November 25, 2012 § Leave a comment
A year ago I went to Susie Bright’s reading for her memoir, Big Sex Little Death. She signed my copy “Lauren, Clits up! Susie Bright.” She told some interesting stories about traveling through the country on her book tour while I sat wondering what the Puritans would think about her book title – if you have big sex, there’s bound to be a little death, or maybe even a lot.
“One brother killing his other half, his soul mate, was sensational enough – but add “hardcore” to it, and it was as if everyone in the sexual counterculture were on trial.
Reporters called me: “Did you see it coming? Were you pressured? Were you afraid? Did you get high with them, take it up the ass before the guns came out? Their questions were crazy because they all assumed that sex had led to violence. Not despair, not religion, not the empty bottle of abandonment (Bright, 303).”
Artie had been on a violent binge, and Jim shot him – the Mitchell brothers behind the famous O’Farrell theater strip club in San Francisco where Susie’s friends worked.
In life, there is death. The religious right would have us believe that death equals sin. But all of life is merely a cycle that our egos strain against.
In the same way, movements are born and then die. Manifestos have flaws, so we build off the old to create the new, hopefully improved, trains of thought.
Susie Bright has been at the forefront of movements in our history – grabbing life by the balls since she was a teenager running rampant in the Communist party. She was attacked, dodged bullets, and sacrificed her individuality for the cause. But amidst a shift, she was accused of betrayal and kicked out, most likely for not being a drone.
Several years later, she was influential in forming the lesbian erotic magazine, On Our Backs, with a group of strippers. For years they struggled to stay afloat amidst political battles of the Andrea Dworkin/Catherine MacKinnon variety. At that point, many feminists were joining with the religious right in the fight for anti-pornography laws, and the magazine found more support from gay culture.
“We were too obscene to glue together. All of us, the women in erotica and in sex education, ended up paying what amounted to enormous bribes to be printed at all. And the printer’s risk? Zero. The U.S. attorney general’s office, to this very day, has the same attitude toward women’s sexual potential as that held by the Victorians: They really don’t believe lesbians have sex (Bright, 259).”
Blatant, in your face, unapologetic women who don’t need the male gaze to feel beautiful or sexual is apparently, a frightening thing. The women at the magazine received death threats and accusations of every variety. Eventually, the pressure to stay afloat amidst so much opposition and lack of funding literally broke the magazine’s back. Susie’s life reached another movement, that of motherhood, teaching, writing, and sunshine in Santa Cruz.
“I had to Protect the Baby, but I ended up Protecting Me… Malingerers, fakers, and self-destructive impulses were red-tagged and booted (Bright, 287).”
I am not a mother, but I relate to this feeling from my experience of being a wife. Through my husband’s love for me, I came to love myself in a new light, and suddenly had no patience for the crazies, the neurotics, or the people who take me down a notch for no reason. As I became aware of someone else’s needs, I became more aware of my own. Love transformed, turning the past into stories, rather than painful emotional ties.
Like Susie, I have that desire to capture my personal history and encapsulate it – not only because it tells of my life, but also because it celebrates the people I have known, the cities I lived in that have changed since then, the zeitgeist that is no longer. We have all evolved, and it’s one of the reasons why we need to write it all down, or paint it, or film it, or photograph it – so we can remember how far we’ve come, and see more clearly, where we are going.
November 19, 2012 § Leave a comment
““You don’t really want to be a poet. First of all, if you’re a woman, you have to be three times as good as any of the men. Secondly, you have to fuck everyone. And thirdly, you have to be dead.” – a male poet, in conversation (Jong, 43)”
I recommend the poem that follows in Erica Jong’s book of poems, Fruits and Vegetables, first published in 1968.
The other day a photographer, James Arzente, came to my apartment to photograph me for a book he’s doing on artists and writers. After a long email dialogue, we came up with a concept, and piled all of the physical remains of what it took to write my memoir (piles of notepads filled with chicken scratch, journals, photographs, music, books, costumes, pens, mementos, and postcards) onto the kitchen table. The photographer wanted to get at what’s inside my head, and I pulled out as much physical evidence as I could possibly find, but it wasn’t even the half of it.
He pried further and further to figure out what makes me tick. On one hand, it made me understand the intensity of what it must feel like to be a celebrity. On the other, I was exhausted by it, and exhausted of being the sole focus. I grew sick of myself, ill with the knowledge of my current unsatisfactory state.
“You will never really be understood,” he said, “And you have to be okay with that.”
