painter. Bliss says: "She did watercolors, something she’s amazing at.
She’s also a fanatical gardener. These are people with no money, no
pensions. When the art business was going well, we did okay. But other
times, we didn’t."
From an early age Bliss was exposed to the joys and strains of the
creative process as well as the life of the artist. "I remember spying
on my dad at night when he would paint. I would peek through the crack
in the doors. You’d see his back and when he stepped back to take a
sip of beer or a drag on his cigaret you’d see what he was working on.
We weren’t supposed to go into his studio but in the morning, we would
sneak in, and I’d look at his painting and would be amazed at how much
it had changed overnight."
She grew up with three brothers and, until she was 14 years old, was
convinced she was going to be a professional baseball player. "I think
about what I came from and what else would I have been. My cousins, my
siblings, even relatives who wouldn’t define themselves as artists use
creativity as a catalyst for everything else – music and literature
and art. I found that I wanted to move people, to find a way to point
out small beauties and injustices that went unnoticed, and that’s why
I became an artist."
She says she admires her oldest brother, a public school teacher in
some of Rochester’s toughest public schools for years. "If the kids
came to school tired, not wanting to learn, he would figure out that
it was because they were hungry and he’d have a snack for them.
Instead of complaining he would bring them stuff out of his own
pocket. Another brother, Charley, paints, and is raising a son by
himself. Her kid brother, Harry, is an illustrator who does cartoons,
and whose work has been featured on the cover of the New Yorker.
Though her biography states that she attended the Pennsylvania Academy
of Fine Arts on a full scholarship from 1985 to 1988 she chafes at the
mention of that and the idea that artists need some sort of pedigree
to be taken seriously. "Who I am is in the work," she says, "not in a
piece of paper. Look at the work."
Since this is the first year that all three children have been in
school during the day, that’s when she tries to paint. "My hours are
nuts," she says. She has a long day Monday, when Rosalie’s father
takes them. She also tries to paint Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday.
Thursday she reserves for studio visits and any other appointments. It
also the one day she cooks a big meal and musicians, writers, and
neighborhood people drop by. Bliss also volunteers at the kids’ school
"We’ve been making art. It’s an art boot camp with 56 students, first
and sixth graders, and they’re going to have their work displayed at
Snyderman Galleries, one of the most prestigious galleries in
Philadelphia. I get so much by giving to them, seeing them get it,
seeing the lights turn on, it’s amazing to me. I get so much from
reminding them that their job is to recognize beauty outside
"So many times I hear, ‘I’m ugly, I’m no good.’ But we have all have
innate beauty. We just have to learn to recognize it outside
ourselves. Once they realize they are beautiful they can see beauty
outside and it clicks. They understand, ‘hey, I wouldn’t recognize
beauty unless I knew what it was from the inside because I am
She says balancing motherhood with the life of an artist can be
draining, especially at night when she knows she has work to do and
she still has to get the kids to bed. "Physically, I’m tired. And
emotionally, I’m trying to be up when I know I have work to do later
on. With my kids, it’s like, ‘I love you too but I need to start
working.’ But first I need to clean stuff up."
Though she has never been married, she is open to the idea of a
relationship – although lately she hasn’t had either time or the luck.
While she says she thinks her dad is one of her biggest fans, she
believes her mother is still somewhat ambivalent, in the way of
mothers and daughters, sometimes a bit critical of her daughter’s life
choices. But her children are a different story. "My kids are proud of
the fact that I’m an artist. They get off on that, ‘yeah, that’s
cool,’ they say."
What are her dreams? "I want what everyone else wants, financial
security, world peace, a nice dress, a new car, and health insurance.
It would be nice to have a relationship. I’d like to be a better mom
and impact the world somehow." Her big dream is to win a MacArthur
Foundation Grant, sometimes called the "genius" grant, a monetary
prize designed to help creative and innovative people realize their
dreams by removing the financial challenges that stand in the way.
"What I like best is you don’t have to apply for it. They find you. So
many of the prizes in the art world you have to apply for in order to
win or submit works, and I just don’t have the time to do that."
She sees herself as a hard worker but an incredibly flawed human
being, a mother, an artist, somebody who is contributing. "I can’t
think not to do this but it would be nice to figure out how to make
this all work. Even struggling I keep it in perspective. Even on my
worst days, when I might be coming out of the grocery store and I see
somebody getting out of a car in the handicapped space, I feel lucky
overall. Everybody struggles. It’s all relative. I’m trying to earn my
keep while I’m here."
Paintings by Rachel Bliss, Morpeth Gallery, 43 West Broad Street,
Hopewell. Opening reception, Saturday, May 7, 6 to 8 p.m.; gallery
talk with the artist, Saturday, May 21, 3 p.m. 609-333-9393.
Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street, 609-924-8777. "The
Art of Nature and the Nature of Art," an exhibit featuring aerial
photographs by Owen Kanzler and 10 area artists’ interpretation of
gourds. The artists include Margaret Kennard Johnson, Susan Kubota,
Connie Bracci McIndoe, Ken McIndoe, Arlene Gale Milgrim, Joan Needham,
and Judy Lass Tobey. On display through May 13. Gallery hours are
Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ; Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Historical Society of Princeton, Bainbridge House, 158 Nassau Street,
609-921-6748. "Princeton Recollects" exhibition was organized to
celebrate the accomplishments of the Princeton History Project. In the
1970s and 80s, the project was dedicated to collecting and preserving
memories, and publishing "The Princeton Recollector," a monthly
magazine. The exhibition includes original letters, documents, and
artifacts. Free. Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, noon to 4 p.m.
