Gay Bashing at the Smithsonian

This article was originally published in the New York Times on December 11, 2010.

Published: December 11, 2010

Each Aug. 4, my wife Alex and I visit a church to light candles for two people we loved who both died tragically on that day two years apart — my mother, killed at 64 in a car crash, and Alex’s closest friend from graduate school, killed by AIDS at half that age. My mother was Jewish but loved the meditative serenity of vast cathedrals. Alex’s friend, John, was a Roman Catholic conflicted by a religion that demonized his sexuality. Our favorite pilgrimage is to an Episcopal church, Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, not as some sectarian compromise but because of its AIDS chapel, a haunting reminder of the plague that ravaged that city’s population, especially its gay men, some time ago.

What helps give us some solace is the chapel’s mesmerizing altarpiece. It was the New York artist Keith Haring’s last completed work in the weeks before his death by AIDS at age 31 in 1990. Titled “The Life of Christ” and radiant in gold leaf, it crowns its anguished panorama of suffering with a pair of angels ascending to heaven — all rendered in Haring’s whimsical, graffiti-inspired iconography. Even as he was succumbing to a ruthless disease that had provoked indifference and cruelty rather than compassion from too many of his fellow citizens, Haring, somehow, could still see angels. You needn’t be a believer to be inspired by the beauty of his vision.

Not every artist struck down by AIDS could hit so generous a note. Such was the case with David Wojnarowicz, a painter, author and filmmaker, who, like Haring, was a fixture of the East Village arts scene in the 1980s. When his mentor and former lover, the photographer Peter Hujar, fell ill with AIDS in 1987, Wojnarowicz created a video titled “A Fire in My Belly” to express both his grief and his fury. As in Haring’s altarpiece, Christ figures in Wojnarowicz’s response to the plague — albeit in a cryptic, 11-second cameo. A crucifix is besieged by ants that evoke frantic souls scurrying in panic as a seemingly impassive God looked on.

Still from A Fire in My Belly

Hujar died in 1987, and Wojnarowicz would die at age 37, also of AIDS, in 1992. This is now ancient, half-forgotten history. When a four-minute excerpt from “A Fire in My Belly” was included in an exhibit that opened six weeks ago at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, it received no attention. That’s hardly a surprise, given the entirety of this very large show — a survey of same-sex themes in American portraiture titled “Hide/Seek.” The works of Wojnarowicz, Hujar and other lesser known figures are surrounded by such lofty (and often unlikely) bedfellows (many gay, some not) as Robert Mapplethorpe, John Singer Sargent, Grant Wood, Thomas Eakins, Georgia O’Keeffe, Andy Warhol, Andrew Wyeth and Haring. It’s an exhibit that would have been unimaginable in a mainstream institution in Wojnarowicz’s lifetime.

The story might end there — like Haring’s altarpiece, a bittersweet yet uplifting postscript to a time of plague. But it doesn’t because “Fire in My Belly” was removed from the exhibit by the National Portrait Gallery some 10 days ago with the full approval, if not instigation, of its parent institution, the Smithsonian. (The censored version of “Hide/Seek” is still scheduled to run through Feb. 13.) The incident is chilling because it suggests that even in a time of huge progress in gay civil rights, homophobia remains among the last permissible bigotries in America. “Think anti-gay bullying is just for kids? Ask the Smithsonian,” wrote The Los Angeles Times’s art critic, Christopher Knight, last week. One might add: Think anti-gay bullying is just for small-town America? Look at the nation’s capital.

The Smithsonian’s behavior and the ensuing silence in official Washington are jarring echoes of those days when American political leaders stood by idly as the epidemic raged on. The incident is also a throwback to the culture wars we thought we were getting past now — most eerily the mother of them all, the cancellation of a Mapplethorpe exhibit (after he died of AIDS) at another Washington museum, the Corcoran, in 1989.

Like many of its antecedents, the war over Wojnarowicz is a completely manufactured piece of theater. What triggered the abrupt uproar was an incendiary Nov. 29 post on a conservative Web site. The post was immediately and opportunistically seized upon by William Donohue, of the so-called Catholic League, a right-wing publicity mill with no official or financial connection to the Catholic Church.

Donohue is best known for defending Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitism by declaring that “Hollywood is controlled by Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular.” A perennial critic of all news media except Fox, he has also accused The Times of anti-Catholicism because it investigated the church pedophilia scandal. Donohue maintains the church doesn’t have a “pedophilia crisis” but a “homosexual crisis.” Such is the bully that the Smithsonian surrendered to without a fight.

Donohue’s tactic was to label the 11-second ants-and-crucifix sequence as “anti-Christian” hate speech. “The irony,” wrote the Washington Post art critic, Blake Gopnik, is that the video is merely a tepid variation on the centuries-old tradition of artists using images of Christ, many of them “hideously grisly,” to speak of mankind’s suffering. Those images are staples of all museums — even in Washington, where gory 17th-century sculptures of Christ were featured in a recent show of Spanish sacred art at the National Gallery.

