The child inside

French-born painter, poet and pianist reveals painful journey to Woodstock

Author: Joan Reid
Posted: Tuesday, May 01, 2007

“I went to Death Valley…my inner child was in pain…I was not the master of my own creations, I had lost all control…that is when I found a little girl in the desert who wanted to reconnect with me…”

These words describe the moment of French-born Vita Roth D'Orsay's epiphany that heralded an avalanche of colorful paintings and a watershed of repressed emotions. The journey to this crossroads traversed Europe to the United States, where she has lived for the past 25 years, and eventually landed in
Woodstock just year ago.

But Vita's story begins in Orsay, a suburb of Paris. As a child she lived there with her two sisters and an unmarried alcoholic mother whose own dream of an operatic career was never realized. But the musical backdrop of her mother singing operatic arias at home influenced Vita to study piano in her youth. As a budding pianist, music became her friend and solace when her home life was dark and depressing.

“From the age of 12, I wanted to be a pianist. I only lived for the music. It was the only joy in my chaotic home,” the young 47-year-old Vita explains.

When her mother abruptly sold Vita’s piano, Vita felt it as a death so painful that she ran away to Italy in the summer 1974 at the age of 14. Her own dreams of going to the University at Sorbonne were shattered. Once an honor student who wanted to pursue medicine or philosophy, Vita was reduced to a belligerent young girl with this traumatic event.

“It was too crazy. First I was angry, and then my attitude went to ‘great, I don’t have to put up with all her stuff.’ So I lived like a vagabond in Italy,” Vita recounts.

But the loss of her piano and music was merely the tip of the iceberg. When Vita returned home in September, just three months later, she discovered that her mother and sisters had moved - not to reconnect with Vita for more than 20 years. With no one to turn to (her father was a stranger who lived in Vietnam), Vita fended for herself but turned her dire circumstances to an advantage.

For weeks she walked the exhibit halls of the Louvre and attended tour after tour just to have a place to stay during the day. She grew to intensely dislike the paintings that she was forced to hear about over and over, and used a coping mechanism that made her think about them as a film.

“I swore that I would never become an artist. I started to think about each painting as a story and moving image. That’s where my interest for movies began. Painting is something I never considered. I was into film, I went from music to film,” Vita states emphatically.

Vita by now had blossomed into a beautiful Eurasian young woman and her luck changed when at 16 she met an aristocratic gentleman who provided a castle-like home to live. She was afforded the opportunity to study and work and eventually found herself embarking to the United States to be a filmmaker and actress. Vita studied with the famous acting teacher, Lee Strassberg, and she produced and acted in a critically acclaimed play “The Girl in the Via Flaminia,” starring Sean Penn. It was voted as one of the 10 Best Plays of the Year by The Critic’s Choice Awards in 1983.

During the late 1980s and '90s, she continued to write screenplays and made some film shorts in Los Angeles. Each creative endeavor was her personal struggle for artistic truth, but what Vita faced was film crews that would change her concepts into something she could barely recognize as her own.

“Forget about truth!" Vita declares. “There was nothing of me left in so many of these projects.”

Then an experience in Death Valley changed her life. Vita made up her mind to make a film completely on her own without any interference from producers and directors. This would be her film, her way, her truth. She traveled alone by car to the desert determined to capture a deeply personal statement on film. What she unveiled about her life was astounding and set her on a whole new path.

“My inner child was in pain. I was suffering from self-abandonment.”

Her independent project was aborted after many attempts. It was as if destiny and nature had conspired to jolt her to the truth.  She was humbled by the weather. First, the desert was unusually cold which forced her to delay filming. Then a windstorm kicked up and again she had to halt her work. Vita finally surrendered to the outside forces.

“Suddenly there was a light in the sky,” Vita recalls. “And I had this amazing out-of-body experience. I was surrounded by children, and for the first time in many years I felt home.”

She heard a voice outside of herself that told her to paint in order to heal. The voice assured her that she didn’t need to know how to paint, just let her hand guide the brush and trust.

When she returned to Los Angeles she began to paint, but she did not take herself very seriously. Vita held the paintbrush onto a blank canvas and finally allowed the little girl inside her to play. Initially, she felt as if she wasn’t there, as if possessed and then her joy simply exploded. Vita had found her voice! For six months she painted while memories of her mother’s abandonment grew with clarity. Her fantastic paintings helped Vita realize that she had never addressed what really happened. Her cinematic pursuits served to block it completely. The paintings were not only therapeutic, but also striking.

“I not only discovered the little girl inside of me, but had an appreciation for what happened to my mother as a little girl. The paintings helped me understand her dilemma as an unmarried mother in France. Then I felt at peace and love from my mother.”

She never saw her mother again but spoke with her once before she died. In 1987, Vita was able to locate her and called on the telephone. “All she said ‘we used to call you the American.’ I told her that I loved her.”

Since then, Vita has not stopped painting, creating about 500 brilliantly colored pieces over the years. She has exhibited in galleries in California and Paris and sold her work to collectors throughout the world. A falling out with her rep caused Vita to become disenchanted with the commercial side of her work, so she stopped selling her paintings. "I didn't want to be part of the 'art machine'," she says. Yet, while she has sold only a fraction of her paintings, Vita's passion to paint thrives.

This summer she will open her own gallery in Woodstock which will host special events and workshops in music. She hopes to combine her loves of music, paintings and poetry through live music concerts with projection of music videos of her paintings.

It is in her new home of Woodstock, where she lives with her business consultant husband, that last year Vita unearthed a long-buried passion of piano playing. "It was sort of accidental," she admits. While visiting a friend's house in September 2006, she touched the keys of a piano and, she says, "I just couldn't stop."

Vita hadn't played a piano since she was a child. Yet, in December, just months after her reacquaintance with this old love, she performed - "improvised", she insists - at a concert at the Kleinert Arts Center in Woodstock. Not only does Vita insist her performance was improvised, she says it was her first time playing before an audience.

She began taking piano lessons, and now plays at hospitals and nursing homes bringing her enchanting music to others. She contnues to write poetry about her childhood experiences.

“I want to give to the world, and especially to children,” Vita says. “My creative process has changed since my days as a filmmaker. I have learned to hold on to the process of ‘not knowing’ and to keep not knowing, just as a child approaches life. Peace begins with the child at play. But you can’t save the world while your at war with yourself,” Vita concludes.

Joan Reid is a columnist and playwright living in Rockland County.

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