Updated: Jul 31
This post is the story of my logo. My brand. She began in a 1967 high school art class and has been with me since 1993. In 2021, I took a Sarah Lawrence College School of Writing memoir workshop. The final assignment of the course was to write about something we keep. I immediately thought of The Bitch. In 2022, I entered the essay, on a whim, in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Unpublished Contest, and she was a finalist. Today she has Internet fame.
This is her story.
I’m the keeper of The Bitch. I’m not sure she chose me. Or if she’s happy with where she has ended up. But, as always, she keeps her thoughts to herself.
The Bitch is an oil painting. A 30-by-36-inch canvas. No frame. The word “STAN” is painted on the back of the canvas in thick, white stripes, as if the painter was in a hurry. On the front is a woman of indeterminate age. Blonde. Bold black eyes. Coral scarf. Inscrutable expression. Who she is, we don’t know. What inspired her creation—or her name—her creator won’t say.
In the spring of 1967, my mother was a senior at Ingraham High in Seattle. A one-story building with swooping rooflines and a sleek design, it looked like the kind of school the Jetson children would have attended. My mother was not yet eighteen. Talented and full of potential, she’d been born an artist. When she was five, she’d drawn a picture of a chicken. When she showed it to her father, he praised it, then said, “Now draw what you actually see.” And that was how she learned perspective.
Thirteen years later, she was the favorite of the high school art department. Her senior art project was to create a multimedia painting. She chose five colors: coral, beige, yellow, blue, and black. She also chose string and tissue paper.
The woman in the painting stares out at you from a blue background. Her hair is yellow and full of string. It flows away from her face in large, angular chunks. Her neck is long, and where her shoulders should be, there is a scarf of coral tissue paper. Paired with the rough string, the crinkly paper calls you to reach out and gently touch the painting. The tissue paper has turned to dust in some places, revealing the raw canvas and the hasty pencil sketches of a seventeen-year-old girl.
The woman’s eyes are black with spidery lashes. Thick black lines divide her face into quadrants. Her expression is impossible to describe because it is impossible to interpret. She could be fierce. Or is that fear? Perhaps what you see is courage. Or maybe crazy. There is a hint of sadness in her eyes. But it could also be wisdom. Her lips could be on the verge of smiling. But maybe not.
I think her expression changes with my mood. She definitely knows things. But she won’t reveal her secrets.
She is a pop modern Mona Lisa.
My mother is a talented artist and illustrator. A volatile combination of creativity, humor, skilled hands, and probing eyes that can see your very thoughts. Her high school instructors begged her to go art school to learn skills and theory that they couldn’t teach her.
But a month after graduation, my mother was pregnant and newly married to a tall, thin, dark-eyed boy who’d dropped out of college to do the right thing.
Motherhood replaced art school. She never went to college. She never was formally trained. But she never stopped being an artist.
I grew up in a house where silverware shared space in the dish drainer with paint brushes. My sisters and I never lacked paint, pens, paper, canvas, clay, pencils, or chalk. And we could all draw before we could talk. We were as familiar with Salvador Dali, Norman Rockwell, and Andrew Wyeth as we were with Fred Flintstone and Mrs. Brady.
But we didn’t grow up with The Bitch. In fact, I didn’t formally meet her until I was in my twenties. Although people treasure my mother’s work, she dismisses it with a shrug. To her, it has no value. She has a maddening habit of throwing it away or, when we’re lucky, giving it away. And that was what happened to The Bitch. She somehow ended up at my uncle’s house, where she lived for years hanging in a back bedroom. When he moved to Hawaii in 1993, he gave her to me. He felt she was too fragile to make the trip across the Pacific.
When I happily carted her to the home I shared with my husband, he took one look at her, shuddered, and said, “Get that thing out of my living room.”
Which is how The Bitch spent the next thirteen years hidden away in MY back bedrooms. She even spent a number of years in an attic, where my husband had banished her. I have found that many men have a problem with her. I think it’s her bold and steady stare. They can’t figure her out. And I think that makes them nervous.
My sons asked, “Mama, why are there black lines in her face?” I explained modernism. My husband asked, “Why do I hate that painting so much?” I explained misogyny.
In the fall of 2011, my then-husband became my ex-husband. And very shortly after he moved out, I claimed his home office as my home office. In those first shaky days of separation, when I was just getting my divorce legs under me, I had a sudden thought, that turned into a decision, that turned into an action, that ended up with me retrieving The Bitch from a lonely back bedroom. I triumphantly carried her down the stairs and hung her on the wall of my now very own home office. Front and center, in the hub of the house. Where everyone could see her. No longer hidden away.
Her colors had grown less vivid over the years, and flakes of tissue paper sometimes floated to the floor. But she had finally come into her own.
That divorce was the beginning of my coming out of hiding. Of coming into my own. I came out of the back bedroom of my life and made the painful trek into being. Hanging my painting on my wall of my choice was my declaration to the world that I got to call the shots now.
Over time, The Bitch found her way into the family room, where she watched over my boys as they grew. Then, when I made the scary and exciting decision to sell my perfectly good house and buy a fixer-upper closer to my family, The Bitch, of course, came with me. She found her first spot in the new house in our den. When visitors came, it was fun to watch them discover her and see their reactions. People either love her—exclaiming over her as a great mid-century painting—or they hate her and laugh nervously as they get out of her eyeshot.
But the best reaction was when my mom came to the new house and saw her senior class art project hanging on the wall.
“I can’t believe you still have that old thing!” she said with a laugh. “You know that was a joke, right?”
“Who is it?” I asked, hoping to clear up a half-century-old mystery.
“Well, your dad always said it looks like my Aunt Barbara,” she said with a shrug and a small serving of side eye. Then she left the room.
Clever. But that wasn’t actually an answer.
I love to rearrange my artwork. Art needs to tell me where it wants to be, and I have spent many happy hours running around my house—usually late at night—with a tape measure, a stool, a hammer, and nails, finding new perfect spots for everything.
One night, I found myself in the den looking at The Bitch. Over the years, I’ve tried to find a new name for her—one a little less derogatory. But the name just sticks. I think she finds the humor in it. It’s not a fair or accurate label, though, because she has many names. She is many things.
When I look at the four quadrants of her face, I see the many facets of a woman. Not one emotion. Many. In her, I see the many facets of my mother. Her sadness and her brilliance. Her humor and her darkness. And strangely, I see myself. When my mother was seventeen—when she had no idea that in just a few months, her own future would take a sharp left turn—she painted the future me. A sad, wise, scared, and brave blonde woman who finally came out of hiding and claimed her own place in the world.
The Bitch, I guess, was a fortune told in canvas, paint, string, and tissue paper.
So that night, as I stood in my den, I decided that she needed a better spot.
Now she hangs on the landing of the front stairs. She watches us come down every morning to breakfast and go up every night to bed. She watches the front door, observing as we come and go throughout the day. From her perch high above the foyer, she haughtily greets all our visitors when they arrive and bids them a silent goodbye when they leave.
She has a place of honor in my house and my life because she is my past and my future. The bad parts and the good. The hard parts and the easy. She is my mother and me and all the women I know.
Where I go, she goes.
And she doesn’t care what you call her or if you know her story. Because she knows exactly who she is.