I grew up in Newport Beach — this affluent little beach town in Southern California. Much of my childhood had looked like those exuberant Rococo era paintings from the 18th century, but replace the hoop skirts and powdered wigs with lululemon leggings and “natural” blondes. As a kid, I remember eating breakfast at the kitchen table while I watched my mom work on water color paintings of the homes she designed. My dad would take care of the blue hydrangeas he planted in the garden, because they were the flowers he and my mom had at their wedding. It was picturesque.
What I’ve found I loved most about being able to go back home to Newport Beach is that the city is caught in time. It’s this warphole of banana stands and beaches — it’s not reality, but this little dream by the shore where the kids would grow up to be Olympians and the botox wasn’t for migraines. But with all this came a huge culture of materialism, which meant closets were always well stocked with Juicy Couture velour tracksuits.
Newport and all its opulence seemed so consistent, but even it was affected in the 2008 recession. All of a sudden, families who owned multiple homes were going bankrupt. Foreclosure signs were popping up in people’s front lawns as frequently as McCain 2008 signs. Houses were emptying out, and with that came the airing out of quite a bit of dirty laundry.
Not that Newport didn’t already have its network of Desperate Housewives-esque gossip, but when the housing market crashed, things got bad. All of sudden, secret families were being revealed, whispers of a suicide crawled through the neighborhood, and covert affairs were as common as moms in white Audis.
Maybe it had always been this way, or maybe I had just gotten old enough to understand that not everything is perfect behind a white picket fence. And even though I’m here relaying neighborhood gossip from almost a decade back, it doesn’t make me and my own family exempt from the dissolution that was happening all around us.
During the peak of the housing market, about 2006, my parents decided that it was a good time to finally invest in a home renovation. I remember my mom, an interior designer of about 20 years, was thrilled. She had always described me and brother as the “shoemaker’s children without any shoes” because, despite her career, we lived in a crumbling little portofino that hadn’t been touched since the ‘60s.
About a third of the way through the renovation, the recession of 2008 came crashing in. What was meant to be a two-year project turned out to be a five-year liability that my parents dragged with them through the recession.
I always joked that my mom was a home maker, but never a homemaker. She built her own design firm and has been able to send me and my brother through college by doing what she was passionate about, but her success didn’t come from waking up every morning to take us to school or help us with our homework.
To excel in a field, especially an artistic one, requires a certain obsession that my mother still carries with her. I can’t remember a time when my mother wasn’t working. Even when she had cancer a few years before the recession, I remember visiting her in the hospital — surrounded by carpet samples and design magazines.
But in 2008 when people were losing their houses, the last thing they needed was for someone to come in and revamp their kitchens and baths. Nevertheless, the stagnancy in the market didn’t stop my mom from working. On the contrary, she worked harder than I ever saw her work, but it constantly came to dead ends. The obsession with her work grew and with that came a great deal of distance between her and the rest of my family. By 2012, we had gotten through the renovation, but there were no more blue hydrangeas in the backyard.
Now when I look back on the Rococo-esque image of my childhood, I can’t help but to see the dark little details in the images. Many people have dismissed Rococo art because they feel it lacks substance, but I think growing up in such a ridiculous, lavish place like Newport Beach has made me able to find a lot of dimension in these seemingly utopian paintings. They aren’t all just Fragonard’s girls on swings. There’s quite a lot of darkness and decay hidden in Rococo paintings, but the gaudiness of its subject distracts from it all.
In a lot of ways I’m grateful for this distracting gaudiness. It creates a certain illusion that beauty and wealth can be preserved forever, and sometimes this illusion isn’t too bad.
Annalise Kamegawa writes the Thursday arts & entertainment column on a life of shifting artistic identities. Contact her at [email protected].