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In 1987, artist Sharon Bond Brown rescued several trash bags of letters, photographs, and mementos from the alley behind her Denver home. The “detritus,” as Brown calls it, belonged to her neighbor, Virginia, and spanned the golden, prewar years between the 1930s and the early 1940s. Brown, now 67, spent the next 25 years recreating that slice of Virginia’s life in a series of oil paintings inspired by the photographs and letters. This month, the Lakewood Heritage Center puts the collection on display with a solo show called Virginia: A Life.
How did you come to know Virginia?
We were neighbors from 1977 to 1987. Her husband, Ed, had emphysema, and when he died, she was put in a nursing home. Her son hired someone to come clear out the house. My neighbor—who was an inveterate garage-sale kind of person—started pawing through the stuff in the alley, in the trash. She called me over and I picked up a letter from 1937, read the first line, and said, “I’ve got to save this stuff!”
What was that first line?
I don’t even remember [laughs]. The letters are from her time in New York; I have four volumes from 1937 to ’45. Virginia was a secretary at McCann Erickson in New York. It’s a snapshot of the era [points to photos]. Look at how well-dressed everybody was! I mean look at these furs! But the truth is they were counting nickels everywhere. Virginia may look like a million bucks, but she always sent money home to her mom in Denver.
Why do the letters stop at 1945?
Once she and Ed got married and moved back to Denver, that was the end of the letters. They’re sort of like a recording of the negative space between them. When they’re together, you have no record. It’s only when they’re apart, which I find really touching
Did the letters change your perception of who Virginia was?
Yes. She became a fleshed-out person. I only knew Virginia at the end of her life, when she was shuffling around in the neighborhood. In her youth she was quite glamorous.
You were working from black-and-white photos. How did you choose colors for your paintings?
I have a friend who gave me a book of textiles from the ’30s, and in terms of the colors that were current then, I tried to be authentic with my colors.
How many paintings have you made of Virginia?
Oh, I’ve lost count. More than 80. I really loved the era because everybody was so darned good-looking. And I loved the idea of celebrating someone when they’re at their best, their healthiest, their most beautiful. I loved the contrast between the woman I knew and this woman.