When I became Tom’s partner, I took on several roles; some came naturally, and others not so much. After discovering my image in the Happenstance collage, I knew it would not be the last time my image would show up in Tom’s work.
Before we met, much of Tom’s art was revealing and sexual; he had developed a reputation for his no-holds-barred approach. Up against my more practical nature, I found that work to be gratuitous. Weren’t there other things to paint? The number of large, erect penises he depicted became the subject of jokes and sometimes uncomfortable conversations with collectors. I had to hand it to Tom; he could always defend his choices; after time, we all got used to it.
When it came to me modeling for Tom the first time, he slowly and carefully coaxed me into agreeing to do it. He created a setting on the large table in the middle of his studio at the first Uncle Freddy’s. He made a nest of blankets and pillows and had a space heater near so the room was a comfortable temperature. I removed my clothes and he helped me up on the table. He was patient as I awkwardly fumbled around, trying to find a pose that appeared relaxed and natural.
Tom walked around the table and stopped when he found an angle that worked for him. He rolled his cart over and started to paint in watercolor. As I lay there, I was reminded of the movie, Frida I had recently seen about Frida Kahlo. There is a scene early in the film where Diego Rivera paints a silent, voluptuous model in his studio. Young Frida and her friends are hiding in the studio, watching the artist at work. Rivera’s wife enters to bring him lunch. She becomes enraged at the sight of her husband and the young stranger posing nude. He explains that he is just working and that she should calm down. She throws the lunch basket at him and storms off. Rivera brushes off the intrusion, and within minutes of the wife’s exit, he approaches the model, kisses her, and touches her breast.
It occurred to me that if I were going to be with Tom, I would need to be his model, his only model. Call it possessiveness or jealousy. I call it preservation; of my sanity and our relationship. Repeatedly enduring the psychological toll of another woman posing for Tom when he wanted to paint a figure, was more than I was willing to tolerate.
I was in college the first time I fell in love. His name was Roman; he was half-German, half-Mexican, and very much my type: tall, dark and handsome, creative and sensitive. We both studied photography. We met at a party early in my first semester at Columbia College. A month later, on my 18th birthday, we arranged to meet at another party. There was a brief period in my younger years where I experimented with my personal style, and I showed up at the party wearing a silver lamé pantsuit. I looked like a long-lost, white Pointer Sister. I was feeling myself that night. Roman gave me a birthday card and we shared our first kiss. He was my first for many things, and I loved him.
Roman took a studio photography class one semester and told me he planned to shoot photos of his sister’s friend Coco. I asked if I could come along to assist. He told me that it would just be the two of them, my assistance was unnecessary. As soon as he left for the shoot, I experienced an unfamiliar sensation—my heart dropped, and my stomach ached. I began to wonder who Coco was, how they knew each other, what she looked like. Later that day, I called his apartment; he still wasn’t back. I had a fitful night trying to imagine what happened at the shoot. Roman called the following day, and we agreed to meet up at school to work in the darkroom. He was anxious to develop the film from his shoot with Coco.
We were washing prints at the end of the day when I got my first glimpse of Coco. She was beautiful and exotic, like Lisa Bonet. The tiny images on the contact sheet were of a wanton-looking Coco with pouty lips. She wore sexy lingerie in some of the photos, and in others, she was nude and covered in gauzy fabric. My jealousy flared. Seeing those images was hurtful on a molecular level; they displaced me from my own relationship. The photos were intensely intimate and sexy; I was sure the shoot ended with sex.
Roman talked me down and gave me some bullshit excuse—the photos were art, and nothing happened between them. But I never forgot the jealousy I felt that day, and it was not the last time.
Tom’s voracious appetite for making artwork meant that I was not always ready, willing, or able to model for him. I sometimes found stacks of drawings of me that he had done when I was not around. I, of course, had not sucked his dick at the top of a mountain or run nude with him through a forest as meteors fell from the sky, but there I was, doing exactly that. He conjured the images out of his imagination, memory, and wishful thinking. His motivation for making this work perplexed me, and the more graphic sexual depictions made me blush. What would happen someday when our kids or grandkids saw these drawings? I liked his imaginative, stylized version of me more than the life drawings and paintings, which were more realistic and less forgiving. Plus, I didn’t have to stand still for long periods, worried about hiding my reaction if I didn’t like the results. After being together a couple of years, I figured out that his excitement for painting my figure came in seasons, and after he got it out of his system, he moved on to other things.
I never felt completely comfortable modeling. My mood and the timing of Tom’s ask had to align perfectly, or an argument or bad drawings were the result. As much as I wanted to be his model, I usually felt self-conscious and over-exposed. I trusted Tom and his artistic instincts and knew his love for me inspired him. He worked around all my hang-ups and on my terms. He eventually realized that I could not hold a pose for very long, so if he wanted to do a more detailed drawing or painting, the best way to do it was while I slept. He knew I loved taking naps, so he sometimes asked me to pose with the promise that I could sleep while he worked. As a result, there are many images of me sleeping.
One time, Tom was in the middle of painting a series of still lifes around the house. He painted scenes in his studio, the living room, dining room, and bedroom. On this particular day, Tom set up in the kitchen and asked if I wouldn’t mind posing for him. I told him yes, but that I needed a little time to freshen up. I ran upstairs, took a quick shower, blew out my hair, put on a nice shirt and some makeup.
Ready now, I playfully posed over the island counter and smiled.
He said, “Can you move to the end of the counter and bend over?”
I did and tried to maintain eye contact with him.
“Can you bend over further down? Keep your hand on the counter and elbow up.”
I complied and said, “You won’t be able to see me like this!”
