Issue No. 20 | Spring 2019
(An Ex Voto of Two Dear Friends Who Did Not Overcome Tragedy)
In The Broken Column (1944), Frida Kahlo is crying. Her long black hair is pulled back off of her face. Her heavy eyebrows meet in the center, like bat wings, and she is rent down the middle, the device holding her together, a steel girdle, seeming like some medieval torture apparatus that instead has split her apart. Nails pierce her face and body, and the landscape behind her is barren and cracked, like her spine.
I am sitting with my dear friend, Maricela, considering this painting from a book. Mari often told me that she wanted to play Kahlo on stage or film. If she had been given that opportunity before she died, The New Yorker may have described her as “the passionate Maricela Ochoa” in that role, just as it described her when she played Sarita in the play “Blade to the Heat” at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in New York in 1994.
The week Mari died was my wedding anniversary. I have a lovely photograph of her from my wedding on Sanibel Island, in Florida. She is in her lavender bridesmaid dress with her arms and head tilted upwards enjoying the sudden breeze. I thought about that coincidence of dates even as I felt Mari’s absence in my bones and muscles, but my husband, Mark, and I decided to go to New York City that weekend to celebrate our anniversary anyway.
New York was where I had met Mari, and I can still see her hailing a taxing by putting her thumb and index finger in her mouth to whistle. Or she has a cigar in her mouth instead, and a pool cue in hand. She is leaning over a velvet green pool table and laughing as she lines up her shot. She is telling stories in her husky Texan accent and sipping whiskey.
Once a man who took up a lot of space in a room told me he thought that Mari was too big. But I admired her. I always thought that her femininity – especially her enviable long black hair – was enhanced rather than diminished by her defiance of convention. To me she was as vibrant as the lush white gardenias and bougainvillea Kahlo surrounded herself with in her self-portraits.
In New York we met friends for brunch. One of them, Kent, I have known since we were kids. He was like a brother to my brothers and me. Together and alongside other friends, we drank one bloody Mary after another, but Kent had more than all of us. Kent always drank in a way that you knew one day there would be a reckoning.
Kent was a painter. His technical ability was precise, but his paintings could be hard – hard to look at, harder to understand. Tortured, discombobulated bodies bent and straining in muddy landscapes. Still, Kent was funny. Once I asked him what he was working on, and he said, “wilderness paintings.” Then he showed me the series. One of them, my favorite, is called “Return to Romance I.” It’s a large canvas. A moose stands in a glistening lake. The moose’s antlers reflect the sun and the animal is looking intently, sexually, at a naked woman who stands facing him staring back. Her hair (his wife, Shawna’s, straight, brown hair) is blowing off her back, which her towel is falling down, revealing most of her body. I laughed out loud when he showed it to me. But I also admired the water’s sheen, the mountain snow, the muscles in the woman’s back – to be able to render those. I couldn’t believe that he had never sold a painting.
Wherever she lived, Mari kept an altar in a corner with candles and flowers and pictures of saints and tin ornaments and other paraphernalia she had collected from Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations. I can’t remember if she kept ex-votos there, or if we looked at some together, or if I saw them later. One I remember depicts a bedroom with disembodied legs and hands hanging from the ceiling, like something Kent would paint. Another is of a woman and baby seated on a bed with black birds flying all over bedroom. The woman looks panic stricken, as if they had come through the chimney. If Mari had seen it, she would have crossed herself and kissed her fingers, just as she always did when she heard an ambulance siren.
The curator Victor Zamudio Taylor has said that, “The Mexican ex voto” – which Kahlo also used – “is traditionally painted on tin, and it’s a small-scale, intimate painting that tells a story. It usually depicts an accident or a tragedy and how a subject was able to overcome that accident or tragedy…”
When I moved to New York, it was Kent I stayed with. He lived on the Lower East Side with his friend, Susan. They knew each other from art school in San Francisco and lived without lightbulbs in a barren apartment with only a mattress on the floor. When they were out working evenings, I sat in the dark and watched the wind blow plastic bags into tree branches and listened to sirens hurl by. Before long, Susan moved to Seattle. Kent and I hadn’t yet met the people we would marry, but the two of us felt like family so far from home together. And we made fun of each other for having New York-sized dreams as we sat on my fire escape overlooking a then-empty lot off Houston Street, our legs dangling above heroin addicts and prostitutes who lived out nightmares doing what they needed to do to survive.
The last time I saw Maricela, we were at her sister, ChaCha’s, house in Austin. Mari’s husband, who is also named Mark, was there, a man she met late in her life, a man confident enough to love Maricela. They had been married in Galveston not that long before, and Mari had been happy. Now she rested on the small sofa in the living room, a withered version of herself, an old woman. Family friends came by to assure her that Jesus had not forsaken her and showed her the holy water they had brought back from the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain that would surely make her well. Mari could not sit up to thank them. I recalled that for her first solo show in Mexico, the only one in her lifetime, Kahlo arrived by ambulance, and greeted people from the bed she was carried in on, emotionally removed, I imagined, from the nonchalant vigor of her patrons. In Mari’s case, she was bald, too, without even eyebrows or eyelashes to keep the dust from her eyes, all of her luxurious long hair having fallen out in clumps in her hands months before. How alone she must have felt then.
Kent, whose mother also died of alcoholism, fell down last year in his apartment in San Francisco. This was before rehab, when we still felt hope – or denial. But when my brother told me soon thereafter that he had asked Kent how he got a black eye, and Kent said he fell where they stood in his kitchen and hit the counter, Boom! out of nowhere, just lost control, I was in my bedroom and had to sit down on the bed and move the phone away from my ear and wait. Then he texted me a photo of Kent’s last painting, and it’s one of the saddest images I’ve ever seen: a man has a towel over his bent head and he’s moving his arms in confusion.
In Austin, I watched Mari’s elderly mother rub her thumb against one prayer bead, and then another, and gaze at her youngest daughter with all the love I have ever seen in anyone’s eyes, and all the fear and heartache of knowing you will outlive your child, as she stroked Mari’s forehead, whispering incantations into her ear. And I listened as another sister moved about in the overstuffed kitchen, thanking Jesus for his abundance whenever someone came by with another casserole as she made room in the refrigerator for it. “Loaves and fishes,” I heard her say. “Loaves and fishes.”
How far we were from the pool in Sanibel that Mari was the first to jump into my wedding night – in her bridesmaid’s dress – with the scent of jasmine and bougainvillea in the air. The same night Kent wandered away from the pool and down the beach alone. Shawna brought him back so that he wouldn’t stumble face first into the Gulf of Mexico.
The last time I saw Kent and Shawna was in San Francisco a few years ago, where we had lived in our early twenties before moving to New York. We were at a party of a Brazilian artist in the Upper Haight, where I used to live, and Kent was talking about how life comes full circle, and I thought of those bright early days when Kent had just finished art school and drove a motorcycle, and it was a blast to ride up and down those streets with him.
After Kent’s death in January this year, Shawna posted: “I was looking through Kent’s photos he took on his camera and found this one of him on the toilet at the louvre last summer. It made me laugh, his sense of humor: shitting on the museum world that never took his art in. And documenting it lol”.