I want to start with a chronology. When were you born, to whom and were you a depression child?
H: Yes, I grew up in the depression. I was born in Kansas City, Missouri, on December 7, 1924. When I turned 17, it became Pearl Harbor Day. I was born at home. My sister, Marguerite, who was almost three years old, walked into the bedroom, saw that process and would never use the color red for most of her life.
But when she was old, she bought a red Honda Accord hatchback, so I think she finally accepted me. And I could say that if I had a favorite color, it would be red. When she was born prematurely at seven months, also at home, the doctor put her aside and said: “Don’t count on this baby surviving.” My grandmother, who was part Cherokee, wrapped her in a soft cloth and put her in the roaster pan on the open door of the lit oven. She fed her with an eyedropper dipped in warm milk until my mother could nurse her.
Where did that wisdom come from?
H: Maybe from being a country woman and believing in what she knew how to do. But I think that wisdom is there in all of us. We manifest it in different ways depending on our needs and our confidence. It’s there if we don’t interfere.
Were there other siblings?
H: No, just the two of us. We knew my father had been seeing another woman whose name was Lillie, and my mother went down to her office to talk to her. “I wish you would stop this because of he has two daughters to raise.” The woman closed her office door and replied: “I am willing to let it go on the way it is.” However, a year or two later, though the arguments continued, my father had a baby with her, a little boy, and everything changed for us. We were in the car on Highway 40 going from the little country house on the way to Kansas City where my parents worked. My father, who was driving our old Chevrolet, said to my mother. “If you’ll take the baby, we’ll move to another town and start over.” I jumped up from the back seat and cried out: “Take the baby, Momma!” And she said: “Hush, Honey.” I have several large paintings of my mother that have these words written on them: “Take the baby, Momma!” Through my many paintings and drawings of my mother she has emerged as a sort of heroine. One painting shows her with white morning glories wrapped around her whole figure; in Missouri these wild morning glories are called binder weed. Yet later in life she said over and over that the biggest mistake she had made was not to have taken Freddy (the baby), and those two gravitated towards each other even though my father eventually married Lillie. They had a second child, Shirley. Sometimes she feels bad because how my father’s actions affected my childhood, and then says softly that if it hadn’t happened, she wouldn’t be here. Though we didn’t grow up together, we are alike in many ways. She is a real sister to me.
Your father and mother gravitated, or the son and your mother?
H: The son and my mother. Sometimes when he was older he would come and live with her, but he never thrived. He couldn’t make it in the outside world and he lived most of his adult life in the VA Hospital Center in Leavenworth, Kansas. Once when I went to visit he was walking across the grounds with the cardboard box that had held my mother’s ashes. He was on his way to his psychiatrist’s appointment.
What was your father’s name?
H: Alexander. He was called Alex or Alec. My older son is named for him.
And your maiden name?
How did you get to being called Mantooth?
H: That came from my grandmother, the one who saved my sister. Her name was Elizabeth Mantooth and she is listed in the Cherokee Rolls (The First People in Tennessee). Years ago I went on a two months art trip to the Southwest with a friend in her brand new blue van. We drew and painted every day, camped or slept in the van and occasionally signed into a motel to take a hot bath. I was drawn to the Native Americans there, their hogans and other dwellings, the solidity of their stance; even their words when we asked for directions and their cheap, store-bought, ordinary clothes, colorful with beads and ornament. When I came back to my New York studio I didn’t know how to start. I told myself: “Just paint anything.” And I saw I was making these small Indian figures, some walking and carrying their babies. I went to a gallery opening around that time and I signed the mailing list. For some reason I wrote Henrietta Mantooth. Then I forgot about it. A few months later I got an invitation from the gallery addressed to Henrietta Mantooth. I knew then it was my right name. I have changed my name a number of times in my life. I chose the name Ann when I went from high school to college because I thought Henrietta Michelson was too long and complicated. I wanted a simple name like Mary or Jane or Betty. My father and my sister loved a movie star named Ann Harding. She was totally different from me. She was blonde and I had dark hair. I think I wanted my sister and my father to admire me as much as they admired Ann Harding. On the other hand when we played movie stars as kids, I was always Delores del Rio, the beautiful Mexican actress. Remember her? But I even put ‘Ann’ on my first passport though I never changed my name legally. When I met my husband in Brazil, he and everybody knew me as Ann. Though we finally laughed that my real name was Henrietta and his name was Henry.
