chocolate is a verb

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Tag Archives: self-portrait


1980s DAK self sketchMy mother wanted to be a photographer. Not as a profession, but literally to “take” pictures — to bring home with her the abstractions of color, line and form she saw everywhere.

She struggled with one camera after another. My father patiently showed her and wrote cues to help her remember the sequence of buttons. He gave her his own camera, which looked so easy and which she was sure she could master, and when that defeated her, he found her a simpler one. But that, too, was just an incomprehensible box of buttons that she eventually stuck in a drawer, giving up the idea of taking photographs.

Dorothy would undoubtedly have found a cell phone equally daunting, but she would have loved the idea of selfies. In fact, she created hundreds of them, with pencil and brush, pastel and ink. If they did not provide the instant gratification she hoped to achieve with the camera, they left a record of how she saw herself, stripped of artifice — a harsh beauty seen through an acute and unforgiving eye.


DAK self-portrait 12-1967My mother did hundreds of self-portraits. Most were more sketches than paintings, quick studies in ink, pastel, pencil, charcoal. Whatever more ambitious work might be waiting on the easel, she could always turn to the model in the mirror.

Each portrait captures something uniquely Dorothy — feature, gesture, expression, coloration — and they are almost universally unflattering. In these small pieces, she allows us to see the stark, the scrawny, the wrinkled and unposed self who would vanish into a wide smile in front of a camera.

This sketch, made when she was in her mid-50s, is an exception. Quick and sure, it is identifiably Dorothy, but while she is serious, she looks pretty — her hair smoothed, her glasses dramatic, her mouth painted and lush.

How I wish I could step back into that moment to know her brief happiness.

May 30: Dorothy’s birthday

DAK self portrait 1982By the time my mother turned 90, my dad was gone and Dorothy’s life had narrowed. Her vision and mobility were compromised and her thoughts didn’t always make it to the end of each sentence. But two things remained the same: her love of food and her love of attention.

There was surely no thing she needed as a birthday gift, so I did the obvious: I took her out to eat. Again and again.

Over the course of several weeks around her 90th birthday, we would make plans to go out to lunch or dinner — not unusual in itself as it was something we both enjoyed and could do together without too much conflict. But when we arrived at the restaurant, she would find, each time with renewed surprise, a small party awaiting her — special friends, close cousins, the women in her writing group. There were eight of these occasions, each at a different, favorite, restaurant, each with different, favorite, people.

Whether she retained any memory of these meals once we left the restaurants I don’t know. But for those sweet hours, her smile wide, she basked in generous affection and felt truly and joyfully celebrated.
. . . . .
Dorothy watercolor self-portrait, 1982


DAK self etching 1968In 1993, on the cusp of her 82nd birthday, my mother had a one-person show of her work at a gallery in downtown Los Angeles. She had been in a number of group shows, but as desperately as she had wanted to exhibit and sell, it was only with the encouragement and support of a group of fellow artists that the show materialized.

A huge achievement, a triumph, really, “Moments” tracked the arc of her work, from early sketches and very realistic still-life paintings through later abstraction, construction and installation. A catalogue and a series of self-portraits stitched the decades together.

Dorothy had no formal training, though she took many art classes, and her paintings often reflected the influence of her teachers and the artists she studied. In some of her work, she displayed a wonderful knack for whimsey, discovering objects and creatures within a blot of ink or paint, or emerging from a scribble.

This etching captures that spirit. It’s one of my favorites. A Chagall-ish collection of beings floats around a tall vase: snakes and butterflies, birds, frogs, flowers and dog-like creatures, including our pug, Taco, with dark ears, facing the woman, on the little rug in the lower left.

The Artist’s Proof, framed, signed and dated, hangs on my wall; I look at it often. Today, as I was shuffling photographs, I found a small photo of the piece marked up for inclusion in the catalogue. The caption is written in pencil on a bit of paper masking-taped to the photo: SELF PORTRAIT 1968 etching 18″ x 24″. The word PORTRAIT has been erased and the piece is called SELF in the catalogue.

As many times as I have looked at the print, I never realized it was a self-portrait: the beautiful, beloved, fairytale princess that my mother imagined, or wished, her Self to be.
. . . . .
“SELF” © D.A. Kleinberg 1968


DAK self portrait with blue eyes
My mother did hundreds of self-portraits. Holding a hand mirror or even standing in the bathroom with her sketch pad, she recorded her face over and over, in pencil, crayon, ink, pastel and every kind of paint. No matter how abstract, how few lines, how little color she committed to these images, they are universally recognizable as Dorothy.

I’ve always liked this one. Escaped from page-center, it captures something uniquely Dorothy with a few quick lines and smudges. It is a bit less haunted than many of her self-portraits, with the bright blue around the eyes and the upswept line suggesting a wry smile. Every mark seems essential; what would it be without the odd red smudged slashes below the eyes or the darkened shadows on chin, cheek and forehead?

While she could be counted on to smile for the camera, most of her studies find her staring, unsmiling, raw. But here Dorothy was able to capture something contented, to find within her face a scrawl of beauty, and to suspend, for just a moment, her unforgiving judgment.

Saturday morning…

jik by jik
Not much to say about this drawing made when I was 3 or 4,
except to note that I have grown up to become this person,
right down to the hair, glasses, earrings and, of course,
the smile.