Some years ago I had a studio in the old Cobb Lane building on Southside in downtown Birmingham, Alabama, up on the third floor. I had been there for two years and would have stayed longer but one day I came up all those stairs and opened the door to my studio and there was a rat in there as big as a cat. He bounded across the floor like he was coming to greet me. I left (really??) and stayed away for a while, then gathered some friends to help me move. There was an empty space about a block away in another old place, this one in the historic two-story building with the rounded facade right there at Five Points, the crossroads of the then art world. It was a small room but it would do. There was a free clinic right next to me down the hall for all the neighborhood hippies who got in trouble with drugs but I didn’t think that would bother me – until I had to ask them not to sleep on my floor and to respect my privacy when I was working and on and on and it was like being invaded by the living dead at some point so I knew I had to move again. It was about this time I met Ross Kellerman and we became partners in art.
I had only known Ross by reputation before then. She was a painter and sculptor and was working loudly. Everyone thought she would be famous. There was talk of the Whitney Biennial. Ross was about five feet tall and weighed maybe eighty pounds. Everything about her was in proportion: small hands and feet, small features. No hips. I liked the way she painted – big oils with people and stars and words, lots of motion and color. There was a particular painting of hers I liked a lot – it had the Pope in it but he had a swastika on his mitre and there was this big patch of blood on the ground in front of him. I eventually bought it because she needed the money to buy coal to heat this miserable house she lived in. Ross looked like a child but she was tough and resilient. I wanted to be tough and resilient, too, but for me it was more of a performance.
Ross and I wanted to be real artists, not the “over the sofa painting” type. Both of us thought that art should be provocative. Art in the early ‘70s was wild and unpredictable – 1970 was the year of “Spiral Jetty” – and we considered ourselves part of that world even though we were in what can only be described as a backwater. In pursuit of our goal of announcing ourselves to that greater world, Ross and I rented a loft in downtown Birmingham – my third studio in as many weeks. It was on a corner. There was a seedy bar underneath us. The loft had two huge rooms with big windows that we could open. The ceilings were of pressed tin, very ornate, like the building had been something important a long time ago. We envisioned staging a big show and knocking people down with our avant guardedness. We hauled all our easels and paints and brushes and turpentine and rags and canvases and sculpturing tools and a big table up the narrow stairs to our new studio and set to work. We worked a lot during the day and then Ross went to work and I went home to my children and my real life.
Ross worked in the Cadillac Cafe on Southside. She was a good waitress and her pockets were always full of bills when I picked her up mornings. Sometimes she did not come out when I honked and I had to hike up the stone walkway to the front door and bang on it. She lived in a commune everyone called “Kudzu Castle”, a very crumbly old house with many rooms, all of them in bad shape. There was sometimes a couple sleeping on the thing that passed for a couch in the living room. I had to pass by them as I went to the back of the house to locate Ross. The couple was usually displaying way too much affection for each other. I remember a girl who lived there who had many piercings in her nose – and this was in 1973, before piercings were hot. I would not like to have been in the line of fire when that girl sneezed.
I would usually find Ross in the kitchen. She ate what she had determined was a healthy diet: lots of yogurt and fibery looking things and brewer’s yeast that smelled bad. The kitchen was disgusting as were the kitchens in every commune I ever saw. No one ever really cleaned them. The roach population of the Castle’s kitchen was extraordinary. One time Ross called a pest control company and got them to agree to a one-time-only roach kill – since that was all she could afford and no one else in the commune would contribute. I was there the morning the bug man arrived, waiting for Ross to finish her loathsome breakfast. We stood in the hall until he finished, then we went in and watched the roaches crawl out of every crevice in the room, stumble across the floor and die. It was biblical. Ross swept them all up into a pyramid. The bug man stayed to watch.
“I’ve never seen that many kinds of roach,” he commented.
Back at the studio, Ross and I started to plan for our big opening. I had a very provincial plan. I was painting a life-size self-portrait but was going to figure out a way to make it “new” by attaching some kind of sound system to the painting that would involve my reading my poetry as though the painting was speaking. I have no idea how I intended to do it as I never got that far for a lot of reasons, most of them having to do with staying sane. Ross’ plan was WAY out there.
