Celebrating Karen Laub-Novak

By Michael Novak on August 18, 2009 in Guest Contributions
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Karen Laub-Novak was laid to rest yesterday after her long fight with cancer. Her youngest child, Jana, delivered the eulogy during Mass at Blessed Sacrament Church in Washington:

(Photos below include scenes from the recent National Review cruise and Karen Novak’s artwork.)

Hi. My name is Jana, Karen and Michael’s youngest.

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I thought that perhaps I ought to start by explaining why I’m wearing such a bright colored dress. No — much to my brother’s disappointment as well — it is not in honor of Syracuse University. Instead, I wanted to wear bright colors to honor my mother.

It’s not just about her art — though you can’t forget her love of bright reds and oranges in her paintings — nor about her personality — though you also can’t forget her bold and sunny personality — but also about her own fashion.

Honestly, did you ever spot her when she did not have on at least a splash of bright color?

Even when she wore more black in recent years, it was never without a bright scarf, large bold jewelry, etc. And certainly when she was younger…. The colors then were beyond, well… Let’s just say she had her own unique sense.

As a math and science chairman was quoted saying in a 1971 article about my mom: “Who’s the girl in the purple tights?”

***

So I found I simply could not wear black today. Her life was too bright, too “blazingly brilliant” as a friend of hers put it, to think about black.

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And that is the point: We are not here today to mourn my mother — though we do do that — but instead to celebrate her. For hers was a life lived well — and well lived.

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You can see that in the faces of each of you here today, in the passion in her artwork, and in the peace in which she left us. She did not fear death, she did not fear leaving this world to meet her God. She had always embraced struggle, even made peace with it — with chaos; with tension.

Hers was a life filled with joys and sorrows, laughter and tears, happiness, and yes, even mistakes. She had her flaws of course.

After all, did you ever know any one who worried so much? ….
… Well… besides my father that is?

But most of all, she had her strengths.

Like her unfailing good humor and spirit — which not only saw her through these last years, but, even more important, saw all of us through them:

* Her declaration that going bald was just her attempt to finally look like the avant garde “chic” artist she always was?

* Her insistence, till the end, that “dammit! She was picking the paint color!”

* Her impish suggestion that our cruise was a grand idea, because that way, if she died we could simply just throw her body overboard and not worry about the expense and logistics of a funeral.

* How about when I asked her what the top things were she wanted to do if she only had months to live? Spend time with your family, I guess? Her reply: “Oh, I think I’ve dealt with all of you long enough haven’t I?”

* Or perhaps my personal favorite, which is her reply whenever I told her I loved her. I was looking for an “I love you too” or some such affirmation. Instead, I’d say “Mom, I love you” and she’d say ….. “Thank you.” But the truth is, that is what I needed, and need, to say to her: “Thank you.”
For she is who made me the woman, the person, I am today.

And I have spent — and will spend — my life trying to follow her example.

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Well, except that I do know how to throw things away….

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Her example is so powerful: Her lessons are simple, yet profound, seemingly inconsequential, yet so incredibly significant…

For me as a child, she taught me creativity, encouraged me to think outside of the box — and perhaps most important to her — pushed me to draw outside of the lines.

For me as a teen, she taught me independence, encouraged me to think of the other side of every issue and person, and pushed me to conduct myself with dignity.

(Something she did so clearly during her first struggle with cancer, and this last one.)

For me as a young adult, she taught me perseverance, encouraged me to make blind leaps of faith, and pushed me to find my own path.

For me as a married woman, she taught me loyalty, encouraged me to be compassionate, and pushed me to be patient.

For me as an adult, in these recent days and weeks, she taught me strength, encouraged me to embrace suffering and darkness, and pushed me to look inwardly and reflect.

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In that article I mentioned earlier (about the purple tights), a 1971 review of an art show and lecture by her in Florida, there were some wonderful comments about mom, and her art — for they cannot be separated.

In this article, they referred to her as a “Catholic mystic”,

… a painter who cherishes her midwestern Roman Catholic roots while seeking self-discovery in reading, domestic routine, Zen discipline and her own work.

