Notes After Jean Charlot’s Death

Zohmah Charlot


Here I am, in front of the typewriter, being paid for writing about Jean.  And I am the person who had been with him longest, loved by him, spent most of my life with him.  The words should pour out like the days went by.  Only they jerked and flowed and were wasted, intermittently filled with effort.

I was living within the great flow of Jean’s life, where all time was used, creations began and finished.  Like traveling, I thought I was getting somewhere just by sitting still and doing nothing, while streetcars, buses, trains, planes took me places—journeys begun and successfully finished.

Jean needed my help.  Now I am trying to think what he truly needed me for.  On a day-by-day basis, it was typing, and when I learned to drive, driving.  He could have bought better meals, had the company of more interesting women, better conversations.

But together we had a family life, and that was for him very important in the eyes of God and man.

Never did I doubt my importance to him, and that he was truly concerned for my welfare.  My power over his feelings.  He really liked being married.  When we were first married, he said, "Why didn’t we ever think of this before?"  He forgot the fact that I had been running after him for eight years.

It is difficult to write about Jean as he was always so discreet about writing of others, and I start out with being an indiscreet person writing about Jean, who I never knew to intentionally hurt anyone either by deeds or remembrances in words.

When he was working on the Mexican Mural Renaissance,1 and I knew a little of the background of the events, I would ask, "Why are you leaving out that marvelous story about Siqueiros or Orozco?" etc.  His answer was a smile and handing me more of his manuscript to type.  He wasn’t interested in writing a best seller, but in writing facts about an important cultural event in the history of Mexico.

There are so many years, I think that blocking out periods of time to deal with, instead of a whole fifty years, would be helpful, especially as I already have written articles on Fiji and Picture Book II2 that Jean read and at least did not disapprove of.  Of course, I am more likely to write of my feelings than to describe Jean’s.  And he wasn’t a person to explain or casually discuss.

He kept his feelings to himself, whether worry, disappointment, or even pleasure.  I only remember once that he made what was for him a sacrifice in order to communicate with me.  I had put a down payment on a house.  I knew it was a good buy, a good investment, nothing wrong with it, but I just didn’t have the guts to handle it.  I was crying and crying, not my usual behavior, and Jean, trying to comfort me, said, "You are not the only one who makes mistakes."  And he dredged up from his past a great shadow on his conscience.  I believed him, but was more grateful that he had at least once shared with me a deep look into his own feelings.  It was a most important moment in our marriage that went along mostly with unsaid feelings.

There was joy in our eyes when we had children, comments from me whenever I thought he had been treated badly, no answer from him, and as our children grew he would express any disapproval of their actions by saying, "Your mother won’t like that."  I often felt I was a patsy for his relationships with the children and even with people we were with.  He could avoid unpleasantness or any dislike of himself by putting the matter onto me.

Yet he was honest.  If he was asked an opinion, he gave a truthful answer.  That was often thought to be humor.  His comments were always so humorous that I thought they were unforgettable.

To think, think of my life is just awfully difficult.  Maybe I should only be trying to get what years I have left in working order.

The way to tell what Jean thought of someone was the way he acted in their company.  He didn’t talk about people or judge them.  When he was comfortable he was relaxed and happy and talkative.

He was sensitive about how he was treated, though he wouldn’t complain when things weren’t right.

I remember when we were in Athens, he was invited to Florida to give a lecture, and Lamar Dodd went with him.  The man who had invited them was busy with other matters, and they even had to find transportation back to the train station.  Sometime later the man visited the University of Georgia and told Jean that his lecture had been so popular that he would like to invite him again.  Jean answered, "l don’t think so."

The man we considered had been responsible for Jean losing his job at Colorado, later gave Jean’s name as reference.  Jean answered, "I don’t think I am the person to ask."

If he was made to feel uncomfortable, he evaded the person or place.

When we had first met in Mexico, we were going someplace in a taxi with other people, and I was shocked that Jean didn’t offer to pay the bill.  It wasn’t a matter of money but a way of contact with people he didn’t like.  He really wanted to be taken care of.

Yet he didn’t marry the rich capable girls he knew but me, who needed taking care of.

He told me as way of a interesting story the first time he went to see Claudel at the French embassy in Washington, he had taken a taxi.  Whether the driver didn’t know at what door to deliver such a shabby little man or whether Jean told him not to go up the circular drive, [they hesitated] until Jean saw Claudel out waiting for him, eagerly motioning for the car to come to the front door.

