Anna Held Audette, in Tribute

Detail ©2009 Anna Audette; collection of Janet Maher
Detail ©2009 Anna Audette; collection of Janet Maher

Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail. – Emerson

Teachers are brought onto the paths of our lives in many ways. Some appear briefly, but notably, never to be seen again. Others reappear at important times when we least expect them. We may remain connected to others forever in some form, whether or not we are regularly in their presence. We choose literal teachers of courses within an organized center for learning and may or may not develop relationships with them beyond the classroom. Most of my teachers have been in the form of relatives, friends, or lovers, balanced with healthy doses of necessary solitude. Conflicted or negative relationships have also provided important lessons for me. Learning somehow to contend with negativity has helped to toughen me, allowing me to endure stronger difficulties that I could not have known would lie ahead.

Many of my most important teachers died relatively early in their lives, and hence, in mine. Some of those passings left me feeling as if I were free-floating in space for years after. Anna Held Audette has numbered among the significant people in my world. My thoughts about her are accompanied by a deep gratitude for being fortunate enough to have been one of her many students. Anna Audette has exhibited widely and her work is included in many important collections; however, she is not represented in all the museums in which I and many others believe she should be. Given that her archive has been expertly taken care of and is in the process of being fully catalogued, I hold out the hope that she will yet be given the accolades she is due.

Anna Audette, who died on June 9, 2013, was a master of her craft, beginning as a prolific printmaker and maturing into a large-scale painter. Her increasingly complex compositions, tumbles of shapes and lines in objective abstractions, were perfectly and delicately balanced, fascinating to visually untangle. For many years she addressed the concept of the decaying American urban landscape. She visited buildings that had suffered immense damage, scrap metal junkyards and old ships docked close to each other, observing their intricate architectural forms and positive-negative shape relationships among all the elements she chose to include from them in her own interpretations. She limited her palette to neutralized hues and tones associated with wear, use and decline, while creating lively and technically astonishing works of art that transcended their ravaged sources.

Although I had known that her father, Julius Held, was a prominent art historian and that she had studied at Yale, it was not until her death that I learned she had been a Smith College graduate, studying there with Leonard Baskin. She was inducted into the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Letters and was a Fellow of Morse College at Yale, where she had studied with Gabor Peterdi. Her mother, Ingrid-Marta Nordin-Petterssen, an art restorer, had been the conservator for the New York Historical Society.

I was fortunate to see a small exhibition of Anna Audette’s in a Southbury, Connecticut, gallery one holiday visit and acquire a painting of hers. Entitled, Detail, it may have been a copy of part of an earlier painting of her own when she had already begun to lose some of her abilities. It is a beautiful work, nonetheless, that quietly hangs on our wall at the landing of stairs leading to the second floor, and we see it multiple times a day. Without planning to I have been able to make a practice of collecting work from my most important art teachers. To be able to purchase a painting of hers was a gift to me on many levels. Now that she is gone this work is ever more poignant, living as it does at the heart of our home.

The crisis or death of any important person stops us in our tracks to varying degrees. Some of us may recall the sense of the world standing still after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Seeing our teachers break down in tears and our being sent home from school made many of us never forget where we were when we heard news that we didn’t comprehend in the moment. We watched television for days with our parents and deeply learned about the significance of certain deaths. Little could we have realized that this assassination would be the first of several more. A series of discrete tragic moments altered the functioning of our government and stripped us of our innocence. We shared our collective losses then. What must it be like for students today who live in an increasingly chaotic time in which deaths occurs randomly, and entire groups are senselessly purged with regularity around the globe?

Whether a figure is famous or simply important within our private circles, someone’s passing may cause us to become emotionally paralyzed for a time. We are cast back to a Pandora’s Box of memories that begin to roll out in waves of no apparent order. For weeks, months, years, they may continue to reveal themselves, brought on by the most innocuous of triggers in any given time or place. Memories of Anna Audette are interwoven with four particular years of my life in which I was blossoming as a young woman. I had very little sense of how I might ever be able to live and support myself as an artist or move forward to the next chapter meant for my life upon college graduation. We who couldn’t afford to nor had the where-with-all to figure out how to get further away from our hometowns had ended up in what may have simply seemed a small state college. We could not have known that the art department in the seventies at Southern Connecticut was a hotbed of talent, both within the student population and among the artist/teachers there – which included Anna Audette.

“Mrs. Audette” seemed stern and illusive, a bit forbidding initially. She taught etching, a form of printmaking that required a pen and ink-type approach to drawing rather than the graphite and pastel manner that was mine. This kept me away from her, even though her classes were held on the opposite side of the print shop where my friends and I spent countless hours drawing on lithographic stones. A bit of a tug-of-war existed between the two sides of the shop, as both printmaking teachers had their own cadres of students who were loyal to one side or the other. My dear friend, Linda, helped me bridge that divide. We both drew, although she didn’t like the painstaking and mysterious process of lithography. Linda, a classic “free spirit,” inspired me in many ways. She was willing to question the norm, to reach beyond the confines of school and explore the best parts of New Haven. She introduced me to coffee shops, going out to hear live music, and to drawing at the weekly nude model sessions at Creative Arts Workshop that could provide more technical practice for us. (In turn, I was the one to introduce my other close friend, Kathy, to the first vegetarian café of its kind in New Haven. We would often go for lunch to Annie’s Soup Kitchen*, then owned by the wife of one of my teachers, who later moved coincidentally to New Mexico, as did I. Our other printmaker friend, Trish, introduced us to thrift-store shopping and the finding of discarded furniture on the streets of the wealthy neighborhoods before trash pick-up days!)