Does your passport say Mantooth?
H: No. Now it’s Henrietta Michelson Bagley.
What were your family’s circumstances when you were young? Rich? Poor?
H: We never had any money. My mother was a very resourceful, hard-working and talented woman but with only a grade school education in a rural schoolhouse. She came from a dairy farm in Tennessee, a mixture of Scotch Irish and Cherokee. The Cherokee had been pushed from North Carolina into Tennessee and on west in what was called “The Trail of
Tears” because so many of them died on the hard, forced journey. “Honey, get an education so you don’t have to depend on any man,” she’d say to me. My mother didn’t have an education but she didn’t depend on any man for her living. She could repair a roof or paper or paint a wall. She was a farmer when we were in the country, planting and harvesting corn and potatoes and all vegetables and made wine and jelly from our quarter acre of Concord grapes. When young, she apprenticed herself to a Russian tailor named Weinstein and learned to make suits and coats and any other garment. She told me, “Honey, if you don’t want a coat or dress to look ‘homemade,’ you press the inner seams as you go along.” There was always an ironing board with a pan of water and damp cloth on it next to her big sewing machine. I never pressed any seams myself and when I would ask her to teach me to sew she would say: “Get away from this machine. You are going to make your living with your head, not your hands.” Turns out I needed both.
How long were you in Kansas? Was it Kansas City?
H: Yes. Kansas City, Missouri. I never went anyplace until I was 14. That’s when my mother married again, a man named Ernest Pool, a tall guy who looked like Abraham Lincoln and had lost his wife and two children in the great flu epidemic. He bought us four tickets on the Greyhound bus to California, where my mother’s old girlfriend lived, and we settled in Long Beach.
Where did you live? It couldn’t have been 942 East Second Street because that’s where I lived.
H: Oh my God. This is too much. Did you ever hear of Polytechnic High School?
Well, my brother went there.
H: That’s where I did my junior and senior year and I have a letter I wrote to my father. “Daddy, I love California. We go to school with Negroes and Japanese and real figs grow in the backyard.” My mother rented a little apartment right across from the school. I took a journalism class and my feature stories in the school paper were acclaimed by my student fans. I don’t remember the street it was on.
Well, 942 East Second Street was right across from the beach. And I remember this big hotel, the Villa Riviera, right on the beach.
H: You won’t believe this either. When I was in Long Beach Junior College I waited tables on weekends at the Riviera hotel. I can still hear the coins from tips jingling in the pocket of my brown and white checked uniform. It might have been the same place, a beautiful old white and ornate building on Ocean Boulevard.
(Editor’s Note: The Villa Riviera is a registered historic building on Ocean Boulevard in the Alamitos Beach neighborhood of Long Beach. From the time of its completion in 1929 through the mid-1950s it was the second-tallest building, and the tallest private building, in Southern California. The 16-story French Gothic building has been called the city’s “most elegant landmark” and a building that “has helped define the city.” The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1996.
You’re right. I don’t believe it. But getting back to you, where did you go to high school and college?
H: I went to two high schools in Kansas City; then in California, to Polytechnic. Then I went to Long Beach Junior College. Before I graduated from high school my mother said, “We’re going back to Kansas City to look for Mr. Pool.” He went out for a walk every day and one day he didn’t come back and we discovered his luggage was gone. We never heard from him again. I was a survivor so I didn’t make a fuss about Mr. Pool. I did my own thing but I was glad he had bought me two skirts and a jacket like the ones my rich friend, Mary Lacy, had. I convinced my mother to leave me in California with a neighbor and two months later I graduated from Polytechnic High. I had no family there and the next day I answered an ad in the Press Telegram for a live-in mother’s helper and got the job. About graduating I wrote this poem:
“When I walk down that never ending aisle. With my cap stuck on my head, in that unbecoming proper style; I’ll laugh, and my young and foolish laughter’ll ring throughout the somber air. And interrupt Schubert’s Marche Militaire.”