Princeton Theological Seminary, Erdman Hall Gallery, 20 Library Place,
609-497-7990. "Design Matters," the seminary’s history in typography,
photography, illustration, paper, ink, and other graphic elements. The
designs are on posters, magazine covers, websites, greeting cards, and
brochures. On view through May 27. Open Monday to Saturday, 8:30 a.m.
to 4:30 p.m.; Sunday 2:30 to 6:30 p.m.
University Medical Center at Princeton, 253 Witherspoon Street,
609-497-4192. Exhibit of works by acrylic painter Jeanne Calo. On view
to May 18. A portion of the proceeds from the show benefit the
establishment of a new community Breast Health Center. Gallery is open
8 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.
Bordentown Gallery, 204 Farnsworth Avenue, 609-298-5556. "Spring
Members Only Show" for artists with the New Jersey Chapter of the
American Artists Professional League. Princeton artist Charles
McVicker, a member of the Garden State Watercolor Society, selected
the winners. On view through May 18.
Firehouse Gallery, 8 Walnut Street, Bordentown, 609-298-3742. "Picasso
Kids Exhibition," a showcase of works of kids ages 7 to 17. Some work
for sale. Through May 22.
Gallery 14, 14 Mercer Street, Hopewell, 609-333-8511. Shared show for
Mark Fields and Jim Hilgendorf. Exhibit on view through May 29.
Gold Medal Impressions, 43 Princeton Hightstown Road, West Windsor,
609-606-9001. Newly-expanded gallery of photographer Richard Druckman,
a freelance photographer for Associated Press. Six rooms and over 250
photographs of professional football, basketball, hockey, tennis, and
Olympic events. Photographs for sale are matted and framed and in a
variety of sizes and prices. Gallery is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Marsha Child Contemporary, 20 Alexander Street, 609-497-7330. "Living
History," encaustic paintings by Ilona Zaremba, Marsha Child
Contemporary, 220 Alexander Street. Through Tuesday, May 17. Gallery
hours are Tuesday to Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and by
Hopewell Frame Shop Gallery, 24 West Broad Street, 609-466-0817.
"Spring Sampler," a multi-medium exhibit by Susan Freeman of Cranbury.
Works include drawings, etchings, papercuts, wall sculptures, and
household goddesses. On view through May 28. Gallery hours are Tuesday
through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Ellarslie, Trenton City Museum, Cadwalader Park, 609-989-3632.
Ellarslie Open XXIII on view through June 19. Open Tuesday to
Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Sundays, 1 to 4 p.m.
Gallery 125, 125 South Warren Street, Trenton, 609-393-8998. "Moscow
Makes, Trenton Takes," an exhibit of close to 40 mid to late 20th
century Russian paintings from the personal collection of Trenton
businessman, Shelley Zeiger. On view through June 3.
New Jersey State Museum, Galleries at 225 West State Street, Trenton,
609-292-6464. "Vision and Voice: Princeton Artists Alliance in
Dialogue with Contemporary New Jersey Poetry," an exhibit of over 40
works by New Jersey artists and poets. Margaret M. O’Reilly is
curator. Through May 13. The gallery is open Monday to Saturday, 9
a.m. to 5 p.m.
The Old Barracks Museum, Barrack Street, Trenton, 609-396-1776.
"Furniture, Curios and Pictures: 100 Years of Collecting by the Old
Barracks," a display in the exhibit gallery is included in the tour
admission fee. Open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; the last tour is
at 3:50 p.m.
American Hungarian Foundation Museum, 300 Somerset Street, New
Brunswick, 732-846-5777. "Calm Between the Storms," an exhibit of
close to 70 works of Hungarian Interwar Art from the Salgo Trust for
Education. Through September 4, 2005. Museum hours are Tuesday to
Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; and Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m.
James A. Michener Art Museum, Union Square Complex, Bridge Street, New
Hope, 215-340-9800. New Hope satellite facility opens with the
relocation of the popular, interactive multi-media show, "Creative
Bucks County: A Celebration of Art and Artists," featuring 19th and
20th century painters, writers, composers, and playwrights. Also on
exhibit, "Pennsylvania Impressionists of the New Hope School."
Also, "The Contemporary Eye" featuring the contemporary art scene
focusing on 12 regional artists who work in media including painting,
woodworking, and photography. Artists include Ricardo Barros, David
Ellsworth, Marily C. Gordley, Judith Heep, Alan Lachman, Ann Lovett,
Robert Ranieri, Chalotte Schatz, Mavi Smith, Susan M. Twadus, and
Valerie Von Betzen. Through May 8, 2005. Museum admission $6 adults;
$2 youth. Tuesday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday,
11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; and Sunday noon to 6 p.m.Closed Mondays.
Also, "That’s All Folks! The Art of Warner Brothers Cartoons."
Expanded version of the four-month tribute at New York’s Museum of
Modern Art features more than 160 paintings, drawings, cells, and
related objects. On view through July 3.
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