Joyce Polance

Paint by Mothers

Through the slatted shelves, past the jars of turpentine, assorted light bulbs, haphazard stacks of paper plates and plastic cutlery, beyond the tin of old brushes, bristles bent, stained with cadmiums and cobalts that refused to vacate, floated the head.

The head. Dismembered, seemingly, it was all Anna could see of her studiomate, the body always hidden behind her large wooden table, the sort you’d have seen in your grandma’s dining room in the 1940’s. Beyond the table, in front of the window, in an old pink tufted rocker in which she’d nursed all three of her children, sat Phyllis, not rocking, still as dread, in intense, uninterruptible contemplation of her painting. Phyllis’s head floated above the table like a specter raised from the rotting corpse of Anna’s mother. Except Anna’s mother was alive.

Still. Phyllis’s kinky box-blonde hair, her cat-eyed glasses with the purplish tint, her cheeks rounded and heavy as if holding a mouthful of ball bearings, sagging with the weight of discontent into the same expression Anna’s father would always call a hang dog. You could have just won the Powerball and that look would shoot the air right out of your tires.

The rigid stare at the artwork, devoid of any humor or irony or welcome bits of self-deprecation; it sucked all the vital energy out of the studio. Anna felt it hemorrhaging from her fingertips—not onto her own canvas, which she would have welcomed, but falling in death spirals onto the paint-splattered floor.

Anna stomped on a dried-up streak of ultramarine. I hate your fucking gutsshe mouthed to the head in the corner. She could say it all day; the head never turned, never waivered from its focus. Why was it so infuriating? She longed to concentrate on her own work. How long can I stare at her before she senses my animosity?

Anna wrenched herself back to her painting, an expressionistic seascape living somewhere between reality and abstraction—all twisted rocks and weird impossible angles, intense, urgent brushwork mirroring the knot in her throat, the knot in her chest, the knot in her abdomen. She was always trying to get the knots out, to detangle them in linseed oil, to soothe their ragged, ropy strands from scratching her insides to bits.

She picked up a long-handled filbert, its bristles squared at the base, rounded at the tips. It could hold copious amounts of paint. Anna dipped it into multiple colors at once, color opposites that would complement each other and simultaneously turn to mud where she applied too much pressure. Let there be mud. She didn’t want to control it, not entirely. Her father used to say cutlery was what separated us from the animals; in painting, she craved the absence of cutlery.

With a grunt audible only to the canvas, Anna launched a sweeping stroke, a stroke like a punch: violet-hued, violent, its movement echoing the crashing of the waves, joining the waves and the cliffs, blurring their borders, breaking them into jagged shapes like Anna’s fragmented thoughts. The thoughts. The rocks. The waves. Now she was back in herself. The brush dove into the paint; another chaotic stroke, the palette knife following, then one of her fingers, smearing it further. Another. She grabbed a rag. The last stroke hadn’t worked; she wiped it out. Shit. She removed too much; the rag dropped to the ground, its paint adding to remains of colors smudged to black under her sneakers. The rags. The splatters. The fallen tubes of paint.

Anna backed up eight feet, surveyed her work, strode forward, repeating the stroke she’d just eliminated with a slight shift in color this time, in the trajectory of her arm. The paint never went where she told it to. She had to work with what it did, not what she thought it should do. Anna’s pulse quickened, the rhythm of the strokes escalated, the walking backward and forward, the throwing on of the next layer of paint, looking without thinking, letting her gut lead. She paused for a moment; from the corner of her left eye a gray silhouette: the head. She’d managed to forget about Phyllis for a whole twenty minutes.

I hate your fucking guts.

Phyllis rose from the rocking chair, a small cloud of dust escaping its weary upholstery. Shuffling over to her electric teapot, she filled it with water from her Brita pitcher. “Would you like some hot water for tea, Anna?”

“No thank you. I’m too warm.”

The head was reattached to the body now, the ghost retreated into a host of living flesh. She’s so damned nice. Fuck her for being so damned nice.

Anna tried to remember why she hated Phyllis. The bitterness in her mouth was like drinking tea that had steeped way, way too long. Was it about her mother, she wondered. Everyone liked her mother, so nice, with her hospice volunteering and her spiritual practice, her yoga and vegetarianism and past-life regressions. She made phone calls for Hillary.

Phyllis was a vegan. She rescued sick animals. She made phone calls for Hillary.

Phyllis returned to her corner with her tea, inexplicably slamming the mug on the table as if it weighed forty pounds, sinking into the ugly pink chair, her body again disappearing. The head. It was all that remained of her recent incarnation.

Anna could feel the tension rising in her, fueled by Phyllis’s mug slam.I am such a bitch; what’s wrong with me?When was the moment when the simple sounds of existence had suddenly become sledgehammer blows? She’d always gotten along with studiomates. If her last studiomate, the cheery Caroline, had been a mug-slammer or microwave door-banger, it wouldn’t have mattered; the noises would have melted into the background.