Christ After the Flagellation contemplated by the Christian Soul, Diego Velasquez, 1628-1629

Dead Christ, Gregorio Fernandez, 1625-1630

But of course Donohue was just using his “religious” objections as a perfunctory cover for the homophobia actually driving his complaint. The truth popped out of the closet as Donohue expanded his indictment to “pornographic images of gay men.” His Republican Congressional allies got into the act. Eric Cantor called for the entire exhibit to be shut down and threatened to maim the Smithsonian’s taxpayer funding come January. (The exhibit was entirely funded by private donors, but such facts don’t matter in culture wars.) Jack Kingston, of the House Appropriations Committee, rattled off his own list of exaggerated gay outrages in “Hide/Seek,” from “Ellen DeGeneres grabbing her breasts” to “naked brothers kissing.”

It took only hours after Donohue’s initial battle cry for the video to be yanked. “The decision wasn’t caving in,” the museum’s director, Martin E. Sullivan, told reporters. Of course it was. The Smithsonian, in its own official statement, rationalized its censorship by saying that Wojnarowicz’s video “generated a strong response from the public.” That’s nonsense. There wasn’t a strong response from the public — there was no response. As the museum’s own publicist told the press, the National Portrait Gallery hadn’t received a single complaint about “A Fire in the Belly” from the exhibit’s opening day, Oct. 30, until a full month later, when a “public” that hadn’t seen the exhibit was mobilized by Donohue to blast the museum by phone and e-mail.

The Post’s Gopnik has been heroically relentless in calling out the Smithsonian and the National Portrait Gallery for their capitulation. But few in Washington’s power circles have joined him, including the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents — a gilded assembly of bipartisan cowardice that ranges from Senator Thad Cochran, Republican of Mississippi, to Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont. This timidity has been particularly striking given that the city’s potentates gathered to bestow the Kennedy Center Honors last weekend on the choreographer Bill T. Jones, whose legendary artistic and personal partnership with Arnie Zane came to a tragic end when Zane was killed by AIDS at age 39 in 1988.

It still seems an unwritten rule in establishment Washington that homophobia is at most a misdemeanor. By this code, the Smithsonian’s surrender is no big deal; let the art world do its little protests. This attitude explains why the ever more absurd excuses concocted by John McCain for almost single-handedly thwarting the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” are rarely called out for what they are — “bigotry disguised as prudence,” in the apt phrase of Slate’s military affairs columnist, Fred Kaplan. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council has been granted serious and sometimes unchallenged credence as a moral arbiter not just by Rupert Murdoch’s outlets but by CNN, MSNBC and The Post’s “On Faith” Web site even as he cites junk science to declare that “homosexuality poses a risk to children” and that being gay leads to being a child molester.

It’s partly to counteract the hate speech of persistent bullies like Donohue and Perkins that the Seattle-based author and activist Dan Savage created his “It Gets Better” campaign in which gay adults (and some non-gay leaders, including President Obama) make videos urging at-risk teens to realize that they are not alone. But even this humanitarian effort is controversial and suspect in some Beltway quarters: G.O.P. politicians and conservative pundits have yet to participate even though most of the recent and well-publicized suicides by gay teens have occurred in Republican Congressional districts, including those of party leaders like Michele Bachmann, Mike Pence and Kevin McCarthy.

Has it gotten better since AIDS decimated a generation of gay men? In San Francisco, certainly. But when America’s signature cultural institution can be so easily bullied by bigots, it’s another indicator that the angels Keith Haring saw on his death bed have not landed in Washington just yet.

An Evening with Cleve Jones

I had the great chance to see Cleve Jones on Friday at a small Q&A-style talk.

Some might know him best as the young activist from the movie Milk. I first heard of him when I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area during the late 80s and early 90s; he was quoted in the paper on a regular basis about the rampaging AIDS epidemic.

His activism on this issue led him to create the world’s largest public art project, the AIDS Quilt. The quilt is made of panels, 3 feet by 6 feet, which memorialize people, mostly young gay men, who have been lost to AIDS. The panels are sewn and decorated by friends or family, and often include more than a name: perhaps the dates of birth and death, a silkscreened photo, a favorite quote, a sentiment from the survivors. This quilt is like any other, with a variety of colors and styles from panel to panel; some are somber, some are over-the-top fabulous, with everything in between.


I saw the quilt on Sproul Plaza at UC Berkeley, and will never forget the panel that read, under the deceased’s name: “Received a Purple Heart for killing a man, and a discharge for loving one”. I cried.

The personal is political.

