About 80 miles from Billings, Montana sits a small town called Big Timber. Population: 1600. In this town there’s a sweet little house with low ceilings, walls fixed with frames, slightly off-kilter, in a manner both carefree and charming. There is a small bedroom and kitchen, fridge cluttered with magnets and drawings by neighborhood children, floppy-eared animals and flowers. Above the bed is a handwritten love letter from her husband, dating back years, from long before they became a couple. To read it is to blush. A narrow staircase leads to an attic that spans the length of the house. Speakers hang from nests of macramé. A bay window floods the room with sunlight. Two studios bask in that glow in front of the window. One for her, and one for her late husband, Jack.
Still, she paints. Every day, my great-aunt makes the slow, deliberate climb up those steep steps. At almost 93, Jessica Zemsky has more commissions than ever. Her phone betrays a complex topography of paint. She squeezes tubes onto her finger, tests the texture, smiles and shrugs. Wipes the mess on the front of her shirt. Until last June, when he died peacefully, she and her husband spent the day working side by side, the quiet rhythm of their brush strokes often the only music in the room.
This is my family’s fairy tale. If I falter in the telling it is because I am not adept at such tales. The fairytales I know embody the Struwwelpeter. I can tell you about the girl who burns to death because she plays with matches, the boy who starves from refusing his soup. Read to me in their original German, these haunting tales saddled me with nightmares with their punishing messages and hard morality.
As a result, birds don’t sing in my stories. The stories I write dwell in alienation and detachment. They have been called bleak and unsettling. I don’t do warm and fuzzy, much less love, where love is not only requited, but flows freely and full from two equal sources like a rushing, unspoiled spring. If there is love in my stories, it is often misplaced. Safety is an illusion. No ending is tied up in a bow.
Once upon a time, when tasked with determining the order of my collection, Doll Palace, a friend came up with a dire scale. Each story got assigned a number from 1 to 5. The idea was to spread out the dread, for the poor reader’s sake.
The book includes a Disney story. “Niceness abounds,” I wrote. On the dire scale, it’s a 5.
But here it is: Happily ever after.
I do not come from artists. What I come from is a line of almosts, of not-quites. On my mother’s side, my grandmother was a would-be actor, whose dreams went unfulfilled. Self doubt, fear of failure: these traits I know well. She became a teacher instead. My great-grandfather, too, itched with creative impulses. Or so the story goes. He wrote, he drew. But one must provide a roof. He chose dentistry, and not for his love of teeth.
Jessica, my grandmother’s sister, is the one, the only one, who did not give up, but went all in. Born in 1923 to Brooklyn Russian Jews, she attended Pratt at eighteen, headstrong on becoming a painter. Why? Why, because painting was the most fun she ever had. Pure, simple. The questions that followed, however, came with prickles and thorns: What would it look like to devote one’s life to art? To make a living off of it?
In New York she illustrated children’s books. She did ads. Copy. She did many things. Married, had a family. There were private heartbreaks and struggles. All the while she painted.
When life – a new life, a new love – took her to Montana, her style changed. Vast abstract canvasses gave way to softer, impressionist depictions of the West, specifically, the wildflower-strewn prairie. Children and their families became her subjects. They still are. Before she agrees to paint them, she must connect with them face to face. She asks for and listens to their stories. Here, writing and portraiture intersect. Both are acts of empathy and humility. Jessica possesses these qualities in droves. She looks and finds the good sides. Her style – think Mary Cassatt meets Laura Ingalls – is neither dark nor brooding but vibrates with whimsy and heart. Her palette is pastel. Sometimes there are bunnies or horses, little chicks. Stare into the eyes of her people and they practically twinkle with color, alive with light.
So, too, my great-aunt. It is impossible not to adore her. She wears pigtails with ribbons in her hair, sweeping skirts, necklaces of bear teeth and chunky boots. When I visited her and Jack a couple summers ago, she laughed. A lot. She said things like, “Life is good: I recommend it.” The two of them sat side by side, holding hands. They nuzzled and squeezed like newlyweds. (They’d been married over 40 years.) Jack showed me his latest project, a series of nudes featuring Jessica as muse. Enthusiasm bubbled out of him like a love-drunk teen. I’ve never seen two happier people. This might explain it: the frame of their license plate read Mile High Club.
Over the years, she’s put out a couple books, her paintings paired to poems. One might not call her a poet, but that’s never stopped her. She also has a book for grownups, about capturing the magic of children in painting. I guess it’s an instruction manual. I found it on Amazon. She never mentioned it. She is not of the self-promoters. She paints. Her paintings are printed and sold. She does not shy from the commercial: calendars, postcards, decorative plates. Recently, she told me a coloring book of her paintings was in the works. She donates her work to hospitals, to cheer up the sterile halls. She’s taught abroad, run local workshops, mentored and so on. She’s nonstop. Her career has taken her around the world but there is nothing fancy about it, nothing rarefied about her approach.
Instead, there is this uncomplicated beauty: Art is about making with your hands and head and putting your heart into it. Her passion for art is inextricable from her passion for life. That’s it. Maybe there’s the secret to longevity. The two are one in the same.
Because she moved to Montana when I was a baby, we saw each other rarely. At milestone birthdays. Celebrations. Always, her story loomed large. My grandmother’s sister flew small engine planes and built a cabin in the Beartooth Mountains. Painting! paid the bills. Her prints filled my childhood home. Once, when she came east, she took out a pencil to sketch us, studying my face, the slope of my nose, grooves in my lips, the asymmetry of my eyes. She smiled. I nearly cried.
In truth, I don’t know her well. Her older sister – my grandmother – is the one with whom I was close. We were roommates my first year in New York. When Jessica called, I picked up the phone. I passed the receiver. Giggles erupted, as if they were twelve again. Afterward, my grandmother told stories. Always, there were bathing suits. And Boys. Plenty of mischief, and most of all, that word again – FUN.
Her paintings are earnest and tender, playful and pure. The way she sees it, with all the ugly in the world, why not make something “delicious”? Why not make the viewer feel good? My daughter feels great when she looks up from her own feverish drawing to greet the watercolor Zemsky hanging above the desk in her room.
Even if her style is not an influence, her ethic is an inspiration. Absent of punishment, devoid of hard morality, here lies her message: Devote your life to what you love. Pour your whole self into it. Carve out that path, follow its unexpected turns. Dark and twisty might be yours. Don’t forget the light.
More DOCTOR to DOCTOR.