Painting with Purple Crocodile and Black Leather

Published February 10, 2015

My grandmother, Freda, brushed her beauty parlor- coiffed hair at a gilded light-blue vanity table. She dabbed her wrists with Bal a’ Versaille perfume and never left her apartment without a full-face of make-up.

She painted her eyelashes with electric blue mascara and her fingernails, bright red.

I care about what I look like, I do. But for most of my adult life, I couldn’t care as much as my grandmother did.

Believing it to be a waste of time, not to mention narcissistic, I couldn’t be bothered to change my jewelry, or my purse, to match my outfit. Plus, more often than not, these acts led to calamity.

I misplaced jewelry. I forgot my wallet at home.

The truth is that as a young adult, I devalued fashion and judged how much energy my grandmother put into her looks, always calling attention to herself.

I don’t anymore. I respect it and wish I had the many colorful crocodile purses or Gucci silk blouses she gave me.

What she wore was how my grandmother expressed herself.

This was her art.

She was the canvas: every splash of color, how every fabric draped, the clanking of bracelets on her arm.

My grandmother didn’t have the opportunity to attend NYU’s art program or Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, as I did. She did what she could with what she had.

She wore colorful, long, flowing skirts and called herself a gypsy. Other days, strutting around New York City, well into her eighties, she wore black leather pants.

Last weekend, I went to the Museum of Modern Art and saw Matisse: The Cut-Outs exhibit.

Matisse referred to his process as painting with scissors. And it occurred to me that my grandmother painted with clothes.

For texture: a snakeskin belt, a fur coat, a silk scarf.

And color: purple was never just purple. It was aubergine; and on her palette there was milk white, canary yellow, coal black and robin egg blue.

For as long as I can remember, while I adored my grandmother, I thought when it came to fashion, we were completely different.

Rebelling, I undervalued what was in vogue, attempting to carve out my own identity. But when we make decisions based on unconscious motivations, we cut ourselves off from our true selves.

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” – Jung.

I have come to appreciate fashion, and to see it as art; but for many years, I reduced my grandmother to a mannequin and saw her belief system as flawed. I went the opposite way, finding fashion frivolous and unnecessary. But in doing that I was being controlled by my family’s value system around beauty just as completely as if I had become a fashionista.

The Matisse cutouts are made up of positive and negative shapes. The positive space is generally considered the subject and the negative space is not the subject.


The negative space is equally as important as the positive space; and paying attention to the negative space can have a surprising effect on a work of art.

In studying the Matisse cutouts at the museum, I came to see what’s conscious in us as positive space; and what’s unconscious as negative space.

It’s in exploring both, what’s conscious and unconscious, that we come to know who we really are and what we really want.

I don’t have to care about fashion the way my grandmother did; but I don’t have to not care either.

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