Lynn in her home studio making an assemblage-box, remembering how she met Alice, and the beginning of the printmakers’ co-op, Anarchists Ink.
Lynn set out a wooden box, sat at her desk, and sorted through Alice’s broken dishes. Among the rubble she found a gorgeously curved fragment of red bowl, a triangle of blue willow plate, a dark brown cup handle like a question mark.
She might make a Mexico box. She could paint the box dull maroon, coppery green, and acid yellow. She still had some milagros around, she could use them too. But it was the bits of broken crockery that appealed. They were bright and sharp, like pieces of paradise.
After her father fell in love and ran off with a co-worker, Lynn’s mother moved Lynn and her brothers to Mexico, to a little colonial village in the mountains called San Miguel de Allende. San Miguel was full of gringos—artists, single-mother families, old hippies. San Miguel was a good place to be broke with four kids; it was cheap, beautiful, with a climate like perfect love. Lynn’s mother shook off the dust of high-school counseling and Texas to become a buyer for boutiques and specialty stores in the States. She had a good eye, not only for the pottery and wrought iron and blown glass that sold like hotcakes. She strung antique glass beads with milagros and jointed tin fish to make necklaces and earrings. She made fake-pony fur pillows edged with Guatemalan belts. She talked farmers into selling her their hand-loomed ponchos, bought the clothes off their backs, shook out the scorpions, and sold the ponchos to art galleries, to be hung on walls. With the money from her various enterprises, and Lynn’s father’s occasional child support payments, she bought an adobe house in San Miguel. The house showed a blank front to the street, like all the houses there. Inside it was built around a tiled courtyard and garden with jasmine, bougainvillea, palm trees, and roses. There was a pool with water-lilies, and a birdbath for the swallows.
During her sojourn in paradise, Lynn learned to haggle in Spanish in the marketplace. She could eat from the street stalls and never get sick. She rubbed elbows with one-eyed beggars and vacationing movie stars in the park across from the cathedral, which yearned towards heaven with lacy spires. She went out with her friends to the local disco, dancing and flirting with college guys on spring break, drinking on the sly, and coming home in a cab at three in the morning. Heady stuff for a fourteen-year old, and possible because she was living in a small town, a Mexican town, where everyone knew you and people watched out for each other.
What Lynn missed about San Miguel was the color, the high, clear air, the feeling of space. And the way people gave art a place in their lives. Whether it was making chairs, or blowing glass, or writing poetry, or cooking a splendiferous meal for all your friends, the creative impulse was honored. It was as important as breathing. In San Miguel art wasn’t the sole province of bohemians, art was for everybody. And there was no art hierarchy. Making tiles was not more or less important than making oil paintings.
Art school had not frightened Lynn. She already felt more cosmopolitan than god—she was bilingual, multicultural, and had been around enough artists to take the state-side art scene with a pound of salt. Alice had been this art school waif, a hick from the sticks, dressing entirely in black and never saying boo during the critiques. Lynn hadn’t known her at all in school. They didn’t become friends until after graduation, when Lynn was living in a big house full of roommates, and then Chuck brought Alice home.
Chuck was always bringing home people who needed a place for a night or two, but Alice stayed longer than that. At first Lynn thought they were an item—living together in that little room, didn’t they have to be?—but Chuck said no, Alice was a friend, had had an abortion, needed some time to get back on her feet, you know. And Lynn had thought, another one of Chuck’s strays.
Really stray, too. For awhile Alice had owned nothing but the clothes she stood up in—good thing it was summer—and one book that she carried around like a born-again with a Bible, aptly titled The Dispossessed. She was like a small dark shadow in the house. She washed everybody’s dishes and hardly ate a thing. Emma, another roommate, thought that Alice ate the scraps off Chuck’s plate. “Like a beagle,” Emma said. “She doesn’t even have to wag her tail for it. She only has to look sad.” Emma was annoyed because Alice paid no rent, and Chuck assumed that was okay because he paid for Alice’s food, while Alice did the dishes and took up no space.
