INTERVIEW: Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Author of Touching the Art

Interview by Jenny Bartoy

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Book Cover: Touching the art. Title superimposed over colorful abstract art.In Touching the Art (Soft Skull Press, 2023), Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore examines her complicated relationship with her late grandmother, the Baltimore artist Gladys Goldstein. Both formative and reticent, Gladys upheld a steadfast middle class image that excepted Mattilda’s queerness and work as “vulgar.” Seeking to interrogate the ramifications of her grandmother’s art-making philosophy and abandonment, Mattilda begins by touching her art.

Blending memoir, criticism, social history, and so much more, Touching the Art excavates the many legacies that form a person and guide them, as an artist, a family member, or simply a human navigating complex systems of power and privilege.

Mattilda Berstein Sycamore has authored six books including the novel The Freezer Door, a New York Times Editors’ Choice, and the memoir The End of San Francisco, winner of a 2014 Lambda Literary Award. She has also edited several nonfiction anthologies, most recently Between Certain Death and a Possible Future: Queer Writing on Growing Up with the AIDS Crisis.

I connected with the author and activist over Zoom for a deep and layered conversation about writing, trauma, creativity, the myths that families uphold, and the many ways in which we can touch the art.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jenny Bartoy: What was your initial vision for this book and how did the process of writing it either fulfill or thwart it?

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: When I started to write the book, I knew that it was going to be about my relationship with my grandmother. But I didn’t know anything else. I started by literally touching her art. She was an abstract painter, and she made collages. So I started by touching her handmade paperworks in order to feel what would come through. I wanted that felt sense of the work to guide the book.

And what came up first, of course, was writing about the art itself, the process that she used to make these densely layered abstract works. Then there were memories of spending time with her in her studio or seeing her making the work. Part of that was I needed to figure out a language, a way to write about abstraction on its own terms. So, in a sense, I was starting abstractly, but also, I was starting with touch, and what can be more concrete than that? Those two impulses — toward abstraction and toward touch — guide the book.

What also came up very fast in the book is trauma, especially the trauma of being sexually abused by my father, who was Gladys’s only child, and the trauma of her abandonment of me. I also didn’t know the book was going to be about Baltimore. But that’s the city that formed Gladys, and in order to write about her, I found that I had to move to Baltimore. And that’s another way of “touching the art,” right?

So there’s the everyday experience of being in Baltimore, but then there’s also the historical, the familial, and then the legacy of art: that childlike excitement that I still feel, the legacy of Gladys nourishing everything that made me different as a child.

And then there’s the larger legacy of Jewish assimilation and white flight and structural racism and their interconnection, and then also the legacy of modernism and abstract expressionism and Gladys facing misogyny and negotiating a place for herself in a world that really didn’t have space for women artists. I didn’t know, originally, that these intertwining legacies were going to be a part of the book. I did not expect that expansiveness when I started, and I think by not having an expectation it allowed for that to be possible.

JB: What kind of research did this book entail? Did certain topics of inquiry surprise you as you dove deeper and made certain associations?

MBS: I started the book in 2017 with my own archive that I had not realized was an archive. As I said, Gladys sort of nourished everything that made me different and queer as a child, but then all of that became vulgar to her. That was the word she used when I was like 19 or 20. And as I thought about that moment, which I was trying to understand from a variety of angles, I realized that I had the letters from that time period, that she sent me and that I sent her. So the archives started with that and then photos I got from her house after she died. There’s a scrapbook of her press clippings from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s at the Baltimore Museum of Art, and then an oral history with her at the Jewish Museum of Maryland.

Gladys moved to Baltimore in 1919 with her family when she was two and she lived there until her death in 2010. So I went to Baltimore in 2018 and I stayed there for 8 months. I was able to find Helen, who was her childhood best friend. Helen was 101, and she gave me so much information. That was incredible. And some of my research involved talking to my grandmother’s students and her neighbors, because her generation, her siblings, all of her contemporaries essentially are dead now. From there, I did sort of in-person sensory work, going to places where we went when I was a kid or going to Gladys’s childhood home that she never told me about or the house where she raised my father. After that trip, I really immersed myself in research, especially about Baltimore, about redlining, about structural racism, about the Jewish history of Baltimore, about Jewish assimilation, and then also about the women of abstract expressionism.

And sometimes, something would draw my attention. For example, Gladys grew up on the dividing line between white and black in Baltimore in a legally segregated city. And that segregated mentality existed throughout her life. I was trying to understand what it was like growing up on that dividing line, and I realized Billie Holiday was almost an exact contemporary of hers. She grew up in Baltimore until she was about 13 or 14, and jazz is abstract art. So I read seven books about Billie Holiday, including her memoir.

JB: Let’s talk about craft briefly. This book is written in the present tense, which tends to pull the reader into the immediacy of a story, but you push this even further and write in the present moment — as you explore, observe, and discover. Considering the extensive amount of research you did, this book could have taken a different form, perhaps with more distance or synthesis. Why did you choose to root your storytelling and analysis in the immediate present? 

