February 11, 1997 § 2 Comments


Mary Robertson | Umbrella


Being married to a painter means you’re often around, whether you like it or not, to witness the sometimes sordid behind-the-scenes details. You’re there to gasp at the astronomically high paint brush charges on the Visa bill. You worry about the house full of turpentine fumes. You wonder the Airedale terrier who eats tubes of paint and decorates the yard with bright red and yellow turds.

Living with a painter makes you see things. Paintings, for openers. And sometimes the neighborhood, in a new way. Often, when I look at a Russian River beach in the summer, I see a Mary Robertson painting. Sometimes, I literally see Mary Robertson herself, working, photographing people, studying groups, canoes, boats, floats, forest, shade, beach umbrellas.

At Johnson’s Beach, where my wife often goes to look at people and places to paint, there is a concession stand that opens each summer to sell hamburgers and beer and rent canoes and umbrellas. One year I became aware of a problem with the umbrellas. There was a new batch of rental umbrellas and they were wrong and boring and despicable.

My wife and I have since talked about beach umbrellas. We have opinions about beach umbrellas. We are worried about the generally sorry state of modern beach umbrella colors. I recently asked my wife what had happened with those early umbrellas at Johnson’s Beach. “Every few years they get new umbrellas,” she said. “For a long time they were yellow and white. I painted them the way they were. I was trying really hard to reproduce the place.” The yellow-and-white umbrellas were okay. But not really. And there were other problems. “They had scalloped edges, the little flaps that hang down? Wavy-edged,” she said. “I didn’t like them. I got sick of painting the wavy edges. And then I thought, ‘Why do I have to paint that?’ I started painting them with straight edges. And then I started changing the colors.”

She does not change the color of the Russian River. In the summer, and in her paintings, the Russian River stays more or less green. The shades that may vary depending on the degree and pollution inflicted by civilization. Gordon Cook, the consummate Bay Area painter who was my wife’s mentor when she decided to become a painter, once told her that in her river paintings she showed a “marvelous feel for algae.”

I am learning, when looking at my wife’s paintings, to remind myself not to see the breakthrough as heresy, the departure as a disruption of order, the visit to new territory as a trespass. “Oh, she’s never painted that before,” worries the creature of habit, perhaps fearing the consequences of a gallery full of new paintings different than anything anyone may have anticipated. Never painted that before. Never seen that before. And then you have. New light. Isn’t that the whole point?

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