A look at the internal struggles of an early feminist

WEB marthas mandala bookcopyright the Chronicle March 25, 2015

by Natalie Hormilla

Martha Oliver-Smith of Albany has written something like a memoir, except it’s not really about herself.

The main character of Martha’s Mandala is another Martha, the author’s maternal grandmother, Martha Stringham Bacon, who went by the name of Patty. Ms. Bacon was a talented artist and writer who lived mostly in the first half of the twentieth century, but you had to personally know her to know any of that. She was better known during her life as the wife of Leonard Bacon, an accomplished writer who won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for a collection called Sunderland Capture.

With the help of Ms. Bacon’s letters and journals, Ms. Oliver-Smith reconstructs, and partly re-imagines, her grandmother’s life for a book that’s meant to not only bring to light Ms. Bacon’s inner struggles to find her center as an artist, but also to do justice to the artwork she did create.

The book opens with the author as a pregnant 18-year-old in 1965. When her grandmother asks her what she’d like as a gift in honor of her impending shotgun wedding, Ms. Oliver-Smith requests a painting — one of the many that Ms. Bacon has tucked away in her aging home, out of sight.

After some thought, Ms. Bacon gives her granddaughter a mandala.

Mandala is a broad term for a spiritual symbol that is created to represent the universe — or the self, or both — and it usually includes circular designs and a definite center point.

In Martha’s Mandala, the reader comes to understand the mandala as a representation of the mandala maker’s inner self, or how she sees the world, and as an opportunity to make art that reflects life.

When Ms. Bacon gives her granddaughter the mandala, the young woman knows it’s her grandmother’s final mandala — one of 13 she painted in the 1930s, as part of an effort to understand a psychotic shift that began for Ms. Bacon in 1922.

The mandala — whose center is an open white flower, depicted on the book’s cover — represents her creative spirit, Ms. Bacon tells her granddaughter.

“I knew I had to care for the painting, but I had to learn how to use it for its intended purpose,” Ms. Oliver-Smith wrote. “The final task, which I would come to understand as I grew older, was a compelling desire to discover the mandala’s story, and to complete the task of telling that story.”

With that, the book’s trajectory is clear, and its insights and meanderings along the way are a worthy ride.

In telling Ms. Bacon’s story, a frequent point is a certain disappointment in her body of artistic work, in not letting herself be an artist and writer to her fullest potential, for various reasons.

It may be hard for some modern women to understand why Ms. Bacon didn’t simply work on her art more, if that’s what she really wanted. But not only were gender roles more closely observed in her day, but she was also living with a husband with a big personality, one who loved to go out, recite poetry, host people in his home, and all this came with responsibilities for his wife.

“It was in her nature and conditioning to defer to him,” Ms. Oliver-Smith wrote about her grandmother.

Ms. Oliver-Smith’s disappointment in some of her grandmother’s choices is clear.   Ms. Bacon’s own disappointment seems to wax and wane. In one of her journals, she wrote:

“I am a feminist who is strongly inclined to the idea that Woman’s Place is in the Home. Perhaps there would never have been a rebellion against that theory if it had not been accompanied by the belief, implied or expressed, that the tasks of the home were suited to their inferior abilities. Women’s answer to that was to turn that work over to hired people whose abilities they considered really inferior, and free themselves for more ‘important matters.’”

But in another journal entry from a different time in her life, she wrote:

“Today has been another afternoon, completely gone, another tea with Leonard’s lady cousins and the wives of his men cousins. After the morning’s chores and duties, she should have been painting or writing. She sighs aloud. The voice whispered to her all afternoon. While part of her knows that she is here to do one kind of thing — tea with the cousins’ wives, meals, housekeeping — another part knows equally well that she is really here in this world for something quite different. She would not presume to call herself an artist, yet here, as ever, was this force that drove her to painting, drawing and writing. Why does she always feel as if she were two people opposed to one another?”

This division of the self culminates for Ms. Bacon in the fall of 1922, when at the age of 31 she experienced what some called a nervous breakdown.

One day at home, voices in her head advised her to kill her children, while holding scissors in her hand during an afternoon of helping her daughters with their paper dolls. She didn’t harm her three daughters. Instead, she wound up on a long “rest cure” at a hospital. There, one day, she had a vision of something beautiful emerging from a dark chasm that seemed to be deep inside her.

“One immaculate petal gradually frees itself and springs up. In slow motion, it exposes its creamy surface and releases a faint sweet breath; then another petal unfurls, and another until there are four.”

That white flower is the one she eventually paints at the center of the mandala she gives to her granddaughter.

Ms. Bacon returns home, back to her same life, with the voices mostly subdued, but never gone or forgotten.

Much of the book sees her trying to sort through her experience. She worked on many drafts of her story, a formal essay called “The Friend in the Unconscious.”

Her mandalas were something like an exercise in wading through herself.

“Over the years, the images of her ‘tidal wave’ turned into 13 different mandalas. She filled circles, some small, some large, with star clusters and wings, rivers and mountains to illustrate the path of her experience from madness to self-integration,” Ms. Oliver-Smith wrote.

Though the voices in Ms. Bacon’s head never fully subside, she does manage to come out on the other side of what must have been a harrowing experience. She eventually comes to see what she once called her “crack up” as a mystical experience. Ms. Bacon and her family were — and maybe still are — adherents to the psychiatrist Carl Jung’s concepts. Mr. Jung’s concepts are present throughout the book, as are his words at times, as he was personal friends with the Bacons. At some point later in her life, Ms. Bacon begins to wonder if her breakdown was actually a spontaneous Kundalini awakening, an energetic and spiritual experience that is said to travel up through the spine right to the crown of the head, and leads to enlightenment. Whether that’s true or not, the idea of a Kundalini awakening likely came to Ms. Bacon through her familiarity with Mr. Jung.

Ms. Oliver-Smith’s view of her grandmother is not entirely forgiving. Ms. Bacon’s view of herself sometimes is.

A journal entry from her later years, after her husband’s death:

“Most of my time has been spent simply living — extraverting — as Jungians say (I am a Jungian I suppose). Family responsibilities, wars, life-breaking wars, illnesses, travel, years of Christmases, etc. etc.”

Ms. Oliver-Smith attempts to sort out her grandmother’s life, partly in an attempt to sort out her own. Near the beginning of the book, Ms. Oliver-Smith sits in her living room, after her second husband has abruptly left her in 2001, and finds herself staring at her grandmother’s final mandala hanging on the wall.

Though she never makes full sense of the problem that seemed to plague her grandmother — how to reconcile her sense of responsibility to her family with her artistic calling — Ms. Oliver-Smith does a careful job of presenting Ms. Bacon’s story as one that’s as complex as her final mandala, “one that tells a story filled with ambiguities that elude an explanation.”

Though Patty Bacon may not have been as well known as her husband, she was obviously an artist in her own right. Her artwork appears throughout the book. Besides the mandalas, there are drawings and paintings, some of which inspire close study and appreciation. Some of them are even sort of funny cartoons. Her range and subject matter is wide. And though she may never have been a noted writer, the reader comes to appreciate her as an essayist and careful journal writer who offers great insight and sharp truths.

Ms. Oliver-Smith succeeds in what seems to be the mission of her book — to bring her grandmother’s story and work out from the darkness, where they can be studied and maybe even appreciated.

contact Natalie Hormilla at [email protected]

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