A New Chapter for Christina Schlesinger

“All True Tomboys”
Christina Schlesinger was framed by the view of the woods behind her Springs studio while she showed her new mixed-media portraits. Mark Segal

In the early 1990s, when she was in working toward her M.F.A. at Rutgers, Christina Schlesinger was feeling lost. “I asked myself, ‘When did I feel great?’ and I decided it was when I was a tomboy. I had all this energy and spunk.” She embarked on a series of works she calls “Tomboys.” Each piece consists of a photo of her as an adolescent screened on pieces of her old clothing — jeans, flannel shirts, and T-shirts — that were then attached to canvas and painted.

Two other series, “Dildos” and “Lesbian Sex,” were painted at the same time. Much of the work was sexually explicit. “I had all this work, but people weren’t ready to show it. Fast forward to now, with all the changes toward gay people that have happened so rapidly.” About a year ago she went to a meeting at the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York City. She asked the museum’s director, Hunter O’Hanian, to look at her work.

The result was “All True Tomboys,” an exhibition organized by the museum at the Prince Street Project Space in January. Several of the “Tomboys” paintings had been shown at the Ross School in 2012, and “Hands on Hips, Pink,” one of the dildo paintings, appeared on the Ms. magazine blog to illustrate a series of poems by Mary Meriam titled “Subverting the ‘Girlie’ Calendar.” In 2016, works from the series will be shown in a group show at the Schwules Museum in Berlin.

The “Tomboys” paintings fit snugly within a body of work that draws on images from all aspects of Ms. Schlesinger’s life, much of it informed by a collage aesthetic that combines images with other materials. “Now that I’m at the other end of my life, I’m thinking of who can be my mentors as I’m getting older. And I thought of my grandmothers. Grandmother Schlesinger was a suffragette, and Grandmother Cannon wrote books and was a classmate of Gertrude Stein.”

She showed a visitor a series of new portraits in her Springs studio, including one of her paternal grandmother and several of friends. The images are painted on pieces of paper that are taped together and mounted on old cotton sheets. “I think of them as very light, like flags or banners.”

The scraps of paper are recycled pages from notebooks, lesson plans, and handouts from her 10 years of teaching eighth-grade cultural history at the Ross School. Ms. Schlesinger had never been to the East End until she received a call from Courtney Ross in 1995, while she was working on a mural on Los Angeles. “I flew from L.A. to East Hampton, stayed at the Pink House, and at the end of the day they offered me the job. The whole trip was 24 hours.”

Teaching comes naturally to Ms. Schlesinger, who taught at York Prep in Manhattan from 2005 to 2008, was an artist in residence at the East End Arts Council in Riverhead in June, and taught an encaustic class at the Art Barge in August.

While she finds encaustic “a fun medium that gives you a lot of options,” since she was diagnosed in 2008 with Stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, “it kind of scared me into using more water-based paint. I don’t work with oil anymore. I was sick for two years, after which I tried to teach full time, but found I didn’t have the energy.”

The teaching tradition goes back at least to her grandfather, Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr., who taught history at Harvard, and passed through her father, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., an historian, social critic, and author of, among many other titles, the three-volume “The Age of Roosevelt” and “A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House.” He had been a speechwriter and adviser for President Kennedy and served as special assistant for Latin American affairs during his administration.

“My dad was charismatic and charming,” she said. “I had fantastic experiences because of him and met all kinds of people, from Marlene Dietrich to Fritz Lang to all the Kennedys and Adlai Stevenson. When we were growing up he wanted to make sure we came downstairs to meet everybody.”

“I think my lineage is something I’ve always struggled with. The thing about having really successful parents is that it’s hard to feel you can measure up. You get that reflected fame, but you have to figure out your own life, which is separate from theirs. It’s been a blessing and a blight. It looks easy, but it’s tricky.”

Ms. Schlesinger attended Radcliffe College, from which she graduated cum laude as an English and fine arts major. From 1971 to 1980 she lived in Venice, Calif., where she became involved with feminism and community art. She studied at Cal Arts with Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro, but left to co-found the Citywide Mural Project with Judy Baca and, subsequently, SPARC, the Social and Public Art Resource Center.

She spent the 1980s in New York City, where she participated in numerous group exhibitions and joined the Guerrilla Girls, the anonymous political activists who confronted sexism and racism in the art world. During the 1990s she created several public art projects, including “Chagall Comes to Venice Beach,” which has been declared an iconic mural of Los Angeles.

Ms. Schlesinger and her domestic partner, Nan Fried, who teaches visual art at the Fieldston School, have been together for more than 30 years. In 1999 they traveled to China to adopt their daughter, Chun, who was almost 2 years old at the time.

“Adopting Chun was the best and most meaningful thing I’ve done in my life. When we were there, they asked us to wait in our hotel until they brought her there. When she was 11, we decided to return to the village with Chun. I had imagined this bucolic place, but it turned out it was a mining town built in the Soviet style. It was grim, polluted, and the orphanage was a concrete building on the side of a highway.” The orphanage had no information about Chun’s background, as she had been left on its doorstep.

“Being a mom led to my ‘Dorothy’ series of large, mixed-media canvases based on a 1950s coloring book of ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ That was when I began the practice of adhering materials to canvas as part of the painting.”

Chun attended the Springs School from kindergarten through second grade and then transferred to Fieldston. She just left for her freshman year at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. “Her college application essay started off, ‘When people ask me if I have my mother’s face or my father’s eyes, I can’t answer that.’ ”

Ms. Schlesinger divides her time between a loft in TriBeCa and a house on Deep Six Drive in Springs that she purchased in 1999. She also spends several weeks each summer at a family house on Cape Cod. “I don’t really like TriBeCa anymore. I don’t know anybody on the streets, and all the old stores and restaurants are being replaced by banks and nail salons. Now that Chun is in college, things will be different. I used to have to go back to New York City every fall because she was going to Fieldston, but now I have more latitude.”

As a result of that freedom, she was able to accept a job as a leave replacement teacher at Ross for the fall semester. She also plans to go to Los Angeles during the winter to refurbish the Chagall mural and see some old friends from her years there. “I feel I’m beginning a new chapter in my life,” she said.