The quilt has gone on multiple tours of the country, been laid out on the National Mall in Washington DC, and was even part of President Clinton’s first inaugural parade.


This past year, Cleve was involved in another kind of public documentation, when he began Testimony: Equality on Trial. This performance and video project was a response to the Prop 8 trial, which took away the right of gays in California to marry. Our Supreme Court blocked this historic trial from being televised for the American people, so to provide access to the details of the trial, Cleve hit on a simple idea: Verbatim transcripts of the trial were reenacted in public places, filmed, and uploaded to the internet so that anyone could watch them. (Prop 8 was found to be unconstitutional and is now on appeal).

The main thrust of Cleve’s remarks the other night were that the most effective messages in the struggle out of second-class citizenship are the ones that reveal the humanity behind the statistics. The quilt panels, and individual videos that are posted online (think the It Gets Better Project) get people talking. The act of coming out to family and friends attaches a friendly face to what might otherwise be only a scary abstract.

This is old-fashioned, grass-roots story-telling. The personal is political.

Back to the studio, to tell some more stories.

Vermont Studio Center: Return

My month at the Vermont Studio Center was fantastic in every way: the scenery, the friends I made, the visit across the border to Montreal, the time to focus completely on my painting.

Having the chance to appreciate weather, instead of cursing it as I run back upstairs (four flights!) to get my umbrella.

Being reminded of how nice it is to see dogs that look and act like dogs–playing in the river, chasing each other, running–rather than being carried in designer bags, wearing boots and sweaters, and looking either nervous or pompous (depending on the dog).

Discovering interesting new details, such as the rows of metal flashing that cover Vermont roofs, which cause the snow to melt and slide off the roof in stripes (!).

Even better, I was calmer and more focused. Happier. I resolved to figure out ways to take these feelings back with me into the “real” world, so that I didn’t leave the best parts of myself in Vermont, suspended in a month that would all-too-quickly fade into memory and come to seem unreal.

In Vermont, I was doing exactly what I wanted to do: I wanted time and space in which to paint, and I wanted to relax, to shake off some accumulated stress from my old job and the hurry-up lifestyle of NYC. Check, check, and check. The whole purpose of the Vermont Studio Center is to give you time to work, and the quiet pace of Johnson was exactly what I needed–slow enough to make life easy, but not boring.

I realized that in my “real” life, what I wanted and what I was doing were not in alignment with each other at all. My job was competing against what I really wanted to do (paint) and that part of my life couldn’t be taken seriously–by me or anyone else–as long as I was squeezing it into the margins–after 5:00 PM, on some weekends, in between the usual transactions of daily life.

Although I know I’m coming back to my usual errands, chores, and concerns, I am committed to making sure I stay in alignment at home.

Here are some observations and lessons that I think will be worth taking back with me:

I like working big.

Sometimes I can’t check off everything on the to-do list. That’s OK.

Avoid the temptation to reflexively check my Facebook and email. This is a waste of time and energy.

Don’t put on TV to “relax” (I know myself; I just get sucked in). I watched it twice in a month and that felt like plenty (though I did miss Dexter!)

Try to limit multi-tasking. My apartment is small, so with one sweeping glance, I can see all the things needing my attention: computer, food, shower, laundry, dustballs under the desk…try to focus and finish one thing (which is more satisfactory anyway) instead of jumping around.

I think I’ll do better if I develop more of a schedule.

Look around.

Appreciate things.

I made the right decision to leave my job. I am happier.

I am extremely lucky to have had this time at the Vermont Studio Center, and I’d be happy to give any specific advice about the program to anyone considering a residency there.

Vermont Studio Center-View from the Red Mill

Vermont Studio Center: The Fleeting Image

In Which We Laugh at a Technical Difficulty While Discovering a Metaphor for Artmaking.

Last week, I attended a lecture at the Vermont Studio Center by the painter Yvonne Jacquette. (Check out this article for more info on her paintings of aerial cityscapes).

Near the end of her talk, the Powerpoint and digital projector were put away because Yvonne wanted to show us some thangka paintings which were not in digital form. The Beseler opaque projector was turned on; it provides for the projection of books and other paper items, using a series of lights and prisms to reflect the image onto the screen.

I’d never seen anything like this beast before; all told, even though it sat on a tabletop, it seemed to be bigger (certainly heavier) than anyone in the room. And it was loud, very loud. There was a door which opened from the back, like the door to a wood-burning oven, which, when opened, poured out hot light into the darkened lecture hall. There was a presentation tray underneath, made of industrial-looking metal rollers, on which the reproduction of the thangka painting was placed.

As Yvonne began to talk about the thangka, the internal fan (necessary in the face of those white-hot lamps) blew the card off its centered position on the rollers. We watched it get caught up in the blast of wind, like a leaf on the street, until it caught on the interior wall of the projector. From there, we could see the corner of the card and the metal rollers, but that was all.

