Sunsets And Other Beginnings

There have been moments in my life where I have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. One of those moments was when my Great Aunt Nellie died in the early ’80s. I was still at school and couldn’t afford the fare all the way to Ireland for the funeral.

I wanted to go to the funeral because I loved Great Aunt Nellie but also because I wanted her work as a keepsake. Great Aunt Nellie was an amateur painter, mostly of landscapes. The professional artists in the family scoffed at what they called her naive, underdeveloped style but I loved everything she did. I have often said that I would like to be a painter and if I could be, I would be a painter like Great Aunt Nellie was.

Great swathes of colour covered her canvases – vibrant, vivid as any colour you see in nature when you look out the window. There was a feeling of wildness, of abandon and of joy to her work. It was as if what she saw and felt was immediately captured and spread across the canvas, that one moment as it was, unrestrained, perhaps a little riotous, definitely undomesticated.

I say undomesticated because Great Aunt Nellie painted at a time when women in her sphere did not make a living from the arts. Rural Ireland in the 1950s was an incredibly patriarchal society and fathers with four unmarried daughters were unsupportive of any of their children who looked to be engaging in activities deemed self-indulgent and a waste of time. So Aunt Nellie worked in a button factory, making thousands of mother-of-pearl buttons every week for the silk blouses of rich ladies, continuing her painting in secret.

I liked that about her – her drive to create no matter what, her rebelliousness – it really appealed to me. I liked it as much as I liked her paintings.

Great Aunt Nellie was stuck in the factory six days a week and didn’t have much time to get out and find subjects to paint. She walked two miles home every day in the early evening. That’s when she began painting sunsets – when she got out into the wide world at the end of the day after the confinement of the factory, sunsets were all she saw.

I don’t know how many she had all up but when I visited her when I was 15 she showed me over 200 of them. Oranges, pinks, blues, yellows, blending together in a resplendent celebration of colour. Those sunsets were just about the most glorious things I’ve ever seen.

When Great Aunt Nellie died much of her work was found mouldering away in a gaerden shed. She had given up on painting by the time she reached 87 years. As far as I know most of her paintings were thrown away. That’s why I talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time because if I had been in Ireland at the time I am sure I could have salvaged some of those paintings. Somehow.

I asked Great Aunt Nellie once why she painted so many sunsets. “Sunsets are full of hope because they’re beginnings, not endings,” she said. “They mean the day is having a rest, ready to start all over again in the morning.”

In the spirit of great Aunt Nellie I have begun collecting sunsets. The colours start slowly, whispers on violas in a string ensemble. Lines of pinks and the softest of oranges. Mauve creeps in too.

The trees and streetscapes are thrown into silhouette as the sunset grows into bold oranges and reds. The rest of the landscape is almost rendered insignificant by the sublime sunset splendour.

The sunset pulls you in, comforting as a scarf warmed before the fire, wrapping you softly in its triumphant verve; undisputably a beginning, not an ending. Just like Great Aunt Nellie’s paintings.

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37 thoughts on “Sunsets And Other Beginnings

  1. Selma, I fell in love with your title for this post. Sunsets have always been one of my serious loves and now I love Aunt Nellie, too. And I love your words more and more ~ bless your heart for sharing all that you do.
    xo

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    1. Awww Susan, what a lovely thing to say. It is my pleasure to share my silly little contemplations. I am so grateful that you read them xx

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  2. Hi Selma,
    Your Great Aunt sounds like she was a fantastic lady, and it is a terrible shame that you couldn’t get any of her pictures.
    I love your sunset photos, they are great, it is a lovely part of the day, I agree. 🙂

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    1. I do regret not getting any of her paintings, Mags, but I remember a lot of them – I can see them in my mind’s eye, so that is a comfort. I agree, the sunset is a really special part of the day.

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  3. i love the language you use to convey what the paintings were/are all about. there are standards in painting as well as in writing, cooking, etcetcetc. but really, the best paintings are the ones you can feel the artists heart in. when you look at them something comes across and it’s bigger than anything that could be categorized by any standard or style or training or know-how. it is the creative spirit, much more important than educated critique of good/bad painting. this is a great piece of writing selma, this one will stick with me, thanks!

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    1. TIPOTA!! YES YES YES!!! That’s it. You say it much better than I ever could but that’s what I was talking about – the best paintings are those you can feel the artist’s heart in – I couldn’t agree more. Thank you so much for putting it into words for me!!!!

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  4. “The sunset pulls you in, comforting as a scarf warmed before the fire, wrapping you softly in its triumphant verve; undisputably a beginning, not an ending. Just like Great Aunt Nellie’s paintings.” – Love this!

    You may not have her paintings, but they continue to live through your creativity in both words and pictures. I’m sure she is smiling on you!

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    1. You can’t beat mauve and pink together in the sky, can you Jen? For me it’s one of nature’s greatest gifts. Totally lifts my spirits!!

