My mother died over two years ago. She had been a librarian in a school for children with learning disabilities in New York City. I have been primarily illustrating, designing and writing children’s books and young adult novels. After her death I realized painting abstract art had taken a back seat for too long and was always the elephant in my room. But I did what I did in my career to earn a living, help support my family, raise two sons, and produced over 50 published books as a result.
As I was cleaning out my mother’s house, I reflected on her life, and mine. In her linen closet, I found gauze bandages - different kinds, sizes, weaves - that my mother had squirreled away during her stay at the many hospitals and rehab facilities which she had been in and out of over the years. I was shocked at how much there was. A garbage bag full. Her caretaker asked, “What do you want me to do with all this?” I said, “Toss it.” Then I paused, and don’t ask me why, I decided to save some - for what, I didn’t know. It was out of my pain: going over her life, how it played out in a devastating way in the end, and me alone with all her things after I was done sorting, giving away, throwing out, or saving, that I turned that gauze into art. Gauze can be used to soak up blood from a wound, but it can also help heal.
I thought of the time she grew up in - before feminism; how she put her energy into cleaning obsessively. I began a series of acrylic paintings, dyeing or spray-painting the gauze, adding her household cleaners and other mixed media to incorporate them into the paint, creating texture, and then sealing the canvas with polymer gels. The first painting shows razor cuts to symbolize the horror at the end of her journey. I didn’t realize it while I was doing it. Only afterwards. The gauze started taking on a lyrical nature and I played on that in the brushstrokes and colors while I blasted my parents’ old music: Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, essentially a playlist from the 40’s and 50’s. It was heart-wrenching. But in my heart I was back home, where I belong: Painting day and night on huge canvases. I have always been fascinated by color theory, the grid, serialization, architecture, music, and early on in my work as I studied typography I used parts of letterforms in each square for the imagery. I wanted to do a grid now in a different way - break out. To grow. To change. To see where life takes me after doing hundreds of pieces for books.
Jane Breskin Zalben went to the High School of Music & Art, received a BA in art Queens College, and went on to study at the Pratt Graphics Center. Her book, Mousterpiece: a guide to modern art was on the “Calling Caldecott” list of the 20 best-illustrated books of the year. Ms. Zalben has created more than fifty award-winning books and her illustration art has been shown in solo exhibitions at galleries and museums. She taught at the School of Visual Arts for eighteen years, and has led numerous residencies speaking, doing workshops, teaching, at Vassar, Hofstra, Rice, Heckscher Museum, Museum of Tolerance, and most recently at the Met, the Barnes Foundation, and Crystal Bridges. Some of the artists she studied art with in college were Herb Aach, John Ferren, Marvin Bileck, Robert Birmelin, and Richard Serra.