Undaunted, the projectionist opened the door and adjusted the image, then closed the door again. The image again was forcefully blown away and out of reach of the lights and prisms. We could see evidence of it, a shadow, a shape, but not the image itself.

The projectionist, quicker this time, again opened the door and repositioned the little painting. The door was firmly closed and once more, we watched the projection screen as the gust of air took the painting out of our sight. Again and again, the projectionist tried, but the little painting stubbornly refused to be seen.

The audience laughed at this unruly little image.

While people continued to give advice and fiddle with the Beseler, I realized that this was a great metaphor for artmaking: it’s the place where the patient, the stubborn, the curious, the diligent, and the frustrating all collide. Where sometimes you know what you want to happen, but it just won’t materialize, despite your best efforts. Although the process might seem perfectly straightforward, there’s always something that keeps running ahead of you, just out of your grasp. The fleeting image.

Usually when this happens in the studio, you just have to make do with something else; your hand makes adjustments to contours, position, relationships between parts. Sometimes something major needs to get covered up, or sometimes a piece is put aside entirely in favor of something new and different. These solutions, which may not be what you had in mind, usually turn out just fine in the end. (Sometimes, better than fine).

This calls to mind a Richard Diebenkorn quote:

I can never accomplish what I want – only what I would have wanted had I thought of it beforehand.

Because no one could stabilize the image in the opaque projector, Yvonne’s talk ended there. Fortunately, most of what she had wanted to say seemed to have been said already. Afterward, a small crowd gathered around the Beseler projector to marvel at its dimensions and laugh at the momentary chaos it had caused. We left the lecture hall.

I walked back to the studio, thinking about runaway images. Time to try again.

Vermont Studio Center: Evolution of a Painting

A peek inside the artist’s studio…

I tend to develop a painting intuitively and reactively…I don’t work out a plan ahead of time, or plot a composition on paper first. I begin by diving in and sketching out shapes with paint. When I step back and look at the painting, I’ll react to what I’ve already put down on the painting surface, and either make complementary shapes and colors, or cover up what I’ve already done and make new ones. Sometimes that even means turning a painting upside down, or changing its orientation from horizontal to vertical. Most of the painting is in the editing process–this eliminating of things that no longer work, and adjusting to add what does.

In thinking about the story of Tyler Clementi, and in general about gay people who are often asked or required to hide who they are, I chose an uneasy green to convey anxiety. (Someone suggested that the green was “institutional”, which added another layer of meaning–all the better!) This anxious, institutional green covers previous layers of activity (you can see vestiges of them peeking out, or see their texture covered by the green). Some activity takes place out in the open; some is covered. The greenish-black and the reflexive scribbling with pencil are meant to be jarring, emotional notes.

One of my beliefs is that a painting needs to be beautiful on some level, in order to capture a viewer’s interest and get him/her thinking about concepts and ideas inherent in the work. Making an ugly piece about war, for example, works for Goya or Otto Dix, but it’s not my way of getting into a work. I like to suggest a mood or moment through color, interplay of shapes, and quality of lines. While I don’t go too far in one direction by allowing my work become merely pretty, I also try not to go too far in the other direction by covering everything in black. I prefer to be more evocative, rather than to answer the question too quickly.

I think of it like a book: you want people to keep reading; you don’t want to give away the whole story on the first page.

For this painting, I took a photo of my progress every time I stepped away from the studio for an extended time (meal break, overnight). What you’re seeing is an arbitrary moment, not necessarily a critical juncture in the painting process. As I carted my work home from Vermont Studio Center, I could hear some misbehaving from the jumble of paintings in the backseat, so I’ll have to assess whether any touch-ups are needed, but as of now, this is the story of this painting:

Vermont Studio Center: Montreal

I like Montreal. It’s a walkable city, with interesting neighborhoods (next time, I want to spend more time in the Latin Quarter) and a charming feel. We had time for just two museums and a gallery or two, but it was great to see “new” artists who don’t appear frequently in American or European collections. Three discoveries were Master of the Female Half-Lengths (how’s that for a name?), Brendan Lee Satish Tang, and Pierre Durette.

Master of the Female Half-Lengths
Brendan Lee Satish Tang
Pierre Durette

We were greeted as natives everywhere: French first, and a friendly switch to English when it was proven necessary. I thought that was a nice, polite touch that made us feel at home. Here are some photos from our walks around town:

Vermont Studio Center: England Brothers

This is a true story about the small world we live in, about memory, family, roots, and the power of art.

It started around the breakfast table at the Vermont Studio Center. My friend Peggy Sapphire and I discovered our mutual connnection to the city of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. I was born there, she had visited it as a child, and she excitedly leaned over to tell me about her great affection for it.

