One night I took my girlfriend to an Italian restaurant along Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue. The service was terrible and the pizza mediocre, but I left with a to-go box and a strange love for the place. As I walked away, I realized that I loved it because it smelled like mothballs, which reminded me of my Great Aunt Afrodite’s house. She was the first artist I knew, and she profoundly affected my idea of art.
My family called her Afro for short. She and her sister Licia (my grandmother) had grown up in an orphanage in Greece, abandoned by their father just after they were born and then, later, by their mother, who couldn’t raise them and didn’t want them to live impoverished in Albania.
Afro died in March. The week after her death, my family went to her house to sort through her belongings, including hundreds of watercolors and sketches that none of us had ever seen before. Over a weekend, each of us became art historians specializing in Afro’s oeuvre. We learned how to decipher which were her old works, which she’d done when she was still a student, and which she made in her later years. She painted, over and over again, portraits of figures in Albanian attire, wildflower still lifes, and copies of old master paintings. As we worked, we began to express personal favorites, arguing over which were her best pieces. We traded barbs over who would take what painting home.
That we all participated in this was a surprise to me. Even though Afro was mentally lively — albeit confined to a bed — until the end of her life, my family had long ago ceased to visit her studio and study her work, just as she had, having largely given up painting soon after her husband passed away in the late ’90s. When I moved to the East Coast and was able to visit her more often, I would sometimes ask her why she no longer painted. She would respond by glancing toward the studio and shrugging. But she kept it in the exact disorder it had been in when she actively worked in it. When we came to her house after she died, we found, sitting on one of the easels, variations of a portrait of a baby a friend of hers had commissioned years ago — forever unfinished. By now, that baby is probably in his teens.
I was the only one in the family who always visited Afro’s studio when I came to her house. As a child, its organized chaos appealed to me. I would puzzle over why she had cut out certain images from magazines and placed them on the wall. I would admire a haphazard installation of an Albanian urn, an old Coke bottle, and a vase of decades-old dried weeds, all sitting on top of piles of National Geographic magazines.
Afro had never shown in a gallery, never had a press release written about her work. She didn’t network at art world events and rarely went out in general. She remained passionate about art — I would spend hours by her bed sharing images of artworks I had found and posted to my Tumblr. But the art she made was for her alone. Because it was art that was only meant for the artist, an expression only intended for its creator, it seemed to me a completely pure practice.
Her house reminded me of installations by Laura Lima and Dieter Roth: detritus and junk inscribed with hidden meanings. She fetishized objects to an intense degree; it was difficult to tell why she ascribed so much sentimentality to these seemingly unimportant items. Late in her life, my family diagnosed this habit as a mental illness, and some tried to persuade her to abandon it. But as a collector of odd objects myself, I sort of understood it. Her house was a museum, but one that only made sense to her. The kitchen was full of knives that were no longer sharp and weird appliances that even she didn’t remember the use for. She even kept an empty bottle of kombucha by the sink because I drank from it when I visited her in 2011. Any object might remind Afro of her childhood, her deceased husband, friends or family, or her homeland in Albania, so she didn’t want to throw them away.
When I visited her, I would amuse myself by rummaging through her house and asking about the things I found. It seemed like the more banal-looking the object, the more unique its story. Like the faded photo of an unremarkable landscape she kept in her office. The photo showed a rocky trail with blue mountains in the distance. There were no people in the photo, no discernible landmarks. When I asked her about it one day, she said, “Just beyond that ridge is the house where I was born.”
If you pried just a little bit, you would find that her “meaningless” objects were always like that: they all had some hidden meaning that wasn’t obvious to anyone else. She alone held the key to what made them treasures.
Initially, many of her artworks struck me as the opposite: she loved painting wildflowers and still lifes that seemed to carry no weight, repeated endlessly, ad infinitum. Why was she not like other artists, who think hard about the concepts and theories of their art before they ever set brush to canvas? Nowadays, even abstract paintings aren’t allowed to be abstract: They must have some significance that can be rendered by the viewer. They are to be understood, read, and legible.
But after looking at painting after painting, I began to realize that, just as each object in Afro’s house was a vessel that carried some significance, each painting was a relic of a fleeting moment. Painting, for her, was a way of compartmentalizing pain, aging, loss. It was a way of stopping time.
* * *
When Afro reached adolescence, she and her sister fled to a refugee camp in Italy where they met two Albanian men in their late twenties, Gaspar and Adalbert. It turned out that the men had sought them out after learning that they were the estranged daughters of a famous Albanian writer exiled in Istanbul — a father the sisters had never known. Soon they all fell in love: Licia married Adalbert and Afro married Gaspar. Their new husbands brought them to Monterey, California, where Adalbert and Gaspar taught Albanian at the Defense Language Institute. Afro spent her time in California taking watercolor and oil painting classes from local artists. Licia opened a florist shop. A couple of decades later, Afro and Gaspar moved to a three-story house in a small town outside of Washington, D.C., where Afro would spend the rest of her life painting and thinking of the past.
It was in that house that I would get to know her and learn the smell of mothballs — a smell that itself embodies a struggle against time. Afro’s art practice became more than just watercolors of portraits and flowers. For her, change of any sort was intolerable. It was this constant battle against time. Painting was a natural extension of this practice: It’s one manageable way to wrest control of time and meaning.
All of art stands for this struggle against change, regardless of the concept each artwork purports to address. Perhaps Afro’s fear of and resistance to change was another reason her art practice seemed so pure to me.
In the last years of her life, when she was confined to a wheelchair, she would often gesture to an oil painting and ask, “Do you know who did that?”
I would laugh, because she knew that I knew that she had done it. She was proud of it; perhaps she felt it reflected the peak of her skill as an artist. The painting was a copy of Vermeer’s “Girl Writing a Letter,” however the face of the girl in this painting was blank. Perhaps Afro doubted from the start her ability to paint those particular skewed eyes, nose, and mouth. Perhaps she’d messed up and painted over the face to try again. Perhaps she stood back from the painting and decided it looked good just as it was. The piece had a sort of surreal quality that didn’t characterize her work. But she liked this Vermeer copy, this girl with no face.
* * *
It bothered the rest of my family that Afro could never make decisions. After her husband died, her house became exactly like I had imagined Mrs. Havisham’s from Great Expectations. Appliances that stopped working still kept their place in the kitchen, computers long since obsolete piled upon one another. In a way, Afro’s sentimentality was too intense: It froze her into fear and stasis. Even the act of painting became too difficult, as she left portraits unfinished and without faces.
Through her artwork, however, she gave voice to the excesses of her emotions. The countless still lifes, flowers, and portraits were meaningful to her. They became reliquaries within which she could put away the emotions that spilled over and could not be stored away in an attic or closet.
When I got home from my final visit to her house, I looked at the few of her paintings I’d taken home in the natural light of my apartment. Something strange happened: Suddenly the flowers came to life. Afro had kept all of her paintings in plastic frames from Walgreen’s, which, in her always-dark apartment, had preserved her collection almost as well as a professional conservator might have. Now, in the sunlight, I finally realized the skill of her hand, the true brilliance of the colors she had used. I thought of all the flower paintings we had left behind and felt sad — perhaps the same sort of sadness that Afro herself felt when she realized she could not hold on to every single object that contained any bit of meaning, no matter how small. I suddenly saw the artistic practice that she had maintained as much more than a hobby: It was how she survived
Finally, I hung the paintings up in my apartment, and I began to take comfort in the works we had saved. I know that a piece of her will always be stored within them.