It was at this time that Jean was approached in church by a man who wanted to give him a warm, second-hand coat.  Jean must have looked so meek and lonely sitting in a pew saying his prayers.

Even when we were married I didn’t help his image.  We were looking for an apartment and there was a new building going up, advertising for tenants.  We went in and were told there were no vacancies.


I only had one glimpse of what he thought of his own behavior and why he told me was so kind and generous in trying to stop my tears for not having the courage to go through a real estate deal.  I was filled with gratitude that he would tell a painful event for my consolation.

For himself, he suffered silently no matter how sick.


What does Hawaiʻi do about the genius who lived here thirty years, such a man God would want a person to be.  How did he live in the world and how do we remember him?  Speaking for myself, battered by bad news from newspapers, the inconsistencies of relationships, brain fractured by too many plots on TV and books that fill empty hours, and praying to be wiser.

Getting on to four years since his death, where is the time that heals, how can one get used to being without the person who loves one most in the world, not having days filled with creative activity, from being favored to being forgotten?  But I wouldn’t want to feel less sad.

Fifty years since we met, though the first eight he lived in New York City and I in California, until he got off the plane in San Francisco, and we went directly to the church to be married.  He was so difficult to catch I wasn’t giving him a chance to change his mind.

Now I know that he was always so busy wherever he was, it was difficult to make a change.

He was never young or old but always integrated in time and space, always working to express in some form the light within.

If observed walking on the campus or to the bus, so deep in thought, he would have to be spoken to before he would recognize a friend.

When we went around the world, he carried a drawing pad on the airplanes where he did some of the drawings for the Punahou doors3 at thirty thousand feet, and his suitcase was packed with 6" × 8" canvases, paint tubes and paper disposable easels, so he could paint wherever we might be.

And, of course, under his arm he carried a notebook for sketches or written thoughts.  These are now in the Hamilton Library.  Of all the things given to the University, these were most difficult to part with.  My son John told me that they are unique in the history of art.

Still he had to live day-by-day, but he never looked backwards.  He always did his best so he never had to think, "if only I had done that differently."  He was honest, but his words never seemed unkind, more likely to make one laugh.  If he couldn’t praise he tried to give useful advice.  His paintings were an "ooze," his own word, never done for money.  Example: when a dealer stole his paintings, he didn’t complain, though I wailed.  It was only when she stole his royalty checks that he objected.

Money was alien to him.  He didn’t believe that one should get interest

But he believed in giving credit.  Look at his works of art: he has included on the mural plaques the names of all the people who helped.  When he published the Orozco letters, he insisted to the publishers that the Orozco family have half the royalties.

He took teaching seriously.  His students were never neglected.  In a near hurricane, he insisted I drive him to the university although when we got there, we were the only ones who had.

When we lived in faculty housing, a visitor remarked, "I see you live in holy poverty."  Fortunately the university made a new policy and we had to move, having stayed so long, and Jean was most interested in helping to plan a new house within the means a mortgage would allow.

He didn’t hurry, but thought and energy brought an uninterrupted flow of work, of illustrated books, written books, plays he wrote, and sculpture, murals he painted, syndicated cartoons with a number of publications over many years, lecturing, acting, and being a loving husband and father and friend.  Each activity is enough to bring fame and fortune—even making chocolate chip cookies does that.  But we never were able to pay our bills with "art."  And in our country money is achievement.

How did we manage?  Once I told him that we didn’t have enough money to pay the bills.  After a day of putting his mind to the problem, he gave me the solution, "I will make more money."  He found more work to do.

Son Peter calls his father a workaholic.  I think he felt himself in a lifespan where every moment must be used, he had so much to give.  He knew his worth and felt the responsibility of what he told me once: how was he going to get out of himself all he had to give?

When we were invited to come to Hawaiʻi for the summer session, I didn’t want to go to that awful place of palm trees and hula girls and told him that would be OK for him, but I was afraid he would never want to leave.  Which turned out to be true.  He learned Hawaiian, loved Hawaiians, painted Hawaiian subjects, and wrote plays in Hawaiian.

Hawaiʻi loved him back a little.  The young liked his art but seldom a rich collector.  I remember in a beautiful home when the hostess was asked, "Where is your Charlot?" she waved to a wall and said, "I am saving that space."

His students remember him, and many are now famous.

