Heirloom Pastels

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The day I moved from DC was predictably awful, weather-wise. The heat index was over a hundred, the humidity was high and the air quality was how they describe about a third of the calendar days in Washington: “unhealthy for sensitive groups.” So it was a lot of fun that day to descend into the rank bowels of the Silver Spring Public Storage facility to retrieve the bits and pieces of previous lives for which I had no space in my Columbia Heights apartment (including the albatross: a giant sleigh bedroom set).

In the storage unit, there were also forgotten treasures: Grandma McCaw’s pastels and acrylics stored in two plastic tackle boxes, plus a stock of old paper in a faux leather-bound portfolio with her initials, “MJM,” for Mary Jo McCaw. For a couple of years now, I’ve yearned to unearth those materials of hers, but was each time dissuaded by the monumental nature of the task. I could never remember if they were buried at the back. Turns out, they were.

At some point a week ago as I rather lovingly set up my new studio, I stopped, sat down on the floor and opened up the larger of two boxes. In it, I found a glorious array of well-worn pastels. There was something both grungy and impossibly neat about the collection. Grandma had them separated fastidiously by color and had saved all the fragments. There were tiny useless nubs, rectangle pieces that fit perfectly in my hand, and fresh pastels still in their boxes, waiting to join the colorful array.


Grandma’s arthritis and other health issues have long prevented her from working. When I was young, she had a bedroom studio of her own, which she wasted no time setting up after her four sons were grown and out of the house. It was a lovely room, overlooking a tall maple and her rose beds. In it, she had a shelf filled with DIY artist instructional booklets and her old drawing table from school. Many years before marriage and child-rearing prevented pursuit of an artistic career, she had attended a small art school in downtown Columbus, Ohio. That school eventually grew and became the Columbus College of Art and Design where I studied, a half-century later.

Grandma’s art was mainly for friends and family. She did a portrait of our dog, Prudence, and a series of kittens framed by luminous lace and chintz drapes. My favorite was a painting of a dark lake lit only by the last rays of a sunset. All of it done in her pastels. Her most prized works are proudly displayed in the hall outside her retirement community apartment, along with a few honors. She took home several prizes over the years from the Ohio State Fair.

As soon as I opened the box of pastels, I knew I needed to begin working with them so I began this still-life of a ceramic Betty Boop soapdish, a cracked relic from my own life. In the fading light, she waits for something, expectantly.

I often reflect on my connection to past generations, the legacies they have left, and to the creation of new legacies by our own generation. I own a number of precious things that belonged to both of my grandmothers: figures, vases, jewelry and, it turns out, art materials. These objects have joined the jumble of things I cherish, from my recent and distant past. On the flipside, I think about how many things have lost their meaning in a world in which everything has become disposable.

Still-life painting has been dismissed as serious art since it came into being. But I believe the potential for narrative and symbolism continues to be rich in the genre. I also think you can learn a great deal about a society –its economy, values, and beliefs – by looking at such works. The mixture of old and new in my own paintings reflects my grappling with my place in history at this moment. With this pastel painting, not only am I reflecting on past and future; the materials I am using represent a salient connection to another person and her history.

2 thoughts on “Heirloom Pastels

  1. Heather,

    This was a great article. I’m sure Mom will get a tear in her eye when she see’s it.

    I know I did…

    Uncle Brian

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