I have wanted to do a post about my grandmother (iaia Marta) Ribas Rabassa for a long time, as a sort of tribute to her life and work. I first thought of writing this post when I wrote the one about my father, Marcel Villier, but never thought I had the right material to do it. Until now.
My iaia (grandmother in catalan) was born in 1921 in Aragón, a region near Catalunya, but grew up in Horta, a working class neighborhood of Barcelona. She was the third of four children — two boys and two girls — born to a blacksmith father and a homemaker mother.
She once told me about her first job at the age of seventeen in a doll factory, delicately painting the faces on porcelain dolls. She loved drawing fashion models when she was young, filling countless notebooks (on both sides of the page, it was post-war Spain afterall) with elongated figures inspired by her mother’s magazines.
She was an autodidact artist, but it is clear from the early drawing below that her refined skills were innate.
She met my grandfather Joan — a Russian-Jewish immigrant who had just arrived from France — at the book printer where she was an illustrator. He was the artisan in charge of transferring her elaborate drawings unto the lithograph plaque.
They married in 1944, and two years later my uncle Jordi was born. She continued working at the printer, creating beautiful interpretations of well-known novels such as the dramatic “Carmen” by Prosper Mérimée.
Below are some of the composition tests and character sketches for Carmen.
In the year 1950, when my father was two and my uncle six, the family of four moved to Jerusalem. They went to the recently created state of Israel, where work and opportunities were abundant.
The portrait below is of my father and uncle around the age they emigrated to Israel.
It was there that my grandmother flourished as an artist. She loved capturing the expressions and ornate fashions of the native women in her new home.
She became very popular among women of Israel’s high-society. She was commissioned by a few elegant ladies to paint their oil portraits, and soon her reputation had grown throughout the city. She once told me that one of her best clients was a Spanish duchess who had deeply influenced her spiritual beliefs.
The note in the above drawing says: “Arab woman from Jerusalem with her dowry in coins worn around her head. M.R.”
Before last week, I had never seen most of the drawings above. I asked my father to scan some of my grandmother’s older work, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover this part of her oeuvre. I have always known that she’s an extremely talented artist, capable of elegantly capturing the expressions of her models, but had seen a very different phase of her career.
When I was born, she was already working on another kind of illustration. After giving birth to my uncles Alex and Rafa in Jerusalem, they moved back to Barcelona in 1956. With a growing family, my grandmother started working with a large editorial house, Busquets, dedicated to printing postcards and other paper accessories for every occasion: Christmas, 1st communion, newborn, etc.
I have always had a special connection with my grandmother. For many years, I served as the blond-hair, blue-eyed, freckled model for her illustrations. My parents would send her photos of me and she would base her angelical-faced girls on those pictures.
I remember once, when we lived in New York, I walked into our local stationary store and saw a box of Christmas cards with me dressed as Santa Claus standing under an umbrella and a dog by my side. I picked them up and excitedly told the store clerk that it was me. I put the cards by my face, in the hope that he might see the resemblance between myself and that Santa Claus girl. He brushed me off as some sort of lunatic, but I insisted, saying: “It’s signed by my grandmother, see? Marta Ribas! This is me!”
I bought them and sent the first one to my iaia, to let her know her work had traveled all the way to New York!
For many decades, she made her living with this style of pastel-colored gouache illustrations — she was the longest-working artist for this editorial, only quitting when she was over eighty-five. A hard-working and loving mother or five, she was glad to be able to live off something that came naturally and effortlessly to her. She poured into her work the inspiration she didn’t put into cooking — she was never “that” kind of grandmother.
I remember watching her apply the various tones on the paper as if it were magic. She took what could have been something corny and made it truly wonderful and spirited.
Above is a photo of my grandmother and I when I was about two or three.
My iaia is now 91 years old, and has been living with Alzheimer for the past five years. I know that when she is no longer on Earth we will have lost a great — and largely unknown — artist. I hope this post helps change that a bit.
Her illustrations were all soft and sweet but she is one of the strongest women I have ever known. Strong-willed and energetic, generous and sweet, she will always be an inspiration to me.
All the illustrations in this post are by Marta Ribas. Photos by Marcel Villier and Susan Unger.