My walls are covered with my mother's paintings

My mom left all her artwork to me, but it's not really my aesthetic. Would I be a terrible daughter if I took them down?

Published April 5, 2007 10:13AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I'm hoping you can help me with an aesthetic/moral dilemma.

I am 40 years old, and over the past 15 years of slogging, I've gone from poverty stricken, buried in debt, everything I own fits in my $250 car, to the happy owner of my own quite modest-size apartment where I live with my toddler daughter. I feel so lucky to live where I live. Even though our place is tiny, it's in a lovely neighborhood in the city, within walking distance to everything I like and great playgrounds and parks. It needs work, which I'm doing slowly but surely, but it has all the potential to be my own little dream flat. If I have my way, I'll never move again.

Here's my dilemma. Both of my parents, to whom I was very close, have died -- my father many years ago, when I was 19, my mother nearly five years ago. When they died, they left no money. But I did inherit their belongings. And I treasure them ... both of my parents loved books, so I have an incredible library. I have our baby grand piano. I have various Southeast Asian antiques my father collected when living there in the 1960s. And I have most of my mother's paintings.

The paintings are the source of the dilemma ... and, increasingly, the source of immense guilt. My mom was a reasonably talented amateur painter, who finally managed to get an art education in the late '60s when she was raising me. And while I love her paintings -- they make me feel so at home since I grew up around them, and remind me of her -- they're so, well, traditional. Landscapes of yellowed fields with barns, or of gardens. Still lifes of wine bottles and fruit. Vases of flowers. That sort of thing. Some of them were given to me as gifts. Some are of me as a child. And I love them because I loved her. I even love what she accomplished with them ... they're very well done. But, mostly, I loved them on the walls of her house. They aren't at all what I would choose for myself. Or for the walls of this space I worked so hard to own, and which I'm so eager to make my own.

So what is a gal who misses her mom terribly (particularly now that she's raising her own daughter who will never know her) supposed to do? It's not like you can tuck oil paintings in the garage or something. Or that I even want to. But, in a very small apartment, to display them on the walls screams an aesthetic that just isn't mine. Right now, they're all up. I can't imagine not having them up, in some ways. But, stupidly, years after her death, I'm gradually finding myself resenting her in a way I never did in life. As if, as the keeper of her paintings and her aesthetic (she left them to me, not to my half siblings), I'm now doomed to never realize an aesthetic of my own in the home that I love so much. And aesthetics matter so much to me ("more than your own mother," the guilt voice booms).

Argh. I feel like an unappreciative wretch just writing this.

Aesthetically Challenged in S.F.

Dear Aesthetically Challenged,

My advice is to first have the paintings appraised. Knowing the monetary value of this art will help you decide what to do. It will also help you fine-tune your homeowners insurance policy.

At the very least, if you contact an appraiser and come to the conclusion that an appraisal would be too expensive or that the paintings do not have enough monetary value to warrant an appraisal (but how would you know that if they aren't appraised?), then at least perform an inventory. Number each painting, and make a written description of each one, giving the title if there is one, the date, the subject matter and any other information you can think of -- if there is a building in the background, for instance, or a street, name it and give its location. If it was painted on a certain family occasion, note that as well as the actual calendar date. By doing this, you accomplish several things. First, you know exactly what you have. Second, by inventorying them and examining them closely you may find that it is easier to sort out how you feel about them, which ones you might be willing to part with and which ones you feel attached to, which makes the task of figuring out what to do with them a little more manageable. You can say, OK, I have 37 paintings. Or I have 23 paintings, or 65, or however many. And then you might be able to make certain arbitrary but practical choices, such as, I will keep half, or I will keep five. Or I will keep all! It's up to you.

Knowing the monetary value would help you decide if it is economically sensible to pay for storage. If they are only worth $1,000 in total, for instance, and storage costs $200 a month, then you will exceed their value in a matter of months. If, however, they are worth more in the range of $20,000, or $50,000, then storage -- careful storage -- makes sense.

Another reason to at least contact an appraiser, even if you do not go through with the full appraisal, is that you may gather some valuable information just from an informal chat. If you are a good talker, you may get the appraiser to tell you things. You may, for instance, elicit tales of what other people in your situation have done. You might ask about the possibility of selling them in such a way that you keep some contact with the owner, as they are of a certain sentimental value to you. In addition to contacting an appraiser, you might also just spend some time in galleries, talking to gallery owners about your situation, and trying to elicit information.

Along with cataloging them, you should make a visual record and keep it in a safe place. I don't know exactly how this is done these days, whether slides are still used or whether most people now use digital photography to make a visual record of their paintings. At any rate, create a visual record of the paintings and find a way to store it so that it lasts and is protected.

If you feel guilty about the possibility of getting rid of the paintings, it may be for many reasons. You may feel that you would like to admire your mother's artwork more than you do. You feel guilty about being critical of her work. And you may feel conflicted about treating them as if they had no value. They do have value. You know they have value. But that doesn't mean that every painting has to hang on your wall. The more care you take in this process of inventory, appraisal and recording, the less guilt you will feel if you finally decide that a number of them have to go. You will know that you have done a thorough job of evaluating them and accounting for them with respect. They aren't just being thrown on the trash heap to disappear. You will have a record of where they went. In this way, you honor your mother's talent, her memory and her intentions. But you also move on with your own life, in your own way, in your own home.

To paraphrase an axiom from the Well: You own your own walls.

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