Artist Date 98: What Sylvia Says

Image.  Moira Whitehouse, PhD
Image. Moira Whitehouse, PhD

My alter ego’s name is Sylvia.

She’s about 4 feet, 10 inches tall, wears coral-colored lipstick — a little bit outside of the lines — and sandals with stones in between the toes.  She likes pedal pushers paired with a cropped mink coat.  And now 80 something, has recently taken up smoking again.

I’m not exactly sure when Sylvia came into my life.  However, I distinctly remember when she came into the lives of others.

I was 25 and living in San Francisco.  A single girl.

My friend Teresa was performing a one-woman show, The Life and Death of Stars, at The Marsh.  And Sylvia appeared in a cameo role.

“Men are not magical beings,” Sylvia said through Teresa, taking a long drag off her Virginia Slim 120.  “They’re just people.  With penises.  And problems.”

She appeared again when I was dating Alex, who Teresa fixed me up with.   He was a foot taller than me, from my home town and said he couldn’t wait to get old because he was going to wear “Sansabelt pants up to my tits and the biggest fucking gold Chai I can find.”  He seemed like a good match for Sylvia, if not for me.

He wasn’t…for either of us.

Sylvia was wise.  Loving.  Kind.  Funny and to the point.  A straight shooter.

I had not thought about Sylvia in a long time, until last Thursday — watching Birdman at the Davis Theatre — Artist Date 98.

Riggan Thomson’s (Michael Keaton’s) alter ego, reminded me of my own.  Except mine is more gentle and far less destructive.  And I found myself wondering what she might be whispering to me right now.

I do not even have to ask.

“Honey, go!,” she says, in a voice much louder than a whisper.   “Why are we even talking about this?

She is referring to my noodling — or, as she calls it, sitting — on TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certification and moving to Spain or Italy or Portugal, to teach.

She reminds me that I am husband-boyfriend-booty call-child-pet-plant-mortgage free.  But that I might not always be.  That my parents –now both in their 70s — are in good health.  That they do not need me.  That I have no obligations or responsibilities.  And that this may not always be so.

But what about finding work as a trainer and facilitator?  What about making money?  Being fully self-supporting?

What about sloughing off the title of chronic under-earner?  About being a responsible adult?

She brushes me off —  literally waving the back of her liver-spotted hand dismissively as if I were a waiter asking if she’d like more decaf rather than her uncertain, 40-something self.

“All the time in the world for that…” she says, adding that the two are not mutually exclusive.

It seems that what I know if my head, Sylvia knows in her heart, in her bones.  She’s lived it.  And then some.

She knows there will always be jobs.  And, God willing (She puts up her hand again, this time her palm out as if testifying.  “Preach.”) there will always be Italy, Spain and Portugal.  France too, she adds.  But that time and ideal conditions are not similarly static truths.

She knows that security is an illusion.  That the work will come.  That the money will come.  And yes, and even though I didn’t ask, that the man will come too.

It always does.

So what am I waiting for?

Advertisements

Artist Date 97: No Longer Desperate for the Drama

A different kind of Pink Flamingos...
A different kind of Pink Flamingos…

My Artist Date blogs tend to write themselves.

I don’t plan it.  It just happens.

A flood of memories rushes in.  An experience with my ex-husband.  A story from my childhood.  Some person or situation from my past popping up in full Technicolor like a carnival whack-a-mole.

The experience of the Artist Date — a planned, solo flight of fancy with the express purpose of filling me, my creative coffers — wakes up some dormant element of my history and connects me to myself, to art, the artist and the world around me.

It is both a self-involved deep-sea diving excursion into my own unique story and the recognition of the universal experiences that knit us together in an infinity scarf of humanity.

Until today, watching Desperate Dolls, a play written by my friend’s husband, at the Strawdog Theatre — Artist Date 97.

No story.  Only feeling.

Enter three girls trying to make it big in Los Angeles, the sleazy but lovable B-movie director who gives them a shot (along with campy “showbiz” names) and a creepy-powerful, sexually frustrated devil-villain called Captain.

There is a late 60s-early 70s motel room with perfect period attention to detail.  And screaming.  Lots of it.

I covet Matchbox’s body — flat belly and perfect ass — snugly held in white panties and a matching bra.  Pretty Sexy’s Go-Go boots and thick, fluttery false eyelashes.  Sunny Jack’s belt buckle and mustache.