We talked about what it means to be a woman and a writer. I want to celebrate my womanhood, but being female has always felt like a strike against me. I’m working through it, towards a love and acceptance of my own gender. It’s difficult when I’ve been attacked for being a woman, not only by strangers, but also by friends and lovers. My healing comes from strong female role models, who repair me through their wisdom and our shared stories.
“Who do you feel you are on the inside?” James asked me.
“I feel like an outlaw. I feel like I’m fighting against the roles prescribed for me by others. I feel invisible. I’m in a chrysalis phase, and working non-stop to create my body of work. It’s killing me that my book isn’t out there yet, when I have so much more to give. I’m waiting for recognition, when in my mind, I am already known for what I do. In reality, I’m a drifter that no one really knows all that well.”
The truth is, I feel more like a Hunter S. Thompson, a Henry Miller, a Charles Bukowski, a Norman Mailer than a woman. None of my heroes understood women at all, and didn’t care to understand. But women inspired their stories. They almost had an unhealthy worship of the women that castrated them in a sense. Scared to death of the great goddess that might reach up and snuff them out.
Right now, at the Seattle Art Museum, the Elles exhibit of twentieth century women artists, is here from the Pompidou in Paris. Everyone seems to have a strong opinion about the show. Some are angry over the feeling that women’s art is segregated. Some felt it was too political. Some were disturbed by the empty pockets of history, where women really weren’t allowed to fully partake, as in the Bauhaus movement.
For me, I found the exhibit to be enormously invigorating, and at times disturbing. Throughout history, women have been told that their life should be a sacrifice for the family. In much of the art, I found that same sense of sacrifice, but it was an angry outcry against prescribed roles. A gigantic woven bee hive/cocoon – enormous and frightening, like death hanging from a hook in the ceiling. A film of a naked carefree woman on the beach, hula hooping with barbed wire, each turn ripping her abdomen to shreds. Marina Abramavic’s performance piece, “I must be beautiful, I must be beautiful, art must be beautiful,” as she rips at her scalp with a brush.
Grouping all of this art together is enormously satisfying and powerful. It tells a narrative, fighting to redefine what it means to be a woman, determined to have equality and a voice.
“To create is an act of liberation and every day this need for liberation comes back to me.” – Louise Bourgeois
I think as well, it would be impossible for the art to not be political. In an article by Robin Held in City Arts Magazine she states, “Only 5 percent of the art on display in U.S. museums is made by women, although 51 percent of U.S. visual artists today are women.” And this is the current state of the art world. Just today I walked through the art section at a bookstore, and the only female artist I saw on the shelves, was Georgia O’Keefe. I never even noticed the disparity before.
All this week, I have been enmeshed in talks with women artists on how they feel about the exhibit, and how they feel about their role in art today. The women of the sixties and seventies had a lot of wisdom and history to offer. One woman spoke of how she couldn’t sign her real name to a piece, because if they knew she was a woman, she wouldn’t get a show. She used her initials instead. To be a success, she had to deny the feminine. But now, because of political battles that have been won, she is free to sign her real name, and wears her womanhood like a badge of honor.
Strikingly, the women of my generation said that they don’t identify as women. One felt that anything written before 1980 was a “dinosaur text.” They were firmly planted in the here and now, living dangerously outside the context of history. I sensed abhorrence within them of their femaleness. The same abhorrence that existed in society in the 1950’s, when my mother was raised to think that being a woman made her unclean – doomed to keep cleaning, just to make up for it. Back then, household appliances were sold as devices to cure psychological ailments.
Young women artists want to shed their femaleness like a dead skin. And then they are shocked when those issues subconsciously come out in their art. One was disturbed when people found the feminine in her art. It made her angry. She might clothe herself with male-dominated activities to feel stronger, but she is still facing the unavoidable fact of her existence as a woman.
This same aversion to the female, I believe, has created a large disconnect among young women. I know I am at a difficult stage of life for female friendships – babies, work, lack of money, flakiness, geographical distance. But even so, all of the women I know look at each other with a deep sense of mistrust until proven otherwise. I am just as guilty as everyone else, and I’ve practically given up. Yet when I do find that closeness with other women, I find my confidence blossoms.
Women seem to feel sick of the issue of equality, and what that means. The issue has always been there, and it’s not going away anytime soon. It’s a constant struggle. And if we let go of it, there are plenty of men waiting in the wings to take back their control over our bodies. If your own body makes you ill, and you want to avoid it, then why not hand over the control?
In the young women, I saw myself, and I didn’t like what I saw. This week has changed me. I want to embrace who I am within this body within this world. But I also demand that society embrace my mind even more than the visual elements that I might express. Yes, I am a woman, but first and foremost, I am a human being.