MBS: I think it is that sense of immediacy that I’m after. This book is a fusion of memoir, biography, criticism, and social history, and I could have written in a more traditional way in any of those genres. But I’m not a historian, right? And I want to disrupt that biographical impulse that kind of smooths over and makes things clearer than they actually are. Instead, I want to lay things side by side and show the gap, because the gaps to me are where possibility emerges. Possibility for questions, possibility for feeling, possibility for a more sensory kind of understanding that might not be possible in any of those other forms.

In a more conventional biography or history, the author isn’t even there. They wrote the whole thing but we never hear anything about that. But for me, there are these uncomfortable moments that I wanted to keep present, partially of course, because the book is about my relationship with Gladys — and it’s not just about Gladys. I think that kind of writing is more honest. The immediate present tense allows for a more complicated experience.

Headshot of Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, a Jewish woman in purple hat with pink flower, blue scarf.

JB: This story is told in short bursts. They range from vignettes or single thoughts, to deeper exploration and biographical or historical essay-like installments. The format reminded me of journal entries, due to the intimate present voice, but also of collage or even of walking through an art gallery and becoming immersed in each piece of art in turn — which felt very meta. Why did you gravitate toward this format? 

MBS: I love your experience of it. I do think it is like a visual work in terms of the form. You find something and you lay it side by side with something else to see what it looks like, right? I write toward feeling and I write toward the gaps, not so that I can close them, but so I can open them up. I’m really interested when I’m creating a text, or this text in particular, in that it’s not just about what I’m saying, but about how each part relates to the others, and how they are in conversation. In my initial writing, I write it all without breaks. For example, I probably wrote more than 200 pages just describing Gladys’s art. Now in the book, that might be like 30 or 40 pages total. So much of my process is about that cutting. So that the work can fit together but also fit apart. Although I don’t think collage was my direct intention, it is literally what I’m writing about, so it makes perfect sense. And I like that effect. It’s like touching the art in the text itself.

JB: Yes, I’m thinking about the sensory experience of reading a book like yours which is so thought-provoking, where I am moved to underline or dog-ear or annotate, and this resonates. Your story weaves between zooming in closely and zooming out broadly. For example, on the page, you examine Gladys’s artwork almost as if under a microscope and dissect certain interactions; and then you broaden your scope to the history of Baltimore and the mid-century abstract art movement. You go down specific rabbit holes like Billie Holiday’s youth but then you tackle sweeping topics like gentrification, misogyny, and racism. Tell me about this balancing act on the page.

MBS: In a way zooming in is what allows for the zooming out to take place and it came very organically. I think the order of the book is relatively close to how I wrote it. But the form and structure came in the editing process. A lot of my editing was about voice. I wanted the voice to remain as consistent as possible. For example, I was really interested in the Billie Holiday stuff but I didn’t know how it fit into the story. Similarly, the history of Jewish assimilation in Baltimore was one of the hardest parts to write because it is very densely historical, but I wanted it to keep as close as possible to the voice of the book. I think that consistency of voice is the way that I’m able to maintain this kind of balance.

It starts with my experiential investigation. It starts with touching the art itself and then all of these other things come out of that. Keeping the sense of exploration in the text is what allows it to just stay more present, rather than imposing a structure from the outside. The structure is coming from the writing and the research and the walking around Baltimore, instead of the other way around.

And something that I only really realized as I was writing, is that a lot of Gladys’s philosophy about art or practice of making art do end up being very central, in different ways, to my writing approach. It’s interesting because so much of what she later found vulgar in me was what I learned from her!

JB: About Gladys, you state, ‘I’m writing a book about how our relationship endures. But this is a relationship through her art. This book wouldn’t exist if Gladys were alive, because I wouldn’t have realized I missed her.’ I’m curious about this desire to find connection in loss, to uncover meaning in estrangement. What did this new relationship born through art bring you that your actual relationship with Glady didn’t?

MBS: Oh, that’s a great question. After Gladys died in 2010, and I went to her house and had time to spend in her studio, in this environment that has meant so much to me, I think it was then that I realized how much it would have meant to me for her to engage with me as an artist. And that was something she refused to do. She never, as far as I know, ever read any of my books. I would go to her studio. She would ask me my opinion on her work, and I would give her critique and she respected it. But she didn’t ever engage with me in that way. And she was the only person in my birth family who could have. So, in a way, that was the genesis of this book. Maybe paradoxically that made me want to engage more deeply with her work and offer, in some ways, what she never offered to me.

That process has brought me emotionally closer and also further away. Understanding how the segregated mentality of Baltimore and everyday racism formed or limited her perspective helps me to understand her worldview. Even though she would have seen herself as very liberal and forward-thinking — and when she was talking about art, she certainly was — she never went back to the neighborhood where she grew up, which was six miles from where she lived, because it had become a Black neighborhood. And what I learned from these explorations also helps me to understand my discomfort with growing up in an assimilated Jewish family, and how upward mobility camouflaged structural, intimate, and familial violence.

