It all started with her African violets. Judy asked me to watch over them while she went away for a few days to a plant physiology conference. I put them in my bedroom, admired the round forms of their leaves, and decided to do a series of charcoal drawings. The series went well as I recorded the gradual descent of the stems, the drooping and dropping of the leaves. When she returned I showed her the drawings before I returned her plants, and I waited for her to praise how closely I watched over them, how I put all my powers of observation into making a faithful record. Instead she cried, “You didn’t water them! They’re half dead!” Her outburst shocked me. How could she not understand that true art is about the cycle of life and death, the drama of mortality? Her plants may have given up their lives, but they had made a worthy sacrifice for Art.
I decided to ignore her odd sense of priorities and married her, but the early days of cohabitation were fraught with tension. Judy objected one day when she found me in the kitchen mixing painting solutions (varnish, stand oil, paint thinner) at the dining table. She exclaimed, “We eat there!” “Of course we do,” I replied. “Are you saying that a table has only one function?” She couldn’t find an adequate response to my query, but I agreed to mix my painting media on the back steps. I thought, “This is how it starts.”
A few months later she asked me where the hammer was. She’d rummaged through the tool chest and the drawers in the kitchen and couldn’t find it. I said, “I’m using it in a still life. Don’t touch it. I’ll be done with it in a month or two.” She shook her head in disbelief and failed to comment on my innovative use of nontraditional subject matter in a genre filled to overflowing with fruit ‘n flower paintings. I began to wonder if I’d married badly.
Cat and Hammer, Oil/Canvas, 1985
Three years later she forced me to shut down my studio in a spare bedroom in our duplex apartment in State College. I had to relocate to a cold and drafty basement and work wearing a coat during the winter months. At the time of my banishment Judy was seven months pregnant and refused to listen to my objections. She said, “We have to get the baby’s room ready now.” I began to suspect that she placed more importance on family than on Culture. So bourgeois.
And then one day about six months later, she came down to the basement with a load of laundry on one arm and our daughter on the other. I thoughtfully interrupted an intense painting session to warn her to not step on a tube of oil paint that I had left, for a no longer recalled strategic purpose, on the floor drain in front of the washer. I gathered from the pained look she gave me that she thought that I should quit working and move the tube. I gallantly ignored her unreasonable expectations and began to rework a difficult passage that I’d been struggling with for days. (The demands my paintings made on me often left me exhausted and mentally battered, but I had become used to making sacrifices.) I barely noticed when she slammed the lid to the washer and retreated with baby back up the basement stairs–stomp, stomp, stomp. “Some people,” I thought, “have it so easy.”
This morning I set up my French folding easel in my bathroom and began a palette knife self-portrait. I spent an hour or two. Judy wondered what kept me out of sight for so long, and I asked her if she’d like to see how I had managed to turn yet another room into a studio. She stared at my work arrangement and the newly begun painting, but instead of expressing wonder at my ingenuity she said, “I guess this means that you’ll be using my bathroom a lot.”
My wife. The muse.