Publication: Senior Digest
By Bob Ottaviano
Published October 2006
The cameras were rolling. Maureen Gaffney-Wolfson was on the studio floor, playing dead. A 300-pound man was on cue to die, too. And then she made her move. “When I saw him coming down, I rolled over,” she said, laughing. “I wasn’t going to let him land on me. I was supposed to be dead. But Red said leave it in.” Red was Red Skelton, and Maureen Gaffney-Wolfson was a buxom Irish-American ingénue, a self-described “va-va-va-voom girl” cast member on television’s Red Skelton Show. With no acting experience, Gaffney landed a plum job as a shapely Skelton foil in 1964, at age 20. She kept the job until 1968. During those years, every Tuesday night around 9, millions of CBS viewers heard Skelton, “television’s clown prince,” serve up his signature closing line, “Good night and may God bless.”
These days, the 63-year old Maureen Gaffney-Wolfson has been reinterpreting God’s blessings through her art. Gaffney-Wolfson’s work is the subject of an exhibit titled, Celestial Passion: The Inspired Paintings of Maureen Gaffney-Wolfson, at the St. Ann’s Arts and Cultural Center, 84 Cumberland St., Woonsocket. Gaffney-Wolfson, a Worcester native, travelled from her home in Southern California to attend the exhibit’s recent debut. The St. Ann’s galleries will be open weekends from 1-4p.m. for the duration of the show, which closes on Nov. 19.
Gaffney-Wolfson rolled out of show business and into art with less urgency but some of the same solid instincts for survival she displayed on the Skelton set four decades ago. She was still in her 20’s when on a friend’s advice, she began to paint as a way to ease a recent heartbreak. “I did it as therapy, and it became a career,” she said. Back then, she was also a model whose book included work for Cole bathing suits (when Cole was one of the hottest names on the beach). As to movies, “I was a starlet for 19 years,” she recalls: She appeared in films such as “Harlow” (1965), with Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and Carol Lynley; “A Guide for the Married Man” (1967), with Walter Matthau and Inger Stevens; and “A Swinging Summer” (1965), a beach blanket flick that also featured Raquel Welch.
In and out of show biz, Gaffney-Wolfson continued to paint. She moved to New York City in the late 70’s, where she lived for seven years, singing and dancing in cabaret shows while studying painting at the Art Students League. One of her teachers there was Thomas Fogarty, who is known for having influenced the work of illustrator Norman Rockwell. But Gaffney-Wolfson has spent most of her adult years in California, where over decades as an artist she developed a style she dscribes as “spiritual and emotional.” Those qualities were apparently recognized by curators at the Bronx Museum in New York, where Gaffney-Wolfson’s work is part of the permanent collection. In 1983, Gaffney-Wolfson was named Woman Artist of the Year by the International Beaux Arts group.
In 1998, Gaffney-Wolfson was the first oil painter ever invited to exhibit at theO’Carolyn Harp and Music Festival in Ireland. Her work has been collected by the likes of Pres. Bill Clinton, Frank Sinatra, Red Buttons, Liza Minnelli and Irish leaders such as former Pres. Mary Robinson and current President Mary McAleese. The vivacious Gaffney-Wolfson told her own story recently in the lounge at Warwick’s Crowne Plaza Hotel, where she stayed in preparation for her opening. The blue-eyed, short haired, sweatshirt-clad artist looked at least 10 years younger than 63. She answered all questions directly, with grace and good humor, never looking to spare herself in a tale with its full share of tribulations.
Gaffney-Wolfson was the second oldest in a family of six. She barely knew her father, an alcoholic who deserted his family while Maureen was a child. Her mother was a concert pianist whose acute stage fright kept her from performing. Gaffney-Wolfson remembers sitting at the top of a staircase listening to her mother play, a child enraptured by the music her mother was creating. The fatherless Gaffney septet moved from Massachusetts to Arizona when Maureen was in teens. Before she was 16, Maureen left home, living alone in a small trailer with no plumbing in the desert near Tucson. Rent was $30 a month. To support herself, Maureen sewed “700 crotches a day” into women’s unmentionables at a local panty factory, earning $28 per week. A year or so later, while staying with a friend of an ex-boyfriend in Los Angeles, she “met someone who introduced me to someone who introduced me to someone” who helped kick start her career as a model and actress.
Years later, still single, Gaffney-Wolfson lost a child in her eighth month of pregnancy. The child’s father had by that time left Gaffney-Wolfson. “I gave birth, induced labor and buried my baby all by myself,” she said. Today, she has been married for 20 years to Steve Wolfson, a lawyer. The couple live in Chatsworth, which is in California’s San Fernando Valley. Gaffney-Wolfson never had children. “My paintings are my children,” she said with some difficulty. “This is my outlet instead. I’m thankful, because it was meant to be.”
Her show at St. Ann’s was inspired by a visit to Rhode Island 18 months ago to attend a wedding. Steve Wolfson is a close friend of William Fields, an East Greenwich resident and grandson of comedian W.C. Fields. It was William’s grandson, W.C.’s great-great-grandson, who was getting hitched. At the reception, another friend hinted that he would like to see Gaffney-Wolfson show her work at the cultural center. She agreed after seeing the “magnificent, divine frescoes” on the sanctuary ceiling at St. Ann’s. The work that resulted might be described as epical realism, in which Christian iconography is rendered against backgrounds that fancifully suggest images of the heavens as telescopes record them. Gaffney-Wolfson considers her St. Ann’s paintings to be an effort toward reconciling scientific and religious views on creation: the Book of Genesis meeting the big bang. Gaffney-Wolfson further sees this set of paintings as expressions of universal wonder at life’s mysteries. She hopes they convey to viewers her “faith that there is a God…and he is a good God.”
“He is you…you are made in His image. We’re all made of the same substance,” she said, explaining that her deep faith that has sustained her through hard times and enriched her when life was good. “I’m a better artist because of the paths I’ve taken,” she said, now sitting in the sunshine outside the Crowne Plaza on a breezy late summer afternoon.
For an online previewof Gaffney-Wolfson’s show at St. Ann’s and to see other samples of her work, go to maureengaffneywolfson.com.