When you walk into Marybeth Rothman’s house in Closter, you’re struck by the white and the light and the straight lines and the green beyond.
It should be stark but it’s not. It’s beautiful, and it makes you want to stand there and be welcomed by it.
And then you walk into her studio, and it’s also white and light and straight lines and green beyond, but it’s also lined with faces.
The faces mostly are from old photographs that Ms. Rothman has found, with layers of other images, including other found objects, and translucent wax, making them even more compelling.
Those faces look at you, and you find yourself looking back at them, making up stories about them, imagining that you knew them once, or could have known them, had you been born in a different time and place.
Being in her studio is magical.
Ms. Rothman is warm, practical, and hospitable, offering a visitor coffee and cookies along with a seat in the big white light kitchen at the heart of her house.
She’s about to have her art shown in Roslyn Harbor, on Long Island, in a show called “Modigliani and the Modern Portrait” and modestly (and to be clear, accurately) promoted as a “Blockbuster Museum Show of Major Art Historical Importance.” (See below.) Most of the work there will be Modigliani’s, including two newly authenticated pieces, but it will include work by modern artists as well. And of course Amadeo Modigliani was Jewish. “One of the fascinating insights offered by the exhibition is a new perspective on Modigliani’s Jewish identity and his connections to such artists as Kisling, Soutine, Pascin, Lipchitz and Chagall,” all influential Jewish artists, the publicity piece promoting the show tells readers.
Ms. Rothman’s story began in Taunton, Massachusetts, where “I can’t remember not making art,” she said “My first childhood memory was when we were given a bunch of shapes and we were supposed to glue them down in a certain way to make a boat with a sail.
“I was amazed. I loved it.”
Her parents, Jean and Phillip Farrell, were not artists, but “they were great supporters,” she said. “My mother always found me art classes, with great teachers.” Her uncle, a NASA engineer, was a self-taught artist, she added.
When it came time to go to college, Ms. Rothman — then Marybeth Farrell — got into the Rhode Island School of Design. Although she did not say so, that’s a hard thing to do. She went, and she loved it. “It’s a big commitment,” she said. She applied to another college, a regular liberal arts school, “but I wanted a whole art education.
“They weed people out real hard freshman year,” she added. But she stayed. “I was an illustration major,” she said. “I always was a storyteller.”
After RISD, Marybeth moved to New York, where she supported herself as a freelancer, and for a while she worked in the art department at Games magazine. This was in the early 1980s, before computers took over just about all of commercial art and changed the way fine art is done as well. Back then, working in an art department was very physical; layout was done with galleys that were run through a wax machine and then pasted down on thicker paper. “That was my first experience with wax,” she said.
She lived in Brooklyn — “near Brooklyn College, 13 stops on the D train to midtown” — worked as a layout artist, and brought her portfolio around to show to potential employers on her lunch break.
She was lucky. “I got a contract for a children’s book,” she said. She moved into a good friend’s house in Tarrytown, in Westchester County, and worked on “Uncle Roland, the Perfect Guest,” by Phyllis Green.
“I painted the entire book using four colors on a gray scale on a light box,” she said. That means that all four of the colors were shades of gray; the book, like most children’s books, is in vibrant color. “They preprinted my color scale,” she said. She was able to see the grays and translate them into color in her imagination. And it worked.
Still, it was a hard way to earn a living. She loved doing it, but “after that book, I decided just to do editorial one-offs instead of long-term projects,” she said.
After a few years, Marybeth’s life changed. She’d already met Arthur Rothman, the nice Jewish boy who lived in her apartment building in Providence. She still was at RISD, where everyone lived off-campus after their freshman year, and he was getting his Ph.D. in theoretical physics at Brown. He’s also a physician — a happily retired neurologist — and he writes music. “Arthur’s an interesting fellow,” Ms. Rothman said.
They got married, moved to Englewood and then to Tenafly, and the Jewish couple brought up three Jewish sons. “Arthur had his practice in our house at first, and I was his secretary. For like six months. I do not have the skills I needed to do that, and it was a bad idea. But he had to start somewhere, and I was free.
Later, Dr. Rothman moved his practice to Hackensack, and the family moved to Tenafly.
For many years, Ms. Rothman was mainly a full-time mother. All her sons — Ben, 34, Jack, 32, and Sam, 29 – are creative, she said. Ben is a web developer, Jack is an artist, and Sam is in marketing.
Jack also has autism, and Ms. Rothman was active in fundraising for research into the condition. Working with the National Association for Autism Research, “I brought the first walkathon for autism to North Jersey,” she said. “We” — that’s Ms. Rothman and her co-chair, Mary Demauro of Norwood — “did the walkathon for two years, and we raised half a million dollars. Remember, this is before the internet. It was great.
“The first year, we ran it beautifully. The second year it was at Giant Stadium. Everyone had signs, that said things like ‘We love you, Tammy!’ My in-laws and all my family came out and collected dollars. They stood out in the cold.”
Throughout that time, “I was always painting,” Ms. Rothman continued. “It kept me balanced, and a happy mother is a good mother.”
She always painted the human figure, she said. “That went back to my roots, painting life models. And then, about 20 years ago, I was at a pivotal point in my studio practice. I started cutting up my figurative paintings and layering them. I didn’t know where that journey would end. I just know that one day I walked into my studio and thought, ‘This needs dimensions. It needs some layers.’