Lynn was halfways polite to Alice, but she had Alice figured as one of those people in permanent crisis. A drama queen. No brain. Bo-ring.
Then one night at dinner Donny started one of those idiotic, hypothetical-abortion conversations. Everyone in the house knew Alice had had an abortion, maybe that’s why it came up. Alice never said two words so maybe Donny had forgotten what put it into his head. He wasn’t diplomatic at the best of times. Donny only opened his mouth to change feet.
That night he said something about how he was pro-choice in theory, but think about it. What would you feel like, he asked the other guys at the table, if it was your kid? I mean, it’s a life, you know?
The guys (four in all, but Chuck was smart enough to keep his mouth shut) started discussing this. One of them agreed with Donny, the other didn’t. They argued without heat. They brought all the power of their reason to bear on this question.
Lynn argued for the principle—it’s a woman’s body, her right to decide. When guys were being rational, Lynn’s strategy was to keep her emotions out of it and argue them into the ground. Beat them at their own game.
Emma was furious. She got into a huge fight with Donny and ended it by calling all the men at the table assholes and stalking out of the room.
In the wake of Emma’s departure there was an embarrassed silence. Donny broke it by saying, “She didn’t have to take it personally. I’m only saying what I think.”
Alice shifted in her chair. She had disappeared into the wall for this conversation, but now she spoke up.
“Yes she does have to take it personally.” Alice’s voice sounded hoarse. She cleared her throat and went on. “You’re the one who doesn’t have to take it personally. You’ll never have to make that decision.”
Alice wasn’t angry. She didn’t care about the argument. She was speaking from a deep hole in the ground and radiating the air of that place. Who is this person? Lynn wondered, for the first time.
For once Donny didn’t argue. He nearly blushed. The kitchen cleared out soon after, with a little chit-chat to restore the pretence of normality while Alice got up to do the dishes. She went back to being the invisible housekeeper, except all the guys wanted to get away from her. Only Chuck was immune. The rest of them were maundering on about what they were doing that night, but they were doing it all quickly so they could get away. Behind her poker face Lynn was laughing her butt off.
Then only Lynn and Chuck and Alice remained. Alice put a plate in the rack and looked over her shoulder at Chuck. “You feel like drinking?” she asked him. Lynn might not have existed.
Chuck thought about it for half a second. “Tequila?”
“Sounds good,” Alice said. “I’ll buy.”
Lynn wouldn’t have guessed that Alice had a dime to her name.
“No way,” Chuck said, so fast Lynn thought, well maybe Alice had a dime, but not much more. “Early birthday present,” he said.
“But I want a pack of cigarettes,” Alice said.
“What for?” Chuck asked. Lynn wondered too. She had never seen Alice with a cigarette.
“To smoke,” Alice said to the sink. “For mental health.”
Chuck left for the package store, saying he’d be back by the time the dishes were done.
“When’s your birthday?” Lynn asked Alice. Astrology was Lynn’s hobby. It was based on a dream of order in the universe; plus, it was a good way to get people talking about themselves.
Alice didn’t answer right away. Then, “In the fall,” she said, like what’s it to you? She didn’t turn around.
Considering the way Lynn had been treating her, with the perfunctory politeness for strays who have outstayed their welcome, Alice’s cold shoulder made sense. And Lynn had laughed at Emma’s beagle-and-table-scraps comment. Alice hadn’t been there, but Lynn had a feeling Alice picked up on undercurrents.
“Scorpio, right?” Lynn said. She had a hunch that Alice’s graveyard intensity was direct from the source, from the sign ruled by Pluto and Mars.
There was a short pause. Then, “Yeah,” Alice said, not sounding surprised, or even interested.
“It would have to be,” Lynn said. “Nobody else has been able to shut Donny up.” Alice’s go-away message was maybe fading a little. “It was a pleasure to behold,” Lynn said.
“I didn’t say it to shut him up,” Alice said. Or to please you, Lynn heard.
