The Muse by the Park
Over the years I would paint Lynn, and when her daughter Becca got old enough to pose, I painted her also. Lynn and her husband Mark lived on a private road of modest houses at the edge of Frick Park in Pittsburgh. The park comprises most of the formidably extensive grounds of the Frick estate used once as bridle paths that plunge down ravines to hollows below.
That’s where we’d go off for walks, Lynn and I. First it was with Bahema, then Blue, and when she died struck by a car, came Ajax, sweet, reliable Ajax. Bahema, a Labrador as they all were, was a dark princess, black and inscrutable, Lynn’s altar ego whom she treated as if a sister. She was with Lynn in Soho on those dark deserted streets, her guardian and companion.
Lynn’s biggest fear was that Bahema would wolf down some rat bait left about on the street before she could pull it from her mouth. I had seen them tugging on some dead thing that any self-respecting dog worthy of the name would never let go. But that was about the only thing that they disputed on occasion. Lynn was always addressing herself Bahema’s part of the dialogue: “Oh Lynn! Don’t you understand what a find that was. I guess I just lost it, but it was such a temptation. After all, I am a dog!”
Even Jim Nelson, whose loft building I moved into when I returned to Pittsburgh, would mimic Bahema’s dialogues with Lynn. He missed her conversations: “Richard, you’re lucky. You at least still get to talk with Lynn.”
And we talked almost everyday for six or seven years. I probably spent more time with Lynn in Frick Park than the old steel baron ever did. Afterwards we’d go up to the finished attic that Lynn used as her studio. She’d begin to work on something or other, comfortable in my presence, while I’d sit in the usual chair that once was her father’s or mother’s. I can’t remember. There I’d ramble on about art.
Lynn was so much more ambitious than I. Her signs of Cancer and the Chinese year of the Rat reinforce each other. However, there is a weakness inherent below the surface. Hobbled by a fear of insufficiency, she pushed that much harder only to wobble in uncertainty by the thought of coming before the world.
Then all the driving determination evaporates like rats abandoning a sinking freighter. She would scurry to hide her work from view. Once when she was invited to a group exhibition, she chose the spot behind a pillar to install her pieces.
In that sense Lynn was always emotionally sabotaging herself with apology when all she needed to do was stand firm. That’s why she had subordinated her person to be the girl mascot for Jim Nelson and George Bouer years before in Soho. She looked to them for the strength that she denied herself.
That just doesn’t work if one wants respect. Any glimmer of self-doubt and you are dropped. No one wastes time if you don’t stand up for yourself. You must be willing to take the poison darts that come and not give them power to discredit you. Your job is to convince. If they don’t buy it, don’t leave like a beaten dog. Lynn would do just that.
So my return to Pittsburgh gave Lynn a friendship in which to share her inner life as an artist, one that her husband mark, a lawyer, could not perform. I allowed Lynn an outlet to communicate the subject closest to her heart. I was the dark brooding angel who rescued her from the isolation she had chosen in opting for middle of the road normalcy.
She had had her fill with scraping by in an existence so close to the filthy gutters of Soho. The price for the highs went beyond endurance. George Bouer’s blow-out, burn-out scared both Jim and herself into leaving. Then with Jim’s abrupt departure their first year back in Pittsburgh, Lynn was set adrift without a protector until Mark came along. He made it possible for her to regain her composure, but below the surface she knew that she had compromised herself.
Mark understood that my presence kept his wife sane, and being that it wasn’t on his time, was sanguine enough to comprehend that the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t. He didn’t mind sharing that part of Lynn that he didn’t have recourse to. My engaging Lynn as a fellow artist smoothed away much of the anxieties that he would be at a loss to cope with. Mark was both gentlemanly and pragmatically selfish. In a strange way I helped keep the little family on keel, and in return was given harbor from my own apathy and distress.
Leaving New York was a tortuous decision that replayed continually like quitting an addiction. It left a missing part that was numb like an arm slept on till the circulation stopped. You had to carry it about like a dead baby whom you could not bury.
You could not slake the desire for the dream abandoned. It preys upon you incessantly. No sooner would you find a moment of reprieve than you’d be ambushed by some memory of a life once yours. To be painting in Manhattan full throttle, even if ignored, and even possibly because you were ignored, was thrilling . When the East Village was no where to be, had made being there so much more exciting. Once an area was gentrified, it lost its vital edge. It was brought back into a world of rules and business and proper behavior.