I don’t know if Schubert composed a Marche Militaire. I was 16, out of school, and got an A in the writing course. When I was growing up my mother worked in store alteration departments from 8 in the morning until 6 at night six days a week. We had no health insurance. We never went to doctors. We had home remedies. Even though I went barefoot a lot, I never had a tetanus shot; Momma just poured turpentine into wounds and used sweet oil for earaches. It was a tough time but I didn’t think much about that. I was optimistic and loved to run and win foot races. Then Roosevelt came in and things began to change. I listened to every word he said on the radio.
What interests me is the question about how you felt about being poor. We were desperately poor in the depression, but I felt just about the same then as I do now. I don’t feel any richer than I did then or that I was any poorer then than now.
H: I understand what you’re saying. You know, I’d never realized that people really envied me in New York because we own a brownstone. Now I can scarcely afford to live in it but I need to have a place where they can’t evict me because I didn’t pay the rent, because that’s how I grew up. That’s where some of the shame came. What surprises me about kids and about myself as a kid is how practical we were. I remember when Momma heard about the baby being born to the other woman. People telephoned her and said, “Why, Lockey, we didn’t even know that you were expecting.” I was 9 and I said, “Momma, what shall I tell the kids?” She put her hand over the phone and said, “Honey, tell them it was a mistake, that it was your Uncle Joe.” So that’s what I did. I was practical and my mother thought fast. Sometimes I would come home from school (I was a latchkey kid), flip the light switch and nothing would happen. I knew my parents hadn’t been able to pay the electric bill. My first thought was: “Where am I going to do my homework?” And I would call Mrs. Lewis, our neighbor. That’s what I mean by practical, thinking of the best way to deal.
That’s a terribly big lesson in life to know that you can deal with it. Just think of the confidence it must have given you. Let’s take another turn. When did art emerge into your life?
H: My sister and I spent all of our free time drawing and painting in the summers. As soon as school was out in June, my mother would pack up the four rooms of furniture and call Hite Brothers Moving Company. We had a quite small rustic house in Blue Ridge about an hour and fifteen minutes from the city. That way we didn’t have to pay rent in the city until school started. My parents had to go to work in the city. So my sister and I were alone all day, and Momma would say, “If a tramp comes, give him a glass of water, but don’t let him in the house.” My sister and I drew and painted and cut out paper dolls. Sometimes we made our own paints. We had mulberries from our bush for red and we learned that you could boil onions and make yellow, and we had washtub bluing that was used for rinsing clothes. We didn’t have much paper so we used our Big Chief tablets from school so all our paper dolls and their dresses had those blue lines on them. We put flaps on their clothes and dressed them.
Now I have so much paper in my studio, it’s crazy. Once in Brazil, someone opened our refrigerator door and fruit and food fell out. My husband said, “my wife was underprivileged as a child,” and that’s true; an apple was a pleasant surprise and we ate it down to the core and seeds.
I do remember the flaps on those doll clothes.
H: I want to do some artwork figures and clothes with flaps. But that’s how we did art. No one ever entertained us when we were kids. We had to find out what to do and we did art. No one taped our drawings on the refrigerator (the ice box) nor did they discourage us or look at what we were doing. But my mother let us have a big mud hole at the front of the house. That mud hole was the Tigris and Euphrates for me. Maybe still is.
At what point did art become other than a childhood activity or hobby?
H: My sister’s teachers used to send home her school workbooks which were covered with little drawings in pencil and crayon, with notes to my mother saying: “This is why your daughter doesn’t understand arithmetic.” My sister was a born visual artist. I could do a number of arts, but she was a real visual artist. She was so good I thought art belonged to her; that I shouldn’t do it. I decided I would be a poet but knew I had to earn a living so I became a journalist. I went to the Missouri University School of Journalism. That’s where we learned all aspects of the trade and put out the Columbia Missourian, the town’s daily paper. When I graduated I went to New York. World War II had just ended in Europe and many male journalists were coming home but I got a job with Publishers Weekly in research but with some writing, too. However, I wanted to travel outside the USA and signed up to go to Occupied Japan. The government was offering only clerical jobs but I didn’t care. I just wanted the experience of being in another country.
You weren’t married?
