in the Field
Junior 3 this was my first academy, my Kindergarten academy
where all the girls were given dolls to play with, and all the boys
trucks. As an art academy, it ranked very high. Finger painting was the
activity of choice: painting on my clothes, painting on the floor,
painting on the walls. This was the first asexual activity presented to
us- that and math. We counted little sticks and I was a show-off
because I insisted on counting to 100 although the teacher only asked
Skip elementary school. At an inner-city, catholic elementary school,
art was considered a decadent luxury, a deviant, seIf-indulgent sort of
behavior. Only one item remains from that period: a sad, purple
elephant with white dots and stripes, whose underbelly was later used
as an ashtray for clandestine smoking activity in the attic of my
patents house. And we weren't smoking cigarettes, no way.
David Country Day School of the Sacred Heart. The first
real Academy/ institution for girls with promise, for young women who
would marry well, and continue working for charitable organisations
long after their David days ended. The school in the woods, David, we
called it. David, a man's name, we were obsessed with men, of which
there were two on our teaching staff. Mr. So-and-so and Mr. So-and-so.
They looked like brother missionaries just returned from 20 years work
in some remote, utterly bereaved, 4th world country. These men with
their light red hair, scrappy beards, flannel shirts, and leather Jesus
sandals. They had wives, somewhere. One of them, Mr. D., was obsessed
with sickness and death. He taught a religion class, and in that class
he showed us movies of sick people from all around the world, and of
war veterans with no arms, or legs or teeth or eyes. And I stood up
once and screamed in his class (this is what he wanted from us
afterall). I stood up and I screamed at the girls sitting next to me,
who weregiggeling and fussing during one such movie about Vietnam Vets.
"Who do you think you are, you spoiled brats!" I ran out of the
classroom, through the cafeteria, and into the cold, lovely woods. And
then I felt stupid.
There was an art teacher who spoiled me from the time I entered David.
Mrs. Vena. She gave me the tools to do whatever I wanted. I wanted to
make batiks, "Fine," she said. She had everything ready each time I
came to class. The wax was already melted and kept warm on a hot plate.
The cloth and dye and bucket and penciI I drew with were spread out on
a table, just for me. Mrs. Vena died after I left, of brain cancer. It
was a violent, and unbefitting death.
She taught an introductoty course in drawing where the girls drew
leaves and other things from nature. I was very jealous of Shelly
Edwards who could draw a leaf so well. Everyone spoke of her artistic
talent, and what a true artist she was, and what promise lay in store
for her. I couldn't draw a leaf or a tree or anything, so I asked for
batiks instead. Me and Mary Fearon. Mary Fearon Mary Fearon Mary
Fearon. It was like Mary Hartmann Mary Hartmann. She always had a few
puss filled pimples at the end of her nose, or in the space between her
eyes. She was already so old, an old bitter girl without joy. Sans
joie. Mary Fearon Mary Fearon. Her father was the minister at the boys
academy where we had dances once a month, and so she Iived on the
grounds. But no boy would have her. At one point I was forbidden on the
property of the boys academy. Too many late night parties, caught in a
boys room, a beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other (what do her
parents care?). You are forbidden to step foot on this campus again.
Mr. May, Mr. May, they said he was gay, said he was a pervert and liked
little boys too. He was the one who caught rne at 2a.m., standing under
a spreading Oak tree, talking to some friends, boys, yes, who were in a
window of the student house they lived in. They were too afraid to come
outside, afraid they'd get caught. So I was just standing there, when
out of nowhere Mr. May appeared, "hey you!" he yelled. I turned and
ran. I ran around the house, across the street and dove into the bushes
that lined another house, another residence hall. I stayed there until
Marshall and Nigel came looking; for me. It s all right, they said,
David thought I needed heIp. Wanted me to see a psychiatrist, so I
obliged. Went once with Mom and Dad, and then never again. Dad couldn't
stand the woman. Doctors, especially shrinks made him nervous.
One time, before being forbidden from the academy of boys, Nell and I
drove her parents station wagon in circles and figure eight's across
their playing fields, just after the rain. A stupid joke, we were
angry, but mostly, we were bored. We left the grass torn, in muddy
swells of knee-high ditches, and as we drove away, the car splattered
with mud, we saw in the rearview mirror, Mr. May, scribbling madly on
the back of his pudgy hand. When the poIice showed up at NeIl's house,
we knew who'd sent them. Poor Mr. May was fired the next year for an
indiscretion, not talked about.
In my 4th form, my 3rd year at the Academy of girls, I decided to
express myself. I wore outrageous clothes in horribly matched colors.
Day-glo greens, pinks, and yellows. I wore white, patent leather shoes,
with arrow-pointed tips, with purple socks and tight red pants. I
thought that perhaps the true artist in me was finaIIy coming out. I
wore ripped t-shirts that said things like, I lease by the piece: Acme
Shipping Co." and then I was thrown into the headmistress's office
again "Put on a sweater," I was told. "I have no sweater, and what's
the matter with this t-shirt anyway. I am expressing myself ." "It's
not appropriate, put on a sweater, here, take my sweater," she said.
Poor headmistress. She was desperate. She had no experience. She'd just
come from the convent.
There was a new art teacher that year. Mrs. Vena was said to have gone
on sabbatical. She must have reaIly been in the hospital. The new
teacher had too many rules. You must take the leaf drawing class before
you take the sculpture class. This was the end of my formal art
training at the girls academy.
