I am a visual storyteller who translates personal family stories into a common mythology of family generational connections.
I use wood, stone, paper, buttons – the concept determines the media. I use objects of material culture – cast iron beds, cook tables, cotton gin weights. I use words – embroidered on towels, burned into chairs, stenciled on window shades. I use whatever is needed to tell my story. Subtle elements like the pattern of wallpaper, the use of traditional milk paint, or folded clothes rendered in stone, load the images with irony and symbolism not repeated in the oral tradition. I am a visual storyteller. Narrative is the moving force of my visual language with the history of my Texas family as the core.
Buttons capture the hemline of Laurelis Bessie Nix Moore’s full skirt in this detail of Marilyn Lanfear’s triptych, “Uncle Clarence’s Three Wives,” on exhibit at the San Antonio Museum of Art. The artist obviously spent years rummaging through dark corners of antique shops to assemble thousands of vintage mother-of-pearl buttons to portray her uncle’s three wives on eight-foot-tall linen banners.
More than three-dozen volunteers helped Lanfear sort and sew the buttons to create the portraits in an upstairs space in the Southwest School of Art over a two-year period. The fashions worn by her three aunts conveying much about their personalities and the times in which they lived. And, of course, there are stories behind each wife. Aunt Billie on the left is posed in front of a school in New London, Texas, the site of a huge gas explosion that claimed her life and those of close to 300 students and teacher in 1937.
Lanfear is from Waco, was raised in Corpus Christi and received her Master’s of Fine Art from UTSA in 1978. The Mister and I probably were introduced to her art about that time in the gallery space where we encountered most of the artists whose work now resides in our home, Anne Alexander’s Charlton Art Gallery. Lanfear spent some time in New York and Seattle before returning to San Antonio to focus on the inescapable Texas stories to which she was drawn.
The exhibit awakens nostalgia for family stories left untold, remorse for all the questions you failed to ask older relatives before they departed. Incomplete tales with no one left to fill in the mysterious gaps for you.
And it rekindles my yearning for my grandmother’s button box, a magical tin overflowing with an amazing assortment of buttons leftover from seven decades of sewing clothes for herself, her children and grandchildren. When I was six, Nana (Katherine Ann Conway Brennan, 1887-1972) could keep me entertained for hours selecting some of the most unusual and awkwardly stitching them in nontraditional arrangements on scraps of cloth.
Now, I am left wondering button, button, who got the buttons. But, as the Mister might be the first to quickly point out, my domesticity is somewhat lacking in that area. My idea of replacing a button during our marriage has been to find the nearest safety-pin. When I went to briefly observe volunteers working on the triptych in 2007, that is all I did. Stand. Looking. Filled with admiration for Lanfear’s ability to translate the myriad of sizes and colors of thousands of round buttons into striking compositions.
Including mixed-media work from three decades of the artist’s career, “Marilyn Lanfear: Material Memory” will remain on exhibit at SAMA through November 11.