Sometimes children can't fathom a parent having lived a life before the kids came on the scene. They often figure that life begins at conception: theirs, not their parents. But as a little girl growing up in Greenville, S.C., Whitney Stansell was blessed with a mother who liked to tell stories, and those stories convey a life fully lived before Whitney was born in 1979. Her mother, Danelle O'Toole, made that abundantly clear with her tales of roasting potatoes in the woods with her girlfriends, working long hours during high school at a bakery or staging a fundraising fair for muscular dystrophy patients with her siblings when she was just 12.
Danelle also would regale Whitney with stories about attending the Catholic school St. Bernadette's in Pittsburgh, and about the reality of living in a house teeming with the activity generated by five brothers and sisters. Like any child, Stansell would flesh out in her mind's eye the details her mother left out. She would imagine the neighborhood where Danelle walked home from work or the simple wood-frame houses in the background.
"At the time, I mostly found these stories to be hilarious and fascinating – fanciful, grand and dramatic. Yet there was also a tinge of something else, something more real and tragic," Stansell says. Her poignant, tragicomic paintings at TEW Galleries, in the exhibition An Iconography for an Imagined History, focus on her mother's girlhood.
Stansell's paintings have the look of vintage 1950s storybooks of the Dick and Jane variety so synonymous with a blissed-out rendition of childhood. The pastel, butter-mint shades of margarine yellow, rose and dusty blue give the paintings a sweetly antiquated feel, wonderfully embellished with Stansell's hands-on, feminine detail of sewing black thread into the works.
For those susceptible to nostalgia, Stansell's paintings might feel deeply satisfying, a contact high with the look and feel of the past. But Stansell has just finished her first year of graduate school at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta. And like any thoughtful MFA student, she clearly appreciates the value of subtext and paintings that work on many different levels.
Taken as a whole, Stansell's work indicates all is not well in "Leave It to Beaver"-ville and that something unsettled, some loss or wound, lurks at the margins of Danelle O'Toole's childhood. There is the massive gray "State Penitentiary," for one – not the kind of detail that crops up in fond childhood memories. There is the father in "Cause and Effect" holding out a ball for his child, a handcuff around his wrist.
"It was not until I became an adult that my mother told me her father had gone to prison when she was in high school," Stansell recalls. "When she told me this, it was like someone had taken the blindfold off of my eyes, and I understood the extra and essential element to many of her stories.
"These paintings are my attempt to reconcile my childhood memories of these stories with my adult perception of her 'real' childhood."
Over time, Stansell learned more details of her mother's life, and those potent emotional additions slip into her imagery like a wolf waiting at the edge of a forest in an otherwise cheerful fairy tale.
Her grandfather's confinement for money laundering explains the air of sadness in many of the paintings such as the quietly despondent "The Nice Neighborhood." That image, with shades of Andrew Wyeth's anguished "Christina's World," shows Danelle in the foreground appraising a wide, wintry street and the tiny lawn where her siblings sit. As in almost all of Stansell's paintings, the image is complemented by numbered footnotes written in a vintage typewriter font.
Like the content of an entire film crammed into a single image, the notes describe: "1. Danelle O'Toole walking home from work. 2. Nice neighborhood. 3. Jack O'Toole doing his algebra homework. 4. Empty home."
That single moment intimates a fuller story: of the loss that Stansell's mother and her siblings undoubtedly felt when their father went to prison.
If her mother's reality can often feel indistinct, like a coloring book with only some of the content filled in, Stansell's use of prose fills in a great deal of psychological content. Her paintings not only illuminate her personal family history, but give a new dimension and depth to our false perceptions of the '50s themselves as uniformly prosperous, artificially happy times.
Stansell manages to create a full and complex emotional world of childhood made up of both funny anecdotes about a neighborhood mom in cat-eye glasses who tried to pass off tomato toast as "pizza" and the deeper pains of abandonment.
"I feel like working on this body of work has enabled me to know my mother in a more intimate way. The painting in which I depict her waving at her father as he is behind the prison fence proudly pointing out his eldest daughter to his friends has made me weep.
"I know they are just paintings, but I feel like by doing them, in some way I am able to experience her experiences."