They then discussed her artwork:

In looking over the body of her work she finds a few themes which are constant. She is fascinated with tensions in Western society — tensions between creativity and the disordered psycho, between verbal and nonverbal expression, action and reflection, inspiration and the discipline of one’s particular work, to name a few.

The tension is translated in the sinewy line, dramatic positions and charged color relationships in her subjects, nearly always based on the human figure.

You may look in vain for a figure in repose. Rather, they stretch out in fitful sleep, struggle to rise, lie moribund, huddle against each other or strive to fly on broken or incomplete wings.

How fascinating to think that was written about my mother and her art nearly 40 years ago — even before I was born. And it’s true. You can look for it at the reception, as we have a selection of her art displayed in the Auditorium.

But most of all, it is the description of dying and of death. Fitful sleep, huddling against each other, flying on broken wings. It is her own imagination — and it is her own reality…

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Back in ’71, mom also gave a lecture to the students, emphasizing the critical points she wished them to take away from her, from her art, and from life. She spoke:

… about the importance of the final willingness to sit in the darkness; to live, if necessary, without resolution of tensions, without reconciliation, with death rather than resurrection inevitably ahead. She ask[ed] if in America we cheat ourselves of some of life’s richest, deepest experiences by turning away from the unpleasant.

Think about that. Then think about her art — bring an image to mind. And then think again about what she’s really proposing here:

… to sit in the darkness … to live with tensions … with death — to truly experience the negative …

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So let us look at today as mom’s final gift to us — her final act to keep us from “cheating ourselves”….

… To wake us to the darkness….

… To assure us of tensions…

…. To emphasize the inevitable death ahead…

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We are here to celebrate her life, her art, her self, her example, her inspiration.

So now let us honor her by embracing that darkness ….

— but also by lighting it through humor and good spirit, as she did.

Through that, we can tell her today, and every day, that …. “we love you.”

And I know that somewhere up there, in heaven, she’ll reply: “Thank you.”

***

So mom…. [ turn to coffin ] “I love you…”

And at a reception later in the day, Meghan Cox Gurdon spoke:

Karen was amusingly specific about the circumstances that should follow her death. She would cheerfully tell anyone that what she wanted was not so much a funeral as a wake — and she said this cheerfully because she wanted cheerfulness from the people who would gather to remember her. I think everyone here knows that she wanted us to drink martinis and eat maple bars — cheerfully.

It is perhaps less widely known that she greatly desired to have at least one of her obituaries written in the style of the great obits of the London Daily Telegraph. The principal — or at any rate most famous — author of the Telegraph obituaries was a fellow called Hugh Massingberd, who died a few years ago.

Massingberd established a kind of matrix for the perfect obituary, which rested, in his view, on understatement. It would begin with the name and age of the person being remembered, and then trickle into the loved one’s personal history, touching with discreet but reverberating lightness on the things that made them great and the things that made them delightfully or exasperatingly human.

And Karen loved that. She had a wonderful obituary in the Washington Post last Friday. Good as it was, though, it could not, considering the audience, go places that we can, here. So I am going as best I can to give you — and Karen — a more intimate (and probably clumsier) version of the Massingberd treatment:

The artist Karen Laub-Novak, who died on August 12 aged 71, embodied the quotidian difficulties posed by Virginia Woolf’s famous theory that what A Woman needs to produce great art is a room of her own.

Novak — and here I am trying to stick to Telegraph style, though I doubt I can keep to it — was as much mother as artist, as much wife as mother, and as much of all three as any woman can reasonably be.

“I am finding it hard to get much work done,” she once told me. “Michael seems to be able to go into his office and concentrate and write and get everything done. I go into my studio but keep hearing the phone, and thinking about things I need to do, and the children, and grandchildren, and even if I shut the door I am far too aware of what’s going on behind it.”

That really is the central dilemma for ambitious married women, and a creative force like Karen Novak really had to wrestle with it.

There were the angels of God to be painted… great skeletal angels that consume — and give rest to— fragile human souls… that demanded to BE painted, and forced themselves out through the end of her paintbrush.

And then there was the eternal call of family: “What’s for dinner?”

Karen — I mean “Novak” — struggled with this, and in a funny way it added to her sweetness. She was an endearing mixture of the Absolute and the… Oh-man-I’m-not-sure. She could confidently tell anecdotes to any number of powerful and imposing dinner guests, yet she was beset by crippling indecision when confronted with what from the outside seemed amazingly facile choices.

