Jane Irish, Khai Dinh Peace Ceiling (egg tempera on linen, 2016)
When I've been in love, I've fallen into a woman's body, her mind, her spirit, and whatever else there is. But I've always fallen through her art
Sometimes, experiencing her music, prose style, or painting, is like looking deeply into her eyes for a long time, but also at once from her eyes into yourself, seeing all the way in. Then you might fall in love, and it can change the way you hear or see or read things. That's when I've had the biggest changes in perception, as well as the most intense experiences of beauty.
There has to be an opening in her art into her. She has to be there, be findable, all of her, in her art, and not even all good artists are, and then you have to be moved by what you find, what is emerging from her and into you, and then you have to somehow pour it back into the world too, toward her if she's really there and right around you both until you are embedded together in the same sweet and bittersweet life. That's when the loss begins. Lucinda Williams taught me that.
I'm going to make it five times altogether. Two of them I've never met: Lucinda and Zora Neale Hurston. With two others it went ecstatically and then disastrously. One I'm in the middle of.
At the moment I first heard Lucinda’s “Sweet Old World,” my brother had just committed suicide. I was really in love for the first time, and early in recovery from addiction. I was trying to change everything in my life so I wouldn't want to die. I listened to that song hundreds of times. I still love it so much and can't bear it. I don't know whether to let it play; I might shatter. It’s my favorite song, and it’s my candidate for the most beautiful thing in the world.
When something like that happens it's hard not to start thinking about what the person who made such a thing knows that made it possible, the courage and self-knowledge it took to just write it and record it and let everyone hear it. Lucinda didn't make any big show about it, but in that song she let people see who she was and what she'd been through, kind of all the way down. I started thinking about her life, and how if she can say that she must have really been through the shit, something like the same shit as I had, but she understood what it meant and I didn't. And it's not just a piece of writing; it’s her actual voice embodying and conveying the life and my life. And it’s a beautiful woman's voice, knowing me, healing me by tearing me to shreds.
How could I not fall in love? When she expressed despair on her next album, I just wanted to heal her back, with the very things she gave me. Or heal someone. I tried pouring my love through the harmonica or writing a philosophy to affirm the whole universe even though the world is such a difficult thing. I was trying to affirm even suffering and death. I wanted to teach people the melancholy but total love of life she taught me, because I couldn't have lived on without it. Plus the whole thing yielded the benefit of refuting Kant's aesthetics once and for all forever; I got a theory of beauty from it.
“Sweet Old World” says that love redeems, and that the world, all of it, is worth loving completely, even as it hurts us so badly, or leaves us in despair, or leaves us alone. You could’ve said that to me all day every day then and I wouldn't have believed it. When she sang it, I started trying to believe it; I knew what I needed to believe if I was ever going to wend my way back to joy.
I did actually fall in love with Judith Bradford, the person who showed it to me. She could play it on the guitar and sing it okay, and I could do something with it on the harmonica. We played it in the subway one time, I think it was Houston St. Then it was really mine and ours. It's the acoustics down in there; it's like you're vibrating the whole planet. People threw money, and she paid her rent. At the time, her father was dying. The gifts she gave me were clothes she made with her own hands, some of the few things I could never throw away. I don't know where she is.
I'm clear on the difference between really digging someone's novels or whatever it may be, and dating her. I've never needed to talk to Luci. I've gotten quite a bit of writing out our relationship, though.
I remember when I really couldn't stop writing about Zora Neale Hurston, trying to polish my sentences with her soft cloth; I had to swear off. Sometimes you do. One good thing about loving the dead or distant star is that if you fuck around on her, or get a sudden crush on someone else, she doesn't even notice. Dead women and distant women you've never met are polyamorous, which is good because you can't actually cuddle up with them anyway, and you might want some cuddling. So, every few years Luci might put out a bad album and I might get pretty pissed off and turn to Edna St. Vincent Millay or Chrissie Hynde for solace, or just to feel like a man.
Taylor Swift would be wrong for an old man like me. I had my mid-life crisis long ago with Judith—but still. Dude, have you ever had daughters? That's pretty romantic too, and then you watch them begin to fill the space, and read and sing and write and play and draw, and you do those things with them, loving them so much and losing them too as you do, and loving even that you are losing them; that's the job. I'm afraid I'm not going to be able entirely to avoid the clichés on this; sometimes that’s what is most particularly true. Maybe you don't think so, but I've noticed that all of Taylor is in fact in her art. It's a different kind of art, but it has to be.
