A companion to yesterday’s piece by Edgar Oliver.
For a long time, whenever I visited Edgar Oliver on East Tenth Street, I would look at his mother’s wonderful paintings. They hung all over his crumbly walls and because it was always night when I visited, they were amber lit from the lamps sitting here and there in Edgar’s living room. Whenever I looked at the paintings, I would feel a pang at the thought that I’d never get to meet her. When I decided that I wanted to make Louise Oliver the subject of the third issue of my magazine, Housedeer, Edgar brought out portfolios filled with her drawings for me to see and we looked at them together, sitting on the floor. It seemed as though his whole childhood, and his sister Helen’s too, had been recorded in pencil by Louise. She must have drawn her children constantly, and she drew cemeteries and swamps and old houses and churches and ordinary people going about their business on the streets of Savannah, where they lived. Many of her drawings included detailed notes to herself on the colors of everything in them, so she could use them later to make paintings. Edgar told me that he and Helen were raised to be artists.
I wanted to ask Regina Bartkoff to do a drawing for Louise’s Housedeer cover because while she and Louise have very different styles, there is something about each of them that reminds me of the other. To my eye, the beauty of Regina’s drawings is in their mystery and their innocence. And I think if I had to choose one word to describe what Regina and Louise have in common in what they’ve made, the word innocent might be a good one. Honest would be another. When I told Regina what I wanted, it had been more than a year since she had done any drawing at all, the reason being that she and her husband, Charles Schick, had just finished doing a play by Tennessee Williams called In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel. The play was put on in the gallery they have use of on East Third Street, and they had not yet come out of that other world. Regina and Charles love theater and they love painting (Regina loves drawing too), but when they do a play, it is all-consuming. Regina was still waking up as Miriam, her character in the play, and feeling the kind of lost that theater people often feel when the play is over.
Regina and Charles both knew Edgar Oliver, but they had never seen Louise’s paintings, so one night we all went together to visit him. Regina and Charles stood before each painting, in awe, just looking. Edgar read a story plot aloud to us that Louise had written in a little notebook once, about a farmer named Elijah Gribbins who secretly longed to visit the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. When he eventually managed to get there, Louise described it: “Well, here was Elijah, face to face with Rembrandts, Vermeers, Constables, Turners, Picassos, Matisses. All the greats had been getting the once-over. His joy was almost unbearable.”
Soon after the evening at Edgar’s, drawings from Regina started coming to me via e-mail, one after another. I had asked her for deer—each Housedeer cover comes from a different artist; anything they want to make, as long as a deer is somewhere in there—and I liked every drawing she made. But the rendering of Edgar, Louise, and Helen as three beautiful deer was unmistakably the perfect one.
Regina isn’t someone who usually makes work to order, and she told me that at first the deer drawings felt very stiff to her. She said she had realized, too, that she and Louise had the exact opposite way of working. “Louise would go out and look at things and she was a very skillful draftsman,” Regina said. “My drawings come out of my subconscious and I’m not a trained draftsman. But when you were liking the drawings I sent, that gave me a little bit of confidence and all of a sudden the drawing started to become more subconscious. I wasn’t just drawing Edgar Oliver’s family. The drawings started to feel like mine again.”
This essay is adapted from a longer piece in The Folio Club‘s drawing issue.
Romy Ashby is the author of The Cutmouth Lady, the creator of Housedeer magazine, and a songwriter on the Blondie albums No Exit and The Curse of Blondie. In early 2014 she directed Charles Schick and Regina Bartkoff in a critically acclaimed independent production of Tennessee Williams’s The Two-Character Play.