Heddie Alexander: Plight of a Suburban Refugee

by Melissa Studdard


My youth was spent in a cardboard box called Live Oak, Texas. Franchises. Intersections. Flat landscapes and straight streets. Fifteen minutes in any direction, and you were in the same spot: fast food, dry cleaner, gas station, grocery store. The details are not important. There were no details. Nor was there faith, heritage, ritual or tradition. So I beat my pots and pans in my cardboard box. I beat the mixing spoon against my head. I drew pictures on the walls of my little world and told stories about how the pictures got there. This one, I said, is a dance of abandon. See how he touches himself. See how he breaks his own windows to get out. Word was that I was disturbed. No shit. Disturbed and perturbed. Let me out, I screamed. Shit. Let me out.

I was the perfect candidate for graduate school, even at the age of six. Had I taken my arguments against the existence of Santa Claus, substituted the words “Judeo-Christian God,” and published them under a pseudonym, I’d have been hailed as the next great philosopher of my parents’ generation. But instead I was destined to spend the first eighteen years of my life perfecting the dark art of suburban mediocrity. Born into the wrong neighborhood, born in the wrong time, loaded into the wrong stroller day after day, I learned the survival tactics of conformity, but, secretly, I wanted the blueprints back. The grand architect had left thumb smudges somewhere, and my life was the result.

By sixteen I mostly didn’t care what happened. The only thing I still cared about was my art, and it was a joy I kept solely to myself. No one I knew understood that impulse. They would have laughed or misinterpreted my paintings. They would have called me an “art fag” as they did the other kids who took art classes at my school. So I just shook my pompons, shook my ass, and floated my way through alcohol-soaked parties. I drank, I got high, and I got laid. There was a pregnancy, my parents found out, and then there was no pregnancy. There was loss and depression. There were moments of artistic enlightenment and moments of despair.

“You should come to class sometimes,” said Principal Wheelwright.

“What for?” I asked. And my ennui was deeper than his concern.

He gave up, my parents gave up, my friends gave up. And, eventually, I got up. I packed my things, moved to New York, and rarely looked back.

New York had a color for me, which was not the clichéd gray, but blood red. I was a visionary. Buildings, streets, the vendor holding a hot dog — all were red in my paintings. I painted them over a stark white background, and my career was sealed – New Yorkers were adding red to their homes so they could display my paintings. “Red Heddies,” as they were affectionately dubbed, hung in living rooms, lobbies and restaurants all over Manhattan.

I created my art, and, as any great artist does, I created myself. Problem child that I was, I had social skills. Not just anyone can be a cheerleader at a Texas high school. You had to know how to play the school.

And I learned a game fast. Always.

New York Game: Rule # 1 — no one ever really looks at you unless you invite it. You can solicit attention of any sort, or, with a lack of eye contact and a slight slouch of the shoulders, you can fade into oblivion.

An artist can have no greater resource than the ability to manipulate her own image; not even talent itself can outrank this skill in making a career. It was this knowledge and the ability to exploit it that allowed me to build my reputation.

I became a master of controlling my own image, of controlling others’ perceptions of me. Even after I was famous, I could walk down a crowded street without notice, whereas before I was famous I could already command the attention of an entire room. Even in the beginning, I could hold my shoulders back, meet the world face to face, and radiate a certain importance that made anyone nearby take note. This shift from important to inconspicuous and back I could accomplish with no outwardly discernible change in my demeanor. It was so subtle that people would only notice the effect and never the details.

In the beginning, before I was famous, I started by going to cocktail parties and talking up the new artist, Heddie Alexander. “She’s brilliant,” I told people. And, “She’s the next Picasso. A complete original.” I played the nondescript intellectual, making myself seem prominent enough that people would respect my opinion but not so prominent that they would ask my name. It wasn’t long before people were telling me about Heddie Alexander.

“Have you heard of this Heddie Alexander?” people would ask.

