It gets lost on the resume she handed me, but it’s there, it truly is: “Stepford wife, New Canaan, Connecticut.” Like a musical joke secreted within a symphony, it’s tucked between “Supervisor, GE, Syracuse” and “founding member of Arts Council.” I didn’t notice it until I sat down to write.
J. Ellen G. Austin, sculptor, and owner of the JEGA Gallery & Sculpture Garden on A Street in Ashland, may have “buried the lead” in her resume, but I suspect she knew I’d find the zombie housewife reference from the film The Stepford Wives irresistible. (The 2004 remake of the movie was filmed, in part, in the New York City suburb of New Canaan.)
In fact, while Austin’s stone sculpture is certainly sensuous, sublime and worthy of ink, it had been her line, “I used to be a Stepford wife, yes I did, darling,” delivered in a hilarious and painfully perfect New England Brahmin accent, that had initially intrigued me.
Meeting her now, at age 85, her wit and her sculpting skills chisel sharp, it seems incomprehensible that Austin bore even the slightest resemblance to the fawning, submissive suburban housewives of the movie. Listening to her stories, I sensed her life as a self-portrait in stone, a work in the hands of a master sculptor, continually chipping away to reveal the artist’s essence.
Of course, it wasn’t Austin’s hand on the chisel when she was growing up a tomboy with three brothers in upstate New York. Her grandma paid her boarding school tuition “because she wanted me to be a lady.”
“Did it work?” I asked. “I could curtsy for you,” she said with a twinkle. The comment, though meant to elicit a smile, was an affirmation from a chameleon who had learned to play the role, palatable or not.
Defying her desire to attend college in the big bad cities of New York and Chicago, her parents directed her to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she studied psychology. In the telling, Austin breaks out with a cheerleader chant in a syrupy southern drawl:
“I’m a Tarheel born, I’m a Tarheel bred, and when I die I’m a Tarheel dead. Rah Rah Carolina!” There, she met and married “a Tidewater Virginian from the FFV.” “FFV?” “First Families of Virginia. Where have you been?” she scolds, coquettishly cocking an eye.
“They didn’t like me because I was a damn Yankee.” Compounding the animus, she went ahead and gave birth to a baby girl. “I was disowned for not having a boy.” With her husband’s death in a car crash a few years later, Austin and her daughter retreated to New York State where she took a job with General Electric in a division selling electronic military equipment. Slipping seamlessly into the snooty New England accent, Austin described meeting the “proper New England man” then moving to Connecticut and into the role of the Stepford wife. “It’s where I became ‘very proper.’
“I was doing exactly what I should have been doing, darling,” she said. “Everything had to be done in its right time, my husband’ s martini had to be just right, a twist no lemon. I had to pick up the children from school, meet my husband at the commuter train, get the children ready for bed. Everything had to be proper, just exactly right.” As the president of the local PTA, a board member for a new fine arts center, and a tennis player, Austin appeared not only to fit in, but to flourish in the role.
Still, to survive the “proper” lifestyle, Austin “escaped” to work as an apprentice at a bronze foundry in Norwalk, rubbing shoulders with a crew of Yale MFAs. “I’d go there by day and come back to be the Stepford wife.” It was only after Austin and her husband Stuart moved to Newport Beach, Calif.—she was in her mid-50s by then and a practicing art therapist—that she began her romance with stone sculpture. Working on the sun deck and in the garage, she studied with Italian masters, “infiltrating” the art colony in Laguna Beach.
“I discovered that I loved to pound rock,” she said.
“What was the attraction?” I asked.
“I didn’t like housework,” she deadpanned. “That’s not entirely a joke, but pounding stone is easier. I certainly wasn’t a Stepford wife anymore….my poor husband.”
About 20 years ago, a few years after moving to Ashland, Austin bought property from the railroad, designing and building the triplex on A Street. (Her husband Stuart died about 10 years ago.) Each of the three units features gallery and studio space downstairs and living space above. She lives and works in one, renting out the others. With no neighbors at the time, she could pound whenever she felt the call. While most of her work in the gallery—in stone, wood and mixed media—is abstract, visitors to the gallery get a kick out of Austin’s unmistakable anatomical focus. “I got tired of people just doing breasts all the time,” she said. “I wanted to do the bottom part for a challenge.”
Along with a sculpture of particularly sensual buttocks, chiseled from a block of Carrara marble, there’s a similar, more abstract, piece carved from a found chunk of avocado wood titled “Kick Ass.” That’s in “honor,” she says, “of George Bush. “Note,” she adds, “the constriction.”