H: No. I was just out of college. There were a lot of GI’s around and my girlfriends were getting engaged. My aim was not to get engaged or married, but to be a journalist. In the meantime, I had my first love affair with a Venezuelan newspaper man I met at the university in a Latin American visitors program. He wanted me to go to Venezuela but I wanted to be independent and start my career. That’s why I signed up for Japan. Ready to go, I got a letter from the State Department saying: “Explain why you were at a certain meeting at Missouri University.” It was a very leftist meeting, and it was during the McCarthy era. I never answered the letter. I just cabled my friend and said, “OK, I’ll go to Venezuela.” I was able to go on a tourist visa; I didn’t need a passport. I thought I had better get out of the U.S. or I’ll never get a passport, given the political repression at that time. So when I got to Venezuela, I got my passport through the American Consulate. It felt great holding that small green document in my hands. I stayed in Venezuela for five years.
So did you go into journalism in Venezuela? And what was his name, your friend?
H: His name was Luis Esteban Rey. I looked him up on the Internet the other day. I knew he was an important journalist; there was a lot of good information about his career. We were together on and off. I got a great job there. It was with a cooperative organization that was started by Nelson Rockefeller with the Venezuelan government. It was the first democratically elected government brought in by the Accion Democratica Party and the first elected president was named Romulo Gallegos, a famous Venezuelan novelist. My friend was deeply involved in politics and I was able to interview the interim president, Romulo Betancourt. I even danced with him once.
Were you living with Rey?
H: No. He was married and living with his family. I definitely didn’t want him to get a divorce and get married because I had gone through that in my own family. Too, I thought, suppose I let this guy get a divorce and then I don’t want to stay with him the rest of my life? That didn’t seem right; I wanted to be free to follow my work.
So what happened next?
H: I stayed there for five years with that great writing job. The program was based on the Farm Security Administration started in the U.S. by Roosevelt in which loans were given to small farmers under the supervision of an agronomist and a home economist. My job as a journalist was to go out with the photographer and interview the farmers and fishermen and their families. I loved being with these country people, having a piece of corn meal cake and a black coffee, convincing the little children to come out from the corners or their mothers’ skirts.
The real world.
H: Right. And I’d write stories which were translated into Spanish and published locally or sent to various trade magazines in the U. S. In the meantime I was learning Spanish. I got really good at Spanish and that was a great job.
Then you met someone else and went to another country?
H: No. That wasn’t my vehicle of choice – to be a camp follower in a man’s world. I didn’t know about women’s lib then but I was an instinctive pioneer. As a child I got the picture. I would ask myself, “If you could be a boy, would you change?” I always answered myself: “NO, I want to be a girl but be able to do what boys do.” In elementary school I wanted to take shop. I wanted to build a wagon out of milk crates. But because I was a girl I had to take home economics. I can still make a great white sauce for creamed chipped beef or tuna on toast. But back to what happened in Venezuela at that time. A military junta overthrew the democratically elected government. I was studying in Spanish at the University in Caracas, into my second year. As students we protested the violent takeover, and the military closed the university. I was devastated by the fall of democracy there. I said to my boss, when he came down from New York, “Can’t you send me someplace?” He said he could send me to Brazil for two months. He needed some stories written and the man who could do it was going on vacation. It was easy for me to do these interviews because I grew up talking with ordinary people. That’s how I got to Brazil and traveled out to these farm programs and did basically the same interviewing and writing job I was doing in Venezuela. In those days the roads were unpaved and rutted. Sometimes the buses would get stuck after a rainfall and the passengers would get out and push till they got the bus out of the water hole. I also traveled in wood-burning trains; you had to wear a kind of smock because of the occasional cinders that came in through the windows. Other times I traveled in a jeep or station wagon with the photographer and agronomist. I was using my Spanish and picking up Portuguese.
But not in two months.
H: No, but Brazilians are very smart and they could understand Spanish pretty well. I did eventually become fluent in Portuguese, too. It is a beautiful language and actually when I studied Spanish literature, the early poetry was in Gallego Portugues.
So how long were you in Brazil?
H: After the two months the man I had replaced returned to his job and I was waiting to go back to Venezuela. But there was an airline strike and I couldn’t leave. I offered to take a small plane to Peru and get out that way, but my boss nixed that as too dangerous. So I had to stay another three weeks until the strike was over.
Who was your boss at that time?