November 4, 2012 § Leave a comment
I had a dream the other night, that I was one of three siblings. One sibling had stripped our father of his skin to see how we are made. He was laid out on a gurney, and we looked at the red layers of muscle, studying how they fold and overlap.
Our father was invincible and extremely angry. Maybe it was the process we had put him through, or maybe he was that way before, but he was insane and out to get us. Wherever we went, he followed – all over the world. We were on the run, and the situation was dire. We couldn’t kill the father, because the father was within all of us. But he was out to destroy what he had made.
You could make some religious allusions to all of this symbolism, or you could say that this is nature. I did not play myself in the dream, and the father and siblings were not my own.
The imagery stems from a slide show that Camille Paglia displayed in her talk last week at the library, of Leonardo Da Vinci’s private notebooks. In it, he studied the structure of muscles, and a fetus inside a dissected womb. If anyone had found out, at the time, that he was dissecting cadavers, the church would have severely punished him for it, maybe even put him to death. The drawings give us a sense that he is looking at things he should not be seeing.
This week, I read Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley. I love her for being such an emancipated woman, born to radical parents in 1797. Frankenstein is not my kind of book. I only read it because it was on a list of the greatest books ever written, and it’s so obviously influenced our culture, where science (or philosophy as it was called in Shelley’s day) can go too far, producing something gruesome and disastrous.
“So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein – more, far more, will I achieve; treading in the steps already marked. I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation (Shelly, 33).”
But once Frankenstein achieves his obsession, he is horrified as the creature takes its first breath. He realizes his mistake and deserts the monster. But after a series of murders of all those closest to Frankenstein, the creature gets a chance to tell his story. He began his life with love, but everyone he met hated and reviled him, turning his pain into a need for revenge.
Around the time that the novel was written, Mary had lost her first baby and had just given birth to a second, named William. Her half-sister committed suicide, and her partner, Percy Shelley, still had a wife who drowned herself in the Serpentine. Mary then lost a third child. After the novel was finished, she lost her son William, gave birth to Percy Florence who survived, and had a dangerous miscarriage after that. In the summer of 1822, Percy, her partner, drowned with two friends in a storm off the coast of Pisa. The badly decomposed bodies were burned, but Percy’s heart was removed and eventually buried in Rome. Mary was only twenty-five.
Reading her story in the introduction was much more horrific than the ghost story she wrote while summering with Percy and Lord Byron. The natural reaction, especially with losing a child, is to think at first that they will come back to life.
I edited a novel once, where a mother lost her baby and couldn’t let go of the little corpse. It had to be pried away from her. The writer was Australian, and was certain that American audiences wouldn’t be able to handle it, since in our culture we choose to be so far removed from death and dying.
Becoming a mother is to also face the possibility of ultimate loss – the chance of miscarriage, the chance of failing to protect your child from a world that is full of struggle, disease, and danger. For Shelley, bringing a corpse-like creature to life is the ultimate revenge against nature that takes away.
My strange dream of the father stripped of his skin reminds me of seeing the Bodies Exhibit. All those parts that make a whole, the muscles and organs frozen in time, not quite life-like in their preserved state, but disturbing because they were alive once, now frozen in space, dead, and there for our voyeuristic fascination.
In an art class, the students were told to spend twenty minutes drawing my head, and twenty minutes drawing a skull placed directly behind me. They moved in a circle alternating between death and life. For some reason, that day, all the students drew me to look much older than I am. I looked decrepit, as they over-emphasized the sagging lines of my face. I wished I had never looked.
I have reached that age, my thirties, where you begin to realize that you’re never going backwards. The physical body has changed its chemistry completely. I’ll never be tiny and thin again, my metabolism has slowed down, my liver throws back all the toxins I send its way, my immune system is sensitive to any disturbance.
But beyond my body, I’ve grown much stronger. My spirit feels invincible, unbreakable, my sense of discipline is becoming as solid as a rock, and nothing but my body slowly breaking down, could ever stop me at this point. It’s not quite as much fun as being young, dumb, and out of control, but this is the season for building my life. Knowing how quickly it all passes, I push harder each day to express in words and art the things that make us feel alive and well.
November 1, 2012 § Leave a comment
You may remember that I wrote a post a while back about making my living as an Art Model. I’ve been modeling now for the past eighteen months, and I actually receive more work than I can handle. It’s strange that all of my previous jobs gave me anxiety, but for some reason being naked on a stage in front of twenty people totally relaxes me. I feel safe up there, in the artist’s appreciation and quiet meditation on the human form.
Last Sunday night I went to my first studio as an artist. I actually felt nervous to be crossing over to the other side. Drawing was an awkward struggle, and I wanted to loosen up my hand. The model was beautiful, and it was torture attempting to draw her perfect lines. She is much shorter and curvier than I am, so it was difficult for me to get her proportions just right. But now, I am hooked.
