Beginnings & Endings
The Seamstress in the Band
The quality I find most alluring in a woman is the willingness to enter mystery. The spiritual becalms the heart and reveals the winding path of the soul. It is not a shallow confidence to share the solace of a higher aspiration, a higher understanding.
For most of our lives, Susan Lilly and I were outwardly separated by oceans and continents, but in my heart I thought we had a deep communication whereby we stood upon a high plateau and looked upon a vast horizon. For a day we had that in Joshua Tree.
But mostly it was done by phone calls from East Seventh Street and before that in a letter from my Paris suburb of Vincennes. Upstairs in a tiny working class courtyard pavilion I painted “Father, Vulture, Holy Butterfly” in the long, dark December of 1968. Beside a little coal burning stove, while in the throws of a passion for medieval altarpieces spiked with the drunken exuberance of Oceanic bestiaries, and Miles Davis playing “Sketches of Spain” over and over again a door opened up to an understanding that claimed me. In that delirium of connectedness I linked hands with artists going back through time- a fellowship to take my place to paint the great lament of our mortality.
Almost always alone, (my housemate Christopher, an aspiring composer studying with Nadia Boulanger, hardly ever there to practice on his piano), I ate oatmeal, made with white raisons bloated in the boiling water, three times a day with an occasional orange or apple and drank coffee- caffeine and sugar rushes only, no cigarettes, no drugs, just the horn’s incantation casting its spell on an initiate’s bringing forth a banished world. It was not permitted to paint iconographic images . I had earned the right despite their objections. It was not just laid on my head, but a long climb to epiphany. In the autumn of 1968 I had finally arrived. Who was there to share it?
I had just met Helene Villiers, but our verbal communication was limited. My French was close to useless, and Helene’s English exhausted her resources. To speak with nuance was impossible. Its strain made clear that we could not give the other what we needed. We knew it was there, but we couldn’t access it. It would die in stillbirth. By May Helene would disappear.
So I wrote to Susan and John, but mostly in my mind it was to Susan. I wrote about the comprehension of being one link in the chain of generations; that I was humbled by that understanding. She told me later that she didn’t keep the letter.
That makes it sound as if Susan were insensitive. She was not. She was just a bystander; she had not taken the journey. It was just words to her. So what I had written about my sense of lineage, more like a fugue than a begetting, could not have had been grasped by someone with little if no knowledge of the artists whose works I absorbed and realigned into my very bones.
On My return from France, and while I was staying at Bob’s apartment in Philadelphia, John Lilly came east, and on that visit bought one of the major lyrical, abstracted paintings from Paris. He had just been commissioned to do a hanging sculpture for the ceiling of a church in San Francisco and was celebrating his good fortune by the purchase. At that moment everybody thought my star would rise, when it was just the beginning of years of trekking through a desert. Not that my time was spent in a barren wasteland, but neglect is a harsh punishment. It burns one out.
Susan would get that painting from Paris and a handful of other works that I had given them including two portraits of her- one painted in the summer of 1968 at Warriors Mark around the same time as Katy’s portrait and the other a red scratched portrait from her visit to New York in 1976. Alex, their son, would be raised with a sense of respect for my work instilled by Susan.
My good friend Gus, who was not a close friend back in school or a part of the circle around Robert Lepper, asked me as I was writing this: “When were you in love with Susan?” And I answered: “I was always in love with Susan.”
That gave me pause to consider my relationships with women, and what brought out the best from each party. One knows one’s pattern; so it wasn’t a surprise to see that my closest friendships with women have tended to be with those out of reach as lovers.
That they could have been or would have been if this or that weren’t the case, doesn’t matter; and with that messy business pushed aside, the good that nurtures friendship between the male and female sensibilities flourishes and gets subsumed into a compassionate discretion that carries over into trust. The relationship is privileged but boundaries must be honored, for a spiritual accord rests in respect.
Though don’t get me wrong; I’m neither saint nor social worker. I don’t bother with idiots or those whose lives don’t touch the subjects close to me unless they are masters at what they do. Then there may be something to share, but one doesn’t often meet such people outside one’s field.
Otherwise, I can get very forceful in pursuing the essence of an argument, but I’m always willing to listen to a different point of view if it is coming from reason and experience. I will slow down and consider the other option, and sometimes gratefully so. Human pursuits have many contradictory paths and conclusions; there are no absolutes. However, the advent of pluralism should not have meant license for trivial pretension. One can’t live as a thoughtful human being without convictions.
For those who have known me well, I’m thoroughly slapstick one minute and sarcastically gruff another when lecturing in my imitation of a headmaster of a boarding school. I walk around as if I have a swagger stick under my arm. It takes quite a grounded individual to encounter the strange person who I am. It may not be easy if their own boat is floundering on shoals, about to break up. But at my core I live by standards. They are not arbitrary, and I don’t like to be pushed!