A remembered painting

I happened to think about someone I knew years ago when I was studying sculpture. A couple of her student paintings stuck in my memory, though I have little enough memory of the woman herself. The paintings were sort of abstract landscapes, meditatively dark. I remember one in particular that was mostly black, with dead branches applied to the canvas, framing the center. My description makes the painting sound funereal, but in my memory the effect was mostly introspective and thoughtful. If you remember the artwork that was being shown in the New York galleries in the early 1980’s, you’ll realize that her paintings were derivative (dead branches and all), but they were well-done nonetheless.

As I said, one or maybe two of these early student paintings stuck in my memory, and in a moment of boredom that old visual memory came to the surface. I wondered what sort of paintings she was doing now — or maybe she had turned to sculpture, for when I last saw her work, in 1987 while she was doing her MFA, she was making sculptural constructions rather than paintings. I remember one in particular, an intricately woven, amorphously-shaped web or mass of delicate wires and fibers that hung from the ceiling of her studio. Looking back on it, I would describe it as thoughtful.

Her name came right up on a search engine, bringing up a Web site with her domain name. But this was not an artist’s Web site: the site had been set up by friends after her sudden death in 2005. She must have been 42 or 43. I scanned the Web site, and it turned out that she had given up a career as a painter, had gone on to get a doctorate in art history, had moved to Cambodia to study the art there. She died in Cambodia, from what wasn’t clear, although she was seven months pregnant.

This was not someone I had ever known well; one or two of her paintings happened to stick in my memory, that’s all. I like to think that who a person is will be more important than what a person has made or accomplished; but mostly I suspect that a person is more likely to be remembered for what his or her hands have made, or for what she or he has done or accomplished. I remembered one student painting by this woman better than I remembered her as a person. That could be considered nothing more than a trivial memory.