My New Painting

Arlene Goldbard
4 min readAug 7, 2023

I’m letting my hair go gray. My hair is not the main thing I want to focus on in telling you about my new painting, but as this ever-changing reality presents itself to me every time I pass a mirror, it bears mentioning. Also, if like me, you always got a gratifyingly surprised reaction when telling your age, you may have an inkling of what it means to no longer evoke surprise. Aging is an annoyingly major topic among my friends, but honestly, it’s just as major and annoying when no one is around but my husband and myself. As a friend explained to me, when grayhairs get together, the first act of the encounter is bound to be a “organ recital,” an extended kvetch about the parts of our bodies that aren’t working as they used to and what we are hoping to do about it.

But I digress. I just wanted you to know that I painted my hair in this picture to match the part that is growing out, salt-and-pepper. The hairdresser tells me that after one more haircut, the transformation will be complete. Will I go back to adjust the painting if reality turns out not to match my hunch?

We’ll see.

“The Ecstasy of Amira Meira,” oil on panel, 2023, 36″x48″

My new painting has a long title: “The Ecstasy of Amira Meira. It is not given you to complete the task; neither may you desist from it.” Amira Meira is my Hebrew name; it means roughly “woman speaking light.” The second part of the title is a quote from Pirke Avot (2:16), a compilation of short passages, usually titled “Ethics of the Fathers” in English. I have always resonated with this text because it seems to express the essence of those who feel impelled to engage in actions and dialogues intended to bring more love and justice into the world, yet who will never know if they have succeeded.

Guilty as charged.

The creation story as described in the 16th century Kabbalah of Rabbi Isaac Luria says that the Creative Force contracted so as to make room to generate the vessels that would hold creation. But when divine energy was poured into the vessels, they shattered, sending shards everywhere, each with its own embedded divine sparks. One meaning of the phrase “tikkun olam,” which is often translated as repairing the world, is to reassemble the shards so that our world can hold the full power of divine energy. From this perspective, humanity as a whole is bound to a task that is unlikely to be completed in the life span of any human being. The end of this passage exhorts us to “know that the grant of reward unto the righteous is in the age to come.”

I hope so, whether or not I am counted among the righteous.

I made this painting as a companion to the portrait of my husband I wrote about back in November. It took me a long time to paint, partly because I was very busy with my new book, partly because health challenges intervened, partly because…life. Both paintings are the same size — 36″ by 48″ — and were created with the same intentions, to quote an art historical image — ”The Ecstasy of St. Teresa” for Rick, Ingres’ “Odalisque” for me (just transpose it to a subject with a normal human bone structure and no desire to depict herself in the nude) — and to portray someone I know well using symbolic and allusive imagery. You can see them together on the visual arts page of my website.

The first object of importance to me is a large euphorbia tirucalli, a species of plant that has almost taken over our house due to the ease of propagation and the extreme difficulty of killing it. I myself haven’t reproduced, but I like to think my survival rhymes with the way we stick a just-pruned euphorbia branch into the dirt and a new plant rises.

I have also painted two hummingbirds based on the beautiful photographs of my friend Eugene Beckes, who sends his photos of birds out to an elist. If you’re interested, let me know and I’ll ask him to add you.

My open hand holds a human heart in flames, an image that frequently occurs in spiritual contexts. It means many things to me; most simply, that I burn but have not yet been consumed.

Through a window on the upper right of the image you’ll see Cerro Colorado, a hill we can observe from many parts of our home. There’s a small train station near our house. Trains travel past Cerro Colorado twice a day, headed either to Chicago or Los Angeles. At the top of the hill are excavations made by quarrying stone for the Loretto Chapel and other Catholic edifices in Santa Fe. The ruins of several small thousand year-old pueblos are nearby. Under very special conditions — dense dark clouds filling the sky, setting sunlight thrusting through a narrow space just above the horizon — Cerro Colorado turns the color of molten gold and takes my breath away.

What objects and images would appear in your portrait?

I’ve been weepy lately. It may have something to do with the gray hair thing or the organ recital, or simply the multiplication of loss as the years pile up. Maybe it’s a vitamin deficiency. But it doesn’t take much to set me off. This song always makes me cry: “Keep Me in Your Heart” by Warren Zevon, who was on his way to dying of cancer at 56 when he wrote and recorded it on his final album, The Wind.