Perhaps it has to do with the passion of youth for an adventure that was still new. There were highs that you could not get in any other way. Its loss would come rushing back to haunt you. In that sense you were a walking ghost, neither of this world or the other- a little like those poor fellows back from Nam who could not explain why life back home seems so unsubstantial.
I had that poison in me far worse than Lynn, but she knew it deeply enough. To look at us no one could see what was amputated, but we knew something was gone, something important missing that once completed our lives and made it whole. I felt like some straggling soldier from the surviving remnants of a defeated army, wandering aimlessly homeward indifferently.
There was an emptiness that seemed endless. Lynn Understood that I was a convalescent, that I had signed myself out of the war zone only to become a displaced person. Our friendship became a consolation easing the loss of a forfeited world that we no longer could claim as ours.
I had been much more involved in that world, no matter my marginal status. As long as I remained there I was a player. For a dozen years I had vested my identity being there. Now, I would have to reinvent myself. What was Pittsburgh but my birthplace and my old college town. That I loved its physical landscape was an endearing compensation, but I felt stranded in a lay-over.
Sure, I still continued having exhibitions at Blue Mountain, the cooperative gallery that until the early nineties I remained a member. I had other showcases with the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition, but I came as a visitor. I was no longer one of them. I had become truly marginal.
The real metamorphosis was internal. It would have its fits and starts, and in truth, it is not completed. It has required a deeper understanding of what is significant and what is hubris. It takes pruning away an immature comprehension, and thereby getting to the essential point of one’s life.
However, living in New York does charge one’s energies to a fuller degree. It’s not a frivolity, but a very positive and stimulating engagement. That said, living and painting in a less pressured field does produce a different perspective towards one’s work. It requires much more self-sufficiency to be on the outside. The work slows down to a quieter, more internalized pace. One is not racing ahead to be the next headliner. One’s thinking more of eternal time far deeper into the future and far deeper into the past.
It was discussions on this subject that we shared in the attic studio, wedged in by the pitch of the roof and Lynn’s various projects scattered about on the finished wooden floor. She did most of it squatting like a rabbit by its lair, her nose twitching as her nimble fingers worked a thread or a ball of clay.
It was soothing for me to visit this refuge nearby the edge of the woods where we could stretch our limbs while Ajax circled round our path sloping downward past strata of rock and denuded tree roots. Back in her studio I would take my habitual chair with its broken armrest. Lynn would be back on her haunches studying her latest work as village women would do from time immemorial- an act whose basic simplicity is a form of meditation, and one that finds comfort in a communal presence.
That is something more imbedded in the female sensibility. Most men prefer to do their art in solitude whereby they throw themselves into more extremes of the will, gambling on decisive thrust and parry as if attacking the object into submission. That kind of heroic action is the inverse of the quieter resolution.
None-the-less, it behooves the artist to straddle both capabilities and find a balance. Often there are two stages, one preparatory that materially forms the platform upon which the image can project itself. Then, as the ground opens to pointing the way, a different kind of assertiveness is needed.
Lynn would often hesitate to allow a boldness in execution remain in full force. The very genius of her capable hands pushing and stretching the clay figures she would disqualify by smoothing out and effectively erasing. She would do that to her standing female figures that she had been so proud of, as if their primordial coming into being was insufficient reason to let them be.
I would beg her to leave well enough alone, imploring her to honor their special magic. But she would rebuke my support saying I was seeing more than there was, that no one else imagined them with such a favorable eye. My retort would be: “Why do you give credence to the blind. You’re not doing this for them. They don’t matter.” But she was hopelessly dependent on approval from those around.
We were stranded in probably the most provincial of Jewish mercantile class communities in the country. Both Darthea Speyer and Philip Pearlstein looked at Pittsburgh as an apprehensible backwater. Philip would say to me: “To live in Pittsburgh as an artist is the kiss of death.”
The lack of intellectual scope and the dread of adventure made a Jewish friend raised in New Jersey and Florida to remark: “Who are these people! They’re not like the Jews I know.”
They would be so fearful to have an opinion that they were always looking over their shoulder waiting to be told what to think. Their hesitancy before an uncertified work always came out negative. To be an artist in Pittsburgh was worse than living in a wasteland inhabited by chimpanzees. If only they were ferocious in their individual tastes no matter how gruesome, but no; the work they consider can be neither too hot nor too cold. At best they might comprehend Bouguereau’s bland and pretty milkmaids or his modern equivalent in a stylized abstraction, but only if the artist holds an established market value.
