Tonight, Rose Abrahamson will celebrate what she warns could be her last art opening. “I’ll be 87 in October,” she said by way of an invitation to come and preview her new paintings and collage work. “How much longer can I work?”
It was a sunny, hot day and she opened up the doors of her home and backyard studio, intent on showing off her new collection. But before she got to the new, she began telling stories about the old — stories not about the art she has recently finished, which will be for sale at the Shaw Cramer Gallery this evening, but of the paintings and artwork she has done along the way. These are the pieces she has chosen, for one reason or another, not to sell.
“I call that one, I’ll Go On,” she said of a painting she did 13 years ago when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. It hangs in an out-of-the-way place, in the stairwell leading up to her bedroom. “It’s funny that you caught this painting. I don’t show it. I never talk about it,” she said. “It’s my way of saying, okay, things happen, but life goes on.”
She paused before walking into her bedroom and pointing to a larger-than-life portrait of James Joyce. She did the painting for her husband of 56 years, Lester, an avid Joyce fan. “There is a soliloquy in the last chapter [of Ulysses] from [the main character’s] wife. She says, ‘And I said Yes! And I said yes! And I said yes!’ My husband always complained that I never said yes,” Mrs. Abrahamson said. So she painted the portrait for him, to say yes.
Mr. Abrahamson died nine years ago, when the couple lived in a house on Pilot Hill. She has since moved to Vineyard Haven, to a smaller house with a studio out back where she paints in the mornings, sometimes in the afternoons, but never in the evenings.
On the wall outside her bedroom is a witty little piece she calls Esmerelda. On days when she is feeling a bit sassy, she changes the title to Looking Nice with a Ribbon in My Hair. Asked if it is a self-portrait, she hesitated. The woman in the painting has green eyes with an other-worldly quality to them. “Well, yes, probably, in certain moods [it is],” she said finally. “If you look at my work, I have moods of craziness. I don’t know what would have happened to me if I didn’t become an artist. I have this crazy imagination.”
Back downstairs hang two large paintings of her mother, Ethel, with her step-father Willie. In one painting they stand; in the second they sit on a couch, Ethel with her purse under her arm.
There is a collection of found objects from the beach — pieces of driftwood, heart-shaped rocks, a petrified head of garlic. She has hung a large piece of wood, etched and carved, on the wall. “It is my house spirit,” she said. “And right up there, that is my spirit spirit.”
Mrs. Abrahamson always loved art, but she did not become an artist until later in life. “I was the oldest of six. I grew up in the Bronx during the Depression. We were poor and we moved around from apartment to apartment. I had to fight to finish high school,” she said.
She was 18 and a half when she met the man who would become her husband. “He lived on one side of the park, I lived on the other,” she said. “He was going to City College at night and was handsome as could be. We both loved poetry. I was hooked right from the beginning.”
At the age of 20, he offered to sell his car so she could go to art school. “I figured I should probably marry him,” she said. He was later drafted and she never did take him up on his offer, but instead moved with him to Texas where he attended pilot training. “There was no time for anything like art school,” she said.
It was only after moving back to New York and having children that Mrs. Abrahamson took up the paintbrush seriously. She enrolled her second daughter in a local art class and was so impressed, she signed up for an adult evening course with the same teacher.
The family later moved to Washington, D.C. “One of the first things I did was rent my own space and started working all on my own,” she said. In addition to painting, Mrs. Abrahamson volunteered as an art teacher. “In all of Washington, there were only 13 art teachers, so I volunteered. I worked at a school with only two white people there,” she said.
While living in Washington Mrs. Abrahamson held her first art show and first visited the Vineyard. The year was 1973. “We loved to be by the water and we had two friends who said they had a modest place and that we could stay if we wanted to,” she said. “Well, we got there and let me tell you, there was one room. There was a pump for the water. The john turned out to be a chair in the yard with no seat and a hole in the ground. We lasted a few days. I was sort of disintegrating in that place so we found an efficiency up in Gay Head.”
The couple kept coming back to the Island, though it was Mrs. Abrahamson who truly fell in love with the place. “There was something about it, I don’t know. After a few years, I just knew this was for me; this was my place. My poor husband. This wasn’t his place at all. It almost caused a divorce. He liked pavement under his feet. So he started keeping a car in Woods Hole and got involved with Harvard,” she said. After his years in the service, Mr. Abrahamson joined the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) and later worked on the War on Poverty under president Lyndon Johnson.
“I really felt like I would live longer if I lived on the Vineyard,” Mrs. Abrahamson said earnestly. “The nature really took a profound hold on me.” That hold is evident in the art, both new and old, which hangs on the walls of her home, stands propped in corners, tucked into windowsills and placed in unsuspecting places like next to a tea canister on a kitchen shelf. “Some work that I do, I feel like I’m never going to work like that again,” she said, explaining why she has kept the selected works around her home.
On her way out to the studio, she walked past a dark piece with two figures. “I call it In the Forest of the Night. It’s Blake. Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright in the forests of the night. It took me 20 years to finish and the only thing left from the original is that head,” she said, pointing to the figure on the left. “Twenty years later, that second figure came into it and the bird and I knew it was finished.”
She walked on past the piece, past a piece done by her own daughter, now dead, and past a painting from her granddaughter which hangs in a frame outside the bathroom. She walked into her studio and looked around. “I still have a lot to say,” said the artist. “I’m not ready to go. They’ll have to take me kicking and screaming with my paintbrush in my hand. Well, if they let me take my paintbrush, maybe I’d be willing to go.”
A reception for Rose Abrahamson’s art will be held tonight from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Shaw Cramer Gallery on Main street in Vineyard Haven. The show continues through August 8.