“At the same time, I started experimenting with encaustic paint.” That’s a technique that has the artist melt blocks of beeswax and pigment; it’s applied in layers and then hardens. It has depth and transparency, and a kind of physicality and a literal aroma. As in, it smells good.
“At that pivotal moment, when I was cutting up my paintings and experimenting with encaustic paint, my father had died, and I inherited a box of photos from him.
“It was from the 1940s. I didn’t know most of those people, and I was very intrigued by this box of unknowns. So I hung them in my studio, and eventually I started making up stories about them in my head.
“I hadn’t done that before, but always, whenever I am sitting in a restaurant or an airport or really anywhere, I make up stories about the people I see. But I hadn’t put it together with my art before.
“And then eventually the photos made their way into my art.
“At first, I’d just blow them up on a copy machine and work them into the layers of wax.” The originals are small, she said; she never used them. “I wanted them bigger.”
That was when Photoshop started getting big. Photoshop — the program that can take photographs and change them, the program that takes the old saying “a camera cannot lie” and turns it into a lie, because it can manipulate images in a way that’s invisible if it’s done well (and can be embarrassingly obvious if it’s not).
“I decided that I wasn’t getting enough satisfaction working with just the photos, so I started working with Photoshop,” Ms. Rothman said. She’d scan the photos into her computer.
She also started looking for more old photos. “There are boxes of them at yard sales, in flea markets, on eBay,” she said. “You buy the whole box. Someone passed away, and the family tries to get rid of them, and I find them and I buy them. And usually I also find documents in the box — a bill of sale, an old magazine, report cards, invitations to events, love letters. I have so many love letters! And I scan them in and I incorporate them, as part of the person’s story.
“I make them part of the portrait. Part of the texture. I manipulate them and repurpose them to add narrative texture to the portrait.
“I always work on four to five to six paintings at a time,” she continued. “They have to speak to each other. And as I work on them, the narrative emerges.” Those paintings tend to be part of series, and the people in them a part of a community, or they share interests or some cultural bond, she said. One series shows the string section of the Mill Creek Community Orchestra; another is the Hobbyhorse Literary Guild of Harlem, and a third is the Hudson Dove Society. “What’s that? I don’t know.” But she figures it out.
“Two of the paintings going to the museum in Roslyn Harbor are of the Concannon Coal Mine String Trio. I have photos of three women — two of them I photographed myself, and the other is a found photo.”
“I thought that maybe these women were musicians — I tend toward the creative — and I looked up string trios. One of them that I photographed at the Steampunk World’s Fair” — a real annual celebration that was held in New Jersey — “had on goggles, and looked like a coal miner.” In the narrative Ms. Rothman constructed, “after their husbands got very sick, the women had to go work in the mines.”
When she creates her paintings, “I digitally manipulate the photos and antique ephemera,” she said. Once she’s done that, and printed it out, “I layer encaustic paint on it, in many subtle layers. The palette emerges as the story emerges.” The faces in the photos “dictate the palette.
“I can spend days mixing color,” she continued. “Everyone is staring at me”— everyone, that is, in the photographs that line Ms. Rothman’s studio walls.
“I love mixing color,” she said. “I love working with my hands. I love the paint. I love mixing the paint. I spend months and months with the photographs, and then I get itchy to get to the paint part.”
What will she do next? “For years, my focus was on orphan vintage photos,” she said; even the term she uses for them gets at the emotion she feels toward them, and displays in them. “I can’t believe that people throw these things away. How can they discard them?
“I’m not a photographer, but I do love to photograph people, and I am going more in that direction, photographing people in the street.
“I go up to people, and I say, ‘I am a painter, and I would love to photograph you.’”
Most of the time, people agree, she said. “But everyone gets a goofy grin.” That’s not what she wants. “So I have a question. I ask them, ‘What is the question you’ve always wanted someone to ask you? Don’t tell me the answer — but what is the question?’
“People’s expressions change so much. They stop grinning, and usually they cock their heads, and I get a good pose.”
Ms. Rothman’s work has been exhibited many times; she’s affiliated with the Mark Gallery on the Lower East Side and a show of her work has just closed at the Frederick Holmes and Company Gallery in Seattle.
The show in Roslyn Harbor, which will run from July 22 to November 5, and is curated by Modigliani expert Dr. Kenneth Wayne, will show not only works by Modigliani, including both the newly attributed ones and another that was owned by Greta Garbo, but also works by modern artists. Ms. Rothman will have three portraits in the show; other contemporary artists represented there include Eric Fischl, Elizabeth Peyton, George Condo, John Currin, Amy Tiffany Hemingway, and Alice Neel. In other words, it’s a major big deal.
Ms. Rothman’s résumé is five tightly packed pages of shows, awards, and honors, and there’s more information about her work on her website, www.marybethrothman.com.
Who: Marybeth Rothman
What: Is among the artists in “Modigliani and the Modern Portrait”
Where: At the Nassau County Museum of Art, One Museum Drive, Roslyn Harbor, New York.
When: July 22-November 5; a reception is set for July 24.
Learn more: At the museum’s website, nassaumuseum.org