In high school and early college, I thought that I would be an artist. I was selling paintings and winning contests, and the head of the art department was upset when I decided not to major in art. I thought the fashion business could be a more dependable income, but the industry wasn’t for me. Instead, writing chose me, and since college, I’ve worked to support my craft. But I’ve never stopped doing little art projects here and there.
As an Art Model, I rarely meet people outside of the art world that can really comprehend what I do. The job makes my family slightly uncomfortable, and they don’t want to see the art that comes out of my collaboration with the artist, at least not the figure studies. My dad even just asked me, “Are you still doing that?” This after I told him that I’m booked solid through January.
At a party last summer I told an acquaintance that figure artists are often able to sell their work to wineries since wineries want to be aligned with European tastes. The woman replied, “Oh great, then your friends will see you naked!”
If that bothered me, I wouldn’t be doing this. Most funny, is that she tends to hang out with the sex-positive crowd, and you would think she would be more relaxed.
My liberal friend from my conservative college days responded by saying, “Oh, I see you’re still objectifying yourself.”
It gave me meditation on the word ‘objectify’ – a word that does not take place within, but without, a choice of the viewer, and not the viewed.
Definition of OBJECTIFY
2: to give expression to (as an abstract notion, feeling, or ideal) in a form that can be experienced by others <it is the essence of the fairy tale to objectify differing facets of the child’s emotional experience — John Updike>
I could never objectify myself since it would be impossible to experience my own self as an object. I am within, not without. It is the viewer’s benefit to see the human form as an object. In their study they can come to a greater understanding of our own structure. Not just physically, but spiritually, emotionally, mentally.
People also don’t realize I actually make money as an Art Model. They see it as a funny little hobby. They always assume that because I’m a wife without a traditional job, I’m just gadding about, living off my husband’s income. Besides food and housing, we don’t share our money. Modeling pays my bills.
I love being an Art Model for the feeling of collaboration. I love that I see it from both angles as a model and an artist. I love the unknown – the moments where an artist’s work blows me away or surprises me, or when they see a person that I don’t look like at all.
“’Thereness’ follows nothingness. It is impossible to premeditate. It is to do with the collaboration of the sitter, … but also to do with the disappearance of the sitter the moment the image emerges (Berger, 78).”
In John Berger’s book “The Shape of a Pocket,” he meditates on art and different artists throughout history. But it was his discussion on the mystery of the model that most fascinated me, whether the model is a building, an object, or a person.
“The ‘sitter’ is at first here and now. Then she disappears and (sometimes) comes back there, inseparable from every mark on the painting.
After she has ‘disappeared’ a drawing or two are the only clues about where she may have gone. And of course, sometimes they’re not enough, and she never comes back (Berger, 80-81).”
An artist I work for said that she felt invisible when she stopped modeling. I think I began modeling for the same exact reason. I can’t say that now I feel seen, because much of what there is to see is within. Sometimes people see that, sometimes they don’t. But I see my body differently than I did before. There is no shame in it, no discomfort. I see it as an instrument. I train it to be strong in the pose. I sink into the physical pain for long periods of time, and travel through my thoughts. Then eventually I come back again, and slip into my robe.
Works of art stay within my mind for years. If I love them, I never forget them. Sometimes I even think about how I can recreate them. I dream about the works. They become a part of my subconciousness. They can even change my life. These images go way beyond what anyone in the media can toss up on us.
“… the media surround people with faces. The faces harangue ceaselessly by provoking envy, new appetites, ambition or, occasionally, pity combined with a sense of impotence (Berger, 58).”
Art doesn’t speak as much as it feels, unless, of course, it’s propaganda.
Watching those who are adept with the charcoal, capturing every single muscle as though they have been trained by Leonardo Da Vinci, gives me strength to go on feeling clumsy and awkward until there is some kind of breakthrough.
“Real drawing is a constant question, is a clumsiness, which is a form of hospitality towards what is being drawn. And, such hospitality once offered, the collaboration may sometimes begin (Berger, 75).”
It is a pleasure to be clumsy as an artist, and graceful as a model. The two balance each other out.
My problem with past jobs was the same exact problem with the media. I always felt harangued, pitied, made to feel envious, impotent. But as an Art Model, I can just be. No one is asking more of me than my perfect stillness. While the timer is ticking, I solve all of my problems, envision plans, come up with titles and new writing ideas, and sometimes let my emotions fall into a song playing on the stereo. While somewhere off in the distance, artists struggle along over the lines of my body and the colors of my form.