A Deadly Provenance

Just how important is art?

Would you die for a piece of art? This was what a very select group of men fighting in the military were asked. Their answer to this question put them into the team, or barred them from it. The willingness to die for art determined the group of seven men commissioned by the Allies in World War II.

This thesis forms the guts of the box office movie hit, “The Monuments Men,” that my husband and I just saw. This movie boasted top actors George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Jean Dujardin, and Bill Murray. Based on the raw truths of history of one of its greatest treasure hunts, the film is an action drama focusing on an unlikely World War II platoon and an unlikely task offered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Their mission was to enter Germany to rescue art masterpieces from Nazi thieves and return them to their rightful owners.

I don’t know about you, but we are suckers for movies with Nazi themes. I had already done miles of research about stolen Nazi art for my gothic romance novel, A Deadly Provenance. I knew about stolen art. What I hadn’t remembered was how Nazis burnt and destroyed fantastic art in the name of censorship.

Within the time frame of this novel, 1973-1977 in the Cold War span of time, where had all the Nazis gone? Thirty years after WWII ended we might have thought they all died out or received enlightenment. Not only were they not dead, but that they survived and landed in high places of influence in Germany is a major premise of my fiction work, A Deadly Provenance. American Southerner Lexi and ethnic German hero Jon (German/Russian) know this from page one of my gripper-romance. Nazis brought secrets to stay open secrets between the newly married partners, a fact which festered and threatened their marriage and their lives.

Cultured savages, you could call these Nazis. Their idea might be closer to Nietzsche’s Uebermensch, portrayed excellently in the movie, “The Monuments’ Men.” Superior people for whom morals are weaknesses are capable of anything, and Lexi and Jon had something they wanted. Their castle was also a great place to keep current caches hidden. And whatever Jon and Lexi own is also up for grabs, as it could well increase the treasure base of the Nazi movement internationally, but Lexi and Jon will keep them from that at all costs. Or die trying.

This book is about the danger of acquired wealth. It is about belonging in a world of foreigners, trusting yourself when everyone has let you down. It is about maneuvering skillfully in unfamiliar territory. It is a saga of finding hidden treasure that catapults you into a world of intrigue. It is about priceless antiques that could be relics and could activate church and government empires, not to mention every crime syndicate in the world. It is about learning that death is not a far-fetched thought at all.

And it is about love.

It is about a past so debilitating that in its aftermath, relationships do not thrive, and barely survive. From Germany’s hills to snow peaks of Austria, Lexi and Jon ski in and out of love. She concludes that she must save herself.

Schloss Enzian, high above the quaint town of Allmannshausen, forms the fictional home for this contemporary novel in the classic Gothic style. It features an isolated setting and heroine Alexandra (Lexi) stalked by ghosts and enemies. Enemies multiply as evil tries to envelope her. Spiraling forces peak to overcome her. Lexi and Jon together uncover inherited art and literary mysteries of a millennium and more, and this draws international plots and spies into the maelstrom. In the style of Rebecca of Daphne du Maurier fame, wedded bliss turns to estrangement. This happens after the hero escorts his new wife to his castle nest of family intrigue. The marriage flounders and the hero Johann (Jon)’s motives and character turn questionable to Lexi. The relationship winds in and out of trust. Her need should unite them, but turns into a wedge instead.

A blessed object newly found—a cross—turns into a harbinger of death. Handicapped, Lexi’s vision for helping abused women emerges as a passion expressed through her art. Achieving international acclaim as a sculptress, she lends support to an art show that benefits abused women. Together with her friend the Baroness, the pair are car-chasing, Nazi-facing women who channel fear into creative action. She searches out the provenance of an ancient manuscript and the ornate cross from her mother-in-law’s Russian past. Lexi rises from one difficulty slung at her to another. Finally she, with the cross Jon gave her impulsively, maneuvers to a surprising end.

Jon rises to the occasion as well and slays a few demons. Concluding that circumstances are not friends after it is almost too late, they agree that only commitment slays the demons of abandonment and betrayal. Lexi and Jon eventually confess that the real killers are threats to individual choice, faith, and yes, to  culture and art. They elevate the expression of art to a necessity for a free and unbought soul. They realize they must divest themselves of treasures that can turn into weighty baggage.

Will they live happily ever after? That is the question, for sure…..


A Deadly Provenance draws on NC author’s international experience for her novel. In her past, she and her husband worked with a group helping indigenous peoples in Soviet Russia and the Iron Curtain countries that were oppressed. From nine years of residency in Germany, traveling back and forth to the USSR and Soviet-bloc countries, she tapped into their knowledge base of life abroad and their experience of danger at every hand to write her novel. She lives with her husband Sandy on the Cape Fear River, and their grown children and grandchildren live not far away.


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There comes a time in the life of every artist when she needs a shake-up.

When a still life no longer thrills, landscapes bore, and faces no longer challenge, a power surge is needed.

Sea-Escapes is that power surge, a series jump started when my website manager Jim Gruber shared the most beautiful photographs of surfs on the web that I had ever seen. In fact, I had never seen surfs at all, in photos or out, if one could believe that of an N.C. native who grew up visiting Carolina beach for summer vacations.

All I’d ever seen of seascapes were paintings of water breaking over rocks, boats a-float or being sunk at sea, or what I would call beach landscapes containing three flat parallel lines where sky met sea and waves broke in orderly rows from my perch on the sand.

