Homage to an Unlikely Arts Advocate

Mom and I by Lidia Kenig
Mom and I by Lidia Kenig

My mother was indeed an unlikely arts advocate. Her formal education ended in the second grade, and it is unclear why she could not continue to attend school. Maybe language, or poverty or both were barriers. Fleeing from Romania’s political upheaval, she arrived in Argentina at age 6 with her seamstress mother and 4 siblings to join their father. In Buenos Aires they encountered not the expected paradise but another subpar living environment mired in poverty.

At 16 she went to work as an assistant seamstress and soon fell in love with the owner’s 17 year old son whom she dated for 10 years while he was in college. The long courtship was the result of the groom’s family’s unhappiness with the couple’s mismatched educational level and socioeconomic status. These sentiments were aggravated when after the nuptials, my dad quit medical school and went to work in his father’s store under the guise of needing to provide for his family.

I was born 2 years into the marriage and managed to completely change family dynamics. The proud grandparents dotted on the baby girl and my mother status rose considerably. In time, my mother and grandmother became my staunchest allies to ensure that I would have a career in art.

The first time my mother advocated for my artistic talents was in my first grade class. She told me a wonderful story of a time when she was called to school because my teacher complained that I tended not to follow rules. As an example, the teacher showed her a drawing I made of a lady with a wide-brimmed hat and the words “I love my aunt Cecelia” alongside. The teacher stated that the assignment was to write “I love my aunt Ana”, the current study’s vocabulary words and illustrate the sentence with a pasted cut out figure from a magazine.

Appearing confused, my mother asked the teacher whether I was able to write the word Ana and had cutting and pasting dexterity. When the teacher replied in the affirmative, my mother suggested that “Cecelia” was a more difficult name than “Ana” and that her 6-year-old realistic drawing was prettier than a random paper cut out.

But when the teacher went on to complain that I was always making drawings, even next to math exercises, and was concerned about the “real” learning I may be missing, my mother then turned and asked me why I was not following the teacher’s requests in class and adding unnecessary drawings.

When I responded that the school work came from the teacher, but the pictures come from my heart and helped me learn best, my mother stated that my way of learning was through drawing and that she deemed that no punishment was needed.

That was quite the answer from an uneducated woman without any art background. As far as I remember, nobody in my family was an art lover, or had art in their homes. Mom enrolled me in art classes and convinced skeptical instructors that despite my age, I possessed mature artistic skills.

Both my mother and my grandmother continued to advocate for my right to study art, even when my father opposed it. Somehow an army of art supporters arose to convince him of the worth of a career in art when at age 12; I applied and was accepted to art high school in Buenos Aires.

Art school was expensive and my father now working with his brothers felt unable to afford my art education. It was my mother who accepted financial help from my grandparents so I could graduate in 1964 as one of the youngest college art instructors in Buenos Aires.

The 8” x 8” acrylic painting on paper was created to honor my mother, the unlikely arts advocate who continues to cheer me on from beyond. She left her body on March 8, 2003.

Thank you, mom!

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