H: His name was Francis Jamieson. He had been a reporter with the Associated Press and then became head of public relations for Nelson Rockefeller, who was partly financing these rural programs in Latin America. Frank, as a young reporter for the Associated Press, had won a Pulitzer prize for his reporting on the kidnapping of the Lindberg baby. He was a great guy. My younger son is named David Francis because Frank died right before David was born. The man I had replaced returned and found me sitting in his chair. I think he was disappointed at first that I wasn’t pretty enough, but he thought he should entertain me as a visiting employee and took me to meetings and social gatherings. One night he invited me to a place called The Bamboo because it had excellent barbecue and good Brazilian music. So we danced. He was a great dancer who had frequented the Dime-a-Dance clubs in New York in his youth and later their counterpart in Brazil called gafieras. When we went back to our table he told me that he had been going out with a well known Brazilian singer and dancer for a while. A story came out in a Sao Paulo newspaper that this North American imperialist was taking advantage of “our Brazilian mulattas.” So I asked him, “What did you do?” And he said he stopped going with her. “Are you crazy? That’s just the time you should have stuck with her.” The next dance was totally different; I guess it changed his point of view about me. And so we were together another couple of weeks and he proposed.
And did you marry him?
H: I went back to Venezuela to think it over and soon cabled yes. When I came back to Brazil and saw him waiting for me at the airport, I thought, “Oh my god, I’m marrying a stranger!” But we had an adventurous life together and two sons, and managed to have a welcoming home for many people although we didn’t hold each other back from following our individual careers. We were married 43 years when he died.
So this is Mr. Bagley?
H: That’s right. Henry Wight Bagley, usually called Harry. He was a great reporter. Formerly he was bureau chief for the Associated Press in Rio de Janeiro and as a war correspondent covered the Brazilian troops in WW II. I always went for newsmen.
I thought we would go through a few more affairs before we got to Mr. Bagley.
H: Well, I didn’t tell you some of them. Women particularly suffered a lot in those days having affairs; they were considered “bad” by most people and even by themselves. I did feel guilt and anguish when I had the first affair after the Venezuelan. I was 20. You know how it is at that age, full of sex but still with a conscience.
Why did you feel guilty?
H: Because that’s the way women were in those days. You had to be faithful no matter what.
Well, I’m not sure that they’re not still.
H: Some women and maybe some men too. Some men are faithful. I thought that I should have been faithful to him.
Oh, I see. You had another affair while you were still seeing him?
H: Not seeing him; he’d gone back to Venezuela trying to persuade me to go there. But I wanted to have my own life, to pursue journalism.
Well, this is a fascinating discussion but I think I’ve lost the ball. I want to get back to art because it seems that you are famous as an artist, perhaps more than you are as a journalist.
H: Good idea. But I have to tell you, I was so happy when the Kinsey report came out about the sex life of women – although it was downhill for Kinsey because he did that. People didn’t want to hear it. I had a small part in the film Kinsey a few years ago; a terrific film directed by Bill Condon. See it if you have a chance. But back to art. When I had my job in Brazil interviewing and writing about these country people, I began to see them in a different way. I began to look at these people as an artist would; I suddenly became the artist I had been in my childhood. Years later when we were back living in the States, my husband’s retirement job was traveling throughout the U.S. and interpreting for Portuguese-speaking visitors One of these visitors came to see an exhibit of paintings I was having in New York City and several of the works were of these farm people. “Why do you just paint poor people,” he asked me. And you know, I thought a lot about it before I answered him: “Because they are not covered up.” It seems that once you get educated and get a lot of clothes and shoes and attitudes it is hard to see the real person as a natural creature. Maybe that’s why artists’ models have to take off their clothes — except perhaps “Whistler’s Mother.” I’m not saying that people have to be poor to be interesting, but I’m just saying that their naturalness allowed me to see these people, just like those in the time of the dust bowl. They didn’t have girdles — nobody wears girdles anymore — but they didn’t have a lot of new clothes so their often-washed clothes become a part of their bodies. I still get a lot of my ideas for my art from the newspaper. I’m still a journalist. Recently when I was visiting my son David when he lived in California, as usual he set up a little studio for me in the garage. I’m interested in immigrants and refugees. So I did a series of little pieces from articles and photos in the newspaper. I have them on the wall here.
It’s beautiful. Do you remember the subject? Was it man or woman? And where was it done?