The Governor presented him with the state’s highest award.  He was the first non-Hawaiian and the first man to receive it.  Mrs. Ariyoshi, the governor’s wife, asked for two of the small frescoes cut from the first First Hawaiian Bank4 to be put in Washington Place, their residence, and the Senate and House invited him to their chambers for an honor.

With the help of a Bishop Estate Trustee we got the lot for our house.  An anonymous donor gave the money for the second floor fresco at Bachman Hall.

He was endlessly asked to lecture, but that was hard work as well as an honor.  He came home one day from one of his free lectures with a little smile and told me that the chairwoman had promised the audience that next time they would have the money to get a real good lecturer from the mainland.

Franz Wasner wrote of Jean, "Genius joined to generosity."5

How does one of the most intelligent men, born in Paris, sophisticated, and admired, live with a woman born in a log cabin in Utah, a hippy for my day.  We met in Mexico, and he thought I was Mexican, and then I was persistent.  I even began to lose interest as the years went by, but he remarked, "Why didn’t we ever think of getting married before?"

Jean always said we had two different stories for everything and would remind reporters if I said anything to be sure to put my remarks in quotes.

I think he was a person who never did anything to be ashamed of.  I only had one glimpse of what he thought of his own behavior, but why he told me was so kind and generous, it didn’t change the opinion I already had.  Trying to stop hysterics over a business mistake I had made, he filled me with gratitude that he would tell of a painful event for my consolation.

For his own problems he suffered silently.

He often helped me, if I made a stupid remark at a social gathering—he could turn it into something wise.  For outrageous behavior, he gave understanding.  I took for granted he would take me with him into heaven.

Not that he didn’t annoy me.  Even when he was very sick, he had to ask me not to scold him.  When the children were little, he would tell them, "Don’t do that, your mother wouldn’t like it."  And it bothered me, when I first knew him, that he was so willing for someone else to take care of tips and telephoning.  I didn’t know then that he was endlessly generous, just happy to be taken care of.  And it bothered me later that we were such a nondescript little couple.

But when people see him only as gentle, they don’t know his strength.  People he has known have leaned on him.  For instance, Siqueiros who is such a Mexican macho, but when he and Jean were together it was Siqueiros asking Jean for advice.

I thought he was neglected, but if he had had more attention, that would have taken more of his precious time.

I guess I was only thinking that he needed walls, publishers, newspapers, and universities, for when he got an assignment he gave the appropriate answer.

I don’t include collectors, for when he painted, the creative process was so demanding that no price can be put on the soul.

Painting took such attention that even a worry about something in the family pattern could keep him from working.

People could remember the gifts Jean gave Hawaiʻi—murals in churches, schools, and hospitals.  Private gifts were also pleasantly repaid, like the fresco panels for the College Inn that fed our family for quite sometime, and a panel in the chapel of a Hawaiian ranch that gave the family a vacation.6

Now he has willed to the Hamilton Library such a gift that should bring honor to the University of Hawaiʻi.


What does Hawaiʻi do about the genius that lived here thirty years, filling walls with paintings, making friends, teaching, doing his mainland book commissions by mail.

There is the Jean Charlot Foundation to carry on his legacy.

For myself this is a joy.

But not other things: like going from being solvent to paying insurance, fees, and dealing with the Hawaiian Housing Authority, who wants a raised retroactive rent and refuses to negotiate.


We met in 1931.  I knew him for a long time, but it seemed only too short.  Though until we got married, he lived in New York and I lived in Los Angeles, with airmail letters coming and going.

There must be all kinds of geniuses, but living with my genius was like knowing the sun would shine or there would be rain, which I took for granted and got accustomed to being with someone who worked so much.  If he was on a bus or plane, he could draw in his sketchbook.  Traveling he could carry paints and canvases in his suitcase.  He said one time to me that he wondered if he could ever express all he had within himself.

You would imagine I would feel left far behind, but I did have [illegible] people into his [illegible], and he was the one I had.  Nice to have a talking encyclopedia to answer questions, how to spell words, and a husband who had the ready wit to not only to save me from any faux pas but make them sound OK.

Most important person in the world for yourselves, you are the one you live with who makes the choices.

How did we manage?  Once I told him we don’t have enough money to pay the bills.  He put his mind to the problem and next day gave me the solution, "I will make more money."

How I wish now I could ask him.

