Ilana Simons, a painter and literature professor, began painting portraits on cakes, then switched to plates. Pictured is her paper plate portrait of her muse, Virginia Woolf.
Portraits of greats, served on plates
By Kelly Kingman
Ilana Simons relationship to her greatest muse, Virginia Woolf, began inauspiciously. I was assigned To the Lighthouse in college and I hated it, says Ilana Simons, a painter and literature professor in her early thirties. Its clear the story has changed since then. Im sitting with Simons among her portraits of famous artists, authors and philosophers in the Lower East Side Girls Club gallery space and a large canvas of Woolf dominates the room. And Simons book, A Life of Ones Own: A Guide to Better Living through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf, was just published by Penguin. My feeling was oh weve reached the token feminist for the semester. Like Woolf, I care a lot about the feminine, but I get turned off by the word feminism because this seems to divide the world into two antagonistic categories. I had to trip across her on my own. I think youve got to read her in bed with a bottle of wine utterly digging into privacy, a room of your own to feel ownership and love of her.
Simons explains that Woolf understood that our relationship to the greats could be intimidating. In order to contribute to that conversation you need to accept your peculiar brushstroke, says Simons, which in her case has turned out to be quite literal. The L.E.S. Girls Club exhibit is only the second showing of her paintings, a private hobby until now. During her first year in New York, Simons, who now lives in Hamilon Heights, ran a part-time business painting portraits on cakes with food coloring but eventually switched to paper plates as her substrate. I painted on cakes because I wanted to sell portraits, but I never took the time to learn the complex chemistry of baking. Result: drippy flopped cakes, she recalls with a smirk. When I put Marx and Darwin on a paper plate it is a feminist statement. It seems to echo the domesticity that Woolf must have been burdened with. Virginia didnt go to college like her brothers did, she spent all day scribbling in her third-floor bedroom, carving out her own relationship to books, says Simons. She hated the idea that you needed to be a highbrow college graduate to get the Big Ideas.
Simons lifelong fascination with the big thinkers has led her on a winding path through academia. I started off thinking I was going to be a philosopher, but eventually I realized I wasnt really interested in some abstract truth but how my ego forces me to act in certain ways. At the end of her doctoral program she decided she was not headed for literary criticism, either. I was at a party after recently graduating with my Ph.D. and was talking to a fellow student about how wed love to turn everything we just learned into something marketable. There are so many things I love about what Virginia Woolf had to say, and I wanted to write this non-academic book about that. The portraiture has added another facet to her career. My first show of the plates, earlier this summer, was exciting because some faces in the show ended up with their own. Joyce Carol Oates friend bought her plate for Joyce for her birthday. Ive been commissioning some faces doing peoples favorite writers or friends. She hopes to do more commissions and expand her repertoire of authors.
Simons also shares Woolfs fascination with peoples motivations and interactions, so much so that she is currently pursuing a masters degree in clinical psychology. The thing Woolf does best is in a scene youll really get the emotions that are operating. Thats why her books are delicious for me. With a Ph.D. in literature from New York University, the Miami native has spent a great deal of time with the likes of Nietzsche, Marx and Hegel. A section in her book describes a walk she took in the woods, getting lost in the words of Plato. The paintings are a way to get to know the greats she reads and teaches. Painting their faces is like a conversation, its intimacy for me, it gives me a sense of creative possibility in the relationship with this otherwise unavailable thinker. It reminds me to allow my own perspective into my reading of some author.
Her book, part memoir, part self-help and a touch of thesis, includes lessons from Woolf that Simons has applied to her own life. For me shes all about ego were all built in with this ego muscle that makes us feel more right than other people, says Simons. There are so many times when you, in your relationship with someone, think this person is a total idiot. But you can practice ego control, doing this kind of masochistic exercise, just repeating to yourself theyre not an idiot. As for the feminist label, Simons hesitates. Im a psychologist-in-training. I want to learn how people, gender aside, can best listen to and learn from one another.