Imagine my artist’s eye overcome by the sheer novelty of form in these surfing photos. I had no idea the water shaped itself into such weird and wonderful contortions, random sprays and splashes. I was amazed at the new shapes water took on, fascinated by the compositions anything but straight-lined.

Embryonic curls screamed abandon, enthusiasm. Their wildness erased the dust from the everyday objects I had worked at painting, infused the mundane, picayune with fairy dust, and spiked the ho-hum out of a day’s routine.

I never saw the ocean act up in such ways–the wind, tides and water forces from below causing funnels, tunnels, gigantic waves, circular sweeps of water turning in on themselves, cascading down a line or from high overhead, and shorelines viewed through a bull’s eye opening.

Surges of color followed the unexpected forms, color almost unnatural in its intensity—neon greens, yellows, golds, snowy whites and baby blues, purples, blue-blacks, reds and carmines—the range stymies the mind. I mean, everyone knows water is blue or blue-green or aqua, right? Wrong. Light changes everything.

Viewing surf photographs inland was a real trip in itself.

An ardent surfer originally from California, Jim’s descriptions of bone-breaking experiences as a surfer horrified me, while his love of the ocean re-sparked my own fascination with beach life and nostalgic scenes of my earlier beach vacations.

So from another shore, the tide washed in with its mystique, its loud, crashing noises, and its calming effects. The sea sucked me out to it, made me break my routine, escape the ordinary.

Escape. There was that word again. Escape to the sea.

Some of my happiest memories were of playing in the sunshine as a child, digging my toes into white beach sand, swimming in sea waters, building sandcastles with a plastic bucket, walking the pilgrimage along water’s edge in the hot sun and in the raging sunset. What child hasn’t had the sound of the sea introduced to her and magically reverberate in a conch shell held up to her ear? Even dead shells have memory.

Some families are mountain vacationers, some beach, but we were both—split equally between the two. Our small family grew when we convened at the beach and met extended family. From collecting arrowheads in the fields at home to collecting conch shells on the beach, the switch was effortless.

The shells’ delicate pastel colors contrasted with the electric colors the sea took on in different light, the raw intensity of the green, the blue, and the mixing patterns.

My twin loves in painting, composition and color, met with a fierce attraction in the sea and birthed the new series. Instead of Seascapes as a genre, we have Joanna McKethan Sea-Escapes. My eye joined the forms of emergent shells to raging sea, and the colors of a fairly extensive collection of shells of mine coalesced with surf photos.

I introduced a single, small shell, a microcosm, back to the macrocosm in which it grew: Mother Sea.

So the first painting, “Sea’s Restless Eve,” shows the water spilling over an uplifted shell in blacks, phthalocyanine blues and red sunset colors.

“Castaway Shell” lies beached in yellows and golds, the folds of water still surrounding it, not quite able to completely let it go, the impastos sticking out to catch the light, the antique tones of Old Masters’ colors deepening shadow areas to pop the light and the stepping-stone spires of the shell.

‘Seascapes’ is the painting term used for a depiction of the sea.

But the series includes more than seascapes or my shell-and-sea idea which will yield similar paintings to the two just mentioned. Sea-Escapes can create a salty trail back to land where a former whale oil container, an antique from the days of harvesting sperm whales was found, and so, the painting of an antique, a harpoon and a net, “Sperm Whale Antique”  becomes a historical commentary on a way of life and a movement to save the whales.

Sea-Escapes can mean an old man sitting beside the sea on a porch with a net hanging behind him, as in the watercolor, “Dockside.”  Sea-Escapes can take you to a pier with me where the crab pots are catching piles of crabs, and I learn how to crab on one of the most fun days of hard labor I’ve done in years. And the harvest of NC blue crabs turns into one of the funniest and simultaneously most beautiful piles of color in a painting I have yet to experience: “Crab-Net.

Measuring the crab against one slat of the pier to determine if the crab was a ‘keeper’ or a ‘throw-back-in-er’ was one of the tips I learned.

And scampering away fast so a loosed crab wouldn’t pinch a toe was a newly learned skill, as well. What I took home with me was a stomach full of delicious white crabmeat dipped in butter and my own photos to work from on a watercolor, Crab-Net, which netted me a painting of white string spiraling to a vortex and holding a complexity of colors and shapes that for me are pure visual escapes.

Single shells have always inspired me, and I have painted some 40-50 small shells in watercolors and oils that have sold or that I have given as presents to special people on special occasions.

What lies ahead for the series? Why, foreign Sea-Escapes will emerge as a sub-series, and sunsets at the beach, another; boats, of course, and boat wheels, maybe even birds, and rusty nails, anchors, what not. It is a series designed for fun.

I don’t anticipate strapping myself to the prow of a boat like Turner, the famous English watercolorist, did in order to paint an impending storm. Nor can I see myself with a 500-pound mega-expensive camera strapped around these painting shoulders to take surfing shots like ‘real’ artists are supposed to do to generate their own ‘source’ material.

So I’m left with detective work, extrapolating and blending, learning the nature of surfs by multiple views and though generated visions of what is possible.

However, Sea-Escapes promise to keep me and my viewers in the salty sea waters, yielding hours of pleasurable sensations, evoking the wonderful memories of vacation days and family fun.

Welcome to my world. Color that looks wet, air smelling salty, and subjects designed to bring the escape home with you as far inland as you need to travel.

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