Art Writing #5

Jojo Karlin ♦ Prof. Wayne Koestenbaum ♦ Experiments in Art Writing ♦ 03.15.2016

In art one is usually totally alone with oneself.

—Paula Modersohn-Becker, Paris 1906


But one might also ask: Is writing ever NOT collaboration? Doesn’t one collaborate with oneself, in a sense? Don’t we access different aspects of ourselves, different characters and attitudes and then, when they’ve had their say, switch hats and take a more distanced and critical view—editing and structuring our other half’s outpourings? Isn’t the end product sort of the result of two sides collaborating? Surely I’m not the only one who does this?  

—David Byrne

Whose you am I? Whose I? No one’s. When I look at Paula Modersohn-Becker’s heavy-lidded strabismus, I look for the glimmer in her eye. She drew her own asymmetry. Her 1898 charcoal of her face intently gazes. Who is her mirror? She writes to her sister. She writes to Rilke. She finds herself in words and in paint.

When I moved into a one-bedroom apartment of my own, people asked if I was lonely. It never occurred to me to be lonely. I answered that the chatter in my head sufficed, surfeited, really, my several rooms.

Writing on my sister’s birthday, I have to consider the ways I consider her a part of me. Thirteen years we shared our rooms. Almost fourteen, if you count the year I squatted in her Brookline Village apartment. Like the fourteen months she lived without me, before me. Her eyelids, her self-portraits, resemble Modersohn-Becker’s. PMB the third of seven. DSK the second of four. I suppose middle children have to run away to Paris if they intend to separate from their fold. Otherwise it’s too easy to put others first.

Dorrie is good at pointing out when I am putting people into my own stories. Casting them in the roles I make up. Stop telling that story. She shows me how I tend to see what I hate in myself in others. She paints with tempera, too. Dorrie reads most things I write. Or at least I ask her to. At some point she will likely read these words. My words. Her words. Our coffee (we only pour separate cups as a matter of ceremony).

Muffled shouts from the basement. A racket. Black night settled on the house in the bottom of the hill, tucked beside the woods at the edge of the lake. From the high up loft bedroom perched on perilously steep wooden steps, in furry sleep she starts at the shouting. Commotion below. Does she fear the noise? The house is never locked and there was that time her sister’s long-departed high school boyfriend Tony had drunkenly broken in to play the baby grand. Her younger daughters in their beds below.

Not one to panic, she shuffles down to investigate.

Through the empty sunroom evacuated of light, past the small kitchen on the deep rust stone tiles, turning into the big room, the clamor grows. She crosses the carpet, past the silent piano and darkened windows, and descends the hidden steps.

Side by side in the twin set that belonged to her mother, their grandmother, who sleeps in the house just a stone walk away:








mutter mutter mutter mutter mutter MUTTER mutter mutter mutter mutter mutter mutter mutter mutter MUTTER mutter mutter MUTTER mutter mutter mutter mutter mutter MUTTER

Fast asleep, her daughters shout unintelligibly. Conversing? Arguing? Speaking both at once and not together. Neither conscious, yet communicating together.

No visible intruder, she lets them talk it out and returns to bed.