An Interview with Twinka Thiebaud

(About a 5 minute read)

Note to Readers from Paul Sunstone:  This is a re-post from a now defunct blog of mine that will soon be deleted.  It was originally posted in December of 2011.  I think it still might be of general interest to people, so I’m re-posting it here to save it.

I was recently offered an opportunity to submit a few questions to Twinka Thiebaud in connection with reviewing her new book, What Doncha Know? About Henry Miller. Her answers to my questions struck me as quite interesting and I have included them in this post.  For those of you who are not familiar with Twinka, this is from the publicist’s biography of her:

Twinka Thiebaud is a former artist’s model who collaborated with many notable photographers of the 20th century.

“Imogen and Twinka,” created by Judy Dater in Yosemite National Park became one of the most recognizable and iconic images captured by an American photographer. In it, 92- year-old Imogen Cunningham, a groundbreaking photographer in her own right, confronts and locks gaze with Twinka, who appears as a wood nymph frozen before the camera’s lens. The image can been seen in private and major museum collections around the world.

For three years Twinka lived with the aging novelist Henry Miller in his Pacific Palisades home acting as his cook and caretaker while working as an artist’s model, posing for art students and other noted photographers Mary Ellen Mark, Arnold Newman, Lucien Clergue, Eikoh Hosoe, Ralph Gibson and her father American painter Wayne Thiebaud, among others. At home with Miller, Twinka was captivated and delighted along with other dinnertime guests and celebrities by the revered author’s nightly tales of his past exploits. Listening, she began to keep a notebook of her version of what he said each evening. Eventually showing him her notes, he expressed immense enthusiasm, encouraging her to write a book. The result is a compilation entitled What Doncha Know? About Henry Miller which includes both Miller’s intimate conversations and Twinka’s memoirs about the years she spent living under his roof and his lasting effect on her.

Twinka lives in Portland, Oregon and is working on a memoir entitled Twinka From Six to Sixty: Collected Images From the Life of an Artist’s Model.

And now, on to the questions and answers:

PAUL:  I recently reviewed your book, “What Doncha Know?” Do you have any comment on the review — anything to correct or add?

TWINKA: Thanks for the review of What Doncha Know? About Henry Miller. I was pleased to see you have a clear picture of what interests and intrigues me most of all: PEOPLE, with a capital P! Henry Miller was one of my greatest subjects of observation along with becoming a great friend and mentor. I think you summed up the book very well and I’m glad it left you wanting more. I would have liked to keep going but circumstances beyond my control created a sudden deadline I needed to honor. Your review captures, beautifully, the spirit in which I penned the book. Thanks again.

PAUL: How would you characterize Henry Miller’s sense of humor? Did the two of you laugh at the same things? Did you frequently get on a roll bouncing jokes off each other?

TWINKA: I’d like to report I had as great a sense of humor as Henry had at that time but that would be a lie. I was an anxious and uncertain young woman; full of drama and angst, usually looking on the darker side of things and not the humorous aspects of life. Aging has helped me gain a more finely tuned sense of the ridiculous and I laugh and make others laugh quite often.

Henry’s sense of humor was usually based on the stories he’d tell about his failed exploits and adventures and those of his friends. He could make fun of himself brilliantly and his characterizations of the quirky souls he’d run into along the road were positively hilarious.

PAUL: Henry Miller’s influence on you was remarkably positive. Based on that, what advice would you offer to people who find themselves in Henry’s position of mentoring a much younger person?

TWINKA: The first thing would be to remain positive in one’s approach. Henry was always incredibly supportive and caring in the way he spoke to me and others when things weren’t going so well.

Focus on the other person entirely; make them feel they matter, that their feelings matter, that they have everything within them needed to find the right answers, the right path.

Don’t tell stories about yourself unless the story relates directly, and in a positive way, to the other person’s struggle or dilemma.

Henry built me up again and again and when I left him I was changed forever. I had no real confidence in myself when I arrived at his doorstep and I was full of ego and false bravado. Henry helped me to feel strong and capable and urged me to believe in myself and my creative endeavors; to live a more genuine life and to let go of the superficial.