He said, “I know! All I want is your hand and elbow.”
I hunched behind the counter, holding the pose, and grumbled to myself. When he was done, I stood up and asked why he let me get all dolled up. I looked at the painting: a burner on the stove was on, his espresso maker on another burner, and my hand and elbow were propped on the counter; the rest of me was out of sight as if I was picking something off the floor.
I rolled my eyes. Tom laughed and hugged me. “That wasn’t hard, was it?”
I shook my head. “It will be worth it; this painting is going to sell.” And it did.
We lost our friend Gordon deep in mid-winter. For months, Lee had been driving a water truck in North Dakota on a fracking field and had daily talks with Gordon on the phone as he held down the fort at the B&B. When she couldn’t reach him for a full day, she called the sheriff and asked him to check on Gordon at the farm. They found him alone, slumped over in his chair with a sketchbook in his lap.
We were not prepared for this loss, and it hit us hard. Gordon was something of a mythical character to me. I periodically imagined losing people in my life and preemptively mourned them. But I had never imagined Gordon dying, even though he was in his seventies; it seemed he would not die. He was ever curious, gentle, and a special friend.
Tom immediately made a painting depicting Gordon’s death. I wept almost nonstop for a month. Well into my self-imposed, extended shiva, Tom asked if he could paint me crying. I hoped he would just paint from his memory; I was tired and swollen and feeling the effects of a long hard winter and the heartbreak of losing Gordon. Feeling weak, I told him OK, but I wasn’t sure how many tears I had left. Tom suggested I watch a sad movie while he painted me.
We put on Terms of Endearment, the saddest movie I could think of. I sat and bawled as Tom painted me. We started to talk about memories of Gordon and came up with the idea to host a memorial exhibition for him at the University Gallery where Gordon used to teach in Gary, Indiana. The resulting painting was unlike any other piece Tom had done of me. It wasn’t pretty, my face was red and bloated; in fact it’s hard for me to look at. But it was true to the pain I was feeling, an example of Tom and I collaborating creatively, and the healing power of art. Planning the memorial helped me get through the fog and directed my energies to something positive, the memory of Gordon. We went to the farm to spend time with Lee and selected our favorite pieces by Gordon to bring to the university gallery. Gordon’s son Ian stayed with us the weekend of the service. We had only met once before, but he felt like family. Gordon’s siblings, who all looked like him, and many artists from the region attended and spoke at the service. I made a slideshow of photos of Gordon choreographed to Tom Waits’ Come On Up to the House. The memorial gave everyone some closure, and it was the last show we did for Gordon.
Historically, artists have used their love and relationships as inspiration in their art. Quite often, Tom’s work is informed by our experiences, our struggles, joys, and private moments together and with our children. Naturally, we are depicted in the paintings or drawings; it connects him to the work on an emotional level, which is something he strives for in everything he does. He also includes us as stand-ins for characters in his paintings about humanistic themes not related to us. Some of the scenarios in the works are sexual, complex, or disturbing. Using our images is safer than creating a character that might resemble someone else. I’ve always felt proud to be in Tom paintings, even those that are difficult subject matter and those I’m not fond of. He says that I turn on his creativity and rile up emotions that are spontaneous and useful. An interesting aspect of being his model and muse all this time is the chance to watch us growing older in his paintings. The wild, erotic fantasy-filled works from our early years have slowly given way to a more realistic exploration of our life, love, and relationship. That’s not to say he won’t make another painting of us having sex in the woods; it might just include a vignette of him helping me off the ground when we’re done.
When I was 47, I slipped on our driveway and sprained my ankle while getting the mail. This scared the crap out of Tom and was a wake-up call for me. I was the heaviest I had ever been and could barely get up to get in the house after the fall. Over the following weeks, I had plenty of time to think about my fear of doctors and my unwillingness to participate in diagnostic care. I felt fortunate that I did not have any serious health issues, but it was time to take better care of myself. I began to work out, walked obsessively, and counted calories. Over eight months, I lost 45 pounds.
I was not thrilled with the thinner version of myself. My usually large, full breasts looked deflated and my face was gaunt. Tom always seemed to like how I looked, even when I was heavier; I never felt that his feelings for me or his sexual attraction were tied to my weight. His attraction had remained strong through the ebbs and flows of all the years we had been together. After all, he had a very active imagination, and he used it in all aspects of his life.
Tom asked if he could do a series of contour line drawings of me for a future series he was thinking of. Line drawings go much faster than a painting or a detailed drawing, and since I was more fit and flexible, I was more inclined to take off my clothes during that time. We decided to work on the project for a month and go from there. It started with some drawings of me wearing outfits that made me feel good, then we worked our way to the nudes. The drawings were life-size, traditional figure studies and the poses were ones I could hold easily for 20 to 30 minutes. After drawing me, Tom filled in the details of the setting. He drew almost 60 images in total. As contour line drawings, they looked a bit like empty coloring book pages, waiting for a pencil or crayon. It felt more meaningful somehow that Tom had drawn me at nearly 50 years old.
Modeling for the series gave me time to get lost in my thoughts, which helped develop my self-acceptance. Streams of thoughts and memories flowed through my mind as I held my poses. I tried to remain empathetic when I thought back to my younger self and the many foolish and embarrassing things I’d done. I tried to look at myself from the outside and appreciate myself the way I would when getting to know someone else for the first time. Eventually, modeling nude for these extended periods made me feel more comfortable in my skin.
When we finished the drawings, Tom laid them out all over the house, and we walked around and looked at them. We pointed out our favorites. Then, Tom moved them to a staging area where they would wait until he knew what else he wanted to do with them. Then he moved on to painting other things.