Looking at the generational notions that formed her, or her contemporaries, gives me this intimacy with Gladys’s history. And that deepens my connection with her art, even as it also deepens my critiques of her. It also made me think about history not as something that exists in the past, but a living, breathing experience that is also part of the present. That stretches out into the text but also into my life and gives me a kind of camaraderie I might not have expected.

JB: Speaking of history, it’s important to question who records it and why, and I think this critical approach can also apply to family narratives. You write about the lies families tell to move forward and how your voice and story were left out of your family’s approved narrative. I’d love to know your thoughts on this, how families tend to be their own propaganda machine and how it feels to be the one on the outside.

MBS: We’re taught that we can separate these things, but trauma is always there. The particular type of family that I grew up in was upwardly mobile, white, Jewish, assimilated, educated, liberal. I know that that status always camouflages violence in my experience. What I want to do is disrupt the notion that family at its core can be seen as an unquestioned place of nurture without all the other things. Some people are like, my family beat me up, but in the end, they really cared about me, and I’m like, well, let’s talk about all of it: talk about how they beat you up and talk about how they cared about you.

When I was 21, I confronted my father about abusing me, and I told him that I would never speak to him again unless he could come to terms with that. And he was a psychiatrist — he had every access to come to terms with it and he never did. But 11 years later, he was dying of terminal cancer, and I decided to visit him. That was one of the most important things I ever did because I was able to feel everything. In that moment, when I walked into the family room where I grew up, where he’s in his hospital bed on morphine, he has this expression of pure elation that I’ve showed up. Like, he was waiting for me, and he loves me right now. That makes the violence worse to me. And his absolute refusal to acknowledge the abuse right up until the very end — I was telling him that this would change my life, he was going to die but he could still do this for me. But he refused.

Family is of course one of the original myth-making machines. As long as people believe the myth, then it punishes telling the truth — certainly in my case. In reading the letters I got from Gladys when I confronted my father, she’s asking me, why are you hurting him, why are you hurting us? How do you expect me to go on living? Then her later response was in some ways worse, because she said I was enacting harm by forcing the family to deal with the truth, which they refused.


“Family is of course one of the original myth-making machines. As long as people believe the myth, then it punishes telling the truth.”—Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

JB: Sadly, I think it’s not uncommon for the family member who speaks up about violence and abuse to be silenced. Connected to this, I have one last question. I found Gladys to be a study in contradiction, both in who she was and in how she related to you. She was so formative in shaping your artful mind, yet so controlling about its expression. She seesawed between bucking normalcy as an artist, and embracing convention in her role as a woman. You write movingly about how these contradictions confused and affected you. What did you learn about your grandmother, or perhaps about yourself, through this project and the contradictions you uncovered? 

MBS: I don’t think contradiction is necessarily a problem. The problem is when you enact harm. Gladys is in many ways the most formative person for me. I could imagine a creative life because I was living it with her in her studio. To her, art meant everything, and living in the world was a process of seeing and engaging with creative possibility, always. You go outside and you see the light shining on a piece of trash on the street, and you’re like, wow, look at that piece of art, right? I don’t think she ever literally said that, but Gladys enacted that myth that art meant everything, and I believed it. That is the essential thing that she gave me. That’s how I walk around the world. But later, when I was coming into my own as an artist and activist, as a faggot and a queen, radical, queer, and flamboyant, all of that died. That was all vulgar to her. And I can’t tell one story without the other. They are the same story.

As a child, I thought she was living this artist’s life that was outside of this violent world. And that was a myth that she projected. To her everything was about attention to detail and beauty, but that had to take place within middle class respectability. That was the thing I did not realize as a child. And even though it was a myth, it still saved me. This is how I came to think that we have to challenge the status quo. And usually the status quo is the world that we grew up with. But she didn’t believe in any of that; she believed that creative life existed within that. Her way of thinking about queerness was that it didn’t matter. An artist can be queer as long as it doesn’t matter. That was the liberated way for her generation. It’s never spoken.

But nothing is ever neutral. I don’t even think a piece of abstract art can be neutral. There’s a whole legacy of everything that forms the art, and it continues to form the art. And in the book, I’m trying to disrupt that mechanism that says we can’t touch the art and by implication is saying that we can’t touch our legacy, we can’t touch history, we can’t disrupt the status quo, that we can’t challenge racism or structural violence or misogyny, we can’t challenge structural homophobia or sexual abuse or trans exclusion, we can’t challenge the way that these institutions are built, we can’t challenge the way that the ideology of art preserves the violence of the status quo. For me, part of “touching the art” means disrupting all of that and allowing something more alive to come through.

Meet the Contributor

Headshot of contributor Jenny BartoyJenny Bartoy is a French-American writer and editor based in the Pacific Northwest. She is the editor of Broken Free: Writers on Estrangement, a collection currently in development. Her work appears in The Boston GlobeThe Seattle TimesCrimeReadsChicago Review of BooksThe RumpusRoom, and the anthology Sharp Notions: Essays from the Stitching Life, among other publications. You can find her at or on Instagram @jbartoywriter.

Share a Comment