There are people with full lives, and there is Sandy Rosen.
Sandy had too many ideas for one brain and one body. This is my exclusively biased reflection on Sandy, her life, my relationship with her, and what she meant to me.
So many things that connected me to her are likely things that caused hardship in her relationships with others. In some way, it feels greedy to only represent my own perspective because, as she would remind me, the truth depends on who you ask, and what lies between.
In many ways, my mom was the most Jewish person I’ve ever known. She had a hair-trigger reaction to injustice. She delighted in words and wordplay (she spoke German and French and a smattering of Spanish) and her speech was often peppered with yiddish, only the more evocative words: Schmuck. Shmata. Chazzerai. Schlemiel. Schlep. She loved to cuss. She had a huge vocabulary which she transferred to me. Language at its highest and most soaring, and language at its earthiest and most profane.
Anything she loved, she loved deeply. Yet so deeply, it felt like smothering. Smother loving. She was a voracious learner, reader, studier, and thinker.
Sandy saw a spark in everything and anything, she truly found the sacred and divine in the everyday, and yet rebelled against the mundane and predictable. Her art was that of a ravenous collector. Some of my best days were Saturdays that she took me with her down to her studio on 8th street. It was one huge room with high ceilings big enough for her to work her canvases. It was filled with every art material you could think of.
But also ephemera. Shit she ripped out of newspapers and tacked to the wall, matchbook covers, the little plastic trays that used to hold chocolate covered cherries; fabric, wax, lint, costume jewelry, detergent bottles, dried dumplings, tiny plastic ballerina cake toppers. Sandy taught me that every object had an inner life. It had a purpose and a design, and almost everything had another life, depending on what you did to it, or what context you put it in.
Mom would let me make my own art from whatever I wanted. Sometimes the radio played, sometimes it was silent, just her and I making art. For lunch we always had rice cakes with peanut butter and jelly and room temperature Tab or Diet Coke.
Her work explored and transformed spaces and created immersive environments, she made gallery halls into living areas where we were to imagine who lived in the space and what was happening there and what were we doing there as onlookers. Sometimes the items from those spaces would migrate back into our house as a decorative item, then migrate back into the art work.
Some of my favorite works of hers were from Vogues and Vanities, her exhibit from 1981 at the Tony Birckhead gallery in Cincinnati. Specifically, a mirror that she painted with make up and scrawled in lipstick the words “Do you love me?”
I also have a particular affection for pieces she created for The Dawn of Joy. Known as her soap bottle pieces, Sandy recognized the hidden life and history of soap bottles as objects of the domestic realm and at the same time icons of the female form. Indeed, when dish soap bottles were introduced, the connection was explicit. You could even order clothing or aprons for your dish soap bottle.
Sandy re-imagined these bottles as precious and individual. She cast them in Papier Mache and made devotional panels with the names of goddesses and matriarchs. She created plaster molds of the figures and poured hundreds of ceramic dish bottle blanks that she glazed in bright colors with flourishes of gold, or almost as bronze trophies.
Sandy’s art work was very personal, and often reflected her specific ideas about femininity, feminism, and her daily life. But to talk about what it was about is reductive of her art— her craft, execution, and her aesthetic. She was a painter by training but used every medium imaginable— printing, drawing, painting, sculpting, ceramics, curation. Her color palette was bold and expressive. She loved geometry and organic forms; patterns and textures.
Sandy was also the museum education director at the Contemporary Arts Center and the Taft Museum in Cincinnati, and she trained docents to give tours to groups especially of school children. Sandy passionately wanted kids to realize that what we call fine art is something that is accessible to anyone. I remember her describing her technique to me, and it is something I’ve deeply internalized. The first question she would always ask is, “What do you see?”
Do you know how few open ended questions we give kids? Where they can just express themselves? Here there are no wrong answers. Their hands SHOT UP. This conditioning was the bane of most of my teachers’ existences because I always had something to say, regardless of the question. My number one discipline issue was always “talks too much” and also “distracts others.” Thanks, mom.
Sandy loved big ideas and tactile things. I have never seen a person enjoy a piece of fruit the way she did. Mmm mmm mmm. She made little noises of enjoyment. She was very much in her own body, and always hungry for experiences that delighted her senses. One of my earliest memories of her was during the famous January blizzard of 1978.
The snow was up above the garbage cans. The deep freeze set in. And my mom decided to walk into the back yard of our house on Bishop street buck naked, as my dad and I watched from the kitchen above. She stood there for maybe a minute, looking around, and came back in. When I asked her why she did it, she said, “I just wanted to see what it would feel like.” “What did it feel like?” I asked. “Wonderful,” she said. “I would have stayed out there longer but my feet got cold.”
We may not have had a lot of money as I was growing up, but one thing Sandy always had for me was time. Sandy and I would walk down Ludlow Avenue to Skyline chili and sit at one of the tables in the window. We would sit there sometimes for a couple of hours. I would eat my chili dogs and she would eat her three way with beans, and we would watch the people in the cars at the intersection and make up stories about them. She was never in a hurry. We co-created through conversation, and my ideas were just as valid as hers. Then we’d stop and get an ice cream cone at Graeter’s for the walk home.
Sandy’s moral compass bent true north. Part of that was that she loved all that was different in one way or another. Diversity wasn’t so much a word or catchphrase then, but I grew up seeing her anger at racism and infringement on reproductive rights. Many of her close friends were lesbian or gay, and that was just a fact of life, not an issue. She encouraged me whenever I got hot and bothered about an issue to DO SOMETHING about it, but to always center people and victims in my advocacy. My comfort in front of a camera and an audience is attributable to watching her teach and give talks. To me, this was just a skill that we Rosen women had. Folks are lucky that she (and I) use ours mostly for good and not for evil.
Finally, Sandy was deeply defiant. She was sassy, sarcasatic, joking, and no one was immune. She would give you a glare that could cut right through you. After her hip replacement surgery a week and a half ago, she woke up to tell Rachel, “I could still kick Donald Trump in the balls.” In her final days in hospital, she fought. When offered a coloring book, she glared and calmly yet steely said, “I am a SERIOUS artist.” She flicked one of the care assistants off when he was joking with her. She patiently and politely told nurses “and all of your ilk” to leave her alone. The morning before she died, she almost successfully punched a care assistant.
When she broke her hip from a fall, we opted to do a hip replacement, hoping to restore her quality of life. Unfortunately, despite everyone’s best efforts, Sandy contracted aspiration pneumonia while recovering, and though the meds seemed to have her on the mend, her lungs collapsed, and as she said, it was “time to go bye-bye.” The last seven hours of her life I held her hand, we kept her as comfortable as possible. In an absolute stroke of divine luck, a plucky, deeply smart and funny Jewish young man named Sam Cooper was her care aid, and he held her other hand.
For seven hours, he interviewed me about her life. We knew she was listening. She reminded us— she grunted a little when she disagreed. A few times, the response was higher register— almost as if she was laughing. As the end drew near, Sam pulled up some Ella Fitzgerald on his phone, and we stopped talking. Sandy completely relaxed.
Sam held my hand and recited the kaddish prayer with me. I asked him to help me prepare her body by ritually washing it. The day she died was truly one of the hardest and most beautiful and transformative days of my life. As I told her, I knew she didn’t want me to be there, because she didn’t want me to see her suffer. But it was my deepest and greatest human honor to be with her as she finished her life. She gave birth to me. She attended the births of my two children. And now we closed the circle. Almost everything I am is because of choices she made.
May her memory be for a blessing.