This has never happened before, so first, a word about my birthplace and my somewhat complicated relationship to it. When people ask where I’m from, there’s a slight mental pause on my part before I say I’m originally from Massachusetts. Not “Pittsfield”, just “Massachusetts”. I was born in Pittsfield, it’s what my passport says, yet I only lived there until I was four or five, and my memories are hazy at best. I remember in glimpses: our street, walking to the Dairy Queen after dinner, the smell of a bakery with turquoise trim and shiny glass cases with revolving cakes, seeing the huge dragonfies at Onota Lake, looking at Queen Anne’s Lace along the side of a road while on a walk with my aunt Anne, and a bright pink stucco church which seemed out of place in New England–but fascinating because of it–even to a four-year old.

We left Pittsfield for another town in Massachusetts, of which I have stronger memories because I was older. But I don’t say “I’m from Sterling” because my connection there seems tenuous as well: we kids were forbidden to develop the local accent, and we moved out of the state entirely in four more years, to a town in Connecticut on the Massachusetts border. My roots do feel as if they are planted somewhere in Massachusetts; I never, ever lay claim to being “from” Connecticut, even though that’s where I spent most of my childhood, and it’s where my parents still live, thirty years later.

Besides my lack of strong memories, the other disconnect to my birthplace is that my parents’ glowing descriptions of Pittsfield absolutely do not match up with what my own eyes told me about the place when we returned as visitors for family events.

Pittsfield is like many New England towns that thrived along an industry (for some, it was a mill; in our case, it was General Electric) then crashed when the industry left. Many of these towns, like Pittsfield, are still trying to get back on their feet.

When my parents grew up there in the 1940s and 50s and returned after college in the 1960s, GE was headquartered there and Pittsfield was hot. My parents told tales of excitement along North Street, of happy people socializing in a vibrant downtown, of summer vacations, from that era.

When we returned for family occasions in the 70s and 80s and less and less as time went on, I saw abandoned buildings, some with plywood for windows, some blackened by fire. There weren’t many people on the sidewalks that I recall, but the ones I saw seemed to shuffle around unhappily. I saw broken windows, empty warehouses, ugly industrial spaces with too many wires overhead. Nothing felt nice. No additional pleasant memories related to the city itself were planted alongside the old glimpses I’d retained.

It seemed impossible that just a few short years earlier, this had been a fun-loving utopia for my parents. Their stories, unfailingly and glowingly complimentary to Pittsfield, took on the air of hyperbole, even propaganda, over the years because of this disconnect. My sister, brother and I (the ones closest in age to me were born there too; the youngest two were born in Connecticut and have even less connection there) couldn’t understand the old Pittsfield, their Pittsfield. We sometimes teased them for creating a fantasyland that didn’t match up with the current reality, one that didn’t seem like it ever could have. Once, when we wanted to make it sting, we said we knew the river had caught on fire from all the chemicals GE had dumped in it. My mother maintained it didn’t happen; I don’t think my father had an answer for that.

I don’t remember my parents ever acknowledging the existence of the newer version of Pittsfield, one where the river caught on fire, where people were out of work, where kids my age battled cancer they’d gotten playing in contaminated yards. My sister, brother and I denied the existence of their version because we couldn’t believe their stories when our own eyes told us differently, and my parents denied the existence of the contemporary version, maybe also because the difference was too jarring.

I will admit that looking out the car window a couple of times a year is not the best way to judge the city. Given the stress of major holidays, the travel, the vigorous fighting that would likely have been occurring in the back seat, the steamed windows from too many people being in the car for too long, my father’s violent sneezing on the way home because of my aunt’s cats, Pittsfield probably never had a chance from this vantage point.

If you were to Google Pittsfield, you’d see that it has received more than a few votes for “Worst City” in the US, with some bloggers outdoing themselves to put it down. There’s no denying that there are alot of things to say along these lines.

So it’s in this context that my friend Peggy began to excitedly talk to me about Pittsfield. She’d gone there as a child in the early 1950s and spent a couple of summers at Buckley Farm, down a dirt road in Lanesboro. She was a city girl, a New Yorker, going to visit the countryside with her brother, without her parents.

I wished I could have said Oh sure, Buckley Farm, but I didn’t know it, not even from my parents‘ stories.

She went on to say that she’d written a poem about Pittsfield, specifically about England Brothers’ Department Store. I remembered England Brothers from driving by, and also because one of my uncle’s very best friends was a direct descendent from the original England Brothers. I didn’t know her well because my uncle moved away for college and never moved back East, but her name was always present in family lore. England Brothers also appeared in many of my parents’ stories, as a prominent landmark by which other locations were described, and also as a backdrop for other activities since everyone seemed to meet there.

Peggy promised to send me the poem. As it turned out, the occasion for writing it was the demolition of England Brothers in the late 1990s.

