Like mother, like daughter: sharing a commitment to art
Applebachsville, Pa. — The son following in his father's footsteps is a historical cliche, but a tradition of daughters following their mothers further than the kitchen is barely in the making. As more and more mothers pursue careers, however, they are serving as models for their daughters and passing the torch to those eager to run with it.
Artist Joanne Isaac lives with her husband, Charlie, and her daughter Rachel, who is also an artist, in a classic Bucks County stone farmhouse in the picturesque wilds of Applebachsville (near Quakertown), where she has created the significant body of her etchings. Mrs. Isaac's work is found in the collections of UNICEF, the United States Department of State, the US Embassy in Paris, the Honolulu Academy of Arts, and the New York Public Library, among others. She has exhibited widely throughout the country and attracted an enthusiastic following among those who appreciate her delicate mastery of the etching medium and her scrupulously faithful renderings of flora and other scenes from nature. Equally popular is her series of Pennsylvania Dutch barns.
Mrs. Isaac is the mother of four grown children. Two daughters and her son live away from home. Rachel, her second daughter, moved back home last year. She returned at her parents' urging, because they felt she had demonstrated the potential, while studying etching at Penn State and cultivating the medium after graduation, to become a professional artist.
Rachel set up her own studio in a separate wing of the farmhouse and sold enough etchings last year to live modestly on the income from her art. There they sit, mother and daughter, in that pastoral woodland, scratching their designs onto metal etching plates, bathing them in acid, inking them, and rolling them through the press. They borrow each other's acid, criticize each other's work, disagree about business practices, and share the special intimacy of a mutual discipline.
They resemble each other, too, like a doe and her fawn, with Rachel a shyer and gentler version of her mother. Slender, and graceful in their movements, both exude intensity and energy. Their work is strikingly similar as well. Rachel's depictions of flowers seem at times almost indistinguishable from her mother's, with the same daintiness of line and sensitivity of perception. But there are also differences. Rachel's work often features animals, and there are anomalous prints here and there that suggest an individuality groping for its own unique expression, possibly in an abstract or expressionist idiom.
Recently we sat together around the dining room table in the farmhouse, looking through portfolios of their etchings and exploring tentatively, at times warily, the connections between the two women as mother and daughter and as artists.
Mrs. Isaac begins by describing her own upbringing: ''I was raised in a very traditional way - the European approach: It's better to get married early and produce children. Stay married at all cost and life will be simple. My dad was the great provider. My mother was the great homemaker. What could be better?
''Her work was in the home. She was our mother,'' continues Mrs. Isaac with a wry laugh. ''But she did paint. I have some of her art upstairs, and it's very charming.''
Mrs. Isaac describes her parents as very happy and very much in love. But there's a tinge of bitterness about her mother's unfulfilled potential.
Her own marriage developed in quite a different way. She states emphatically: ''The most fortunate thing that happened to me in my career was my husband. He encouraged me. He was not the kind of husband who would come home and say, 'Where's my shirt?' or 'Why didn't you do this or that?' He does plenty himself.''
How did Mrs. Isaac manage to juggle the conflicting demands of her vocation and her four children? She responds with surprising aplomb:
''It was the easiest of things to do, because I was in the house. The etching medium is an easy one to work in because the plate doesn't dry, so I could stop and come back to it if I had to. Frankly, it was a lot easier than going to work. I have thought of putting the studio out in the barn, but now I have the privilege of racing through the house and putting the wash in the machine. I might get a little ink on it, but I can function.''
When her children were small, she also relied on baby sitters and household help once or twice a week so she could maintain a work schedule. But how did she manage to satisfy the needs of her children?
Mrs. Isaac answers thoughtfully, ''Well, maybe I wasn't the world's greatest mother.'' And she grants that, if she had it to do over, she would spend more time with her children. ''I always enjoyed my children, I really did. I didn't like to drive and chauffeur, and I think they knew that. There had to be some measure of sacrifice on everyone's part. I didn't do everything I should have done, but I didn't ignore everything, either.''
Her children, she adds, have not only enriched her life but provided the inspiration for some of her work, particularly in their early years.
But she confides: ''After I had my first child, I thought my (professional) life was over. It didn't take me more than a few days to discover that I had to have a form of expression. It became obvious that I had to do something that was of value to me.''
And what of Rachel? What was it like for her and her brother and sisters to grow up with a mother who was a committed artist? Mrs. Isaac volunteers that Rachel once said, '' 'One thing you can say about Mommy is at least she doesn't bother you.' . . . Paul (the son) said he would never marry an artist, and Rachel said she would never be an artist. When you watch somebody smushing in ink all the time downstairs in the basement, which was where my studio was in the other house, it doesn't look too romantic.''
Rachel responds, equivocally at first: ''I don't think we really thought about Mother being an artist. That's just how it was.''
But later, when her mother leaves the room to answer a phone call, she confides: ''The only thing I regret is that it seems that other mothers were really wrapped up in their children, like their children were their whole life and their children's welfare was more important than theirs. Mother was not like that at all. She cared about everything about us, but she cared just as much about what she was doing, so it was different from having your mother wrapped around you and involved in what you're doing all the time.''
Does Rachel plan to combine career and family? ''Definitely no children,'' she says. ''I really feel that. Well, if somehow I made enough money so that I could take care of one child, maybe.''
''I would like to get married,'' she admits. ''I don't want to be alone for the rest of my life, but if I have to, I'll be happy.''
Rachel is somewhat overwhelmed by the demanding if not the exclusionary nature of the commitment to art, but she seems to have her mother's grit and determination. She needs it, because there is another major conflict she has to overcome - that of being compared with her mother. At Penn State she was criticized for imitating her mother, having an unfair advantage because of her mother, and depicting her mother's ''trite'' subject matter.
''People are always saying, when they see my work and my mother's portfolio, 'Oh, she'll never be as good as her mother,' '' Rachel says. ''I don't like being compared. But I don't worry about it anymore, because I don't think it has anything to do with me. I have a sense of my own self that people don't give me credit for. Sometimes I have to stop and think, What are they talking about? It's a whole other person they're talking about. It makes as much sense to compare me to Picasso.''
Mrs. Isaac points out: ''You have to realize that people compare me to you, too: 'That looks like what yours must have looked like when you were young.' ''
''I have absolutely no feelings of competitiveness at all,'' Rachel concludes. ''I'm not a competitive person.''
''Except,'' Mrs. Isaac notes, ''when we run out of acid.''