Dahlov Ipcar is one of Maine’s most prolific painters, illustrators and children’s book authors. The artist has spent the bulk of her career painting out of her home in Georgetown, and at the age of 98 (she turns 99 in November) she muses over what it has meant to be a woman artist over the course of the past century.
“I don’t know when women started being degraded,” says Ipcar. “In the beginning, they were warriors and leaders and everything. I kind of always thought they were superior.” Her own experience was never one of feeling degraded. “I never thought that women were less important than men, and nobody ever made me feel that way,” she says, noting that the men in her life were invariably supportive, both personally and professionally. “I don’t know that I can really talk about the women’s struggle,” she adds.”Because I never really had the struggle.”
But she fully acknowledges that the struggle, past and present, is real. She points to her own mother, the modernist painter Marguerite Thompson Zorach, as an example. “I know my mother took a back seat in her career to my father (painter and sculptor William Zorach). He came first and she stayed in the background, even though she was a pioneer.”
Ipcar says that her mother was nevertheless a “wonderful role model,” with a gift for creating not only beautiful things but also a beautiful life. Ipcar fondly recalls a magical childhood spent in both New York City, where her artist parents worked and taught during the school year, and Georgetown, Maine, where they spent each summer. They intentionally left Ipcar to develop on her own, artistically speaking, and the experiment paid off; her first solo show was at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1939. Ipcar was just 22 years old.
By the 1950s, however, the New York art world had changed. This era of abstract expressionism—so-called “action painting”—is often seen as a boys’ club (rightfully or not). Ipcar, who was already living in Maine full-time by then, says that this didn’t have anything to do with her decision to withdraw from the scene. “I just didn’t like that kind of art.” Instead, she says, “it made me stop and think of . . . what was important to me in art, and what kind of art I liked.”
Ipcar liked cave paintings, it turns out. And Persian miniatures, Henri Rousseau’s jungle scenes, Japanese art, cubism—all of which she found in her father’s extensive library of art books, right there in the family’s farmhouse in Georgetown.
With remarkable self-possession, Ipcar pieced together an approach to painting that is both unique and utterly recognizable: vibrantly colorful animals seen as if through a prism or a kalei- doscope—chaos and order all at once. In the way of many great artists, she is a genre unto herself. This is true not only of her paintings but also her children’s books, which she began to write and illustrate in the 1940s, with more than 40 titles to date.
Ipcar may never have struggled to be taken seriously as an artist or to break out of the roles that society has historically assigned to women, but that isn’t to say that she didn’t struggle in other ways. “Making a living as an artist while living full-time in Maine was not easy,” she says. “Especially at first.”
Running a dairy farm and raising two young boys at the same time couldn’t have been easy, either. For today’s parents, grappling with issues of life/work balance, it is astonishing that anyone could have accomplished so much, even over the span of nearly 100 years. “That’s my mother’s influence on me,” says Ipcar. “When I had my second child, I realized the secret is to move faster.”
“Now I have raised a whole generation to appreciate my art,” she says. With books in print almost continuously for nearly 70 years, she can claim more than one generation, including the one currently in diapers. Yarmouth’s Islandport Press has steadily reissued her titles since 2010. She also continues to paint prolifically and is anticipating three major exhibitions next year: one at the Bates College Museum of Art, another at the Portland Public Library (“for their 150th birthday and my 100th,” she says) and also a gallery show.
“I never wanted to be a celebrity,” she says. “I have kind of sat back and let things come to me.”
And Maine is the better for it.
For more about Ipcar’s work: http://www.exitfive.com/dahlov/