Her poem was beautiful, a tribute to early years and adventures, well before Pittsfield’s downturn. I learned about England Brothers in detail for the first time, and I hadn’t realized how hungry I had been for the information. In my parents’ stories, it had merely been a shorthand notation: they’d never described it because they didn’t have to; everyone knew England Brothers.

The poem also named several of Peggy’s friends and acquaintances from those summers, and one name caught my attention: Inez. There was an Inez (pronounced I-nus by our family) who was my grandmother’s best friend. I don’t remember my grandmother because she died when I was a year old, but Inez, no last name needed, was a familiar character in the family stories, just like England Brothers. In the poem, Inez also didn’t have a last name and therefore couldn’t be immediately identified. Peggy and I wondered if they could be the same person. After all, how many women named Inez could have lived in Pittsfield, Massachusetts at that time?

I sent the poem to my mom, her twin sister, and my uncle. I also asked if Peggy’s Inez could be “our” Inez. To clear up that mystery, it was generally agreed that there must have been another Inez in Pittsfield, based partly on the fact that “our” Inez wouldn’t have inspected anyone’s hands before dinner, as Peggy had written. The other responses were immediate, enthusiastic and grateful: memories of the sprawling system of overhead tubes which was used as a delivery system in the store, along with blueberry picking at Mickle’s Grove and a place called “blueberry mountain”, my grandmother’s blueberry pies, were shared and elaborated upon. I learned more about myself: that all of my baby clothes were from England Brothers; it was where I went to visit Santa for the first time. My uncle’s friend weighed in from Oregon to say how proud and touched she was to hear of the prominent place her family’s store held in so many lives and memories.

Peggy Sapphire in Dave Nelson's studio

I shared my family’s excited memories with Peggy. With each new email, she was more delighted. We convened over meals, telling the story with its latest chapter to whomever happened to be sitting nearby. Peggy always thanked me again for sharing my family history (such as it was, imperfectly remembered by me) and embellished the poem with additional memories:

…the beautiful scarves on display at England Brothers

…bringing lunch, consisting of a couple of sandwiches, and sitting down among the cow patties to eat them. In response to several wrinkled noses, Peggy chuckled deep in her throat and exclaimed: “They smelled sweet, what did I know, I was from New York!”

…running along the lane to deliver news of a baby’s birth, and feeling the importance attached to that responsibility, as well as the intimacy it conveyed. She was now one of them.

One morning she asked if I’d been born in the local hospital. Yes, Berkshire Medical Center, I said. This was a fact that I knew, a detail regarding my hometown about which I could be firm. Peggy recounted how her brother had once gotten his foot sliced in a hay baler or some type of farm equipment. No one had remembered to warn the city boy to beware the sweeping blade and his foot was injured quite badly. After describing the injuries and treatment at the hospital, Peggy nodded and said with quiet appreciation, They took good care of him.

You know, I was only the third baby whose father was allowed in the delivery room, I offered. We had both been treated well there.

These stories, these snippets of real information, made Pittsfield seem more alive and maybe even likable to me. I could finally begin to understand, through Peggy’s affection for it, and the round-robin comments via email, the affection that my parents had felt, that many had obviously felt. I could sense this affection, and Pittsfield itself, weave a bit more into the fabric of my own past.

It was during this conversation that I started crying at breakfast, a quiet but persistent reddening of the eyes and tip of my nose, and welling of tears around the rims and lashes. I felt overwhelmed by these connections to my family: picturing my mom, pregnant with me, shopping for my baby clothes on her lunch break, picturing a tiny baby me, sitting on Santa’s lap. Picturing my dad, my aunts and uncles, my grandparents, Inez popping into England Brothers for some necessity, going past the Ladies Department, stepping on the creaky floorboards, looking up at the tubing system zipping along, saying hello to all the other neighbors and family who had likewise stopped in. I felt indescribably close to my family, engaged as we all were, from different parts of the country, in reading this love poem to Pittsfield, appreciating it, allowing it to spark deep memories and feelings, circulating it to others and then reporting back again.

It is a gift, Peggy said, with quiet emphasis on each word. It is a gift to be able to be brought into your family like this. It’s very rare for a writer to hear how her words are received.

Peggy, the gift is mutual.


Peggy’s Sapphire’s poem is included here with her gracious permission. Please visit her website to learn more about her and her writing.

England Brothers

England Brothers Department Store under the wrecker’s ball.
Main Street, wide with maples and hanging petunias.
England Brothers under the wrecker’s ball,
two-story wood and brick since 1857.

Lulu, wherever you are, do you remember
the day you took me there? Pittsfield, Massachussetts,
your birthtown, your Main Street, your England Brothers,
your mama’s and
your mama’s mama’s.