And, “I hear she’s brilliant,” they would coo.

My name was a regular verbal hot potato at the fashionable parties in New York.

Back then, no one had seen my work yet, but everyone was dying to see it, because somewhere, someone (they couldn’t remember who) had told them how extraordinary the paintings were.

By then my career was sealed. The paintings could have been crap, and people would have rationalized sense and beauty into them. The groundwork was laid—Heddie Alexander was a star—the new darling of New York’s artistic circles before her first exhibit. All it took after that was a little red paint.

Little did I know then that the life I sought with such fervor would make me so unhappy. Call it naiveté, but it seemed to me that escaping the sterile suburbs into the artistic world of New York was escaping from something false into something very true. The way I saw it I was like the Velveteen Rabbit. If I could just be loved by the art critics in New York I would finally be real, because artists, I had always thought, lived at a higher pitch and a greater volume than the rest of us—theirs were lives of intensity, lives filled with such pathos and beauty that they must, somehow, be more real than the rest of ours. To create rather than to consume seemed the highest honor to me. It was the noblest life.

My head was filled with such thoughts at the time I met Thom, and, so, he appeared to be the most alive person I knew. Thom painted ten hours a day, and he drank eight. Rarely did he sleep, so rarely in fact that his mind, deprived of the regular opportunity to dream, began to seize its dreams where it could. It was a surreal and phantasmagoric existence Thom lived—the kind where bums digging through the trash might represent some universal truth about environmental awareness, or a dog limping across a street would have a message from Thom’s dead father. At times, I was, in Thom’s eyes, a gypsy, a goddess or a muse. Others, I was a bitch, a demon or an obstacle to his creativity.

Yet, I never minded any of it because together we were charmed. Inspiration was boundless with us. A series of waves in the ocean. Just when we’d ridden one as far as it could take us, another would come and lift us up again. And we were always floating somewhere in that sea, that cycle, of creativity. Even when we just sat talking in the middle of our huge, paint-splattered floor, we were in the foreplay of creation. The conversation would always turn to painters or painting, and then one of us would see something, an image or a concept, floating by, and boom, we were both back up and painting again.

New York Game: Rule # 2 — partner with someone of equal or greater talent in your own professional field.

Thom’s talent rivaled mine, to be sure — both in painting and in creating his image. There was a mystery about him that started with the fact that no one could quite guess his heritage. Many said Hawaiian; others guessed Eskimo. Thom never divulged, even to me. He just charmed his way to a new subject. But after a couple of months, I caught on — Thom was hiding a background as ordinary as mine. His extraordinary looks — copper-flecked eyes and caramel skin, the curly black locks -- were just flukes, aberrations from an otherwise very plain lineage. It was the only thing that made sense.

Thom’s moods, his sense of identity, were as varied as the colors in his palette. I was eccentric, but I was red; I knew who I was. Thom, on the other hand, was ever shifting, always mixing, endlessly creating new shades of self. For awhile there seemed to be a stable center, but somehow, over time, that stability just slipped away, and there was no real Thom left in his house of mirrors — there were only reflections of a source long gone — like light traveling through space years after its original emission has ceased.

August 31st, 1997 — it was our friend Raquel’s 40th birthday, and there was a blowout planned at the Black Gallery. Raquel was not only firmly entrenched in the art circles of New York; she was also elegance incarnate — everything about her was long — from the sleek, auburn hair that hung halfway down her back, to the pale, slender wrists she bangled more often than not. The best artists of New York — painters, sculptors, and photographers — would be showing portraits of Raquel at this opening. I myself had made four paintings of Raquel riding the subway in her evening gown. Thom had done six of her walking her Afghan through the streets of the Upper West Side.

By 9:00 P.M., I still hadn’t heard from Thom, and the calls were starting to come in. Our neighbor Gus, the cellist, had been leaving the Indian film theater at Lex and 23rd when he’d seen Thom circling around and around the black iron gates of Gramercy Park. Gus said Thom was wearing a magician’s top hat and limping like a wounded dog. He said he’d said “hello” to Thom, and Thom hadn’t responded. When he asked if Thom was okay, Thom told Gus he wanted the password.