Anna stared at the canvas trying to remember where she’d left off. Another slam of Phyllis’s mug. Anna picked up viridian and ochre and vermillion all together with her brush, added the excess paint she’d just scraped off her palette knife. She took a deep breath, summoning all the tangled energy coursing through her. Arms extended, shoulders twisting, she threw herself at the canvas. The stroke was beautiful. And destructive. A part of the painting she’d loved was now gone, permanently buried under newer pigment, imprisoned forever beneath the sediments of competing impulses.

The mug slammed on the table. The slam. The reaction. The rape.

The hostility. The accusations. The denial. It wasn’t really her mother’s fault; Anna didn’t blame her. With her mother, no matter what, Anna’s father came first. Anna reached for a tube of Williamsburg Prussian blue, her favorite. Dense and viscous like slowly-clotting blood, so rich and dark it was nearly black. Could you still call it rape or even molestation when the person you told about it, who then told you it didn’t happen, was so nice? It wasn’t clear anyway, muddy like mixing color opposites: red and green, yellow and violet, orange and blue; only vestiges of the original colors remained. She’d been very young. Someone so nice wouldn’t lie and say it didn’t happen when it did. Right?

Fragments shut in a suitcase on a dusty shelf in the back of Anna’s mind: Her head forced back over the edge of the bed, shadowy blue curtains slanted at the wrong angle. Pressure. Choking. A coarse, sweaty mass in her face. I can’t breathe. Hands. Her fingers gripping her stuffed tiger. Fur. The smell of musk and earth. Hands. The yellow cotton nightgown. Stuffed in her mouth. Hands. Hardness. Pressure. Weight. Pain. Searing pain.

The pressure. The weight. The searing pain. She was severed in two.

Anna backed up ten feet, Prussian blue dangling precipitously from her paintbrush. Focus. She stared at the canvas for an instant too brief to make a conscious decision; her body was already running forward, brush outstretched, blue paint landing somewhere, maybe, in the vicinity of where it was intended.

The slam of the mug. Anna imagined marching over to the head, her hands wrapping around the neck, staining it in Prussian blue blood, squeezing until it separated from its body, parading it on a pike down the Champs-Élysées—that hang dog cemented by rigor mortis into eternity.

Years later, she’d shown her mother the bruises. Well, some of them. Turning purple and green like violets in springtime, like violence in summer.

She remembered a hint of moonbeam peeking through the window, catching her father’s bare foot in its searchlight. For years, she would see that lit-up foot in her dreams. For years, she couldn’t look at his feet. She sketched him as an amputee.

The hand around her neck. The pressure on her windpipe. The searing pain below. It severed her in two.

She’d shown her mother her two separate halves, holding them out to her as if she were still a child toting a ripped teddy bear, hoping her mother could sew the arm back on, the head back on, the heart back in. Her mother’s head set itself in plaster, her mouth a rigid, unbendable line, her expression expressionless as Anna bared the remnants of herself. Was her mother already weaving the cloak of denial she would wear in perpetuity, that she would one day be buried in, even the worms unable to chew through its impermeable fabric?

Anna’s hyper-sensitivity. Anna’s exaggeration. Anna’s lies. Her mother said nothing then, looked unblinking at the cracked marble bookend on the shelf above the table beside the chair above the scratched gray linoleum peeling up in the corners. Anna’s two halves sagged to the cold floor, the textured linoleum pressing an abstract print into her bare legs. Red circles. Red squares. Red lines. Pushing into her nakedness.

The slam of the mug. Anna had chosen Phyllis. Calm, quiet, a little depressed. Unthreatening. It seemed like an easy fit. They’d met at a reception for city grant recipients. They liked each other’s politics, each other’s paintings. Over coffee at the Growling Rabbit, they’d complain about the phoniness of the art world, the lack of correlation between talent and success, the rampant soullessness of conceptual art. Mostly, Phyllis seemed maternal.

Until. It wasn’t entirely Phyllis, Anna knew, it was the ubiquityof Phyllis. Who knew she’d be in the studio every weekday, dropping her husband Ed at the train early in the morning, painting until she picked him up at six, sometimes bringing him back to the studio to work together in the evenings. Who knew she’d be in the studio every single weekend, both days, all day, always bringing Ed with her to paint or work on his computer. Two heads—nice people both, mind you—two sluggish, heavyset bodies. The fizz from their Soda Stream and popping cans of Diet Coke. The constant fussing at the microwave, the toaster oven, the teapot. The filling of the communal fridge to capacity. The noisy separating of recyclables. The woven rug. The tufted chair. The tattered sofa. It was a second living room, a second home.

Could you hate somebody for being too much at home?

