In John Sloan’s “Traveling Carnival Santa Fe” (1924), the carousel is awash in yellow light while the sky above is the blue of deep lake water. On the silhouetted ferris wheel, the people risign are illuminated while those descending are shrouded in shadow.
Sloan was an Ashcan artist, a group of early 20th century painters who captured the personal side of life, the dirt, emotion, the underbelly and the truth, the honest details that artists before then wouldn’t dare show on canvas.
A barman’s white apron creases with gray in its folds. Women linger on a city lawn, wearing gauzy gowns, hiding from the sun under umbrellas, wearing proper hats. A woman in a blue dress gazes toward the distance, seated at a restaurant table across from a mustachioed man. Her look of longing, not satisfaction – a person she yearns for? A door opening or closing? An exit through which she wishes to slip?
I’ve loved the Ashcan artists since I studied them at the University of Michigan, perhaps identifying with their rebelliousness. Or maybe it was the journalism of their art, revealing the underside of life, the truth in details – the garbage, disappointment and sense of loss or of being forgotten.
And yet these works are beautiful. Inspiring. In Guy Pene du Bois’ “Café Madrid,” (1926), a flapper-woman sits at table with a man who looks over her shoulder. Her gaze directed inward, her eyes small and searching in the night-blue.
I’ve been in that painting, sat at that table. Her hair covered by a headscarf, her arms bare in a low-cut black dress. Lights twinkle among the trees. Who hasn’t sat at tables in a crowd of people and felt alone?
I’ve strolled among Ashcan art at the Detroit Institute of Arts these past weeks several times, quietly gazing at their works, “cosmopolitan and urbane.” I went with Ally and baby Shaya, filled by color and motion and flow.
When I studied these artists in college, I was in love with John. It was a fleeting kind of love, two years on again and off again, through graduations and big cities and bicycle trips from San Diego to Washington, D.C.
He arrived at my Bethesda apartment in August of one year, when the city was hot and sticky and stifling. I was recovering from foot surgery, but we went to the bar one humid night where in the dark and noise, a band played. It was smoky. John was too-thin, but his husky voice soothed me; I could close my eyes and feel its contours.
We went back to my apartment and lay together in the quiet night. My room was big and the expansive wood floor echoed against the bare white walls. Neither the bed nor my heavy wood desk nor my neatly piled stacks of books could fill it completely.
The next day, John took the train to New Jersey, and I went to work.I said goodbye to John a decade ago in Paw Paw,
Michigan. It was clear that we had nothing left to say – I, the religious Jew, he the lapsed Catholic, divided over our appreciation of pizza (John: thin crust, greasy; me: thick and deep-dish) and the rhythms of our lives. I drove back to my bungalow house and he disappeared into the distance. I’ve never found him since.
“Life’s Pleasures” shows the richness and passion that swirls around the pedestrian. Living real life IS a pleasure. What I loved about John was the intensity of the passion between us, that gift of feeling, deeply. Even as we bent over our open books in the fluorescent-lit university libraries, there was electricity between us.
Or maybe that was just me. Maybe it had nothing to do with John.
Once, we snuggled against the pillows, watching a movie. Maybe I fell asleep. That year, we gave each other presents under his family’s Christmas tree. His mother had written my name in glitter glue on a stocking. I’d bought him cologne, Calvin Klein’s Obsession. When he tore off the wrapping, his eyes opened wide.
“I don’t believe it,” he said, pushing a present toward me.
He’d bought me Obsession perfume.
The most remarkable thing about my relationship with John was the unremarkability of it. The way that we just wanted to be together, to hang out, to sit on a couch, to cart our books to north campus. We spent weekends in Vermont, stood on subway platforms waiting for trains. It was the just being together that made it so worth remembering.
I haven’t had that in so, so long. I filed for divorce because I finally realized I cannot, I will not, live a life without that kind of must-have connection. I’d rather be alone as spring rolls in and the windows usher in sweet breezes.
And so I cast out my hope to the stars and pray that one day, that soul-filling love will live in my house, on my tattered couch, sit across the kitchen table from me with can’t-help-but-smiles over the homemade soup.