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A life lived in pictures 

Josephine Crawford's 'Personal Narratives' grace the SLOMA

Artist Josephine Crawford seems to walk a tidy line between practical and outlandish. Her recent project—a series of small paintings, each depicting one year of her long life—was initially inspired, not by some cathartic urge to chronicle her years on Earth, but by Aaron Brothers having a big sale on 8-by-10-inch canvases. She stocked up first; the idea struck later.

- SEATED, STANDING, AND SOARING :  “Josephine Crawford: Personal Narratives” includes several large-scale works as well as a collection of bite-sized paintings Crawford created for every year of her life to date. Pictured, from left to right, are Hope, Lily Dancers, and Nike #2. -  - PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER; ARTWORK BY JOSEPHINE CRAWFORD
  • PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER; ARTWORK BY JOSEPHINE CRAWFORD
  • SEATED, STANDING, AND SOARING : “Josephine Crawford: Personal Narratives” includes several large-scale works as well as a collection of bite-sized paintings Crawford created for every year of her life to date. Pictured, from left to right, are Hope, Lily Dancers, and Nike #2.

Part of the current “Josephine Crawford: Personal Narratives” exhibit at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, the collection is a fascinating glimpse into the peaks and valleys of the artist’s existence. The images’ subject matter starts off with Crawford’s birth and culminates with her excitement over the exhibit itself, and her style vacillates between a loose, messy scrawl to thoughtful, clean brushstrokes. The series serves to ground the rest of the exhibit—which mostly consists of larger-scale works dating from the early ’90s to the present—in the emotional context in which they were created. Those who take the time to “read” each of the nearly 80 images will leave with a greater understanding of who Crawford is, and why.

When she first started the project, the British-born Crawford informed me one morning over espresso, she relied on Google to jog her memory of the historical events that took place in the early years of her life.

“Who remembers being three months old?” she asked rhetorically. “But then the memories started coming so good that I didn’t have any need.”

The first painting, a simple circle, symbolizes the artist’s entry into the world, followed by an image of breasts, portrayed here as ripe fruit on a branch. When she reached the third painting, the artist discovered, she could vaguely recall the corresponding time in her life.

“By 4” the artist continued, “I started to get memories of real things.”

- PAINTING THE YEARS :  Crawford’s recently completed project of painting a picture to represent each year of her life was originally inspired, the artists says, by a sale of 8-by-10-inch canvasses at a local art and framing store. A portion of this collection is pictured (left), alongside Flaming Heart and Mother and Child. -  - PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER; ARTWORK BY JOSEPHINE CRAWFORD
  • PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER; ARTWORK BY JOSEPHINE CRAWFORD
  • PAINTING THE YEARS : Crawford’s recently completed project of painting a picture to represent each year of her life was originally inspired, the artists says, by a sale of 8-by-10-inch canvasses at a local art and framing store. A portion of this collection is pictured (left), alongside Flaming Heart and Mother and Child.

These earliest solid memories are, unfortunately, quite violent, as clearly illustrated by a leering, jagged skull and the word “war,” the impressions left on a child living in Britain in the early ’40s. But life kept going. Crawford moved to the next image, brightening:

“This is my nana and my mum going shopping with little baskets, and I’ve got a little gas mask on,” she said. “I loved them! They were fun. You could make Darth Vader noises.”

She moved through the years, reliving each one, giving happy and horrid memories equal attention: “This one was my fifth birthday, which was absolutely outstanding. … This is a guy jerking off in my face when I was about 6, I guess. … That’s me and my mum and my little brother. And there’s this boat, because we were going to India. We had a lovely life in India, until war broke out because Britain left in 1957. We had to leave, actually, really quickly.”

She lit upon another row of paintings: “I broke my leg. We lived in Scotland. My dad died. Very painful. Didn’t know him that well, though. So here we are in London, playing Jesus Christ.”

The painting of Crawford playing Christ in a theatrical production carries a double meaning, as she was, at the time, spending her evenings dancing in nightclubs in a g-string. Indeed, the cheering audience surrounding her seems more fitting for the latter setting than an allegorical play.

- TALES OF JOSEPHINE:  “Josephine Crawford: Personal Narratives” hangs in the back half of the Gray Wing at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, 1010 Broad St. in downtown SLO, through Jan. 15. Hours are 11 a.m. through 5 p.m. every day except Tuesdays. Visit sloma.org or call 543-8562. -
  • TALES OF JOSEPHINE: “Josephine Crawford: Personal Narratives” hangs in the back half of the Gray Wing at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, 1010 Broad St. in downtown SLO, through Jan. 15. Hours are 11 a.m. through 5 p.m. every day except Tuesdays. Visit sloma.org or call 543-8562.

The piece may also reference an earlier period in her art that dwelt on racier subject matter—or, as she refers to it, “the teenage-whory-funky-tarty thing.” Her first subjects, once she’d declared herself a serious painter, were dancers, often a neat row of them in skimpy costumes (she once worked as a costume designer in Las Vegas). The motif is continued in works like Lily Dancers, in which eight lovely figures, their long bare legs nearly orange, prance in unison among the lilies.

Another 8-by-10 contains a picture of Crawford’s sweeping Nike #2, a painting from her “Greeks” series that contrasted ancient Greece with modern sorority and fraternity life.

Toward the late ’90s, the time her mother struggled with cancer, the series is almost blank. It was a difficult era in her life, she said, but creating the large-scale painting Hope helped her get through it. In the piece, which also hangs in the show, a woman with cocoa skin sits by the sea on a small flight of stairs, a piece of red fabric—a cape, perhaps—cast aside, watching a boat slowly glide away.

Arts Editor Anna Weltner remembers it being very dark. Contact her at aweltner@newtimesslo.com.

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