I have a few, very distinct memories of a day in the spring of 1987 when the mother of two of my dear friends came to New York, where I was in college, and took me to several galleries and then out to lunch or dinner, I can’t remember which. I do remember looking at Jean Dubuffet’s paintings and talking about the sandy textures on the canvas and the expressiveness of his work. I remember falling in love with the paintings of Louisa Matthíasdóttir, an Icelandic painter and possibly the first female artist I became aware of. When I started thinking about writing this post, I wondered if these memories were of things that really happened. Indeed, they are possible, as a little bit of internet research revealed that there were shows of these artists’ work at two different galleries in midtown Manhattan in the spring of 1987.
Cynthia, my friends’ mom, introduced me to a lot of art when I was a teenager. I met her two sons at a high school arts festival in 1982, and I pursued their friendship by writing letters and calling their home in Denton, about 40 miles from where I grew up in Dallas. Luckily they were not freaked out by what I realize now were quite forward gestures of friendship.
Our families became quite close in the years that followed, and we spent extended amounts of times at each others’ houses. I now understand how different those houses were. Cynthia, an artist, raised her two sons on her own, in a house filled with paintings, paint, drumkits and guitars (in the dining room), cats, comfortable couches, beautiful and worn oriental rugs, dishes in the 1920s sink, and recording equipment. The house smelled of comfort, turpentine, and cats. My parents were the same age as Cynthia, but they lived a very different life. We had plenty of money (though my parents never said that), the carpets were white, and the living room was formal.
My parents also voted republican, something I can’t imagine Cynthia ever did. Despite their conservative politics, my parents always welcomed all of my brothers’ and my friends into our home, and they were pretty crazy about Cynthia and her two creative boys. I don’t know if Cynthia and my mom ever talked about life the way I sometimes do with my son’s friends’ moms, but if they did I imagine they talked about art, which my mom also loved, and raising boys, which I now know is quite the job. A painting that currently hangs over my son’s bed created by Cynthia’s younger son when he was a teenager reminds me daily of the monstrously creative interior worlds of children.
While my mom formed my interest in art and art history when I was a kid, my friendship with Cynthia and her boys intensified my interest and widened my exposure to art and different ways of living. Of living creatively. Of seeing differently and closely. When we all went to see the Primitivism in 20th-Century Art show at the Dallas Museum of Art, I (or maybe my mom) made the callous comment that after a while, all the African masks looked the same. “Oh no they don’t!!” replied Cynthia. She then spent what seems like hours teaching me to look closely at the masks so that I could really see their formal qualities and the differences among them.
Cynthia died of lymphoma in 1992, and so I have to rely on my memory to reconstruct these experiences that now feel so formative to my current self. That day looking at art in New York in 1987 ended in a large, modern Japanese restaurant sharing a meal with Isamu Noguchi. At least I think it did. Her children say that Cynthia knew Noguchi, and I like to think that part of why that meal was almost terrifying for me was not just because of my naiveté and incompetence with chopsticks, but also because I was sharing it with an older, somewhat eccentric stranger, and a woman, a painter, whom I greatly admired.