Friday, September 21, 2012
My Dear Girl: The Art of Florence Hosmer By Helen Marie Casey
My Dear Girl: The Art of Florence Hosmer
By Helen Marie Casey
Review by Kim Triedman
“I want us to explore what it means to be an artist, to work as an artist, and to lack acclaim.” Thus begins author Helen Marie Casey in the preface to her new book, My Dear Girl: The Art of Florence Hosmer, released by Black Lawrence Press earlier this year. The artist in question, who lived in Sudbury, MA for most of her long and productive life, is a figure of profound interest to Casey, who also lives in the area and is clearly well versed in the art history of the time. As much meditation as biography, My Dear Girl takes as its task not just the reconstructing of one particular life but also, in a way, its conjuring: In fashioning her biography, Casey seems to walk through Hosmer’s life as a kind of kindred spirit, hand-in-hand.
Florence Armes Hosmer (1880-1978), lived through huge changes in her world – women’s suffrage, two world wars, the great Depression, and struggles for Civil rights and equal rights – and on a more personal level endured nearly constant financial obstacles and crises of confidence. Born into a large and supportive family and educated at the Normal Art School in Boston, she went through her adult life unmarried, with “no protective partner or spouse, no mentor in the shadows who took her part for her; no agent,” under constant strain to make ends meet. Acclaimed at one time as one of the more prominent of Boston portraitists, she “fell off almost all the charts of American women artists of the early 20th century.” She was not “a path-breaking painter,” writes Casey, “but she was a good one,” and never gave up on “her commitment to the creation of beauty.” She was simply a woman on her own with the desire and training to paint in a world and a time which made such goals particularly challenging.
In tracing the outlines of Hosmer’s life, Casey opts for a free-form approach, sorting through the “jumble of detritus waiting to be deciphered” (Hosmer’s letters, notebooks, possessions, artwork, etc) and shifting always backward and forward in time. It is a tack which works well for her. Casey is an astute observer, and there is a method to her meanderings. Through repeated and often seemingly incidental appearances of those most intimately involved in Hosmer’s life and work, Casey draws us gradually into her inner circle, developing Hosmer’s persona Rashomon-style, from a multiplicity of angles.
As Casey frames it, the heart of the Florence Hosmer story is really the heart of every artist’s struggle, regardless the medium. “The subjects here that interest me are twinned,” she writes, “—obscurity and accomplishment.” What she seeks to explore is the question of whether some alliance between artist and audience is necessary, “some sign of confirmation that a thing is so.” In Florence Hosmer’s case – as with most artists, it could be argued – the signs were intermittent and often contradictory, though they never stopped her from doing what she loved despite the hardships that that implied. Her art was her way of assimilating her world and, as such, essential to her.
In many ways, Casey argues, Hosmer’s life serves as a kind of allegory: no matter the costs, Florence Hosmer – as so many before and after her – “could not choose not to paint,” and ultimately that became its own victory:
The creation of even one beautiful, unforgettable work is enough. One painting. One poem. One short story. One novel. One quilt. One equation. One theory. One musical composition. One work of the imagination that won’t let go of us, that gets under our skin, that haunts us because it has everything right. Florence Armes Hosmer left us hundreds of paintings. Not all of them are memorable. But the memorable work is breathtaking.
**** Kim Triedman is a managing editor for Ibbetson Street and a widely published poet.