“Password?” Gus had asked.

“I can’t answer the question unless you have the password,” Thom said.

“What question? You mean if you’re okay?”

“Correct,” Thom said. Then he stepped forward with his right foot, dragging his left foot behind him with all the effort and attention you would give a cumbersome package. Gus later said it had seemed as if Thom believed his left foot was no longer a part of his living body.

“Should I stay until you get here?” Gus asked.

“Please,” I shouted, already hopping into a cab.

Just minutes later, I arrived at Gramercy Park to find Gus flat on his rear, brushing off scuffed hands and wrists. There was a crowd around him.

“Did he take anything?” asked a blue haired lady.

“No, I think it was a lover’s quarrel,” said a young mother who was toting a stroller and two tots.

I went over and helped Gus to his feet.

“I’m sorry, Heddie,” he said. “Thom got away. He’s in a cab.”

New York Game: Rule # 3—be the life of the party, or don’t show up at all.

Thom wasn’t answering his cell; who knows if he even still had it at that point. Someone eventually found it in a breadbasket at a family style restaurant in Little Italy. Thom got around that night. His wallet was found on a subway car, and his driver’s license on a sink basin at The Back Door, a popular pub that caters to homosexual men.

One of our gallery friends called to say she’d seen Thom through the window of a Williams-Sonoma store and that he’d cut the outside edge of his right eyeball with a steak knife, looking at her all the while. This she had seen through the window, from the street, where she was helpless to do anything about it. By the time she got inside, Thom had vanished, and there were little drops of blood on the table next to the knife display. Thom’s keys sat beside the display.

I went outside and plopped down on the fire escape with a bottle of red wine and a cigarette. I didn’t bother with a glass or an ashtray. My stomach felt like there was a forest fire raging in it, and I was so nervous I couldn’t swallow properly and kept choking on my own spit.

When the phone rang again it was Frank, of Frank’s Pizza downstairs. He said he’d gotten my phone number from our super because Thom had threatened him with a lawsuit. He said Thom’s eye was bleeding, and he had simply asked whether or not Thom was okay. He was not trying to deny Thom service.

I heard a door open and a voice behind me.

“You having a smoke before the second coming?” Thom asked.

“Thanks for calling, Frank,” I said. “Everything’s going to be fine. Don’t worry.” I hung up without waiting for a response.

Thom approached gingerly, sheepishly — like a schoolboy caught pulling a prank. He still dragged his foot in the manner Gus had described.

I handed him the bottle.

“I hear you’ve gotten around tonight,” I said.

“I’ve made some stops,” he said. He took a swig of the wine.

“Your eye looks like shit.”

He reached up and touched it, and a gush of fresh blood washed down his cheek.

“The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,” he said.

“That’s it —  I’m taking you to the hospital. Right now. And stop it with the Yeats, damn it.”

“No,” he said, jutting his lower lip out like a defiant child.

Then, I don’t know why, but after everything Thom’s poor body had already been through that night, even though he was standing in front of me clearly injured, with blood running from his eye down his cheek, and even though he had surely lost his wits hours before and had very little comprehension of what was going on, I got up, and I shoved him as hard as I could — both of my hands flat against his collar bone — with such force that I knocked him down onto a chair.

“You have no choice,” I screamed. “You quit being the decision maker for Thom Winslow about four hours ago.”

Then I called a cab while he sat stunned in the chair, dripping in the wine that had spilled on him when he’d fallen back.

“You’re a stupid fucker,” I said.

And then, to make sure he got it, I repeated, “one stupid fucker.”

New York Game: Rule # 4—insanity sells art.