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  5. The ‘professional artists’ in your family want a good smacking, before being taken to see the ‘naive, undeveloped work’ of L.S. Lowry or Helen Bradley!

    I was always taught … it’s all right to say *you* don’t like a particular style, but definitely not on to rubbish it out of hand.

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    1. I completely agree with you, Travelrat. Some of the so-called ‘pros’, no matter what their field, can be extremely scathing about those they view as amateurs. I don’t like that attitude. Everybody had to start somewhere!

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    1. Awww, thank you slpmartin. I enjoyed telling this story so much. Just a snippet of her life but an important one. Sunsets are indeed magical!!!

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  6. What lovely sunset collages – and such a shame your aunt’s paintings were’t looked after 😦 You never know – she may have a hand in creating some of those sunsets that you have been looking at (chief adviser of art and sunset shades to She that created the world 😉 )

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    1. It wouldn’t surprise me at all, Gabe. She always seemed a bit otherworldly and like someone who could work in an advisory capacity to the spirits of the light. Haha. What a great idea you have put in my head. You always get me thinking….. Thank you.

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  7. Georgeous sunsets. They buoyed me in my current very bad place. As a lifelong painter I can tell you that it is the paintings of hers in your heart that matter. Her paintings just went the way of the composting into the earth we all are supposed to go to, sooner or later, though art conservators pretend rescue. Her paintings had their purpose and so did she and that purpose touched you deeply regardless of where you actually were on the planet when she died. You were in just the right place, living your life. My own sunsets are the favorites of my own paintings and life scenes as well but if they were well-appreciated and then buried with me, well, it’s like the cultures of the immolation of the dead in fire, the opposite of Irish culture.. q

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  8. How sad that her paintings are lost, Selma – but not to your memory or inspiration – beautiful sunset photographs and sentiments – “a scarf warmed before the fire” is such a comforting image 🙂

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    1. When I lived in Scotland we walked to school in the snow and our scarves and mittens were warmed before the fire so they would keep us warm as we walked along. It WAS really comforting, Bluebee. I’ll never forget it. Her paintings will never be lost to my memory – you are so right. They are etched in my mind….

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  9. A beautiful story, beautiful photos. Selma, your blog is very inspirational and uplifting and I read you with pleasure. Your aunt would be so happy to know that you do remember her paintings and her way to look at life, and that is the main thing. She painted because she needed too, that is what art is about for me.

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    1. Awww, Benedicte. What a lovely thing to say. If I can lift your spirits or provide even a tad of inspiration then I am delighted. YAY. I believe she painted because she needed to as well. It was a comfort to her, it took her out of the drabness of her existence. It gave her hope. My Aunt has inspired me a lot and has made me appreciate the value of the creative spirit xxxx

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  10. “I liked that about her – her drive to create no matter what, her rebelliousness – it really appealed to me. I liked it as much as I liked her paintings.”

    I like Great Aunt Nellie’s rebelliousness too! And how she continued to paint in secrecy.

    I’m saddened to hear her paintings were thrown away.

    PS: These photos are absolutely beautiful.

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    1. In a way, Meleah, I don’t think it matters that the paintings were thrown away because her spirit and quest for creativity remain instead. And they can’t be thrown away. So glad you liked the photos xxx

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  11. I love sunsets … there is a texture and a feeling in the air at that hour that I just adore. So different to sunrises, and yet equally enchanting.

    I really like the way your Great Aunt talked about sunsets being a beginning rather than an ending … I shall have to remember that.

    Her paintings sound wonderful … and yes, what a shame about the timing of things. Though you’ve provided such lovely remembrances of her here, I’m sure she’d be happy about that!

    I admire any person who finds the drive to create regardless of circumstances, responsibilities, or the amount of time they have available in their day … really puts things into perspective for me. xx

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    1. I agree about the texture and feeling in the air at sunset, Tracey. It is quite unique to that time of day. I also admire anyone who can overcome challenging circumstances to create. Those types of people are my heroes!!

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  12. I have always been in love with sunsets, Selma, and in fact have collected a few of my own. I’ve never thought of them as beginnings before though, from now on I will! 🙂

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  13. Sunsets are something that I have always enjoyed looking at. I can remember stopping on the way back home or any other place near bridges just so I could admire the beauty of a great looking sunset. It instills a kind of peace in me.

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  14. I love the pics of the sunsets. I like both sunrises and sunsets. What I miss living here is not seeing the wonderful sunrises coming up oiver Lake Ontario. Being on thew 12th floor meant I saw them everyday and I really nmiss seeing the colours change as the day lightened and brightened. I do see some sunsets here but most of the time it’s been topo darn hot to sit ouside and watch the sun go ddown. I look foward to the cooler weather in the hopes of seeing more.

    Your aunt sounds wonderful and it’s clear the creative juices flow through you both!

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    1. She was a wonderful Aunt. Wish I’d known her when I was younger. It can be hard to capture the sunrises and sunsets, Cathy. I agree that it’s easier when it’s cooler. THere’s nothing like them!

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