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My Muses ~ Lee Bontecou, part 4/5

This is the fourth of a five part blog series on the women artists who have inspired the My Muses Collection.


From 2000 to 2004, my life was a whirl-wind. Ron and I moved back to New York City, I traveled to Europe three times to study the mische technique, I met giants in the Fantastic Realism genre, and studied with THE giant - Ernst Fuchs, the founder of movement. My art was in nineteen exhibits throughout Europe and the States, Ron and I were a part of the art scene in NYC, we were hanging out with so many amazing artists, and I made a lot of art. I was living the artist's dream!

It was four years of artistic bliss. At the end of the summer 2004, I started feeling really sick and I couldn't figure out what was happening with me. I thought maybe I was partying too much. Then I though I was entering menopause. Then I had a scary thought - maybe I was pregnant. At 36 years old, it took me a hella long time to get to the place where I was finally living my dream and having a baby was not in the plan. I immediately went to the drugstore and bought a box of home pregnancy tests. I took one, then another, and then another. Three pregnancy tests lined up on the bathroom sink all flashing the same results - pregnant.

It only took a heart-beat for me to go from, "oh crap" to ecstatic. I was so excited to be a mom and start a family with Ron. Getting pregnant wasn't something that we had planned. We had decided years earlier that art was going to be our baby. When Ron got home from work that night, we went to our favorite diner where I told him the news and that I really wanted to have this baby. He had the same heart-beat I did and then was completely on board, and from that moment on, we were three. Although I was over the moon about having a baby, I was not happy that I couldn't stand the smell of my beloved oil paints, that I wasn't painting because of that, and that I thought my art career was over.

In her Wooster Street Studio in NYC, 1963

In September, a few weeks after our surprise, our landlord invited us to see the Lee Bontecou Retrospective at the MoMA in Queens. I'll be honest, I didn't know very much about Lee Bontecou. She was more in Ron's camp being an abstract artist. Still, I went along - me and my new little peanut. The show was absolutely mind blowing!! Even though I was awe struck by every single piece in that show, it wasn't her work that struck a nerve in me, it was her story.

Lee Bontecou was an American sculptor, printmaker, and a pioneer figure in the New York art world. Rich, organic shapes and powerful energy appear in her drawings, prints, and sculptures. Her recognizable style, alternative materials, and new techniques received broad recognition in the 1960s and 1970s. At that time, her pieces were unlike any other work being shown in New York. Bontecou was considered one of the most important, original sculptors of her generation. She was at the top of her game and the darling of the art world.

Then she disappeared.

Lee Bontecou 2020

What happened?

In the spring of 1965, Bontecou married the painter, William Giles and their daughter, Valerie was born soon after. They moved to a farm they bought in rural Pennsylvania and Bontecou joined the faculty of the Art Department at Brooklyn College. For a period of approximately fifteen years, she taught and together with her husband raised their daughter and cared for her aging father. The art world had basically forgotten her, though she continued to make her art, producing an abundant body of work during this time.

She was brought back to public attention by a 2003 retrospective co-organized by the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, that traveled to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 2004. The retrospective included both work from her public, art-world career and an extensive display of work done after departing from the public view. When she was interviewed during her retrospective, she was asked why she retreated from the New York art scene and disappeared from the art world — as if the art scene and the art world were one and the same. Her reply, “I’ve never left the art world, the art world left me."

I find it so interesting that I learned of Lee Bontecou's story soon after I had discovered I was pregnant. I needed to hear her story at this exact moment when my life and my art career collided. Without her story, I don't know if I would have had the courage to pack up my studio to focus on raising my children. I don't know if I would have had the courage to give away all my paints and mediums. I don't know if I would have had the courage to walk away from the art scene I worked so hard to be a part of. Knowing Bontecou's story gave me the courage to step away from my art career with the unwavering belief that when it was time, it would come back to me.

Belly print with Mona Rae, 2004

And like Bontecou, I never stopped making art. I don't even know how one would do that! You don't stop being an artist just because you become a mom. I just pivoted. I turned to the fabric arts and over my fifteen year "disappearance", I made countless quilts, dolls, lovies, sweaters, mittens, hats, blankets, and so so soooooo many drawings.

Since her retrospective in 2003 till her recent passing in November last year, Lee Bontecou enjoyed a robust studio practice and an impressive exhibit schedule. She proved to me, and to an entire generation of mom artists, that you can come back to an exciting art career after you've raised your children. And when you do, you just might blow the art world away with what you've been working on since you've "disappeared".

View the My Muses Collection here.


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