Fifteen of Thom’s paintings sold during the two months he was at Sunnyside, and I learned that although insanity is interesting as a concept, it is tedious on a day-to-day basis. I had to force myself to visit Thom, much to less stay and spend real time with him. I saw the old man he would become — eating Jell-O, taking his pills from the nurse, watching re-runs of Miami Vice with the other patients, and arguing over chess moves with his psychotic roommate Sid. When he spoke, his eye twitched, and everything he said was a non sequitur or a quote from some apocalyptic poem. He vacillated between extreme passion for life and complete, eyes-glazed-over, medicated dullness.

Sid, it seems, was even worse than Thom. He’d been a victim of cult abuse as a child and periodically suffered from the notion that Thom or some other patient, nurse or doctor was an emissary of Satan. And, of course, Thom’s recently acquired tendency to quote Yeats didn’t help the matter at all.

“Die Beast!” Sid had yelled, charging at Thom during my most recent visit.

“’A shape with lion body and the head of a man,’” Thom shouted back, crouching down.

It was like slapstick on crack. The two stooges go to the loony bin.

I tried, on several occasions, to talk to the doctors about having Thom and Sid separated, but they always said Sid was no real threat to Thom and that the two had gotten used to each other and were better off than with new roommates.

They said management was about to re-carpet the hallways, and there would already be too much confusion for the patients, who did not like change.

After the first month, Thom’s recovery seemed about as likely as Woody Allen deciding to move out to the country and buy some horses. I was on the verge of trying to move Thom to a different facility when a minor miracle occurred — the head of the hospital brought in a specialist named Dr. Stein.

Dr. Stein was an art aficionado, a psychoanalyst, and the author of three books on the artistic psyche. After becoming fascinated with Van Gogh while working on his doctoral dissertation, Dr. Stein had decided to devote his life’s work to helping disturbed artistic geniuses like Thom. By the time he met with Thom, he had already managed to track down almost everything Thom had ever painted and look it over with loving attention. Dr. Stein knew far more about Thom’s mind, motives, desires, impulses and fears than Thom ever would, and he treated Thom with more compassion and basic human dignity than anyone ever would, including me.

When I met Dr. Stein at his home office, he said his goal was to help Thom learn to control the reigns of his passion and steer it in healthy directions. On a piece of paper, he began to draw a picture of a man driving an old-fashioned carriage. The drawing was good, and I mean professional artist good, and it was getting better by the minute. Dr. Stein just kept adding more and more detail until I wondered if he would ever finish. I felt a wave of jealousy pass through my body. I mean, here my art was my profession, my life, and this psychologist could draw nearly as well as I could.

I took the opportunity to study him. His looks certainly warranted it, strange as they were. The hair color alone — dirty blonde on a Jewish psychologist — was disconcerting enough. And his hair was straight. No yamaka graced Dr. Stein’s head, though he had, most distinctly and beautifully, the nose. He was Jewish by heritage only, I determined. His secular obsession with psychology must have supplanted any religious training from his youth.

His office suited him too. It was just the same mixture of unusual and traditional as Dr. Stein himself. The colors were warm and rich — caramel, honey, chocolate brown. I never knew there were so many shades of brown, tan, and gold. The woods and fabrics were so deep and textured that you just about wanted to eat them.

The rugs, also, were in these traditional library colors. Everything matching. Everything perfect.

But there was one thing that stood out.

On each of the two walls flanking Dr. Stein’s desk was a huge painting of an ear. He was there to listen. I got it. But seeing an ear sans the head certainly recalled artistic insanity more than almost any other conceivable image. So Dr. Stein had a sense of humor. Good to know.

“Are you done?” I asked impatiently.

“Almost,” he said.

He turned the picture around to face me, and he pointed with his pencil to the man in the picture. It was Thom. In the drawing, Thom stood at a crossroads, and straight ahead of him lay a small town. Dr. Stein said this town represented conformity and it was not the right choice for Thom. He said it was where psychologists of past generations had tried to steer out-of-control creatives, and that the effects had been disastrous.

