Found - November 10, 2017

Found: The Art of Ginette Bernas Wales

By Roshan McArthur

We often come across fascinating stories within the BoutiqueHomes community, but there was something about this one that really made us pay attention.

Pasadena-based graphic designer Nicolette Wales recently reached out to us, wondering if we would be interested in including her mother’s art in our Marketplace. Ginette Bernas Wales, now 96 and living in Maui, had studied under some of the 20th century’s most influential artists at L’Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and The New School in New York – but somehow she had never shared her paintings with the world. For the most part, they had remained boxed for decades in the family’s attic.

Intrigued, we asked if we could see the paintings and, when we did, we were really enchanted. The collection of vividly beautiful works takes you back to another time and place, leaving you curious about the artist and her story. So we asked Nicolette to tell us more, and to explain why she has chosen to share these paintings at this point in her mother’s life.


Nicolette Wales: “My mother’s family fled occupied France in 1941 and went through Marseille, Algiers, Casablanca and Lisbon to reach New York aboard one of the last passenger ships, the SS Guinea. She met my father on a bus while she was traveling from college in Pomona, California, back to New York, and he saved her from the inappropriate advances of another passenger. They exchanged letters, were married in the late Forties, and had three children – Jeffrey, Nicolette and Claudine.”


NW: “I don’t think I knew that my mother was an artist until I was a teenager. I just took it for granted that life included having a big room with lots of art supplies. We grew up surrounded by the artwork she had chosen to hang, and she always had so many projects piled up in corners and in chairs. Our old Berkeley house had a basement maid’s quarters which was used as extra workspace and storage. I remember a bathtub full of tree lichen that she had foraged from various trees and the deep purple water with textured fibers and wool floating around in there.

“It wasn’t until the family moved to Maui in 1985 that I noticed some of the books on her shelves and asked about them. She now had an entire space for her art studio and she was able to really spread out. Her easel always had a half-finished painting on it. She would start a new one and then, with all the kids, she had to stop and start and stop. When I picked up Stanley Hayter’s book New Ways of Gravure one day, she said he had been her professor. In another conversation, reflecting on her life in New York, it came up that a few of her professors had actually purchased her work. I sensed she had been flattered by the attention.

“I never really saw the extent of her artwork until I went up into our attic at her request in 2012. She could no longer remember where she had put it all and seemed worried. So I crawled up a ladder through the small square hole into the attic, and I found many of her student paintings and an illustrated book I had never seen.”


NW: “Our house was always full of art books, mostly the Modernist masters, Picasso, Miró and Kandinsky – books that reflected her early years in New York. Mostly, though, she tells me that she generates her ideas from her imagination. But I know she enjoyed Matisse, Cézanne and Van Gogh. She also loved nature intensely. Birds, plants, the sky, everything caught her eye and she would call us to look. One of her favorite stories was one that she told often – about swimming. She had a moment of feeling completely at one with the ocean; it was as though she could have happily floated off and gone with it completely. But she heard a voice and it said, ‘No, it’s not your time yet.'”


NW: “Her first job was painting dolls faces in New York, and she was quite clear that she very much disliked the repetitive work. The way she described it, her brothers were trying to remake her into a more practical person who could earn a living and contribute to the family. But ultimately, she was more focused on us children and had to make a choice. Although she continued to paint sporadically and kept sketch books, she had to leave her artist behind.

“However, she created a kind of magical childhood for my sister and me. She was a person who was very much in the moment and valued love and truth above all things. My sister remembers she was always interested in imaginative, exotic things, dressing her up as an ‘under the sea person’ for Halloween in Walnut Creek, which was so very not the typical American suburban Walmart-type costume. Which meant she always had to explain herself to others. We were always ‘outside the box’.”


NW: “In 1978, I moved to Maui with an old Land Rover, a parrot and a boyfriend, and started a jewelry business. My parents moved over a few years later. When the family was all settled in Upcountry, I finally got to sit down and talk to my mother about her art. This was when I learned more about her early years and her work. She expressed frustration that to be considered a real artist she was expected to have an intellectual rationale for art making, and she said it blocked her. It was all intuition for her.

“l think I was actually afraid of becoming an artist because I didn’t see how one could survive doing it. I saw my mother’s work hidden away and how painful an artist’s life could be, if one was sensitive. So design school seemed more pragmatic and having professional design skills seemed a more reliable profession. With hindsight, I see the strong connection between my mother and myself. I have been carrying on for her in so many ways.”


NW: “In rediscovering my mother’s early work in the attic and really beginning to understand her life history, I notice so many more small details, her brushstrokes, the colors, the aliveness of her work, and it’s fascinating to see what captured her attention. Now at 96, in all her sweet fragility, I really feel and appreciate her love of life coming through her work. And she was always afraid to show her work due to lack of a support structure. I also think the work felt so incredibly personal to her that sharing maybe didn’t seem appropriate… The timing seems so right for her to experience this appreciation.

“Maman still makes sketches now and then. She gets a twinkle in her eye and when she sees the work she says, ‘Did I do that?’ I can’t tell if she’s playing with us.”