When the Hawaiian Housing Authority threats, if I could only ask him what to do.

When we were invited to come to Hawaiʻi for the summer, I said why do we go to that awful place of palm trees and hula girls?  OK for you; you will probably never want to leave.  Which turned out to be true.  He learned Hawaiian, loved Hawaiians, painted Hawaiians, wrote plays in Hawaiian.

Hawaiʻi loved him back a little.  The young liked his art but never a rich collector.

When the children were little he would tell them, "Don’t do that your mother wouldn’t like it."  He should have smacked them, and why not me too?

And it bothered me when I first knew him he was so pleased when someone else took care of the bills the tipping the telephoning.  I didn’t know he was endlessly generous, just happy to be taken care of.  And it bothered me later that we were such nondescript little couple in public even though I could see how Siqueiros and all the other people he knew were the ones who asked his advice in private.

I mention Siqueiros by name as he was so Mexican macho, it startled me to see him hanging on Jean’s words.

How does one of the most intelligent men of all time born in Paris, sophisticated, admired, love and live with a woman born in a log cabin, a hippy for my day.  This complex man when I couldn’t even cook.  When we met he thought I was a Mexican, and he loves Mexicans.  That gave me a head start, and then I was persistent.  It took me eight years, with him living in New York and me living in California, before we got married.  By that time you might say I had begun to lose interest, but he remarked, "Why didn’t we ever think of this before."

Getting on to four years since his death, where is the time that heals?  How can one get used to being without the person who loves one most in the world, not having days filled with creative activity, from being favored to being forgotten?  From being solvent to having to pay insurance on art, fees for trustees.  Hawaiian Housing Authority dealing with me as if I was a relic made of gold.

A man who is what God would want a person to be—how does he live in the world?

I know I am battered by bad news as I read the papers, the inconsistencies of relationships, brain fracturing TV commercials, disappointments, too many plots on film and in books that I turn to to fill empty time, praying I can be wiser and more useful. 

Yet I have known Jean for fifty years, the last four since he has been dead, and been able to observe with whatever senses I have how a life can be lived and now remembered as being wholly integrated in time and space, not being young or old but always being working to give everything that is within, wanting there to be time for all that boundless thought and energy to be put into the form of books, painting, teaching, loving.

And of course under his arm he always had his notebook for sketches and writing.  These are now in the Hamilton.  Of all the things given to the University these were the hardest to part with.  My son John told me that they are unique in the history of art and form a visual diary of his work.

But my question is how did he manage every day.  The best thing he didn’t look backward, he always did his best so he never had to think "if only I had done that differently."  He never said an unkind word.  If he couldn’t praise he tried to give helpful advice.  He couldn’t think of his paintings as objects for profit.  An example: when a dealer stole his paintings, he didn’t complain though I wailed.  It was only when she stole his checks for book royalties—that is, money—that he called off the relationship.  He didn’t believe in receiving interest.  He laughed when we were visited in our faculty house and a visitor remarked, "I see you are living in holy poverty."

He worked very hard at his teaching and was happy when we could build a house.  Fortunately, the university made a new policy that we had already stayed too long.  We were never able to live by "art," always by jobs.


More attention would have taken more of his time.  He needed walls, publishers, newspapers, and universities, and all assignments he gave an appropriate answer.

I don’t say collectors, for each painting was such a creative process that there could be no price on what came out of the soul.

It was interesting that while he could do all other work, when it came to painting, he had to give such attention that even a worry on such an unrelated subject as whether I had made a bubu putting a down payment on a property could keep him from brushes and easel.

What does Hawaiʻi do about the genius that lived here thirty years, filling great walls with great paintings, making friends, teaching years and years of students summer and winter, and doing mainland book commissions by mail?

He is not quite forgotten even though money and power and advertising is what keeps one’s attention.

There is a Jean Charlot Foundation to encourage interest in the arts, encouragement of artists. . . for those who knew the man or love his work and wish to help perpetuate Jean Charlot’s spirit of love and respect for humanity.


When I start to write about Jean, I remember the effort and time he spent on his books and articles about other artists.  And I was often saying to him, how can you leave out such and such a story, thinking, at the time, he could easily have a best seller with all the intimate stories he knew.  However, he was always discreet, so I hesitate when I start to write about him, being myself an indiscreet person.

But thinking further, I now realize that he wouldn’t have wanted any personal account, no matter how amusing, to distract from his serious purpose of explaining an artist and his art.

