See Jane

Riley

Over a decade ago I went to Santa Fe to work on a one woman show. My coach was a woman named Tanya Taylor Rubinstein. In the nascent stages of working together, Tanya said, “You have the confidence of a woman who was loved by her mother.” That observation has never left me.

I won’t pretend my mother was perfect. She was not. I was what psychologists would call, parentified. While my mother adored me, doted over me and loved me deeply, she also exposed me to violence. I was never hit, but I watched a man who claimed loved my mother try to kill her. Despite the scars of parentification, my mother was extraordinary and when she died, I knew that no one would ever love me or see me the way she did ever again.

My mother didn’t know what it felt like to be seen. Her mother died when she was very young and she was physically and emotionally abused by her father and men that would follow. She was born and raised on a sugar cane plantation in Hawaii and dropped out of high school to work. She would often say, “If I had stayed in school, I could have been somebody else.” This other version of herself she would never meet broke her heart and my heart too.

My mother didn’t know that she was smart or important or valuable. I told her these things, but it was like putting honey on deep scars. Maybe because my mother could not see her greatness, she could see all the ways that I could be remarkable. Not everyone gets to be loved like that, but I was and it made all of the difference. While I never felt the pressure to be anything special, I felt that I could be anything I wanted. And that turned out to be a far more precious and rare gift.

I started painting just before my mother died. I transformed my old garage into a beautiful art studio with her urging and support. It felt self-indulgent because I wasn’t an artist. I had never taken art classes or made art but I had an overwhelming, consuming desire to paint. My mother had never done anything for herself. She never had a massage or took a vacation or did anything that wasn’t in service to someone else, and yet she felt that I was entitled to such things and taught me to choose myself. So I painted.

I didn’t know that my art studio would be my salvation, when not long after building it, my mother died and then we would be in the center of a pandemic. My studio and my garden is where I grieved and transformed my rage and sadness into something new.

Eventually I painted through to a new place without my mother. I had an art show at my house and sold lots of art to people who love me. A dear friend and gifted visual artist, Michelle, flew across the country to attend my show and gave me her grandmother’s necklace. Her grandmother was named Jane.

This year, I started painting the faces of women over and over and over again and something started to unfold. I thought of all the unseen women in the world, the Jane Does and the plain Janes who deserved better. I decided I would paint a woman a day with a small bio of a handful of details that would tell us something about these women, something more than who they are in relationship to people or their job titles. I choose quirky details, struggles and passions. And then I posted each See Jane to Facebook and Instagram and offered them up for sale.

I made the art extremely affordable. I may not be a famous or exceptional artist, but I believe everyone deserves to own something original that no one else in the world has. Art should not be the domain of the wealthy. We did not have original art, but my mother made sure that every apartment we had was beautiful. Beauty didn’t require money.

And finally, because the pandemic had grounded me and I could not travel as I had done for work and pleasure, I loved the idea that these Janes would make their way around the country and as it turned out, to other countries as well.

See Jane has become an homage to my mother, Barbara, who gave me more than she had. It has become an online community and a singular way to make contact in a time of isolation. It’s been a way for people to buy their very first piece of original art.

Maybe it will be other things; I don’t know. I’m not a trained artist, which means that posting these small works of art makes me feel incredibly vulnerable. It’s the paradox of vulnerability that you become braver by letting go of what others think or feel about you and placing yourself out in the world.

I’m not exceptional. I’m just a woman who had the great fortune of having a mother who loved her. That love made me brave enough to be who and whatever I wanted. I paint that love into art, and I want to make that love travel a little further.

***You can follow the See Jane series on Instagram at trailsnotpaths

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Ann marie Houghtailing is the co founder of Story Imprinting, a communications firm that teaches clients the art and science of storytelling.

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Ann Marie Houghtailing

Ann Marie Houghtailing

Ann marie Houghtailing is the co founder of Story Imprinting, a communications firm that teaches clients the art and science of storytelling.

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