May 6, 2012

I Thought I Was Swedish (at least a little)

Do I ever take my own advice?  Just get into the studio and make something instead of doing housework or run errands?  Today I did.  It was time to do what I know I should and just go to the studio to play with no plan.  It's amazing how just picking up a piece of wood, cutting it (and thankfully not terrifying Tabitha the Studio Cat into a fuzzy frenzy) and picking up the gesso.  I figured one of two things were going to happen.  I'd either come up with an idea as I worked blind, or just get messy and enjoy the process.  It worked.  The messing around resulted an epiphany about the figurative piece I've been working on for months, following my cyber mentor Debbie's advice to just let it happen and let the ideas flow.  I'm sketching, jotting downs ideas and actually having a hard time watching paint dry so I can move to the next step.  But step one and the ideas for step two have caused a flow of other new ideas that, thank goodness, are coming from my long-dormant brain and not one of my magazines or reference books.

Last week my husband took me to a museum in Los Angeles that featured an exhibit of women Surrealists of Mexico and the United States, knowing that I am a huge fan of one of the featured artists, Frida Kahlo.  The autobiographical nature of her work always impressed me, particularly her almost unkind but honest portrayal of herself.  It dawned on me that the piece I've been struggling with has been slow in the making while I was constantly distracted by a recent revelation about my own family, now an inspiration as I plot the completion of the work.

I grew up with one side of my family having been in America since the late 1700's at which time they immigrated from Ireland.  But on the other side of the family, I am a first generation American.  My grandparents immigrated from Finland and Sweden to Canada, and when my father was young, they immigrated to the United States.  I always felt very connected to my Scandinavian family.  The frequent visits by aunts, uncles and cousins from Sweden were fun and I loved listening to the elders struggle with English while they taught me a little Swedish (about one phrase of which I remember!).  I adopted many of the Swedish traditions in my holiday cooking and decorating, trying to teach my children about that part of the family, many of them long gone.  I was proud to insist on retaining my maiden name when I married, compromising by hyphenating it with my husband's very English (and sounding like someone with allergies) last name of Hewitt.  What a strange thing to be 51 years old and find out that the man that I loved (and still do) as my grandfather and whose name I carry is no relation to me whatsoever.  Maybe there was never a time for them to feel they should or needed to tell the truth about the family?  Absolutely never?  I discovered that my father came to the U.S. two years later than we thought (no big deal, I know) and that his younger brother was also born in Canada, not New York.  What else do I think I know that is wrong?  My last name doesn't quite feel the same to me and, frankly, I think I would like to have known that a long time ago and maybe even had the chance to choose.  Some things will never change, like the fact that I loved my grandparents to death and miss them every day.  But I'm not Swedish.  I didn't have an answer to, "Where did you grow up?" because I was an Air Force brat, but I always had an answer about my family heritage.  They didn't exactly lie, but I feel like that was a pretty big piece of information to keep under cover for a lifetime.  If it weren't for the internet, I'd never have known.  I resent it just a little bit.  However, I will think of my glass as half full and, inspired by Frida Kahlo and genealogical research results, I'm ready to work.

I'm not Swedish.  Not even a little bit.  That's a bummer, but fodder for thought while I work at expressing how I feel about it in wire, wood and clay.  If I'd carried on my father's real last name, I'd have been spelling it and correcting pronunciation for my entire life.  At least everyone knows how to pronounce Carlson.  There, the silver lining.