Love, art and transformation

By Amy Reiswig, January 2012

Phyllis Serota often tells stories in her paintings. Now she tells the stories behind the paintings.

In chilly midwinter, golden monarch butterflies approach and even settle on Victoria artist Phyllis Serota’s father. This frozen imaginary moment lives in a large canvas in Serota’s sitting room and tells a very private story of reconciliation and forgiveness—a long-sought breakthrough regarding the man who, years ago, beat his daughter so regularly that the family joked about Daddy breaking her glasses every Tuesday night. 

Relaxing in front of this painting in her Oak Bay home is the warm-smiling Phyllis Serota, now far from the west side of Chicago where she grew up in a Jewish family under what she calls the “contradiction of love and terror” that was her father. The only reason I know the story of this painting, and what it means to see her laugh beneath it, is because she told me—and not just me. While she has been telling stories in her paintings for years, Serota now bravely takes readers into the world behind her work with a new book, Painting My Life: A Memoir of Love, Art and Transformation (Sono Nis, October 2011).

Serota has been a fixture in Victoria’s visual arts scene for over 35 years, and not just as a painter working away in isolation but involved in the community. Her work has been shown at galleries in Victoria, Vancouver (including the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre), Edmonton, Washington and Oregon, and she has been involved with Open Space Gallery, the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design, and the Victoria Holocaust Remembrance and Education Society. Serota’s work is currently held in many private collections, including local institutions such as UVic and the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, as well as at the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

While readers will learn that Serota, born in 1938, took classes at the Art Institute of Chicago, at Malaspina College and eventually graduated, at the age of 41, with a BFA from the University of Victoria, and while we see over 100 colour reproductions of Serota’s work, the book is not specifically about her paintings. Rather, it is about the person and the people behind them—everything that has gone into the art of living her life. What she writes regarding her series of Holocaust paintings serves also as a good description of the artistic and humanistic project of this book: “I also recalled Tikkun Olam (a Hebrew concept of repairing the world), and the idea that you can’t heal a wound unless you clean it out by looking at it carefully.” 

Serota tells me that the very fact of the book is surprising to her, but the jump in genre, the transformation of painter to author, has not proven too much of a stretch since both art forms are ways of personal storytelling. While she’s been writing in various ways since she was 10 years old, Serota says her textual family chronicling began in earnest when she was invited to join a memoir-writing group. “Everything comes from this little moment of saying yes,” she muses.

Some sections of this 230-page book originated years ago as part of that memoir-writing group, but many were newly written specifically for this publication. And Serota’s prose, perhaps not surprising for a painter, is vivid and visual, extraordinarily detailed yet still conversational. One can see, smell and practically taste her family dinners, feel the air on her back porch or the rush of people dancing. Every character in her life’s drama is delineated with care—the way her very beloved mother cleaned the red-and-grey tile kitchen floor every day on her hands and knees, laying newspaper on it while it dried; the way her Aunt Rosie and Uncle Jake ground horseradish with a small machine at the back of their fish store. In one of the book’s many reflective moments, Serota writes: “I believe it’s important to get very specific about your life. Then it becomes universal.”

“Writing wasn’t hard,” Serota laughs. “I’m a good talker.” There is a lot of laughter during our meeting. But also, and for the first time in my experience as an interviewer, there were tears I had to fight. Not because of painful topics or difficult personal revelations such as the family violence, but from a very deep sense of gratitude. This is a profoundly generous book, one in which the author does nothing less than make a gift of her family, of herself. From that perspective, it is a humbling read.

In some ways, to tell too much about her life here would be cheating you from the pleasure of reading about Serota for yourself in these 29 short chapters. So I will say that it is raw, funny and disarmingly open as she shares both beautiful and brutal moments, all pointing to that theme of transformation: growing up in and away from a childhood of both violence and love; becoming a wife and mother; the move to sexual openness and drugs in a hippie BC coastal community; divorce and discovering the gay scene in Victoria in the 1970s; the issue of definitions—rejoining the Jewish community she had temporarily left or feeling comfortable calling herself an artist or a lesbian (“There’s another work of art, at the computer,” she tells me, beaming and pointing to Annie, her partner now of 38 years). 

“I have no time for BS anymore,” the resilient Serota tells me. “There’s not enough openness in the world; there’s so much pretense all the time. There’s nothing better than when we can just be ourselves.” The book also conveys a deep sense of the freedom that comes from so truly and publicly being yourself for all to see. 

“I always feel exposed when I have a show, and I thought I would feel worse than I do about exposing myself like this in the book,” she admits. “I thought it would be terrible. But at the launch”—at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria—“I felt just so much love coming from so many people,” she exults, somewhat humbled herself. As the old saying goes, you get what you give. 

As the new year symbolically offers the opportunity for personal transformation, Serota’s is a beautiful example to follow in terms of deciding to live reflectively, give generously of oneself and share without shame. It makes you wonder what a work of art all our lives could be.

Writer, editor and musician Amy Reiswig is reminded of what unexpected gifts may come into your life and the lives of those around you when you flatten your fears by saying “yes.”