I don't know whether I would think Lucinda Williams was beautiful if I just happened to run into her perched on a barstool somewhere. I’ve forgotten to think about that at all for the last 20 or so years. I know she’s beautiful, because her self is in her work and her work is filling up this room with sound right now, and the sound is coming into me through holes in my body and vibrating my self and my environment like a harmonica in a subway station, de-distinguishing me.
Art is one of the best ways we show that the human self is not contained in the skin, that it’s assembled bits of other people and broken pieces of the world. Maybe as you gather it, you haphazardly or systematically try to mend. That's what Zora kept trying to show us. She described her self as "an empty spool, bits of broken glass, lengths of string, a key to a door long since crumbled away, a rusty knife-blade, old shoes saved for a road that never was and never will be, a nail bent under the weight of things too heavy for any nail, a dried flower or two still a little fragrant.”
People say that you can't know what someone else is really thinking or feeling; I think that's false. There's no such thing as telepathy, perhaps, but you're picturing the human mind as this mysterious little sealed box inside the body. When you love a real artist, you see how her mind extends and is available, because it is gathering and reshaping and inhabiting the environment you share. Sometimes someone's selfhood is remaking your visual environment or filling your house and head with sound. Sometimes the words of Zora or Marion Winik run through my head, merging with my internal monologue in a kind of counterpoint. Also, it isn't just mind, is it? It's the physical activity, skill, craft; it's her body too. Lucinda's body is singing. Zora wrote with her whole body. I think that's why I've found artists especially compelling and transforming, sexually and aesthetically. It's better than telepathy.
Marion lost her first husband Tony, the father of her two boys, to AIDS. Before I ever met her, I heard her talking about it on NPR. She wrote it out, wrote it through, spoke the words in her own voice, reaching out into me with her words and reaching through me. We knew some of the same people and we ended up getting married, and I tried to help raise those boys. We used to sit across from each other at computers writing, making each other laugh or outraging each other. We blew apart in a slow-motion explosion of our whole environment that is beginning to take up decades, a natural disaster still tossing up beautiful and horrible things.
I'm sorry, but it’s important to me that it’s a woman. I think there's something a little different about the way women typically do art; maybe something a little more generous or true or sincere, or a little less filled with preening and ego and armor: those things are isolating rather than enveloping. I want to be enveloped. With the right person, that doesn't make you disappear, it makes you more. Or, well, I'm fascinated by women, irritated by men. Picasso might be trying to blow you away, control you, or bludgeon you or something. Not Georgia O'Keeffe. Richard Wright, but not Hurston. T.S. Eliot, but not Millay. John Coltrane, but not Billie Holiday. I believe I know who were the greater artists.
Obviously, these are generalizations. But I don't think anyone's aesthetics, their taste or sense of the beautiful, is entirely separate from their sexuality, and I think that's good as long as it isn't too twisted or oppressive. I just don't think it is that surprising that someone like me keeps gravitating back to the art of women—certain women. And I'm definitely not trying to establish a norm or something. I'm just trying to say what heterosexual love is like for me.
I can write this now because I am loving and being loved by Jane Irish. She's a painter from Philly. We met here and there a couple of times; I liked her vaguely but didn't form that much of an impression. She's kind of a quiet person. Then I went to her place in Northern Liberties. It’s filled with art, a whole life, exploring Rococo and Southeast Asian decorative traditions, and depicting and encompassing also her friends who are members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War: veteran poets and activists, people who recovered—if anyone does actually recover—through art and political action. There were tiny minimalist sculptures by her lover, the late Bill Walton, and other stuff by other artists.
A whole lifetime was in there. I was surrounded by it, inside it, and it’s so beautiful, so femmy, but so pointed and smart and hard. We made love. Since then, my taste in visual arts—which I love—has broken wide open. She is taking me to museums and helping me see. For 40 years my approach was "If it doesn't look like a Vermeer, it sucks." Even I was getting tired of myself. But she's letting me become someone or something else, not by trying to change me, but by helping make a world around us both.
I want women who make art to read this. Love.
—Crispin Sartwell is the author of How to Escape, a collection of essays.