“That’s probably why it worked.” Lynn turned on the flame under the kettle. “Donny’s real resistant to being shut up. He thinks it’s a virtue.”
Alice finally made eye contact. She looked like she was thinking about what Lynn had said instead of wondering about her underlying motives.
“He thinks it shows strength of character to be totally obnoxious,” Lynn explained. “You want some coffee?”
By the time Chuck got back they were drinking coffee and talking astrology, about which Alice knew very little, and cooperative anarchy (from Alice’s book), about which Lynn knew absolutely nothing. After all these years of passing each other by, they found that they had a lot to say to each other.
Funny, when Lynn was such a diplomat, that her closest friends should be so not. Alice and Matt both had what it took; they knew how to figure out what was going on and work it. But they couldn’t be bothered with diplomacy when it got in the way of the dramas they had going. It was like they were daring the shit to hit the fan. Then there they were, in shit up to their eyeballs, morose (Matt) or enraged (Alice), just as if they had had nothing to do with it. Sometimes, trying to talk sense to them when they had scored yet another fiasco, Lynn wanted to bang her head against the wall.
Sometimes she envied them. Growing up with a single mother and three wild-man brothers, Lynn had never had room for a drama. Once or twice dramas had happened to her anyway, but she had dealt with them on her own. In private.
Maybe that was why she liked making art in boxes. With a box, you had to get up close and really look. You had to want to see what was in there. Not like Carla’s stuff, big abstract prints that hit you from across the room. Lynn wasn’t making a statement; she was making a place for herself to be.
What had given them all a place to be was Anarchists Ink. Lynn and Chuck had finished school the year before Alice; they’d had that much longer to realize that out in the real world most people didn’t give a tinker’s damn about art. There was no place for it except in galleries and museums. If you couldn’t sell your work, no one wanted to see it. So you sent your slides to galleries and upcoming shows; you took your portfolio around. You set yourself to endure total lack of interest with as much sangfroid as you could muster.
Like this: After putting in a soul-killing workday (a fine arts background was the perfect preparation for jobs that were low-paid or mind-numbing or both. Lynn had never realized there were so many boring, thankless jobs in the world. Who had thought them up?), she came home weary. She ate dinner and went to the corner of the bedroom that was her “workspace”. Then she stood there trying to remember what she had wanted to do. At this point she might give up, crawl into bed with a mystery novel, or seek out one of her roommates to distract her with talk. Then she was sure to have evil dreams all night and be sodden with remorse the next day. So the next night she would force herself to work. For an hour, say. During that hour she would realize that she wasn’t Louise Nevelson or Jim Dine, so why was she bothering? Her work wasn’t going anywhere. It was just for herself.
What was so terrible about doing something just for herself? Why did it make her feel something like shame? It had been fine to do that, in Mexico.
The joy had gone out of it, that was what.
Alice and Lynn and Chuck liked to talk about this, examining every nuance of how badly things sucked. They had a lot of back-porch tequila sessions where they sat around and moaned. Sometimes they even laughed, cynically. It made them feel better. No one else in the house could stand to listen to them.
Emma said, “You guys must have known this was going to happen. What did you think ‘starving artists’ meant?”
No one had answered her at the time; Chuck and Lynn because no answer was possible; Alice because she wasn’t paying rent and Emma was.
“It’s not the starving I mind,” Alice said later, when tequila and the night air and Emma’s absence had restored her power of speech. “It’s the void.”
“Void? What are you talking, void?” said Donny, who had joined them on the porch.
Against all expectation, Donny and Alice had become friends. A couple days after the abortion discussion he had recovered enough to say, over dinner, that if he was Chuck he wouldn’t let her live in his room, they weren’t even fucking, was he right? Maybe if she gave him a hand job now and then, a blow job would be better. Donny had used the half-joking tone he adopted for going over the top; that was so he could say “I was only kidding, jeez,” later.
