As someone who adores her sister, I’m saddened to hear about rifts between siblings.
And inspired by those who overcome them…
Artist Brenda Goodman at her current show.
I’ve admired Michigan artist Brenda Goodman’s work for 4 decades. I also admired that of her brother Steven, a successful jeweler in the 1970s. While I lost touch with Steven, I kept up with Brenda. Her current show in Brooklyn is such a knock out that I reconnected with her. She mentioned her brother had stopped speaking to her years ago but that, in the last few months, they’ve become friends again.
Hmm, I thought. This week marks the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, a time to atone and make amends. A perfect time for a story of grace and forgiveness.
Brenda’s work is always powerful, never easy.
She once said, “I want to remove the veils between myself and the viewer, and communicate the palpability of needs met, of needs unmet… of rage, of fear, of vulnerability…” She’s still making tough paintings, but lately in what seems to me a more universal, less angry tone.
Brenda’s partners with Linda Dunne, an academic administrator who was dean of the New School in NYC. Brenda and Linda lived on the Bowery and summered in a house they’d bought in Pine Hill in the Catskills. In 2009, they chose to remain in Pine Hill year round. Brenda built a new studio.
Brenda says, “I’ve never had such a large, open space, with steady 70-degree temperature all year long. For me, it was a big deal.” At 25’x35’, it was huge. And with 10′ concrete walls, sound proof. “Because of the studio and the peacefulness I feel in the country, something shifted in me. A clarity started to emerge. With over 50 years of painting behind me, I’m confident in my work.” She titled her blockbuster recent show “In a New Space.”
But Brenda missed her brother. After 9/11, she’d written Steven a note mentioning all the brothers and sisters who’d lost each other and hoping for a reconciliation. Steven, 3 years younger, sent back a long letter laying out past and current issues. Brenda said, “I don’t remember much from our childhood. We each have our own reality. If what you said is true, I’m sorry. It’s over. Let’s move on.”
Steven wasn’t ready. Brenda tried again in 2015 when she had a retrospective at Detroit’s Center for Creative Studies. She invited Steven to a dinner in her honor. He declined. Having been out of touch for so long, Brenda didn’t realize he was “still in the throes of grieving his wife.”
Steven Goodman at his studio.
Steven and Sue were married for 33 years. She was a v.p. of a big wellness company. After work and on weekends, she helped her husband create intricate inlaid stone and wood cabinet handles. In 8 years the couple traveled to over 100 art shows and dozens of craft shows
Steven met Sue at a point when he’d “burned out” of the jewelry business. “Sue really believed in my talent,” Steven says. In his late 30s, he taught himself to become a master craftsman, working with wood, metals and minerals including fossilized ivory unearthed from the Frozen Tundra. Sue supported him for the first couple of years while he acquired equipment and learned inlay techniques. Sue started a website for Steven and posted some of the inlaid handles he made for cabinets.
“Since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by the Grand Canyon,” Steven says.“I looked at pictures of it all the time. Sue and I never had children. Instead we decided to become explorers and go on an artistic Grand Canyon adventure. We knew it could take a lifetime.” They looked forward to visiting the actual natural wonder together someday.
A few days after their decision, they received a phone call. A wealthy couple from Sonoma Valley, CA, with art world connections, came across Steven’s website. They were building a big home. Could Steven create panels for their living room? Would he consider a Grand Canyon theme?
It was meant to be. Or so they thought.
The couple visited Steven and Sue in their Berkley, MI, home. They gave him a commission “that set me up for 2 years,” he says. Steven and Sue turned their garage into a studio. Steven bought industrial equipment, brought in specimen woods, recruited art students to help.
“It was a joy. I was perfecting my techniques. Sue and I were cruising along. Until one day I heard a thump.” Upstairs, he found Sue. She’d fallen. They rushed to the hospital. Sue was diagnosed with an aggressive glioblastoma, brain cancer. 5 years to live.
“She’d taken care of me. I vowed to take care of her. We married for better or for worse.” It proved a full time job. He was forced to give up his commission. Sue went from cancer induced depression to dementia to Alzheimers. She lived for 7 years. “By the time she died, we were broke.”
Sue died 4 years ago. Steven was devastated. Sue had handled all their affairs. Steven, who’s dyslexic, had to take over, learn to use a computer. Before she died, Sue asked him to finish the Grand Canyon project. He’s determined to do so and has converted most of the house into a background for the project. 3 different patrons were going to underwrite him; all fell through.
Steve Goodman’s Grand Canyon project in process.
Meanwhile, Steven’s home is an extraordinary environment. Dozens of photographs of the actual Grand Canyon are tacked to walls. Slabs of exotic wood also line many walls. Hundreds of boxes and bins contain thousands of rocks, sorted by type. (Most are dug up from past landscapes in his yard. He changes his landscaping every year.) Other trays hold beautiful little constructions Steven’s made of spiraled paper. All these are components for his planned 8’ tall Grand Canyon installation.
25 years ago, Steven says, he and Brenda argued often.
“One day we had a really bad fight. We had different perceptions of how we grew up. I realized our fighting could go on for the rest of our lives. Our anger was making a wreck of both of us. I decided it was best for both of us to break off our relationship.”
In 2015, Brenda was coming to Detroit for the opening of her retrospective at CCS. She attended the school and received a certificate in 1965 (when it was the Society of Arts & Crafts). She returned for a BFA in 1972, and taught there as well. Brenda sent Steven an invitation to the opening.
“I couldn’t go,” he says. “I was embarrassed and afraid.”
Steven has been seeing a very sensitive grief counselor. Recently, he showed her pictures of Brenda’s work. Viewing it, she said, “She’s in pain, too.” It was a breakthrough moment. Something began to change in the way Steven saw his sister.
Last May, Brenda was coming to Detroit to receive an honorary doctorate from CCS. She invited Steven to the ceremony and dinner in her honor. Steven says, “I was blessed with a gut feeling. It was time to put our issues to rest. I went to the ceremonies and dinner. We had a beautiful reunion. We talk most every day now. Dealing with my wife’s illness, I learned to let go of a lot. The past is past. I’m excited for my future with Brenda. I’ve always loved her work. I never stopped loving her.
“A huge hole in my heart has been filled. I’m a better man for it. I’m freer. I sleep better. I smile more. It’s a gas to say I have a sister.”
While in Detroit in May, Brenda and Linda visited Steven’s home. They saw the makings of his Grand Canyon project for the first time. Brenda and Steven talked for 4 hours. She taped much of their conversation to be sure she’d remember it.
“It’s nice to have a brother again,” she says. “I’ve learned we’re a lot alike. We’re both obsessive. My studio is spotless, tubes of paint all lined up. I’m a stickler with my paintings, taking care to prepare every surface properly. Steven’s a stickler for detail. I see creative connections between us.”
Brenda and Steven are now both in their 70s. Both have grown up in their relationship as well.
Rabbi Joseph Krakoff works with hospice. He sees, first hand, the challenge and the peace that come from healing a relationship. He says, “Yom Kippur is a time for repairing relationships that are broken or need attention. In the human realm, all we have is each other.”
Finding forgiveness in the face of such pain is the epitome of grace. Thanks for the inspiration, Goodmans.
“Siblings” (50x70in. Oil on Wood) is Brenda Goodman’s 2017 reflection on her reunion with her brother.
Care to learn more?