To the left was an inferno of burning bodies and torn-off body parts. Semi-human creatures scratched their own eyes out and ate steaming excrement.

“This is where Thom currently resides,” Dr. Stein said.

“Quite vivid,” I replied. “Great detail.” I was starting to like Dr. Stein more and more.

“I like to make sure I get the point across,” Dr. Stein said. “People need to understand what their loved ones are going through.”

He began drawing again — this time the path to the right, Thom’s choice. Thom was in a field, painting under a bright mid-day sun. A bird sat on top of the easel. Notes came from birdie’s mouth. It was a painter’s paradise, an artist’s Eden.

“Looks like the field where Van Gogh shot himself,” I said.

Dr. Stein kept drawing. Thom had on a T-shirt splattered with paint. Beyond the easel was the likeness of me, sitting on a blanket, surrounded with picnic items and painting supplies. I was admiring a painting I had just completed. It was red — the only splash of color in the entire drawing. Dr. Stein had apparently brought a red pencil just for the purpose. He really had done his research. My languishing ego resurrected itself. I could permit him to be a good artist now that he’d paid homage to my work. Smart man.

“Positive creativity,” Dr. Stein said. “Emotional support. Love. Friendship. Living in reality instead of an alcohol-induced hallucination. We can get Thom there. All he needs is positive reinforcement. Pavlovian conditioning. In the past, Thom has been valued only based on his ability to create. His art has been valued so highly above his person that he feels he has no value without it. He feels that any part of himself that must be sacrificed to his art is worth the price. We need to show Thom that we value first Thom Winslow and second Thom Winslow’s art. Then we need to teach Thom himself to value his own well-being above his creations. What will follow will be a healthy relationship with his creativity.”

Dr. Stein’s methods were unconventional, to say the least. Gone were the days of Jell-O and stoned Miami Vice episodes. It was not unusual to find Thom and Dr. Stein running through the halls of the asylum, weaving in and out of the rolls of new carpet, with hobby horse sticks clutched between their knees. Who could tell which was the patient and which the doctor?

Dr. Stein said that Thom needed to act out steering the reins of his passion in order for the metaphor to have a lasting impact. He said that together they were etching new process canals through Thom’s mind. And truly, it seemed to be working. Thom was gaining strength, emotionally and psychologically. And Dr. Stein was even working on the hospital doctors to try to get them to separate Thom and Sid.

After almost a month of working with Thom, Dr. Stein allowed me to bring paints and canvasses for Thom to start painting again. It was Halloween, and the date marked Thom’s two month anniversary at Sunnyside. For Sid, however, Halloween evoked very difficult memories. Not being an artist, he didn’t have the benefit of Dr. Stein’s incredibly effective treatments but instead suffered the indignity of blasé treatment by the house staff.

There’d also been a recent rollover with the staff, and a new nurse had misread Sid’s charts and was giving him the wrong dosage of an anti-psychotic medication. This had been going on for about two weeks, and by the time Halloween evening came around, Sid had determined that Thom was actually not just an emissary of Satan but Satan himself. When I got to Thom’s room with the paints, it was too late. Sid had stabbed Thom in the chest with a piece of jagged metal he’d filched when the carpet was being replaced.

New York Game: The Final Rule—if you want your art to live forever, die young.

Sometimes those of us who are almost crazy need someone who is fully crazy to make ourselves sane again. The suburbs didn’t seem so bad anymore. I could make art anywhere, I decided. Making, not showing, was the gift. After Thom’s funeral, I went back to the studio, and I got the biggest canvas I could find. I began the final Red Heddie, the culmination of the vision: Sid’s fist, larger than the fist of God, held the jagged metal, blood running past his wrist, dripping from his elbow into a pool that reflected Thom’s face. There was no Sid, No Thom, just the killing hand and a pool of blood.

photo by Ryan Francesconihttp://are-f.com/about.phpshapeimage_7_link_0