Twenty-two years ago this month, October, 1987, I was visiting London. A few days after my arrival, my mother had a stroke and was brain dead. She was sixty-two and had been perfectly healthy. Yet I had had a premonition before leaving the country that I might never see her again, and had called her from Newark Airport just to say good-bye again.
It was a Monday when she had the stroke, but I didn’t learn about it until the following Tuesday night because I hadn’t left the telephone number with anyone of where I would be staying, so no one was able to call me. So that Monday, I was not aware of my mother’s death. Not consciously, anyway. But I had a dream. And in that dream I was called.
I dreamed that I was called out onto a stage. I was standing in the wings when my name was called. It was a very loud call, more like a command, really, to come out and show myself. I stood alone on the empty stage in front of a red curtain. The lights were shining very brightly. I didn’t know what was expected of me, what I was supposed to do. So I just stood there, blinking in the silence.
And then suddenly I was back in my studio in New York again, and one of my two goldfish had died. They were both named George. And one of the George fish was now floating lifelessly on the surface of the fish tank.
The next night my sister had managed to find where I was and called me in London to give me the sad news. I was in shock, of course, but part of me knew that I had realized my mother’s death at the moment it happened, because of the dream.
I returned to the States as quickly as possible, and arrived in time for the funeral. My mother was dead, but not the goldfish. Yet part of me had in fact died with my mother, and dreaming of the death of the goldfish was therefore completely symbolic and totally right.
The memory of being called to the stage, blinking in the bright lights before the red curtain, haunted me for years. I think I knew it meant that now my mother was gone, I had to take center stage. I had to tell my story. I had to come out from the wings and reveal myself. Reveal the truth of who I was. Because it was time now. Now that my mother was gone I could tell our secrets.
It was still a dozen years before I began writing a memoir. And for the longest time the title was A Mask With Wings, because I had been an actress when I was young. I had worn a mask for the longest time. But now I had been called out on stage to reveal myself. It was time now. It was okay now.
Twenty years later I found myself putting the Little Man in front of a red curtain. There was no thought behind it at first. Red is a common enough color for theatrical curtains, so there was nothing unusual in choosing it for his first backdrop. It just seemed the right thing to do. And for the next painting as well, and the one after that. Because he was my motionless little model, completely happy and at home with whatever position I chose for him. But now I think of it, red is also a symbol of the physical life. The symbol of life, of the blood and passion of life, and of love. Red, the blood of birth, the opposite of death.
I had completed the memoir by the time I began painting the Little Man. I had pulled the curtain aside. I had told the story about my mother and me. But the play must go on. So the Little Man became a stand-in. He would tell his story now. I didn’t know what his story was, of course, so I had to make something up. Or ask him what it was. The first thing he did, the very first thing, was to pull the curtain aside.