fb-pixel Skip to main content

‘Everything an artist does is probably a metaphor,’ said Lois Tarlow, who died at 92

Lois Tarlow in New Mexico, in 2002.
Lois Tarlow in New Mexico, in 2002.

As a girl in Brockton, not yet school age, Lois Tarlow knew who she was and what she would do.

“As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be an artist. From the age of 4, I would spend many whole days drawing at the desk in the office of my father’s sole leather factory,” she wrote years later, at 90, and added: “Everyone told me that when I grow up, I will be an artist. Actually, I thought I already was one!”

Artist, teacher, and writer, Ms. Tarlow was a force in Boston’s art scene for decades, pushing back against the sexism she faced and carving out time to paint while raising three children in her Newton home.

Advertisement



She was 92 when she died Jan. 4, in Brigham and Women’s Hospital, of complications from injuries she had suffered in a fall that cut short a late life resurgence.

“Lois Tarlow: Material Vocabulary,” a 2019 retrospective at the Danforth Art Museum at Framingham State University, drew from seven decades of her work. At the time of her death, she was planning to put together a Danforth exhibition of her watercolors to coincide with her 95th birthday.

“She was indomitable,” said Jessica Roscio, director and curator at the Danforth. “She did seem like she was going to live forever. She was just unstoppable.”

Ms. Tarlow had to be resolute, coming of age in an era in which, she later recalled, her male teachers made no secret that they considered women second-class citizens in the world of creativity.

At times her paintings and her approach to being an artist reflected her response to those obstacles, particularly in the years when she was raising her three sons and kept a distance between the art scene and her daily life.

Advertisement



“I did not want to be part of any group or compete in a man’s world,” she recalled in an artist’s statement for “Lois Tarlow: A Retrospective,” a 1986 exhibition at the Brockton Art Museum/Fuller Memorial.

Reviewing the 2019 Danforth show, Globe critic Cate McQuaid wrote that “by turns foreboding, astringent, and clarion, the exhibition traces her evolution from her origins as a figurative painter who studied with Karl Zerbe, a leading light of Boston figurative expressionism.”

Studying with Zerbe was a learning experience, and not just in the studio, Ms. Tarlow said years later.

“Zerbe did have his favorites and they weren’t women,” she told author Judith Bookbinder for her 2005 book “Boston Modern: Figurative Expressionism as Alternative Modernism.”

After Ms. Tarlow married Arthur Polonsky, a Boston Expressionist painter, “Zerbe said to me, ‘There can only be one artist in the family, and it certainly won’t be the woman.’ ”

Bristling at such barriers, and ultimately overcoming them, she created her own place among Boston’s artists. Along with painting, Ms. Tarlow held workshops on Great Cranberry Island in Maine, and in Taos, N.M.

In her late 80s Ms. Tarlow taught “a group called ‘Different Strokes,’ artists who work independently in isolation and seek some objective feedback,” she said in her artist’s statement for the Danforth exhibition.

Ms. Tarlow also was a writer, notably conducting interviews for Art New England magazine.

“The creative part of it for me was the introduction,” she explained during a museum presentation that was captured in a video posted online.

Advertisement



“The effect of it in my work is that I am interested in words,” she added. “Sometimes the title of a work comes before the work.”

And though the subjects she chose and the mediums in which she worked ranged widely, the art always was about “my life and surroundings at the time. Early on, it was about family dynamics, a rich resource both joyful and worrisome,” she wrote in her artist statement for the Danforth show.

“A piece of the self is in every work,” Roscio wrote in the catalog essay for that exhibition.

Ms. Tarlow wrote that her creativity often engaged in a sort of dialogue with her materials, “such as suggestions offered by handmade paper paired with responsive media. My work’s objectivity has become modified by suggestions in conversations with my experiences and media. It has become metaphors.”

Born in Brockton on Aug. 30, 1928, Lois Tarlow was a daughter of immigrants; Aaron Tarlow was from Poland and Sarah Fateles was from Romania, Bookbinder wrote. “Beginning with few resources, her father had built a successful business manufacturing leather shoe soles, and her parents were able to provide their daughter with private schooling.”

Ms. Tarlow was a teenager when she began studying life-drawing at Smith College and in private classes in Boston.

She then went to Goucher College in Baltimore, from which she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in art history, before attending what is now the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University, where renowned Boston Expressionist painter Hyman Bloom was among her teachers.

Advertisement



One day she read a Life magazine article about Arthur Polonsky, who became one of her teachers. They married in 1953 and had three children before the marriage ended in divorce.

“My mother never sat down and gave us art lessons, and neither did my father. They gave us the gift of individuality and creativity,” said their son Gabriel Polonsky of Belmont.

“Being an artist meant everything to her,” he said. “It was also an outlet for her stress and her daily life.”

Ms. Tarlow “was very creative and intelligent and very considerate,” said her son D.L. Polonsky of Allston. “When we had school plays, she would make the costumes — not just for us, but the whole cast.”

And her extended professional family reached far beyond the Newton household.

“She had a very large following of friends, students, and colleagues in the art world,” said her son Eli Polonsky of Somerville. “She was very well-loved.”

In addition to her sons, Ms. Tarlow leaves a sister, Natalie Glovsky of Beverly.

The family will announce a service after pandemic-related limitations on the size of gatherings are lifted.

Writing about Ms. Tarlow’s 1986 retrospective at the Brockton Art Museum, Globe critic Robert Taylor praised her “delicate, lyric art, a celebration of the rhythms of nature.”

Reviewing the 2019 Danforth exhibition, which included paintings inspired by visits to Vietnam, McQuaid wrote that Ms. Tarlow’s “tenacity and endless curiosity still push her from one idea, one project, one theme to the next: She does not stand still. But her work deepens and deepens.”

Advertisement



Roscio wrote in her catalog essay that Ms. Tarlow “strips the sentimentality out of what we may consider familiar, even comforting, subjects. Her work asks you to pause, take the time to look, engage in some mental exercise, and then most certainly be rewarded.”

In her museum talk that was posted online, Ms. Tarlow explained that “sometimes the work tells you what to do. You do one thing and it tells you what you should do next.”

And in the end, each work may exist on more than one level for the creator and the audience, she said: “I think everything an artist does is probably a metaphor.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.