“MADAM THORNEY: SHE TOLD FORTUNES” By: J.A. George AKA; The GYPSY
Acrylic On 16” x 20” Gallery Stretched Canvas
“SHE TOLD FORTUNES, This English Gypsy called Madam Thorney, and she held my right hand tight. I expected her to study my open palm; instead, she searched my face.” – Bart McDowell, National Geographic Senior Editor-
THE STORY OF “MADAM THORNEY: SHE TOLD FORTUNES”
So what inspired “Madam Thorney: She Told Fortunes”? That is a long story…
When I was 15 years old my mother, Shirley Elizabeth Hummel, gave me a hard cover book she had ordered from National Geographic; ‘GYPSIES WANDERERS OF THE WORLD’. “Read this”, she said as she handed it to me, “it should answer most of your questions.” I had grown up knowing we were Gypsy and as I got older I had more and more questions. My mother suffered from mental illness and my endless questions must have been taxing on her. She smiled as she handed me the book, “It will fill in the gaps after you read this.”
I was an avid reader, I still am when I can find the time to do it, so reading this marvelous hard cover edition was no problem for me. I quickly read it cover to cover. My mother was wise in giving the book to me because it answered most of my questions. As I closed the book for the last time the only questions, I was left with were those that concerned my own family.
I found the history and life of my people contained in this volume fascinating and intriguing. The book made me even prouder of my heritage but the thing that captivated me the most was the photographs by Bruce Dale, a National Geographic Photographer. What author Bart McDowell had captured in words Bruce Dale had captured in his photographs. It was the perfect blending of words and images in this one book that started me on my own path of combining my words with the images I create.
As I looked at the marvelous photographs that documented the life of my people in the late 1960’s, I could see my own face within their faces. I told my mother, “Someday I will paint the people in the book.” My mother had always been encouraging of my artistic endeavors. “I know you will”, she said. Life moved on and I was well into adulthood before I did my first painting based on a photo from the book; ‘Romani Messiah: Tattered Canvas’.
LOST AND FOUND
The flood of 1993 robbed me of the cherished book my mother had given me in 1971 and I thought it was gone forever. Until one day in 2001 I received a package in the mail that contained a first edition copy of ‘GYPSIES WANDERERS OF THE WORLD’. Scrawled on the face page was, “To Gypsy, the only real Gypsy I know, (first name illegible) Dempsay. I wish I knew who this person was so I could thank them, but alas, I never found out. I was overjoyed to have the book again and I re-read it. I renewed my commitment to paint my version of the photographs in the book.
When I painted my first version of ‘Romani Messiah: Tattered Canvas’ in 2007 and I was not happy with it. There was a time I would destroy things I created I was not happy with but this painting I gave away to someone that liked it. I tackled ‘Romani Messiah: Tattered Canvas’ again in 2020 and was happier with the result which encouraged me to tackle the next photograph that had inspired me to paint my versions of them; ‘Madam Thorney: She Told Fortunes’.
ART CANNOT BE MEASURED IN TIME
At this point you may be looking at the large gaps in time between my first commitment to paint the photographs that inspired me to the point that I am doing it. Any artist can tell you that distraction is our curse. It is way to easy for us to get distracted with other projects and put other things on the back burner. The other curse for an artist is that when they are dissatisfied with a project, they walk away from it. There are projects an artist will walk away from and never come back to; there are projects that take a while to come back to. So, it is with this project. But with my satisfaction with ‘Romani Messiah: Tattered Canvas’ and now ‘Madam Thorney: She Told Fortunes’ I am encouraged to create more of my versions of the photographs from the book.
The photograph of Madam Thorney and her description intrigued me:
“I studied this fortune-teller with puzzled respect: her arresting, heavy lidded eyes and her strong, gentle features – a face suggesting nose-jewels and saris.”
As I set about to capture Madam Thorney, I took quite a few artistic liberties with my rendition of the photo. Those things in my painting that remain unchanged are her sign, her posture, general features and eyes. Notice that I said, “General Features”. As I looked at the photograph of Madam Thorney by Bruce Dale and Bart McDowell’s description of her, I saw all her ancestors that had made her who she was. As I painted, I did not even try to copy the photograph, that was not my intent. My goal was to capture the spirit of what the photograph had captured, her heritage, her history and her bloodline.
Madam Thorney, in the photo, appears to be in her late sixties or maybe early seventies. The photo was taken at her wagon where she was telling fortunes at Epsom Downs for Derby Days in 1968. I am sure that Madam Thorney left to meet her ancestors an exceptionally long time ago. But here she is, still smiling and reading fortunes within the pages of this book and her essence now captured upon my canvas.
The day that Bart McDowell met Madam Thorney she told him, “You are writing something, a book perhaps. And you are planning a journey. Yes, a very long journey. Where are you going?” Bart McDowell took his journey to trace the history of my people, the Romani people; he wrote our story.
For a one pound note Madam Thorney pulled out a small crystal ball and gave Mr. McDowell this final warning: “Be careful. Beware of things others may write down or tell you. Write only what you find for yourself.” I would like to believe that Madam Thorney would be pleased if she knew that her insights and warning had reached across time to touch me. For I too am taking a journey, a journey to capture in paint upon my canvas the essence of the Gypsies, my people. I will always write only what I find for myself but more that that I will only paint what I see with my heart and soul.
-The GYPSY: January 24, 2021 – Topeka, Kansas-
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