H: It was a woman. It was done there. One day I saw something in the newspaper. I was moved by a story that people are divided by immigration policy, like some are eligible and some are not. She’s not eligible and he is eligible. She is not eligible. So this family is divided. So these are just some small things that I have drawn in acrylic on paper. Strangely enough, for some crazy reason, I started painting cars. I’ve never been interested in cars, but I said: “OK, if it’s cars now, it’s cars.” I sent some to a show and there was a woman there who had just opened a gallery in Saugerties, New York. She asked me if I would do a two-window exhibit with cars at her gallery. I did it that September and it could be seen by the passersby who enjoyed it from the sidewalk.
It got very good reviews. My daughter, Susan, was there.
H: Yes. People of all ages had a good time with it. Why cars? Well, why did Cezanne do apples and Rembrandt a side of beef? Too, I’ve been painting birds for a long time. I was never particularly interested in birds; they just flew in. This painting here is of refugees. These are people on the road.
That really resonated with me, given all the refugees in the Middle East.
H: Honey, half the world are refugees. It’s everyplace. You know, you can look in China, you can look in Tibet or you could look in Africa, wherever you look, our country too – people sleeping in the streets. I feel that this had to do with my childhood too. I didn’t think of myself as a refugee, but if you don’t pay the rent and you have to move to another place and another place and another place . . . .
Your studio is bursting at the seams.
H: I know. I’ve done a lot of experimental stage sets here. Do you know a play called The Piano Lesson? It was actually one of a series of plays written by August Wilson and the piano in that play was carved by a slave, a master carver. I couldn’t carve a piano and I didn’t want to, so I painted the carvings on light blue Styrofoam and the piece you are looking at was the part where the pedals were. I exhibited it recently with the title “Timeless Jim Crow.”
Are you associated with a gallery someplace?
H: No. I’m an independent artist. I can show wherever I want. Although I often show at the Slideshow Gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I had a two-year grant from the Joan Mitchell Foundation for organizing and archiving my work. The archivist went through all that work from way back and discovered so much I had forgotten I had ever done. Sometimes I thought, God, that’s good, you know? I mean I’m surprised by how good some of my work is. She made me sign, too, because I didn’t bother to sign pieces for years. She insisted it’s not worth anything if you don’t sign it. This is also from The Piano Lesson. There’s a line in it which they talk a lot about the curse of the Yellow Dog. It was in a thrust theater. So around the apron between the stage and the audience I painted all these big yellow dogs. I did them at night because I thought if the director doesn’t like it, I’m going to do it anyway. So I did more of the yellow dogs, but she did like it. Another play was Brecht’s Mother Courage. So I painted the whole floor in camouflaged figures.
That’s almost like a photograph.
H: Yes, this is one of the actors, Roger Drysdale; we painted the costumes in camouflage design in different colors for each character. Inventing theater sets expanded my whole way of making art. I like doing installations instead of easel paintings. I just had my best show in my whole career in Woodstock, New York, at the Kleinert/James, a large art center. It included a 25- foot installation about the U.S. prison system called Jail Birds & The New Jim Crow which included a dance improvisation by an ex-inmate who had learned modern dance in the last years of his 12 year sentence. I worked on this project for a year and I think it was so successful because I care so much about that subject. I set up an event I called “The Prison Panel: Behind Bars” at which four people who had worked or volunteered in prisons spoke about their experiences; the fifth was Andre Noel, an ex-inmate who had learned modern dance from a volunteer professional in prison. He had gone in when he was 17. After he spoke, he did a dance improvisation on the installation which also covered part of the floor. The high point for me came afterwards when a woman I never met wrote in the gallery book: “Bless you for your activism at 90,” signed “Karen, an inmate’s mom.”
What are the words on this painting?
H: The River. This was something to do with the Southwest. When I was at Canyon de Chelly, one of the Navajos told me about this little stream of water I saw running at the base of the canyon. He said it used to be a large river through fertile land, but a golf course was built farther up which siphoned off much of the water so that crops were now meager. I did several paintings about that diminished river and might do more.
Is this for sale? And may I buy it?
H: Yes. And OK.
Whom do you admire most in the art world?
H: It has changed over the years. Some artists who excited and influenced me don’t interest me so much anymore. Picasso still holds me because of his power, but also for his freedom and versatility. In the morning he would do a classical portrait and by the afternoon he’d paint some cubist thing. He was spontaneous, saying things like “If you run out of blue, use red.”
Did it come out of himself as opposed to through subjects?
