The Epic in the Ordinary

The painting of Jacob Lawrence

The artist Jacob Lawrence died in Seattle on June 9. Reading his obituary in the New York Times, I looked up at the poster over my desk announcing a 1992 exhibit of his work at the Phillips Collection in Washington. It shows a painting with the number fifty-seven scrawled in the lower right corner. 57 depicts a black woman, head bent, laboring over a large washing trough pushing soaking clothes with a long pole. Against a background of gray, green, and black rectangles, an abstract rendering of wash hanging, she stands out, a stable triangle, in a white coverall. Her red washing pole, held straight up, seems to anchor her in place. Yellow, orange, gray, and black amorphous-shaped garments in the trough echo the colors of the abstract and rectangular ironing board, clothes hamper, and shadows behind her. She is at once sorrow and stability. Sadness and gratitude wash over me as I gaze at her.

Washing machines replaced the wash tub and their mechanical agitators replaced women poling their clothes in steaming, sudsy water. During World War II, washing machines were forfeited to the war effort, however, and my mother, like the woman on the poster, poled clothes in stationary tubs in our basement. A small child, I watched as she stirred and lifted my father’s work clothes and my sister’s diapers. Of course there was a difference: my mother was doing our family’s laundry. The woman in Lawrence’s painting was doing...

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About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.