April 6 2015 06:50 PM

San Diego artist celebrates life, death and motherhood

Helen Redman under Branches of the Tree
Photo by Jennifer Spencer

The word "layers" gets thrown around a lot. Sometimes it's used to describe the actual texturing of a piece, but more often, it's used to describe something indescribable, something beyond the immediate aesthetics of the piece—that beyond the canvas, there's a story, or even multiple stories. There are sometimes so many layers that, eventually, and often too quickly, we'll move on to the next piece of art, content that we at least got some of the story from the last.


=There are layers upon layers when it comes to the figurative works of Helen Redman. So many stories, so many voices. Her new exhibition at the Mesa College Art Gallery, The Other Side of Birth (through April 14), is a multi-decade, multi-faceted and, yes, multi-layered account of not only her life's journey as an artist, but as a woman and mother. 

There's almost 60 years' worth of work on the walls, as will be the case when the exhibition's sister show, Through a Mother's Eye, opens at the Women's Museum of California on April 23. The sheer scope of the exhibitions can proverbially be described as, well, a tree trunk: Beautiful and circular, and when sliced open, reveals a multi-blanketed account of where that organism started, and where it ended.

"It's like a play on the branches on the tree and it's also a comment on age," says Redman, as she stares up at "Branches of the Tree," a mixed-media portrait of her and her two children, Nicole and Paul, done on six birch plywood boards. "I'm so far along in the life cycle that my children now have white hair. It really is a trip."

But there is something else going on in "Branches" or, rather, someone else. Throughout the piece, there are tiny footprints, a baby's footprints, that seems to unite the six separate canvases into one thematic piece. 

"Those are birth footprints from Paula," Redman says.

Paula was her first-born daughter who died at 20 months old in 1964, just before Redman gave birth to Nicole.

"It affects you and the family forever, and it's a part of my life, but it was the art that helped me stay the course."

Paul in Jaques' Arms

In many ways, "Branches" represents the end—or at least one of the final chapters—of the story that the exhibition is attempting to tell. Not only is the piece the most recent one in the exhibition (it was completed in 2014), it's likely the first and last piece viewers will see as they come and go. And while the show itself could be seen as a survey or a retrospective, it doesn't move in a linear or chronological fashion. Rather, it showcases each of the various members of Redman's family, individually. In one corner, Nicole goes from a baby inside her mother's belly to a pubescent teenager to a woman pregnant with her own babies. In the other corner, Paul goes from a baby in a bib to an introspective youth to a fully confident gay man traveling the world. Turn around and you'll see three grandchildren, as well as portraits of Redman herself made throughout her life. 

On the surface, the theme seems conceptually obvious: that this is an exhibition about family as well as motherhood. But even Redman herself has a hard time summing up what it all means. 

"I mean, what's the sound bite? There is no sound bite," she says, laughing. "You know, it's like when people say it's a 'family show,' but somehow I feel that, whatever it is, there's something in the art that people will pick up what they're meant to pick up."

Inspired by artists like Alice Neel and Frida Kahlo, Redman began her career as an artist in her early 20s while studying at the University of Colorado in Boulder. She became pregnant with Paula a few years later. Being that it was the early '60s, many thought she'd put down the paintbrushes and settle into a life of domesticity, but she says that was never an option.

"Nothing pushes your artistic boundaries more than children," Redman says. "A lot of people talk about how having a child opens their creativity. My creativity was open before I ever had a child. I was an art student when I was pregnant."

At the time, Redman was experimenting and eventually developed a figurative style that combined stylized shapes and bold colors. Whether there was a transition period or not, it would appear that Redman's work took a much bolder turn after the death of Paula and the birth of Nicole. She acknowledges she may not have been able to mourn Paula's passing in a healthy way because, almost as quickly as she lost her first infant daughter, her second was born.

"I'm a child of death," says Nicole Barchilon-Frank, Redman's daughter, calling from Bayside, California. "Because I experienced Paula's death inside my mother's body, my birth and her death are forever twinned. They will never not be linked."

Nicole in my Arms

Still, Redman's paintings of Nicole after her birth in 1964 are vibrant in both color and execution. She continued with this type of painting after she divorced her first husband, remarried, and moved to San Diego in the late '80s. It wasn't until she was well into her 50s, and going through menopause, that her work, at least on the surface, took a slightly darker turn. Her self-portraits often depicted her as a skeleton or as having a skeleton hand. She says it wasn't until the mid-'90s that she was truly able to face the passing of her daughter almost 30 years before.

"This child who was in me [Nicole] has been psychically affected by it, but I also realized that every member of the family is affected," Redman says. "There's this piece called 'A Mother Speaks to Her Children Through Generations' that tries to say that we all carry something from the death. It doesn't matter if you were there. A family carries that. At least ours makes it that more open."

So, by that logic, it would be tempting to think that both of Redman's shows are about the other side of birth. The opposite. As in, one day you're born, and then you reach the other side. Death. Mortality. Redman agrees that's part of it, but doesn't get caught up in this interpretation or dwell on her own mortality. She's lived a big life and certainly has proof of it. The story, the writing, is literally on the wall. 

"It is about life," Redman says. "Frida Khalo, in her last painting, she's with a bright watermelon and she's dying and it's called "Viva la Vida." It's this celebration of life, because you have a choice when things happen to you. You're either going down and you're drowning, or somehow you've got to swim."

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