So of course Lynn suffered as a sane person with epilepsy might waking up to discover herself in a lunatic ward. That’s what made our companionship so rewarding for so long. There was no one out there to talk to, or at least, so few individuals to whom we had access, that we might as well have been the last survivors from a lost civilization.
I needed to assuage my deperation; Lynn needed for a while a mentor; and we both enjoyed a passion for the same subject. That our personalities complemented the other made for a harmonious bond that was understood by all our friends.
I obviously adored Lynn. She fit into my life the way a sister completes her brother. Our natural comfort with the other precluded the idealization that arrives with infatuation of the exotic other. Lynn was so much the girl next door. I think from our very first conversation at the Broome Street Bar, we recognized an ease that promised friendship, and whose gentle face of charitable welcome would prove to be the foundation for the future.
At the time this approachability was observed by Jim, who I could see right then and there vowed to keep his wife at a distance from both the man and the artist. (If I could have expressed my real attraction at that very moment, it was George Bouer’s girlfriend Ellen who sat nearest to me. She was taller and more willowy than Lynn.) Nor do I think either of the fellows enjoyed hearing Lynn say at our introduction: “Richard Rappaport! Why you’re a legend.”
That was followed by Jim saying something about our overlapping histories with Barbara Schwartz and of course Aladar. Everybody spoke of Aladar with a voice chilled by an awesome dread. I use that word the way it would have implied its truly unique designation back in 1974, decades before its generic overuse squandered its special precision. For Aladar indeed was awesome; he inspired respect the way a coiled rattler aroused will bring a casual hiker into instant attention.
At the table we all laughed a bit too nervously as his name was mentioned, though George shrugged him off with half a smile. George had enough of his own demons not to let Aladar’s diabolical nastiness get the better of him. Ellen would soon leave him and his hard drinking bouts to his own undoing. I would not see her again for another seventeen years when she passed through Pittsburgh to see Lynn. For years she had lived out west. Her once creamy complexion had turned to sandpaper by the sun.
That visit was in the early nineties. It would have been hard to imagine at that moment that soon my friendship with Lynn would collapse. I know why, for I triggered its unfolding sequences that made impossible a return to normalcy.
At some point I got obsessive, and what was once sanctuary became bondage like any other addiction. Something was missing of course. A natural communion never took place; while at the same time that precluded my being open to someone else entering my life. It was becoming unnatural, even malignant, and deep inside I wanted a sweeping change.
On one of our walks through the park where we paused among young growth trees with the sunlight dappled through the leaves, I breeched the subject of my being at an impasse:
“Lynn, I don’t think there is anybody in the world who I love more than you, but I don’t think I can continue like this. I need to change my life.”
I don’t remember her responding except to look at me curiously, and we continued our way back to the house.
A month or so later when I accompanied her taking her son Alex for cloths to enter kindergarten, the sales girl mistook me for Alex’s father saying to the boy: “What does your daddy think?” to which Lynn almost jumped on the girl saying: “That’s not his daddy!” The sales girl couldn’t care one way or another, and when she left to get something I said: “What was all that about?” Lynn then blurted out: “If you were Alex’s father, then I’d be married to you. Heaven’s no, no, no!” which was followed by an almost hysterical mocking laugh half inhaled as a prayer to ward off the devil.
I just looked at her slinking away as if someone had called her a leper, while I felt like that was exactly how she was describing me. We soon parted for the day, but I remained stunned by her disclaimer. Was I so unworthy that she should be ashamed of my association and from an inconsequential comment. The sales girl didn’t know us from Adam. All Lynn needed to say was: “This is our friend, Richard.” if anything. But to me Lynn’s statement was consequential. Wasn’t I her best friend. Was I so repugnant that such a mistake would bring her embarrassment.
All of this went racing round in my mind. I was deeply hurt, enough so that I stayed away, and I continued to stay away. I made myself absent. Lynn called my mother. Still no response came from me when she sent a short note: “Richard, I don’t understand why you have disappeared. Whatever it may be, I am here when you wish to tell me.”- Lynn.
Friends of mine would keep asking me if I had seen Lynn yet. They couldn’t believe I was still staying away: “Come on Richard, You and Lynn have been best friends for ever. Whatever happened, just forget it.”
But I couldn’t. Every time I considered it I would feel hollow inside, my mouth tasting like sawdust. It made me numb. I couldn’t go back. It had died. That was the end.
Twice in recent years I have mentioned this episode to women, and in both cases they looked at me as if I were oblivious to what was apparent to them as they paused before an image in their own memories.