The thoughts are random and fleeting, in no way connected to my past.  Only Sunny Jack’s grainy girl films —  wanna-be starlets rubbing suntan oil between their breasts to bossa nova swing; kicking ass, or more literally, kicking balls of some Snideley Whiplash of a pervert chained to a tree — evoke any sense of the familiar.

A tip of the hat to John Water’s early films.  Think Mole McHenry performing a do-it-yourself sex change in Desperate Living, Babs Johnson eating dog poop in the final scene of Pink Flamingos.

It is only later that I think about my friend’s brother turning me on to these films the way my cousins turned me on to pot when I was 12, or my father returning one of them to the video rental store before I had watched it .  A liquor salesman with a strong stomach and a good sense of humor, he was horrified after just 10 minutes.

In the moment I am only conscious of my stomach tightening with the uncomfortable knowing of what comes next and wishing I didn’t.  Sick anticipation and the inability to turn away.

No story.  Only feeling.

My sympathetic nervous system — the “fight or flight” reflex that makes my heart race and the soles of my feet sweat — fully activated.

“I love the idea of exploitation movies.  Movies conceived and relying on our basest human emotions and the things that attract us to most art…” writes Anderson Lawfer, Desperate Dolls‘ Hugen Artistic Director.  “This is a style that doesn’t get done on stage because of the outrageous violence and sexual situations, but why not?  We all love it.”

I used to love it.  I chased that sympathetic nervous system hit, rushing toward roller coasters, scary movies, and without really knowing it, crazy drama.  I lost my taste for it some years ago when it became clear that real life provided more than enough opportunities to exercise my body’s stress response.

But for one night, I can embrace it — grateful for the reprieve from my mind, from my memory, and the self-inflicted, heart-pounding insanity I once craved.

Artist Date 96: Kind of a Big Shot

The Three Graces. Ethel Stein. 1995
The Three Graces. Ethel Stein. 1995

I used to use the Birchwood Kitchen as my office away from my office.

It was at the center of where I often found myself when I was neither at home nor at work.  For the cost of an iced tea (and sometimes not even that, as I was a “regular” and often received drinks and desserts “on the house”) I had a place where I could check my emails, do some writing, take meetings or just stop and sit in between where I was and where I was going.

Sometimes the Art Institute feels like that too.  Like today — Artist Date 96.

I’m sitting in the member lounge drinking puerh ginger tea and checking Facebook on my phone.  Behind me, a couple is telling the bartender their story.  It appears they met online — he is from London — and they are meeting now for the first time.  Perhaps not now exactly — but this day, this week, this visit.  It sounds crazy and exciting.  I wonder how it will all turn out.  I wonder if the bartender wonders, or if she is even listening.

My ex-husband used to love to come here because it made him feel just a little bit like a big shot.  Flashing his card and drinking free coffee.  And hey, who doesn’t like to feel just a little bit like a big shot every once in a while.

I suppose in some small way, that is what membership is about.  A reward for faithfulness and patronage.  Be it a free beverage, a bag with a logo, discounts or a place to stop in between here and there.  And when done well, evokes a sense of identity and belonging.  “One of us.”

It whispers to my unrealized teenage dream of attending art school, which at the time, I thought was the only way to be an artist.  (I was wrong.)

I am reminded of this as I make my way downstairs to the Edith Stein: Master Weaver exhibit.

The exhibit is small, and there is just one other person in the gallery viewing the work.  (There are two Art Institute employees here also — one of them, in my opinion, talking too loudly.)

It doesn’t move me in quite the way I had hoped.  I imagined my internal seven-year-old, the one who made potholders on a plastic loom with loopers, awakened, inspired to create.  Instead, I am completely enchanted by this 90-something-year-old woman.

Trained in sculpture, she turned her attention to textiles when she was in her 60s.  A video loops over and again, showing her working in the studio — clad in heavy sneakers, mixing dye in a pot on top of the stove and immersing wool yarn into it as if it was pasta.

I sit on the bench in the center of the room, watching the short film several times.  It is both soothing and inspiring.  I want to be like her.  Still working, still passionate, respected, at the top of her game.

I want to be like her when I am in my 90s.  I want to be like her now.

Working.  Passionate.  Respected.

At the top of my game.

A little bit of a big shot.

It begins with working.