Could you hate somebody because you hadn’t anticipated that feeling of oppression in their presence, rolling in like a foggy morning, settling over your skin, obscuring your artistic vision, your clarity? For the few hours Phyllis wasn’t there—an errand now and again, a doctor’s appointment—the studio returned to a neutral state. Anna became aware of the cheery cream walls; she played music. She painted in a bubbling soda stream of light.

By the time Anna’s two halves peeled themselves from the linoleum, her mother had been cast in bronze, an entire sculptural exhibition on the subject of impenetrability. “Mom?” Anna had said. “Mom?” The silence swept up Anna’s unshed tears, the ones waiting in line for the museum doors to open. The ones waiting in vain.

She’d told Phyllis about it over lunch one day: No communication from her mother for three months. Then a letter suggesting Anna get some therapy for her oversensitivity and proclivity for invention, warning not to spread lies about the family, that if Anna told anyone, anywhere, any nonsense, “consequences” would ensue. Her father had worked hard. He had rights in his own home. A few weeks later, her mother called to invite Anna for dinner: Hi Hon, what’s new?—as if they’d idly chatted the day before about the neighbor’s cat getting into the petunias. Anna never mentioned the rape to her mother again; she kept the conversation shallow, hollow, acceptable.

“I’m sorry,” Phyllis had said. “I would believe my daughters if they told me something like that.”

Phyllis rose from the chair and began straightening up her studio, attempting to fold an enormous sheet of plastic she’d had some paintings wrapped in. A cacophonous rustling filled the space. Phyllis appeared to be wrestling with the plastic: holding it away from her, stepping on it, nearly tripping, stomping out air where it got between the layers. Anna put her earphones in, but the racket was inescapable. Fifteen minutes later, Phyllis was still grappling with the plastic. For the first time, it occurred to Anna that Phyllis might be doing it on purpose. Could she sense how much Anna hated her and hate her back? Had she hated Anna first?

Phyllis abandoned the plastic and got on the phone: “Hi Mom, I’m calling you back… No, I didn’t call you. You called me…I’m telling you, my phone shows you called me…” She hung up and resumed wrestling plastic.

Anna turned her painting upside down on the wall to get a fresh perspective; she often worked the canvas upside down or sideways, focusing on color and movement rather than representation. As she backed up to look at the canvas, she realized she was dehydrated and poured herself a glass of water from the Brita pitcher, forcing herself to drink it all. Otherwise she’d discover the glass sitting untouched on her painting table an hour later, probably tainted with a few airborne particles of cadmium red. Paint was tenacious; it got into everything, everywhere. As ubiquitous as Phyllis.

Phyllis returned to her easel. No floating head. No plastic. No spooks. With the return of silence, Anna’s rancor suddenly lifted. See, I don’t have to let her affect me. She mixed some ochre with transparent orange and cerulean—just enough to blend, not obscure, the individual colors—and applied it to the canvas. Shefelt a surge of hope—that maybe, whatever it had been, she could be free of this wretched weight of animosity. Maybe, this time, it would stay away.

Phyllis stopped painting and walked over to the invisible dividing line between her space and Anna’s. She did not cross. Though her face was shrouded in shadow, the late afternoon sun reflecting in off the outside buildings gave her a golden-red halo. A long paintbrush jutted like a sword from her left hand. “Anna,” she said, “I want to talk to you.”

Something about Phyllis’s posture, heavier than usual, her somber tone. Anna felt a rush of dread rising in her chest. A certainty of being in the wrong. An expectation of punishment. Her throat constricted. “What is it?”

The sword waved as Phyllis spoke, catching red light in its bristles. “I’ve been thinking about this for awhile. I want you to know that I’m planning on leaving. I’m going to be subletting my space.”

“What? Why?” Anna’s mouth was filled with shock; it was all she could choke out.

“Don’t take this personally, but I don’t think we’re a good fit.” Phyllis’s face was inscrutable, her mouth, even as she spoke, not deviating from the rigid line it was set in.

Anna felt the pressure on her chest, on her windpipe. She touched her hand to her throat, leaving an ochre streak. “I don’t know what to say.”

Phyllis lowered the paintbrush to her side. “It’s difficult to explain,” she said. “Perhaps we can talk more about it another time; I want to paint now. I’m sorry it hasn’t worked out.” Her head was secured to her body. A being complete, Phyllis turned back to her work.

And just like that, the museum doors opened. Anna stood still for a few moments, her back to Phyllis, looking through wet eyes, all images blurry. Wiping her face on her sleeve, she loaded her brush with a burst of lemon yellow. She took a deep breath. With all the buoyant energy of relief, she ran at the canvas.


Joyce Plance

Joyce Polance is a writer and award-winning visual artist living in Chicago. She is currently at work on a novel. Her paintings have been exhibited internationally and may be viewed at

The featured art on this page is titled Pull and is from Polance’s Exchanges collection.