H: I think it came out of himself responding to the subject or the subject taking him over. Every subject seems to have its own vitality and its own color. I don’t have a generic technique. A gallery owner said to me once: “What’s the matter with you? You paint every subject differently.” He didn’t give me a show. I was young then and felt quite reprimanded but actually I believe what Picasso said, that “the meaning and the technique are discovered simultaneously.” I prize discovery over perfection. Often I don’t know what I am doing until I do it.
How do you think of yourself? Do you think that you might be the greatest artist in the world?
H: I never thought that until this moment. I’ll consider it.
I thought of it before I came. I just saw such humanity in your work and originality and beauty in a way that I wouldn’t otherwise expect. It wasn’t from being clearly delineated. Your work is very free and maybe you did use red instead of blue. I don’t know.
H: I could have, I might, I will, I promise I will. I have a huge box of crayons. And I have this wonderful studio assistant. Her name is Brittany Carlson. She is an artist but a genius at putting order. Some of the crayons are old or broken, the wrapper paper partly torn off; they are all mixed up. She was trying to separate the colors; it would have taken her three weeks or more to do it. “Oh, no,” I said. “Don’t do that. I like the surprise when they are so dirty that you can’t tell what color they are. So when you make a mark, it is so exciting.” I had a painting. It was partially destroyed in the Sandy flood; I had sold it but was storing it. I don’t know if you ever followed events in the Philippines, but I have been very connected with that country. Across the street where we lived once when I was a child, there were three Philippine brothers and their Caucasian wives. I heard people say when their wives walked their “mixed” babies, “Isn’t that a shame.” I didn’t think so. Later when I was in junior college in Long Beach I worked in a restaurant. The Philippine cook liked me and gave me the best dinners when it was my turn to eat. I always kept up with that island. Benigno Aquino led the opposition to the Marcos regime and was exiled. Later he was given permission to return and when he arrived at the airport he was gunned down on the tarmac. He was a beloved leader and the airport is now named for him. I’m just moved by that to this day. I did a series of drawings and paintings about the family from a photograph of them getting ready to go to his funeral. I will show you that as we go down the steps because it is a tall piece that has five of those crayon drawings stacked together to make a column and the last one shows Aquino lying on the tarmac. Mrs. Aquino eventually became president.
I work on several things at once because one piece propels me to the next and enlivens the process. I worked almost a year on this large painting of the Aquino family. But at the end I said, “This is nothing.” I was so disappointed in that painting and I wanted to just mark it out. Like put a big X on it. Angry, I grabbed a pastel crayon and I did a mark and it went from the mouth to the ear and then I grabbed another crayon and all these marks took their own remarkable paths on the figures. It was a dark oil painting, but these bright colored pastel marks make it come to life. I said: “OK, now it’s a terrific painting.” It’s one of those things that happens by itself.
You’re such a prolific artist. Have you been producing at this rate all your life?
H: I only realized that since we’ve been going through all my work with the archivist. I always thought I never did anything. I had a friend who lived in my house for a while and he was very angry at me one day. I said let’s not do that job tonight because I feel tired. He said: “I don’t know why you’re tired, you never do anything.” And you know what? I was so insulted. It hurt my feelings because I believed it. I believed I hadn’t done anything because I only think of what I haven’t done yet.
You just destroyed one of my questions which was, do you think you’re there?
H: Oh, no. You know, when something happens to you — I’ve heard this about other people — some people have cancer and they really discover their lives in a new way. I’ve been so angry at myself because I had that very bad fall. Caught my feet under an exercise mat. I was so well and active before I fell, and I blamed myself. Why did you do that? After I recovered from three surgeries and rehab, I started a series of Oprah and Deepak Chopra online meditations. One of them was about the body and I realized how angry I was not only at myself but at my body. Through this meditation I suddenly began to consider that my body was my pal. I’d say things like, “Come on, let’s go upstairs now,” or I’d look at my hand and say “Oh, does it hurt? Maybe I can help.” So I became very connected to my body and let go of a lot of my anger at myself too. It’s not a permanent solution. You have to do it over and over again. I’m getting back to the subject now, but it’s the long way around.
I didn’t think we had left it.