The first thing she wanted to do was put a sophisticated awning on our sidewalk entrance, something she thought would look like New York. My best friend Ann was a decorator and she told me whom to call. The awning man came and stood on the sidewalk by our entrance while we explained what we wanted to do. Looking amused, he took measurements and let us choose the canvas from his sample book. We chose black. Sophisticated!
While I worked on my big portrait, sometimes standing on a box since I am short, Ross worked on her sculptures. Everything she did related to bed ticking. She would take all of the tip money she could spare and buy old things and have them made into something of bed ticking. For instance she bought a horse collar and had it upholstered in bed ticking. I began to spend more time helping her than doing my own work because hers eventually involved riding around Southside and looking for more things to have made into something of bed ticking. One time we found a mattress sitting by the side of the road. At the time, I had a red Mustang convertible. It was kind of a struggle but we got the mattress on top of the opened car so Ross could hold onto it while I drove. I remember it smelled awful and little bits of things rained down on us the whole time, but we got it up the stairs and into our studio.
Were we nuts?? Can you imagine where that mattress had BEEN? Somebody probably died on it. I am sure they had vomited on it. How many reasons are there to throw a mattress away?
That night, back in my suburban house, I scrubbed my self and my hair as though I had been exposed to radiation. Think Meryl Streep in “Silkwood.”
Everyone who came to that show will probably carry the memory of it to the grave. I know they remember the invitation. Ross had been arrested for something small and I have forgotten what it was but she did have an arrest record that she treasured. Real artists are like that. She insisted on having formal invitations printed with her record on the front like a postcard, in sepia ink. We got some kind of massive mailing list and bought a lot of stamps and sent them off not having any idea what would happen.
Everybody came, from all across the societal board.
It was like a contained explosion. There was an unearthly level of noise. I expected the police to show up – maybe they did but got caught up in the crowd. Ross knew everyone in the hippy universe and one of them had made ethanol for the drinks – we had a really cool bar set up – and another friend had brought her band. To me it sounded like cacophony but everyone else seemed to love it. We had fleshed out our mattress collection and they were lined up along the wall of the biggest room. All of Ross’ upholstered sculptures were placed around on the floor or hanging on the wall. I had an old typewriter and had fed in a piece of paper and typed a passage from J.D. Salinger’s short story “For Esme – with Love and Squalor”: “Written in ink, in German, in a small, hopelessly sincere handwriting, were the words ‘Dear God, life is hell’.” I suppose I thought this made me look intellectual. It was supposed to be the title of that particular mattress.
The president of the Birmingham Museum of Art came and seemed to take the show seriously. The show was reviewed in the newspaper. I had made a poster with lettering from a template that said “Art is a lover/ Art is all over” in descending size sentences. Someone wanted to buy it. I don’t remember what happened to it because I was so busy looking around and wondering how on earth I had arrived in that room over a bar, surrounded by mattresses which I thought of as art but which were probably the ur-source for bedbugs and lice. Maybe it was because I was scared to drink the homemade ethanol and was therefore stone cold sober. Maybe it was because, at last, I had worn out whatever god of art had been living in me, the god I should have exhausted a long time ago. The real God doesn’t like that god and the people who worship that god often come to sorry ends. I went home.
Two years later I was living in a new house, the god of art still alive in me but small and weak, kind of like the god of some unknown tribe in a country too small to map. It was a very nice house and I was trying to pay attention to the details of the place. The kitchen was big and painted white, but on one of the walls I had painted the lines of a poem from W. B. Yeats to remind me of who I was, perhaps to throw a bone to the god. “Oh body swayed to music, oh brightening glance: How can we know the dancer from the dance?” By that time I pretty much knew the difference.
There was a walled garden in the back of my new house with a herringbone brick terrace. It was hard to sit out there because it was so sunny and I decided to put in an awning for shade. I called the awning place and the same man came. By then I had a different last name but he remembered me from the studio downtown. I wish you had seen the expression on his face.
Sad to say, the painting I bought from Ross, the one she sold to buy coal, was lost in New York. I gave it to my son Ansel to hang in his room at Yale, but it got left behind when he was visiting a friend on his way home for Christmas his senior year. He was returning the painting to me. I have this vision of it floating around the Village, apartment to apartment, ending up in an estate sale, bought by someone with an “eye.” Maybe it’ll turn up on Antique’s Road Show someday. I’d know it anywhere: The swastika on the mitre is hard to forget. Ross is hard to forget.