Journey With A Collection Of Portraits by Kathleen Notman is a remarkable story told by the artist of her life as an artist in a field where many authoritative figures regarded her work as trivial and not true art. By combining photography with painting, she managed to offend traditionalists in both artistic communities. Notman created a collection of portraits, “’20th CENTURY WOMAN,” over a ten-year period. She describes her creations as photographs of physical reality combined with paintings of emotions. Emotions were depicted through a creative use of color and shapes. The resulting portraits were of women she had met and had social interaction with. In a unique twist, the model she used for all the women, Cressida, was herself. She did not say or advertise this but it came out when she distributed the paintings.
This was an OnlineBookClub.org Book of the Day for 20 January 2017. As part of a raffle the site sponsors, I was to read a sample from Amazon and submit a few comments to the website. Because it was free on Kindle Unlimited, I downloaded the book and began reading. Two and a half hours later I finished the book. Then I went back to Amazon and bought the book (USD 4.99). I knew I would want to read parts of it again and I didn’t want to lose it when I returned it to KU. I gave it 5 stars in an Amazon review and would give it more if I could. This is one of those rare books I will keep, refer to occasionally, and will recommend to all my students and reader colleagues.
This book is pleasing visually with its haunting cover as well as with color illustrations throughout the book which are reproductions of the work the artist is describing. Notman tells us the backgrounds of the paintings; she reveals her inspiration for including details. She admits that for some of the paintings, not knowing the details would make the works uninteresting to the casual observer. A large reason for not being able to sell some of the work is the lack of transparency in meaning. She sells what she can and occasionally gives some away as either a gift or as an element in a barter exchange. She destroys and throws away some partially out of frustration.
This sale, giving away and disposal activity takes place on a journey she makes; one that literally goes around the world. After ten years of creating the collection, she has decided to take the paintings home, to the places where the women in the portraits gave her inspiration. She will try to sell the portraits in their “home community.” In some places she arranges exhibitions. She is visiting her past and will drop off paintings at each point before finally returning to her home, New Zealand, with no paintings left.
There is more to the book than a painter’s or photographer’s art history. Notman’s introspection and reflection on the various stages of her life that brought her to the journey are brutally honest and emotionally evocative. Early in the book, I thought of an assumption made about people getting rid of things, that this can be a precursor warning to suicide. That is not true for this author. This is a story of acceptance, of the author accepting who she is, of the author accepting that she is getting old, of the author admitting frankly unpleasant personal truths. It is not a confessional; she is simply saying “This is how it is.”
The writing starts out powerfully and gets stronger as it goes. This tale will frequently overpower the reader emotionally. The story of her first true love will outrage some. It has elements similar to the social non-acceptance of Jerry Lee Lewis and a younger cousin. The account of this period of her life, already powerful, is followed immediately by a heart-wrenching story of her experience with a close homosexual friend.
Notman experiences death on a very personal level during her youth living in WWII England. She has heard the bombs drop; she has led the life of a wartime survivor. Later in life, she experiences the death of an unborn child and describes anger at the uncaring attitudes of hospital staff. Although pro-life, she has experienced abortion.
Her early life was with a father and mother that were not rich but wanted to be. The father wanted to succeed, to be part of the middle class, but he loved partying too much. His wife, Notman’s mother, also loved partying. She believed that someday her husband would succeed; they would be better off. It just took patience. Notman’s attitude is expressed as “I did not wait for my ship to come in. I waded out into the sea and hauled it in myself.” (loc 990-991)
Notman had to rely on herself. After an early death in the family left her with a mother and father who were completely dysfunctional as parents, Notman was on her own. She lived with her parents but was infrequently home because she could not stand to witness the ceaseless display of suffering.
Notman will marry and stay married to the same man for the rest of her life (to date). They will have children and, copying the lifestyle of her youth, there will always be the search for a bit more money. She will do almost any kind of temporary work to fund her latest interests: photography, dress design, painting, or any and all combination of these.
Her life is expressed through her art. Her reflections and musings give us a glimpse of her perspectives on social issues, particularly about the roles, value, and place of women in society. This novel should be of great interest to feminists. At the same time, I could find nothing that threatens a male (me). Instead, it gave me a couple of new insights on a woman’s perspective of her sexuality; I realize it is Notman’s perspective and not necessarily every woman’s perspective but it was still thought-provoking.
NOTE: Nothing salacious here, perverts please move on.
This is just a great book. For the emotional types, keep a towel nearby, this is one of those books that might make you cry.