So when you read Charlot books, your smiles and chuckles will come in as naturally as a stroke of his brush.

But when I write about Jean, all I know comes from day-to-day living and not from the knowledge of a critic.  What I know may seem unbelievable to anyone who wasn’t with him to see how the creative force flowed every minute of every day.  A critic must judge from all the work accomplished.  Jean once said to me, "I worry sometimes there is so much inside me.  How am I ever going to get it all out?"  This was an unusual moment of introspection.  Usually the task at hand kept him from any explaining.

What I will have to do is file time into blocks and try to remember how each time seemed the way life is.  And I would be going along enjoying, complaining as if the way things were would never end. 

The way Jean worked, he understood time better.  Every job was done with such concentration, he never looked back and wondered "Why didn’t I do that in another way?"  He never wasted precious time with regrets. 

Jean bought this typewriter when he was on the mainland painting a fresco.  I was quite impressed when it was delivered, an IBM Executive.  From then on I was usually here typing while Jean sat in his big brown plastic chair against the window, either writing more manuscript for me to type or drawing or painting.

The last time we did this, when he hadn’t been to his studio for quite a while, he was feeling blue, and I thought getting him there would cheer him up.  We both got busy with tasks.  It was very nice to get back to our old habits, though the routine changed somewhat when I brought up our lunch to have.  Such a happy time.

We tried a visit to the studio one more time, but he didn’t want to stay long, and he was worried about getting down the stairs.  He stood at the top so reluctantly that I suggested he descend sitting down, but after a pause he took hold of the railing and slowly walked down the stairs.

When he wanted to make the plates for A First Book,7 he said he must be in his studio, so we made plans for an elevator.  He consulted with me and the elevator people on the best place to have it installed.  The scaffold was up to cut a hole in the studio floor from the garage, but Jean was so sick that—more to stop the noise than telling myself he wouldn’t need a way to his studio again—I sent the workmen away.

People would ask, isn’t it too warm in your studio, wouldn’t you like more light?  Jean was never too warm since burning in the sun of Yucatan, and his original plan for the studio had called for higher windows.

1 Jean Charlot, The Mexican Mural Renaissance, 1920–1925 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963).  After Jean Charlot’s death in 1979, his widow, Zohmah Charlot, attempted to write several articles about him, none of which progressed beyond notes.  This set of notes has been edited by John Charlot, but not all the repetitions have been eliminated.  All endnotes are by the editor.

2 Zohmah Charlot, "The Place of Heavenly Song: The Evolution of a Mural: Zohmah Charlot Describes—Step by Step—her Husband’s Work", Beacon, December 1964, pp. 16 ff., 49 f., 52, 54; "Jean Charlot…: A Fiji Adventure", The Sketch Book of Kappa Pi, Spring 1970, pp. 17–24; "Jean’s Picture Books", The Sketch Book of Kappa Pi, Spring 1974, pp. 4–11.

3 Episodes from the Life of Christ, 1967–71, copper repoussé, thirty-two panels, each 18 × 19 in., Thurston Chapel, Punahou School, Honolulu, Hawaiʻi.  Dedicated December 16, 1973,  Evelyn Giddings, Collaborator.

4 Early Contacts of Hawaii with Outer World, 1951–1952, fresco, 11 × 67 ft., Bishop Bank (later First National Bank, currently First Hawaiian Bank), Waikīkī Branch, Honolulu, Hawaiʻi.  Destroyed and divided into approximately seventy easel-size panels when the building was demolished in 1966.

5 Monsignor Franz Wasner (1905–1992), conductor of the Trapp Family Singers and pastor of Saint Francis Xavier Church, Naiserelagi, Province of Ra, Fiji, where Charlot painted three frescoes in 1962–1963.


Four Still Lifes, 1953–1954, fresco, two center panels (Japanese and Hawaiian foods), each approx. 3 × 8 ft., two outer panels (milk and lichee, and American juicer with coffeemaker), each approx. 3 × 5 ft., College Inn, Honolulu, Hawaiʻi.  Removed when building was remodeled.

Nativity at the Ranch, fresco, 4 × 5 ft., Church at Kahuā Ranch, Kohala, Kamuela, Hawaiʻi.  Memorial to Ronald von Holt.

7 A First Book, as told by Zohmah Charlot, with 18 color lithographs by Jean Charlot (Honolulu, 1980).