Roommates

I only had a roommate once—not counting a sister, a boyfriend, and husbands. We roomed together in college, half of junior year and half of senior year. Spring semester of our junior year, I was in France. Fall semester of our senior year, she was in Taiwan.

She came back from Taiwan with a ring: a pyramid of rubies. I couldn’t believe the glamour of that ring. So large. So red. So shiny. Not at all a Midwestern type of ring during the 60s.

Senior year we had a suite. I remember going into her room one morning. She had just taken a shower and was slathering her whole body with lotion. Wow, I thought, why is she doing that? I never did that.

We talked about everything in those days: in the same room, or chatting from her room to mine. What’s everything? Wherever our thoughts took us, I guess. She is very chatty. I like that because I’m not particularly chatty.

But here’s the amazing thing. Spending ten hours with her in Chicago last week, so many years later, I found that nothing has essentially changed. We talked about husbands, children, aging, life, death, and, yes, jewels, or lack thereof. We didn’t talk about skin, but I noticed that the slathering of lotion over 40+ years makes a difference. I came to know once again what I already knew: once a roommate, always a roommate.

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Chalk Painting on the Sidewalk

Last fall I wrote a blog titled “What’s in a Tidbit.” It was about a neighborhood gathering for an older couple who were leaving their home of 37 years to move into a retirement apartment.

Yesterday I was taking a walk around the neighborhood. As I came up the hill and turned the corner on our block, I passed the house of the people who had hosted the gathering. Knowing they are spending this week in New York City, I thought about where they might be staying: East Side, West Side, Theater District, etc.? I have a penchant for the Upper West Side, so I decided to place them there. I wondered what art exhibits they would be seeing. Having recently scanned the New Yorker art museum listings, I placed one of their outings at the Guggenheim to see “Haunted: Contemporary Photography/Video/Performance” because I had read that “much contemporary photography and video is haunted by the past, often by its own recent history,” a conception of contemporary photography I have thought true myself.

As I walked past the house of our departed neighbors, my eyes caught a vision chalked on the sidewalk of sky flooded by rainbow, rain, and floating clouds; a few steps over it, a heart, a dancing flower, a starburst. In the myrtle off to the side stood a little bottle-green watering can.

I remember seeing my aging neighbor down on her knees amongst these delicate purple flowers digging away at something, her upper torso rigid, bent over.

Sometime in the past couple of months, a young family has moved into the house my older neighbors moved out of. The old mailbox has been painted an orange-red. The children now own the sidewalk with the drawings from their minds.

Shapes and Color Inform

The word “Matisse” instantly throws down a picture in my mind of vibrant color and shapes, as in Le bonheur de vivre. However, the exhibit “Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917,” presently at the Chicago Art Institute, re-taught me what those two words can mean.

Sketches, drawings, and etchings informed painting, painting informed sculpture, sculpture informed painting, painting informed painting as Matisse worked out his ideas with shapes, form, and color during those four years.

His simple line drawing of Greta Prozor arrested me: face shape—a triangle; hair—four lines; eyes—ovals with pointed ends. One of the eyeballs is shaded, offsetting the other one, which is not. The woman draws you in with one eye, keeps you at a distance with the other.

Matisse’s painting Portrait of Sarah Stein continues with the shapes he used in his study of “Portrait of Sarah Stein”; he pulls in similar shapes from his drawing of Greta Prozor. Blue “roads” of color back the dark hair, luminous tan face, and neck of Sarah Stein. The viewer is allowed to see the inside of the person because both model and artist, through their special bond, have decided to invite the viewer in.

Bathers by a River, a forceful painting—five meters long—embodies Matisse’s giant struggle before and during the World War I years to find a complex integration with distinction of parts. He built and reduced paint of grey, black, white, pink, green, and blue to “discover in nature how my sensations should come” mixed with “the essential character of a landscape,” or mixed with the essential forms in a landscape. His final dynamic product finds a balance in the vertical rhythmical lines.

Once seen, Greta Prozor (48f), Portrait of Sarah Stein, and Bathers by a River carved a place of permanence in my mind.