Alice had stared at Donny for an endless, breath-holding pause. Then she busted out laughing. She thought he was funny. When Lynn told her later that Donny wasn’t really joking, Alice said, “I know. At least he’s honest. He’s not talking a good line and thinking something else.”
“He’s honestly an asshole,” Lynn had said. “If he wasn’t so honest about it he wouldn’t be such a pain.”
Donny didn’t really want to hear about the void that night. He wanted to play cards. He kept saying it would cheer them up and they kept refusing. Lynn guessed that was the good thing about Donny; you didn’t have to use your company manners. You could be dull and depressed without offending him. The bad thing was, you couldn’t get rid of him that way either.
They were darkening their mood by going over it all again. Chuck was especially frustrated. How could you be a printmaker without a press? Chuck really couldn’t. He had tried pastels, watercolor and ink, and oil crayons. In any other medium his work looked like a child’s scribbling. An inspired child, having an inspired moment, but that wasn’t what he was after. He needed the layers of color to get the luminosity he craved; he needed the texture and bite of soft ground to get the depth.
He had rented press time at a studio, but it was never enough time. Chuck had to feel his way into his prints. He had to work ten hours at a stretch, for days on end, especially in the early stages. He had to listen to his Kate Bush recordings. He couldn’t work for a few hours in rented dead silence and knock out his prints, bing bing bing. He had tried.
“If only we had our own studio,” he said. “Like in your book. I’ll bet the anarchists had printmaking studios all over that planet.”
Lynn doubted it. Unlike Chuck, she had read The Dispossessed. The people in that book didn’t even dye their clothes. If only we lived in Mexico, she thought, where making art was normal.
Alice was sitting up very straight, staring fixedly at nothing. She blinked and looked at them as if she had never seen them before. “Why can’t we have our own studio?”
“Money,” said Donny, rubbing his thumb back and forth across his fingers. “It’s the green stuff, Alice, even you know what that is.”
“If we did it like anarchists—,” she began.
“You don’t live on a planet where there’s no such thing as money,” Donny said. He had read the book, too. Mainly so he could tell them that the society imagined therein was highly unlikely, he didn’t believe it except for the fucked-up parts, not even in the book he didn’t. “This is the planet earth. On the planet earth you’ve got to rent the space, buy the press. How are you going to do that without money?”
“Give classes,” Lynn said. She only said it to annoy Donny. But they were all looking at her, waiting, so she went on. “If we used the space to teach printmaking to high school kids, the local arts council might fund us. Or maybe the feds. For education. There’s never any printmaking in high schools, nobody’s set up for it.”
“What planet are you living on?” Donny said. “Your tax dollars don’t go for art education.”
“Then adult ed,” said Alice. “Or we could rent the space to adult ed classes.”
“Or to other printmakers,” Chuck said. Then he looked forlorn. “We won’t be able to use it if we have to rent it out all the time to afford it. We don’t have the space anyway. Or the money to get started.”
But the Muse had descended. She had heard their prayers, their fervent whining. Now that she was here, she was not about to be put off so easily.
“Maybe we could get a loan,” Lynn said. “And we could throw rent parties in the studio space. Like an artists’ ball.”
“We could sell our stuff for cheap, like a yard sale, to people who can’t afford to buy art from galleries,” Alice said. “The bartenders I used to work with loved all my art school figure studies—the naked ladies in charcoal on newsprint. I used to give them away and they’d go out and spend a fortune framing them.”
“You could teach printmaking to rich people’s kids,” Donny said. “People pay good money to make sure their kids have something to do at night. Keeps them from doing drugs. Keeps them off the streets.”
It was the first co-op brainstorming session, and it was like being present at a home birth. A home birth with four midwives, even Donny, and one drunken Muse. At evening’s end they had decided: They would convince some friends to join them, find a good cheap space, pursue all their money-making schemes, and buy a big, second-hand etching press. Chuck even knew of a press for sale, cheap. He had been lusting after it.
They would call their co-op Anarchists Ink.