You cannot paint the way Karen painted without the ability to trust your eye, or your idea, or the sweep of your arm when it is turning a black line into the high arch of an angel’s wing. You can’t sculpt the way Karen sculpted, kneading the medium into human form, so that from it emerges the face of Alexander Hamilton or the suffering body of Christ crucified, without knowing — believing — that each manipulation is bringing you closer to the truth of the thing.

Yet this same vigorous, strong-minded person was wracked with indecision — really tortured, and for months — over what style of knobs she ought to choose to go on the kitchen cabinets.

Then the question became what color she and Michael ought to have on the walls. Blue, maybe? Maybe yellow? Karen was practically on the threshold of the Hereafter before she could decide. A week before her death, as she and Michael went to see some doctors, workmen slipped into their house and painted most of the ground floor a fresh, light green.

That was Karen all over: The big things, the bold black strokes, the great love she had for her husband and children and grandchildren, she could deliver without a backward glance. It was the tiny agonies of domestic life that sometimes turned her into a human pretzel.

Karen was — and here I am going to try to get back into Telegraph style — a woman of dignity and elegance. She had a calm and unaffected manner that was straight from the American Midwest. She had a panache at tying silk scarves that was straight from the Champs Elysees. In her later years, she got particularly good at tying scarves gracefully around her head so that she looked a bit like Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring.”

In her earlier years, when Michael discovered and claimed her, she was, frankly, a hottie.

As Michael loves to tell it, they met on a blind date. He thought it might be a disaster, so he told ahead of time he’d probably have to take her home early.

But her blue eyes had an effect on him he had not expected. The martini he offered her, so I recall, had an effect on her that she had not expected. Michael was patient. He waited until their second date before deciding that she was the gal for him.

And off they went, into the future. They had three children: Tanya, then Richard, and then Jana. Michael wrote and wrote and argued and lectured. Karen painted and sculpted — and kept answering the question, “What’s for dinner?”

When they moved to Washington, Karen did something that has for years struck me as one of the most sensible things a mother can do. She chose the school she thought their children ought to attend. Then she walked around the neighborhood until she found a house she liked that happened to be for sale. So it was, on the basis of this wonderful practicality, that Karen and Michael came to live at Northampton Street.

The two of them made such a beautiful couple. She was like the strings that tie the hot air balloon to the earth — sorry, Michael! She held him, and grounded him as he bobbed buoyantly about — yet at the same time, Michael held Karen, and grounded her, and spoke of her always with love and respect and admiration.

And what a dinner table they had — always someone sparkling, always someone clever, and that was when they dined alone.

When they had guests, if you were lucky enough to be there you’d join in serious questions of theology and state. And limericks and doggerel and songs. And Michael’s endless supply of goofy jokes that would run down the table, bounce off Karen’s smiling face, and run back again, making everyone laugh not in a high-stress, super-competitive Washington way, but easily, and happily.

As a hostess, Karen liked to serve what the understated Hugh Massingberd might call “unadorned traditional cuisine.” nothing fussy. and she had those light, theatrical gestures that were so “her” — a mingling of insecurity and warmth… with a desire to put others at their ease.

Karen knew she would be leaving for a long time before she left. She thought a lot about what she could now see that the rest of us could not.

One thing she told me she’d realized: The thing to do in life is to stick to what you do best. She didn’t mean that painters should paint or that writers should write. She meant something much more specific.

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She meant that if, for example, one found oneself a painter of terrifying angels, one ought to stick to angels, and not go into any other subject.  I don’t think she regarded her artistic departures from angels as a mistake, exactly — but shortly before she died she was emphatic about the need to focus, and then go deeper — to get better and better at expressing whatever it is we express best. She wanted people to know this — not to fritter themselves away but to concentrate, even to be narrow, in order to go deep.  It was Karen’s advice to those of us who are not, so far as we know, close…yet… to where she is now.

But she would also have been the first to recognize, as we contemplate our callings and the ways we could go deeper, that we have another question to answer.  and that, of course, is: “What’s for dinner?”

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