On Wednesday evening at 6 pm CST I was standing in a domestic violence shelter introducing my project “Everyone We’ve Never Met from Memory and Imagination” to a group of about twenty women. They listened politely as I showed them drawings of people like Gene Simmons, Brittany Spears (snarling, head shaved), 1950s Elvis vs Vegas Elvis, Martha Stewart, Oprah and shared some of the memories other people had written about the subjects. After I finished the introduction, I passed out some brainstorming worksheets. One woman completed her list almost immediately.
“My ex-husband said Cybil Sheppard would play me in a movie of my life,” the woman said. She had detailed explanations for the strong and beautiful women on her list, but they always seemed to come full circle back to the men in her life, the ex-husband, an ex-lover. I asked if I could share her list, and she allowed me to summarize some of her connections to these women she’d never met. Then, while I made my way around the room, two women came in.
I don’t remember either woman’s name, but I don’t think I’ll ever forget them either — I even have two original pieces of art from the “Big One.” When I finished handing out worksheets Yvonne, the community director, said ,”Hey, William, maybe you can help these ladies out. They are having trouble starting.”
Apparently they were a little resistant to the idea of drawing someone they’d never actually met. The woman sitting on the right was tall, heavy set with long, graying hair, which also spread out along her forearms. She was wearing a black, sleeveless t-shirt. The one on the left was shorter, rail thin with an overbite, blue eyes and red hair the same length as my wife. “I’m just a smaller version of that one,” she said nudging her friend. I’ll remember them as Big and Little One because of that statement.
That is how they looked. You don’t know anything yet. The big woman tossed me a sketchbook and said, “Here’s how I feel.” On the first page was a drawing of a brick wall with gothic, hand written text that said something to the effect of “you’re not getting past this fucking wall.”
Well, I stood there and identified with her message and the way she drew it.
“I love the way you draw the words, I know exactly how you feel. I draw a lot of words. I like to make them look how they should feel,” I said.
“You can have it,” she said.
“I will. Thank you.”
Little One started talking about actors, cute men like Orlando, Leo, Johnny … and we talked about their roles, the movies we had both seen them in. Then she mentioned something about a restraining order and her ex as she added to her list. The conversation went right from Hollywood actors to her reality at the shelter. Big One also started writing on the worksheet and I made my way around the room. Later, when I got back to them Big One said “Here,” and thrust her watercolor paper at me. It was a drawing of Lurch from The Addams Family.
“Read it,” she said. Beneath the drawing, she wrote, “I used to joke that the Addam’s Family was modeled on my family, but as a better class of citizen.” The honesty was disarming, the memory painfully personal. This was not a memory of Lurch, but a memory of her family that she associated with a TV show. I hope there was no projection in her choice of Lurch. She was warm, witty and had a great smile.
I tried to get the group’s attention and someone pointed out my failure by yelling, “you’ll have to do better than that!”
“I haven’t been in the classroom since June,” I admitted before switching to my teacher voice. “I want to share this drawing, because it gets right to the heart of my project,” I said as I finally attracted some attention.
I showed the group the image of Lurch and read Big One’s caption. “This is the kind of memory I hope everyone will share, a real connection, where your life and the person you chose really overlapped. This is a really tough memory, but they aren’t all good, right?” I explained.
No, they aren’t. I keep learning that as I work with the edges of this community in Sheboygan, where the fabric is frayed, but no less valuable.
The woman smiled as I handed back her drawing. “You want to see some more of my art?” she asked before producing a swirling pastel drawing with the same expressive, black gothic words written on top of an abstract swirl. It conveyed anger, frustration, pain … evidence.
“Evidence, that’s an interesting word here,” someone else said over my shoulder.
“Well, I just finished talking to the deputy sheriff at the station about my husband’s case,” the woman replied. I was standing there, holding her drawing, imagining what kind of men these women had left and the strength it must have taken. All of them.
The women around the table were finishing drawings of all sorts of people and characters: Aaron Rodgers, Lassie, Mother Teresa, Jennifer Lopez, Beethoven, John Lennon and … Brett Michaels.
“He’s got a big ego. I’ll listen to his music, but I’d never date him,” a woman said, but “Talk dirty to me … ” was written across the top of her drawing. We talked awhile about Rock of Love, Michaels’ reality TV show. I told her how an art world friend of mine watched it, a guilty pleasure, but one I think connected to a different past. “My mom said I’d grow out of the rock music. Well, I’m still listening to it,” the woman told me.
My cellphone was buzzing so I stepped outside for a moment and my friend from back home, Cohen, shouted “Pand-e-monium” in my ear. That was what was happening in New York. I went back inside and started laughing and talking with the women again. “We don’t let too many men in here,” someone let me know. I understood why. One woman produced a sketch of Dog the Bounty Hunter. “He reminds me of my brother,” I shared with her. She had written “He had to deal with his own issues” on the drawing. “Plus, I like long hair and blondes,” she said.
I knew were were finished with the drawings and the conversations when the kids came running in. Little one handed me her drawing, now a watercolor painting, of Orlando Bloom as the elf Legalos from the Lord Of the Rings before she scooped up her two little girls. “This is a great drawing,” I said before she started to bounce a tiny curly haired girl on her arm. The memory read, “he made a game and cheated death.” “You should keep drawing,” I suggested. “Don’t really have time with work and the kids, but I used to draw,” she replied.
We packed up our things, the pencils, watercolors and new drawings of people we’d never met and the memories they shared. Under a drawing of “J-Lo” the amateur artist had written, “mizzunderstood.”
We drove back to the Arts Center and talked about how real and powerful the women’s memories were. They were some of the most open and generous participants yet. I went back to my car and found the battery had died on my rental car. Luckily, Yvonne and Julia hadn’t left yet and gave me a jump. I drove back to my cabin, taking the long way to let the battery charge and to give myself time to think.
“What is your favorite Elvis song,” I asked one woman who participated during the morning session at an assisted-living center the next day. “Oh, yes. ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight,’” she said. A while later, she is wiping away tears after sharing her memories of her 25th anniversary party. “We wanted to do that one right,” she said. “Because we eloped the first time. He was a Catholic and I was Protestant.”