Linda worked as an au pair for the Audettes and lived in their peaked roof bedroom attic. I’ll never forget the day she invited me to visit her there, showing me what seemed like an artist garret in Paris. Linda had decorated her room in a style reminiscent of the Symbolist and Decadents’ works that she so loved. It was equally astonishing for me to actually be inside our teacher’s elegant home, where I knew she had children and an entire domestic life in addition to her prolific art career. Some seed was planted then that made me believe such possibilities could exist for me.

A few years later, before Linda moved away forever, she came with me and another friend to visit a group of his musician friends in Vermont for the weekend. It turned out that Mrs. Audette’s mother still lived there and Linda wanted to visit her. Another beautiful memory—getting to meet this gentle woman who seemed as if from another century, living amid the wild and glorious landscape of Vermont’s countryside in what seemed like a European cottage. Would the stars align such that I could ever live in Vermont? An avid vegetarian then, a bread baker and yogurt-maker with a bedroom full of houseplants, I wondered if and how I could ever become a gardener there and raise produce for restaurants or bake bread for them while making art. (The Tassajara Bread Book was my bible then, and chef Alice Waters was beginning what would eventually become a revolution of farm to table eating.)

It may not have been until my senior year that Mrs. Audette suggested I try out the intaglio side of printmaking. I had already become a full-blown lithographer and had been accepted into both a national and international juried competition. Although I still did not fully embrace intaglio, I recognized this teacher as a mentor, so much so that I accepted her suggestion to do an independent study with her in my final semester. Returning to drawing, she suggested that I take all my many figure studies and practice sketches, and literally tear them to pieces, recombine them into new structures and draw back into them to create new, abstract works of art. Thus began my life-long love of collage, introduced to me in this way by Anna Audette. I did four very large works in this mixed media series using graphite, charcoal and pastels upon various colored papers attached to a support. They were significant pieces for me, one of them receiving First Prize in a juried exhibition in 1978 at the John Slade Ely House in New Haven. Unfortunately, the use of archival materials was not a focus of ours, and only one of them survives.

In the fall of my graduation year I became the only art teacher in a private high school. One day I arranged to visit Mrs. Audette at Southern and she took me to lunch on campus. It may have been then that she told me I could call her “Anna.” (This was as notable to me as the emotional moment I dared to say aloud to someone that I was an artist—a title I was not yet sure I had earned.)

Anna kept me on her mailing list and I would hear from her from time to time about exhibitions she was having. For the first of what became several large group projects I organized and produced, I asked her to script the title page for an artist book that documented the project in which she had participated. Anna had such beautiful handwriting, and I was honored that she actually agreed to do this. Fast forward another decade and I recall our catching up at a College Art Association meeting in New York, when she gave me an inscribed copy of her wonderful book, The Blank Canvas: Inviting the Muse. She wrote me a letter of recommendation for the position for which I was hired the following year, at Loyola College (now University), where I still teach. A few years later she asked me to contribute one of my own original drawing assignments and the work of one of my students to include in her second book, 100 Creative Drawing Ideas.

This summer Anna Audette’s work was featured at Waterbury’s Mattatuck Museum as part of a touring exhibition from the Smithsonian Institution entitled The Way We Worked. Anna’s husband, Louis Audette, gave a talk and presentation about her art there, which I made a point of driving up to attend. How does one contend with another’s lifetime production of work that has been left behind—work one has seen in progress, on exhibit, has been helping to store for decades, having accompanied the artist on the adventures during which she found her source materials? It is a daunting task, as anyone who has cleaned out a relative’s home understands, but in this instance what remains are living works of art by a singularly important person that still demand and deserve to find proper homes. As a husband, partner and soulmate over a tapestry of decades together, Louis Audette was able to place Anna’s work into context for the audience. He not only explained her process and the essence of the works he featured, but for a brief time he brought Anna Audette, herself, back to life. He has created a database of 742 of her works, and organized a retrospective exhibition for her in 2012 at the John Slade Ely House.

Hearing of Anna’s decline from frontotemporal dementia brought tears to some of us. This was something too awful to imagine. And yet, it may be that Anna Audette served as a teacher even then, having been the perfect case study for this disease. Painting through to the end of her life, her style began to gradually regress as one set of higher cognitive functioning skill after another was stripped away. While her compositions remained strong, her works became less intricate to the point that she finally painted again like a child, as she had begun some seventy years earlier. Throughout her decline she was carefully studied by a doctor who may eventually publish his further findings about humans’ stages of cognitive growth and expression. Whether through this aspect of her work or through the final recognition of her body of creation, the name Anna Held Audette deserves to accompany one of her favorites—Kathe Kollwitz—within the litany of major women artists of all time. A unique teacher to the end, the work of Anna Held Audette lives on, and through it she does too.

©2014 Janet Maher

All Rights Reserved

*I am not aware of the ownership of the cafe that exists in Albuquerque today, but the distinctive name may linger from the New Haven one, transplanted into New Mexico decades previously.

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