Dark wood floors, old bones creaking under me that day,
the New York City kid, up a dirt road for two weeks
on your grandpa’s dairy farm, your grandma’s kitchen.
Zeke washing up sudsy at the kitchen sink.
Inez checking my hands for washable dirt. Their round dining table
with room for everyone, including me, plenty for all of us,
brown gravy, sliced roast beef with juices running over,
cream from the barn and a million fresh blueberries
for dessert, remember Lulu? Didn’t matter the best bushes were
found near sweet smelling cow pies.

England Brothers under the wrecker’s ball,
vacuum tubes carrying messages and money
in a loud whisper from the small office upstairs, to the beautiful sales ladies
standing behind glass cases with mahogany trim, selling scarves
and linen hankies, silk slips and sachet bags. Upstairs the piles
of Hudson Bay blankets, softest wool I ever touched,
making believe we have to choose between strawberry red
with buttercup yellow, or milk white with new-grass green.

Lulu, best friend in the summer of 1951, the fattest girl I knew.
I walked ahead pretending we weren’t together. I’m sorry.
I thought I was beautiful that summer, first time in my life. It was
your cousin George, my pioneer boyfriend, his farmer hands clumsily
up my blouse where none had gone before, whose image
consumed me with hungers I couldn’t name.

England Brothers under the wrecker’s ball.
Today’s photo in the paper, five decades later.
Is that you, Lulu, buying the last
of the porcelain tea cups and gilded saucers?

I’ll gladly walk with you, Lulu
side by side, arm in arm. Wait for me, we’ll
show them all how we push open the double-doors of
heavy oak with the solid brass hinges and
promenade into the cool air of the Ladies Department.

England Brothers forever.

Peggy’s poem was originally published in The Country and Abroad.

For more information on Dave Nelson’s paintings, pictured above, go to

Vermont Studio Center: Weather

There is weather, real weather, in Johnson.

We’ve had beautiful spring-like days, crisp fall, warm autumn, and cold winter air that swirls under your hair to chill the back of your neck. We’ve experienced several kinds of precipitation: a little hail, a little snow, sleet, rain, low-hanging mist, none of which seems to make anyone’s hair frizzy. And this all comes courtesy of visual effects in the sky and along the mountain such as low-hanging clouds, dramatic shadows, and striking colors. A landscape painter has her work cut out for her here, but what nature is doing looks so unbelievable, that the painter would be accused of making it all up.

Photos never do it justice, but I keep snapping away:

Vermont Studio Center: Appetite

I’ve noticed something peculiar related to food and appetite: I am starving at every meal time, even as I’m eating full, healthy meals, and closer together than I would in NY. Many others here have commented on the same phenomenon.

We eat heartily at every meal (at least I do–tearing through entrees like penne puttanesca and broccoli rabe, seitan and mushroom stew, soups, salads, breads, lovely desserts) and the cycle begins again: ravenous hunger in just a couple of hours.

Theories abound:

It’s the fresh air.
We’re working harder here.
It’s Pavlovian, because we’re on a regular schedule.
Meals are lighter here, with smaller portions.
There’s less opportunity to snack between meals.
There’s nothing else to do (HA!) (no cellphone reception, family, etc).
Someone said that she’s hungrier because she doesn’t have to cook.

We’re relaxed and happy and engaged, and so our bodies are functioning like they’re supposed to. I think it’s this.

I’ve only felt this one other time that I can recall, and that was when I went to Italy for the first time with my friend Kristy. We marveled at how much we were eating, and yet how hungry we were. Always. You know Italian eating–large portions piled high, and just when you think, with relief, that you’ve managed to polish that off, here comes the next course, mangia!–and yet we were starving again in no time. We traveled all around Italy, taking in sights, asking questions, in awe of everything we saw.

Here, I feel the same sense of engagement on every level: heightened senses, a sense of purpose, a curiosity, a sense of accomplishment every day. I think our bodies have not only been liberated from the many stresses we’ve grown accustomed to in our “real” lives, but also been awakened by the opportunity to engage so fully with our environment and our ideas. Our bodies and minds are working together to accomplish something that feels important, and because of that, I think our minds have given our bodies permission to loosen up. They’re able to behave more naturally, process everything more smoothly: ideas, stimuli, food.

Three of my favorite things.

Vermont Studio Center: Sitting by the window, watching the snow

Sitting at the window of my studio and watching the snow fall on and around the white barn next door. It’s a noisy snow–probably more sleet than anything–and it was slippery underfoot. Not my favorite snow–I like my rain to sound like rain, and my snow to be quiet and muffling, creating its own silent world. But I can’t tear myself away from the window.

I really need to take this relaxed attitude with me when I go back home. If I don’t finish my painting this morning–or hell, even work on it–it doesn’t feel like the end of the world. At home, everything is the end of the world. These little pleasures are so important–and really, what’s two hours sitting by the window?

