Avis Saltsman - Artist

Genealogy Pages - Origins Essay page 7

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Essay on my Origins - Version of May 1997 - Page Seven

Getting away from Manchester

I continued to paint when we moved to the Shropshire/Staffordshire border and I had had my second child. (This child, Jason Watkins, got his first big acting opportunity after leaving R.A.D.A. at the Manchester Royal Exchange theatre and this gained him his Equity card.) A friend had asked me to give her lessons, which I did with the aid of Terry's methods. A local Adult Education tutor asked whether I would like to give classes and be paid for it, so when Jason was ten months old I gave my first A. E. classes at Shrewsbury Art College later moving to the Mulberry Art Centre Shrewsbury, at one time in co-operation with a mime artist, with my students making masks to be used in the dance, and then to other centres in Shropshire. I discovered I was getting the same pay as an Oxford graduate who was head of English at a Birmingham comprehensive.

I have been avoiding writing about my relationship with my mother and was surprised to find that my brother also experienced a kind of 'arm's length' restraint in her attitude, a lack of warmth, a complete inability to hug. She never hugged me and how I must have needed it during those air-raids. I was always trying to impress her and never found it possible. In fact the more I achieved the less she seemed to like it and when I talked about my activities over the phone, she would change the subject to talking about her neighbours whom I hadn't met for years. We moved away from Manchester after my first marriage and the birth of my first child, which I think was the only legitimate activity she felt I should have engaged in. She completely lacked my interest in the outside world and since the ruin of her early married life and her husband's health came through world affairs, it is perhaps understandable. Frances never wore make-up, not even lipstick and I cannot remember a time when she appeared to be an even remotely sexual being.

Another characteristic she had was what she described as shyness, saying that she could never speak in public. Her life was completely domestic as she never worked outside the home so she never had the experience of juggling home and children with work and outside interests which many of my and the succeeding generation of women have had to do. In talking about my union position she once asked me 'why do you do these things?' At the time I was battling to save the jobs and conditions of a thousand teachers, which was the size of our association, against a right-wing council, including Terry Dicks, who later became an ultra-Thatcherite MP who many times declared that art (and presumably education which he obviously didn't have) was totally unnecessary. Perhaps some indication of why England is now the 'thick man of Europe' Recent research (1996) has discovered that art and music are vitally necessary to learning in all other subjects and comprehensive school results have been consistently good through all the years of destruction and denigration indulged in by the Conservative government.

In thinking about my mother's life I have tried very hard to put myself in the shoes of a young woman of twenty-two, very much in love with my father whom she'd known since she was fourteen, feeling prejudice, which she may not have experienced directly. When the lamps needed to go on on a dark day, she would immediately draw the curtains, it was almost an obsession 'so people could not look in'. She was, I felt, stern and very concerned to be respectable. She had a sense of humour which she only seemed to exercise with her friends. When she was over eighty and briefly considering old peoples homes which she never in the end needed, she said she 'wouldn't want other people to know her business' which I feel may have meant she didn't want them talking about her as they may have done in the past. The strain of shielding me during those early years and keeping a secret from me which after all that time she felt she could never reveal left a distance between us.

This meant that, after the deaths of my Grandmother, when I was sixteen and taking O-levels, and my father when I was two hundred miles away with two young children, I felt there was no-one left in the family to really care about me. Leaving the children to be looked after, my first husband and I had a slight car accident on the way to my fathers funeral so that we only arrived as the procession came out of the church, so I had not taken part in the official mourning. There is one memory about when my father was very ill and it must have been before he had that long spell in hospital. He had bought me a good fountain pen to do my exams. His real dream had been to be a doctor. Unfortunately my talents were not those which would fulfil his dreams, they were inherited from his father, grandfather and those other relatives.

Certain characteristics, indeed gifts which I have inherited at least partly because of my German ancestry have lent immense colour and interest to my life, so I cannot in any way disown it. Barbarity has never come from my direction as a long-time member of CND, indeed area membership secretary. I gave my sons no toy guns, although, astonishingly given her experiences my mother bought them Action Men with guns. Everything I have ever done has been based on thought and analysis, I do not do things blindly, but I am sorry my mother could never raise the subject, so I was not able to get closer to her by discussing it. She once said to me 'We get on don't we' and I replied sharply that 'We never discuss anything important '.I have got on' with many hundreds of people, but more intimate relationships require knowledge in depth. Apart from my teachers' research into the name, there is probably a deeper reason for not asking about it, since I am so penetrating in other ways. My mother had experienced the destruction of my father because he was a third-generation immigrant and all hr life she was determined this would not be visited on the fourth. I have never heard of a better argument for European integration, indeed universal tolerance. Even though my mother probably did not work this out so thoroughly, it was based on feeling and a sense of justice. Even our alienation from each other was caused by it, which is the ultimate injustice.

In the year before I remet and married my second husband, I went on a wet August holiday to the Lake District with my mother. In a bookshop in Ambleside I found a booklet about one of a number of twentieth century artists I am interested in, Kurt Schwitters. I first heard about him from the McGlynns, who had actually known him in the Lake District, a real link with history. He, like another favourite, Ludwig Kirchner, attempted to escape from the Nazis and the booklet said that he went to Ambleside, ill and at the end of his life and lived there for some time drawing portraits of local people, such as the postman who were friends. They can have had no idea of his stature as a world-class creative artist whose output was astonishingly wide-ranging, from sound-pictures to collaged structures called Merzbau, one of which he built in Ambleside, to revolutionising lettering for commercial art. The booklet gave directions to where he had lived and I dragged my mother round Ambleside to find it. I had no idea why I was doing this, but there are other instances where I was subconsciously trying to get her to reveal something which must have confirmed her worst fears, that I had inherited these talents and interests from my father's family, about whom she had pledged herself never to say anything.

In 1992, Manchester was the City of Visual Arts and I went with my friend Virginia to visit my mother. We visited some of the exhibitions including one showing black and white woodcuts, some by the German expressionists and my mother came with us very reluctantly, sat in a chair throughout and would not look at the prints. Virginia and I also went to Liverpool to visit the Tate there, but we understood it would be too much for my mother so she didn't come with us. My mother only once met Terry McGlynn and acted in a very embarrassed way at his enthusiasm for my work

Contact: Avis Saltsman (or Saltzmann), 17 Gerrard Road, Islington, London N1 8AY
+44(0)20 7359 6294 or e-mail her

Last revised 21/5/2002
URL: http://www.art-science.com/Avis/Avis_family/Origins7.html

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