They got so excited they went out and ran around in the street. They whooped and hollered. Then they vowed to each other that they would really do it.
The vow was Donny’s idea. He thought they should have something to keep them on the rails, because they were going to get depressed again, sure as hell, as soon as they hit a snag. They’d go into a funk and forget their plan. They were all too good at misery; it was their cop-out. After that, every time Lynn needed a prod, she thought of Donny, how he was an idiot and therefore wrong. It helped as much as the vow.
Not that depression was the big problem—terror was more like it. Trying to find a way to be her actual self in the real world made Lynn break out in a sweat. It made them all sweat.
They never did get a grant. Alice got taken on by Chuck’s housepainting crew and turned out to be really fast and clean at cutting in, a godsend on the renovation jobs. The two of them worked 50-hour weeks for a few months, socking away the cash. As soon as Matt got back to town he joined the fetal co-op, just as Alice had predicted. Lynn knew Matt to speak to; she got to know him a whole lot better when the two of them organized the yard sale, hit the schools, wrote grant proposals, and started hunting up a space to rent. Matt was as terrified as Lynn; they held each other’s sweaty hands. They rehearsed what they were going to say to the schools. Lynn was really good at role-playing insanely stingy, training-students-for-the-workplace administrators, and then at thinking up counterarguments. Matt decided what they should wear.
Then Lynn’s father surprised her with a check in the mail. The check made her feel more warmly towards him than she had in a long time. Even after her mother said it was probably out of guilt for all the child support payments he’d skipped, it was still nice to know he wanted Lynn to “follow her bliss”. (Lynn didn’t tell her mother that part; she knew exactly what her mother would say and she didn’t want to hear it.) Then Chuck’s friend Sorren joined them; a week later Sorren sold a large color print and added a couple hundred bucks to the pot, giving them exactly the amount they needed to rent their space and buy their second-hand press.
That first year was a roller coaster ride of joy and despair. Just when they got everything up and running, Sorren dropped out. They needed a fifth member, they needed that rent money; but they had realized that they also needed a cooperative anarchist. That couple hundred bucks had been the only good they got out of Sorren. In a brainstorming session he shot down everyone else’s wild little visions before they got off the ground and then bitched about how he didn’t have time to waste on this shit, he had joined the co-op because it was a place to make color prints. He thought his work was more important than anyone else’s because he had sold a print for a lot of money and they hadn’t. He worked slowly; he hogged the press. When he left it was easy to see the silver lining.
For a few months they rented press time to various people, but no replacement anarchist appeared. The renters were either apathetic, or prima donnas, or getting married and moving out of town. Then the adult ed class found space in a better neighborhood and they lost that source of income as well. Then the landlord started talking major rent hike.
They threw a rent party because it was the last idea on their list. Sheer desperation. Matt got some friends of his to be the live music for free beer and publicity; they and the printmakers spread the word among their friends, put up flyers in art supply stores, coffeehouses, and on telephone poles. They charged five bucks a head for music and beer. They didn’t make any money—they didn’t get as many people as they’d hoped for, and all of them drank like fish—but it was an outstanding party. They danced all night and listened to people telling them what a brilliant idea, to have a co-op. On the eve of what looked like the co-op’s imminent demise, this was good to hear. At least they’d done it for seven months. At least they were going out with a bang.
Carla was at the party. She had gone to the expensive art school, not theirs, but she knew Chuck. She called him the next day. She wanted to join them.
It was Carla’s idea to talk to the landlord. After extensive meetings to figure out strategy, she and Chuck went. They came back with the news that the rent hike would be only fifty dollars, and it wouldn’t go into effect until the end of the year.
With the addition of Carla, things settled down and they could finally get some work done. Money was always a problem, and finding a decent day gig, one that didn’t drain all your energy. Those issues weren’t going away. But they were easier to bear when you had your own place to work, and people around you, working with you, interested in what you were doing. The state of art in late-twentieth century America might suck, but in the co-op Lynn made sense to herself again.