PAUL: What advice would you offer a much younger person who was being mentored?

TWINKA: 1) Open yourself up to the wisdom and experience of the person whose taken you on as your mentor and show gratitude for the time they’re making for you.

2) Be unendingly curious and ask a lot of questions.

3)Hang out with your mentor; go to the theater, watch a film, listen to music together and take long walks (with your cell phone turned off).

PAUL: Please tell me a bit about the direction you’re headed with your painting? What do you feel you’ve accomplished and what more do you hope to accomplish in the immediate future? I’m quite fascinated by what little I’ve heard of your work, so please feel free to go into any amount of detail you wish.

TWINKA: This is the hardest question for me to answer. My painting is all about learning to “see”. I’m searching, learning and feeling my way along quite slowly.

I don’t show my work publicly and, perhaps, I never will. It’s all about the process and the joy of not having to make a career or produce paintings for anyone but myself.

I have been in a bit of a rut for a few years with my painting so I turned to interior design projects to give myself some new challenges which I find incredibly rewarding.

Still, I love being alone in my studio with oil paint loaded on my brush, listening to great music and feeling connected to all the artists in the world throughout time…. all of us searching… and all of us learning how to see.


Readers interested in the famous Imogen and Twinka photo by Judy Dater can find a post on it here.  The comments section contains a response to the post by Twinka.

The Working Title of My New Painting

For the past week or so, I’ve been working on a new painting.   I haven’t gotten very far yet, but the preliminary drawing on the canvas of what I intend to paint is about 95% done now.

Although the actual painting itself still remains to be started, and I have yet to brush even one dab of color onto the canvas, I am absolutely certain at this stage that the finished painting will be magnificent, stunning in both composition and execution, my first true masterpiece, and a major contribution to the world of art.

Unfortunately,  I am also absolutely certain that my current expectations will soon enough be crushed by reality.

For one thing, I recently counted all my finished canvases to discover that I’ve only painted 24 pieces since first picking up a brush about three years ago, so I must admit I haven’t been working hard enough to expect myself to have much skill at painting yet, let alone be capable of producing something of lasting value.  Consequently, I have chosen as a preliminary or “working title” for the new painting  —  “Opus Number 25: The October Offensive on the Noble Science of Aesthetics.”

On a slightly more serious note, I have noticed that when I am in the actual process of painting, I am usually a bit delusional about the quality of the work I’m doing.  That is, I tend to have an inflated opinion of it during the painting itself, and perhaps for a few days afterwards.  I think what happens is that I become somewhat like a young lover who only notices the positive traits in his beloved, and cannot, even if he tries, grasp that his beloved has any truly serious flaws.  It’s odd because it’s almost as if one has an emotional relationship to the painting that is on a par with the emotional relationship one might have to a person.

Jess the Artist

Today, I happened to walk into the Coffee Shop at the same time as an artist was hanging her work for display.  It wasn’t long before she and I were in a fast and free conversation about her art.  That’s to say, something clicked and we found ourselves giving voice to each other’s ideas.  A curious introduction, so quickly eye to eye.

I occasionally wonder about that — about how some people you meet feel like an old friend in moments, and how some others never seem to be more than acquaintances even after knowing them for years?

Then, again, maybe it’s not so strange for an artist to be easy to talk with.  After all, she’s already hung her work — which is her attempt to communicate — on a public wall.  You can’t get much more inviting than that, can you?

Jess is a young artist, and of course her work is still developmental, but I think she has promise.  Her paintings are original, they make an impact, and so maybe she even has great promise.  But it’s so hard to judge with a young artist because you never know whether over the years they will pursue their strengths, and thus develop their promise; or instead whether they will try to merely compensate for their weaknesses, and thus almost certainly be damned to mediocrity. 

Now, if I had to guess, I would guess this artist is going end up playing to her strengths.  What I saw today is that her technique hasn’t yet caught up with her vision, so there’s still a noticeable awkwardness to her art.  On the other hand, each of her paintings seemed a bright burst of originality shining through that awkwardness.   And, all in all, it’s that originality that is most her.   

Too bad I will probably lose track of her.  I think it would be very interesting to see what she does next.