Anne Sherwood Pundyk, "Diana's Forest," 2008, 65" x 68", oil and acrylic on linen.
Diana Pitt's first visit to my studio was last summer, even though I'd known her for 20 years. Looking over my artwork, Diana took her time, examining closely everything she saw, asking all sorts of questions. We had met initially on the job, working in a fast-paced environment with constant, unrealistic deadlines. As soon as she joined the department, I felt for the first time the impossible might be possible. While not immune to stress, Diana could articulate under pressure the precise qualities and dimensions of any given insanity we faced. Naming the chaos -- which took steely courage and a war chest of perfectly chosen works -- was the first step in taming it. Of special note was her writing. She countered any urge of mine to oversimplify, generalize, or re-use professional jargon with a solid demonstration of clear, relevant, forceful prose. Her ability to write, I believe, was directly tied to her unabashed curiosity, and her ability to focus outward, listening and looking intently. Simultaneously, she could sift and sort all she was taking in, discerning layers of meaning.
During her visit, she told me that in addition to the work itself, she was struck by the fact that it was mine. At this point, I should say that she knew I was a painter, but when we first met I was taking a hiatus from making artwork. (My reasons? New young children, a full-time job, and uncertainly about how being an artist fit into this few life.) But looking at my work, she asked me why I had stopped painting, as if that had been a wrong decision. Looking from one piece to the next, she seemed to be enjoying the experience of seeing it all. One painting held her gaze, an interior from a french chateau, flooded by North Fork marshland. "Someday," she said, "I'll have to buy that painting. It's as if there's a sunken treasure there."
In the years since we had worked together, she started a family too, and by the time I returned to painting full-time we had fallen out of regular touch. When we reconnected three or four years ago, she had been working for a decade at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, writing about the museum's exhibitions. We picked up our friendship where it had left off. Still, she didn't make it into my studio until this visit.
After guiding her through all the completed works, I pointed to a large unfinished painting: a wooded landscape beginning to take shape, with most of the underpainting still visible. Diana said, "Well, it's perfect just as it is. I can't imagine what you would add." She knew this might not be welcome news and laughed at what she guessed was my vague horror at the suggestion. Yes, I had plans for the work, but at the same time, I trusted her, knowing that her comment was genuine -- and besides, I had seen something there, too. I knew that something was happening in the painting that was worth looking at longer. But, if she hadn't said something, I don't think I would have had the nerve to stop. In an email after the visit she wrote, "Amazingly fun -- I'm so happy that we've reconnected. Are you around this weekend for a quick walk through your portfolio again? Maybe Sunday (Reassure Jeff that I won't take much of your time.) I keep dreaming about your little Japanese prints. And promise not to touch your unfinished masterpiece until next week, though I'm sure it's luring you over ....Love, di"
A month later, in August, the painting remained untouched. What about the painting made it possible to see it as both finished and unfinished? In relation to other work in my studio there was less actual paint on the canvas, and yet it had everything it needed. I thought about the reasons why I thought it was unfinished: I wanted more detail, more sense of depth, alright -- I admit -- I wanted the feel of putting the paint on the linen. Each reason disappeared when I saw that the qualities I sought were already there. (If I wanted to apply more paint, I could always move on to the next piece.) I sent Diana pictures of my studio on which she commented, "Your studio looks great with the "unfinished" masterpiece by the door -- I really like the interaction among the paintings, which are quite different from one another. I'm glad to see the forest unchanged. Thankfully there are not bears in my forest, though a few pugs might be nice. Plus, the view of the chair shrine is cool."
By September I accepted Diana's challenge to leave the painting as it was, fusing forever a positive feeling from Diana with taking aesthetic risks. The summer ended; the flurry of Fall in Manhattan; the energizing election. In November, Diana told me of unsettling news of her health. Her breast cancer had returned. We were able, thankfully, to get together for another lunch or two, but with a devastating speed and virility, cancer took her life on February 2nd. Hearing her many friends and her parents describe Diana for the overflowing crowd of mourners, I saw Diana captured in words. For the briefest, impossible moment she was back with us, listening intently, laughing, eagerly taking us all in. I am keeping what Diana gave me; I am keeping Diana's Forest, untouched.