H: OK. I was always terrified of surgery and especially of anesthesia. When I was 9 years old, I was a prize rope climber in the school gym. I loved navigating myself up to that high ceiling on the thick rough rope. One day I was at the top with everyone looking up at me and I suddenly felt faint. I clamped my knees to the rope holding tight and came down as quickly as I could and when I hit the bottom, I fainted. I had acute appendicitis. We had no money. My father was Jewish and my mother wasn’t and a decision had to be made: a Jewish or gentile doctor; a Jewish or gentile hospital? That was the situation I grew up in. Finally I was taken to the Menorah Jewish hospital with a non-Jewish doctor who agreed to do the surgery with a token payment from my wealthier aunt. The surgery turned out to be a terrible experience for me though the stay at the hospital afterwards was fun. You know how children are prepared for medical procedures nowadays, at least in the upper middle-classes. They are told what’s going to happen and comforted in some way. I was simply whisked into the operating room alone and the anesthesiologist tried to push the ether mask over my nose and mouth. I was terrified and fought him until I heard his words: “You might as well give in because we’re going to do it anyway,”and I knew that was true. During the time I was under I had a dream that I was the only person on the whole earth and I’m climbing over rocks and arid ground looking for another human being. That left me with a great fear of anesthesia or even sleeping pills. And carried too, an experience of what aloneness is. So it was a great achievement for me to go into three surgeries and by the third one, man, I went sailing in — on a stretcher, of course. I think getting somewhat over that fear made my work braver when I started painting again.
How do you see the world now as an artist and how do you want your art to speak to the world?
H: I read once that without artists and writers we would not know our own history and what it meant to be alive in certain times including today. Art tells us about ourselves actually. Someone described my work as “witnessing’ and I think that is true. I don’t try to approach the work artistically when I am painting or drawing. I just try to capture how that eye fits in on that face or how a hand is touching a stone. “Feeling” takes care of itself. Either you have it or you don’t. I work on placement, shapes, color, relationships of one figure or object to another. It is the same in theater. As an actor, we don’t play the emotion, we play the action. I don’t feel personally important, but I know that artists and writers and musicians are important to our society; they leave the record that we lived ourselves through how the Egyptians lived, the African tribes or the Native Americans.
So much of art we see and don’t understand, but it somehow speaks to us anyway.
H: You don’t have to understand art. As you say, if you are open it will speak to you anyway. It doesn’t matter if you like it or don’t like it. Just see what that particular artist is doing. That in itself can be interesting. Sometimes people are afraid of art because they think they should know something they don’t know. Actually, we all know, like a kid who picks up a crayon. So all you have to do is look. And the act of you looking is a gift, a gift of energy which bounces back to the artist.
Are you still very political?
H: I am.
Are you very concerned about the world?
H: I’m desperate because I look at the newspaper and see children lying dead by the mother or the father carrying someone’s dead son in his arms. I see so much hunger, injustice and murder, so much evidence of blind hatred. I’m not hopeless. I don’t feel hopeless about the world at all, I really don’t, but I am just sad and alarmed. In that sense I worry.
I just wondered if you had grown to be above the world, but you’re very into it. It’s too bad. In a way I would like to think that you could tell us how it is above the battle.
H: No one can tell you that. I just have a great deal of sympathy for the world and for people, even criminals. I don’t believe in capital punishment. I want to know why so many people are in jail in this country. When I first went to Latin America I was 21 or 22. I went alone and lived alone in the center of the capital, Caracas. Sometimes late at night I’d want to go down to the town square to get a coffee at the Café Bolivar. I’d walk out in the dark streets. During those years it was unusual for a young woman to be out by herself and sometimes some guy would approach me or call out some insinuating words. Often then, some other guy would say, “Dejala. Es la Americanita.” “Leave her alone, don’t bother her. It’s the little American girl.” Those times are past now. There wasn’t the world of drugs then or deep anger with Americans. Even so, it was beginning because when I went to Brazil from Venezuela, and people asked where I was from, I often said “Venezuela” and just talked to them in Spanish. And they would laugh and say, “Oh, then, we are brothers.” Drugs and poverty got together finally, and lack of education. I grew up around two uncles who became morphine addicts when they were dumb country kids without opportunities or guidance. Actually they were nice guys, good to us when we were children, but there was no way out of it for them: in and out of jail or the “farm,” which was the cold turkey lock-up. No help, no respect, bums. I feel sympathy for people like that.
I have still another question for you. Where do you feel that your influence extends?