The girls to feel sorry for in the academy, the girls I collected and
advised, were the ones who had been there the longest. And like some
lovely piece of fruit left uneaten, they were too soft, and a fungus
had grown over their brain, leaving them without the capacity to talk.
To talk to men, to talk anything. What have they done to you here? Jane
England was one such creature, a very funny and bright girl who dressed
like a dowdy, pharmacy clerk. Jane had such promise, such wit, and I
often wonder what happened to her. Where did her life lead her?
No college for me, I was in Europe for the first time when I was
seventeen, traveling alone, and I did not want to go to college. I
stayed the longest in a small town m ItaIy, in Emiglia Romagna, famous
for it's church which still practiced exorcism. I, in fact, was
excosized by the priest I was dragged to church by some friends, who,
exasperated by my doubts, handed me over to the kindly priest. He
placed some sort of medieval apparatus, some iron tongs, about my
temples, and around my neck, said a prayer, and then released me. He
said I was okay, I had no real devil in me.
I lived with an Italian family. They had five sons, who taught me
Italian. But then Mom and Dad insisted that I go to college, and so I
returned, the education of my life cut short by a worried parent's
fears. Justifiably so?
I took classes at the Art Institute of Philadelphia and the Academy of
Fine Arts. The Institute was on Chestnut Street in a recently renovated
Art Deco building between a Burger King and a Fayva shoe store. There
was no real application process for the Institute, one just had to fill
out a registration form, and besides I hadn't applied to any colleges,
because I was still determined not to go. It was an ideal, but
I had to decide upon a concentration, and so I convinced myself that I
was interested in fashion. I would be a buyer, and travel around the
world buying clothes for Fiorucci. The classes I took ranged from
business etiquette to hat making. There were many boys named Tony. And
at the end of the year I was told that I would fail unless I got more
than 100 on each exam. I passed and then I dropped out.
In the meantime, I'd also been taking classes at the Academy, an
ornate, bell-shaped building on Broad Street, near the phiIharmonic. In
my life-drawing class the teacher was an older, cadaverous looking
fellow, who I thought looked like a landscape painter. He said very
Academy: I finally decided that college needed me. I went to a school
in the woods, Drew (another boy's name) University, in Madison, NJ. I
went in as a theatre major, then switched to behavioral science with an
emphasis in cross-cultural anthropology, and finally graduated as an
art major. Thomas, my advisor, who actually was a landscape painter,
used to lounge in the grass next my easel, where I suffered through
trying to paint a tree. He would stretch out in the late summer sun, in
that field next to the science building, reminiscing about his coIlege
days at Stanford, chewing on blades of grass and then carelessly
tossing them aside. Later, I found out that people said we were lovers,
that we were in love.
But I had a boyfriend, Earl, the landscape painter prodigy of the
department. He could paint a tree oh boy could he paint a tree. His
trees were tortured and vain, and they swung in some northwesternly
breeze. We both moved into Thomas's loft in Hoboken when we finished
University, and lived among other artists. We each had some studio
space at one end of our industrial factory home, which would later be
declared a condemned building.
There was a crazy women named Lois who besides being a painter, had a
Ph.D. in psychology. Thomas said she was so brilliant that she was
crazy. She was thin and willowy, and she grew herbs in her yellow,
plastic-covered bedroom window. "Smell the herbs! Smell the herbs!" she
danced around the kitchen in long Indian skirts, and shoved basil and
thyme under our noses. There was Richard, an abstract figure painter
who had just returned from living in Paris for two years. He was a
large and depressed man, who worked as a night guard at the MET. Thomas
told us that Richard was never the same after a winter he spent living
in a barn in Pennsylvania. "He was so poor that winter, he Iived off of
peanut butter and carrots, and he was never the same. But then he made
some of his best paintings ever," Thomas explained to Earl and me, who
listened wide-eyed and gullible. We sat at the old wood kitchen table,
where he often told us such stories of deprivation and poverty, warning
us I suppose, of what lay in store for us, if we decided to become real
artists. Thomas was from Utah, and he was obsessed with Iarge things,
such as mountains and tall people. He knew every statistic about every
mountain in the world, and about every baseball player too. He used to
love to describe Richard's hands. "His hands are so big, let me show
you, they're bigger than both my hands put together, and they couId
easily palm a basketball Why they're so big, he could strangle a man
with two fingers." Thomas emphasized his descriptions by using Earl's
head as a basketball, and my neck to strangle.
We had dinner parties often, which ended up with Thomas doing the
"Gator", a dance he learned in the backwoods of Louisiana, to his
collection of scratched Howling Wolf records. We "Gatored" together,
while the others looked on, and I believe that this was the only time
that Earl truly loved me. They discussed art and galleries, and drank
Laphroaig whiskey with Stilton cheese, and bread from Miarie's bakery
around the corner. I said nothing during these parties. I said nothing
at all, I just danced and watched, because I was sure that if I said
something, it would be awfully stupid. So I said nothing.
Sometimes we borrowed Lois's car, and Thomas and Earl and I would drive
off into the New Jersey countryside, to some cornfield Thomas knew
about in Bergen County. We brought brown, paper-bag lunches, and set up
our easels, quite a distance from one another, among the nettles, and
prickly bushes scattered across the field. I was a terrible landscape
painter. I was bored by trees, clouds, sky and dirt.
But somehow, years later, these paintings don't look so bad.
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