They’re everything and nothing at the same time.

Vermont Studio Center: Artist’s Statement

Of the recent suicides of gay youth due to bullying, Tyler Clementi’s story is especially heartbreaking. Tyler’s roommate used social media to “out” him, and secretly filmed Tyler’s intimate encounter with a man. The roommate, Dharun Ravi, planned to do it again, broadcasting the time and date over the internet, as well as promising to stream the upcoming video. These activities spurred gossip in the dormitory and caused humiliation for Tyler, who was in his first month of college. Within two days, Tyler jumped off the George Washington Bridge. Dharun and a friend were charged with invasion of privacy; other charges may be pending.

In Roman Catholic tradition, devotees can visit the Stations of the Cross, which adorn churches and lay out in pictorial form the last hours of Jesus Christ. Each Station, visited sequentially, represents a key moment in these last hours. The Stations provide an opportunity to contemplate, and even to repent in a personal way for the suffering and death.

Without intending to deify Tyler Clementi, this series of paintings (here are the first three; it is on-going) describes some of the key events that unfolded in the last days of his life, in order to honor him and shine a light on the suffering and taunting that many gay youth face.

August 22, via Twitter
Tyler is Secretly Filmed for the First Time
saw him making out with a dude. yay.

Vermont Studio Center: The Edda Jakab Studio

Edda Jakab

My studio is called The Edda Jakab Studio. There aren’t many studios that are named, so this caught my eye. I made a note to myself to look her up, but so many other things have been on my mind that I hadn’t gotten around to it.

One of the things on my mind: last night and into today I was struggling with a painting. Really struggling.

If you want the long story:

I told myself before I came that I would keep an open mind about how I would work and what kinds of paintings I would make when I was here. I didn’t want to close off any possibilities: what if I were so inspired by the Vermont countryside that I wanted to take up landscape painting, for example.

I woke up very early one morning and had an idea for a whole cycle of paintings. They’re related to the bullying and suicides of gay teens, specifically to the suicide of Tyler Clementi. Tyler’s college roommate secretly filmed Tyler in a private moment with another male, Twittered about it, and planned to film Tyler again while streaming the video live. Tyler, a freshman in his first month away from home, was humiliated. Within days, he jumped off the George Washington Bridge. I haven’t been able to get this story off my mind.

I’ve worked abstractly for a long time, and prefer to tell stories that way, using suggestion rather than illustration. But it occurred to me that maybe abstract imagery wasn’t the best way to tell a story that is about images of people. Images that were seen via computer, in real time. Images that were promised/threatened to be disseminated via the latest technology. I wondered also if painting, a very old medium, was the best way to tell this story.

Besides the gay aspect of the story, this story was as much about being hit over the head with images, images that just keep coming (electronically) and the instant gratification of Twitter, iChat, and all the other ways that we all keep in touch now. I thought that being very direct with my images might be called for now, and so in the spirit of opening myself up to new possibilities, I decided to include figures.

bad beginning

I was looking at photos online, collaging them together, working on composition, even blowing images up in Photoshop to examine the pixels. The results were pretty horrific, even for a beginning painting, when you usually have to be very forgiving of what happens, knowing that you’re going to edit like crazy anyway. It was hard to keep working on the painting because it was so depressingly bad.

It was in this state of hopelessness that I was playing hooky in my own studio. When I wasn’t trying to bend pixels to my will in Photoshop or trolling around for images that didn’t exist, I was otherwise fooling around on the internet instead of doing more battle with that painting. Idly, I looked up Edda Jakab, whose studio I’m in.

I liked her work very much. Edda is a painter who paints in lyrical abstraction, like me. Her forms are organic, soft, and contemplative. We have alot in common, including a love of color. Her point of departure, the spark that gives birth to her abstract marks, is nature, with quite a few paintings dealing with water and reflections, stones, and leaves.

Edda Jakab

Her artist’s statement emphasized that she didn’t want to recreate nature exactly as seen, but to suggest it, to get at the mystery of it through suggestion. She included the following quote:

Let the image float inside you,
Pass slowly by.
The slightest idea of it
Will suffice for you.

Then she repeated: “The slightest idea of it will suffice…”

better beginning

This gave me an answer I was looking for. I realized that I was off-base to try to be so literal with my painting. I went back to the drawing board (ha ha, art joke) and extracted one tiny part of it, which was more than suggestive enough for my purposes. I turned the painting vertically (it had been oriented horizontally) and began building a very abstract and expressive painting around this suggestion.

The painting isn’t done but it’s come light-years with this one little reminder.

So I feel quite indebted to Edda Jakab and happy to be in this lucky studio. (Those of you who know me, know my little superstitions).

Edda was at the Vermont Studio Center in 2000. I would like to thank her for her inspiration, but she passed away in 2007.