Diane Williams is renowned for her short, distilled works of fiction. In addition to her work as a writer, she is also the founder and editor of NOON, a literary annual whose next edition will mark its twentieth anniversary.
Diane’s curatorial vision extends beyond the pages of NOON, where we are the senior editors, to the walls of her apartment. Some of the treasures we have glimpsed during our staff meetings, which take place in her home: a portrait of a pangolin cross-stitched by her young niece; a watercolor by Henry Miller; original early ink drawings donated to NOON by Raymond Pettibon; as well as the many, often anonymous, artworks and other curios collected from roadside markets and the Outsider Art Fair.
On a late August afternoon, over cakes and tea, we spoke with Diane about how her attention to art and to objects has informed her editorial sensibility and inspired her fictions. For the first time, we asked for a guided tour. Our tour lasted well over three hours, and a small fraction of it is reproduced here.
In our conversation, as in her work, we began to notice a link between Diane’s penchant for living among sculptures made of broken dishes, stitching around stains in her clothing, and her editorial process at NOON where, she reminds us, all powerful sentences can be saved and made use of. When asked why a flaw or fracture can turn the familiar—in life, and language—into something more arresting, or frightening, or delightful, Diane responded: “We’re all walking around damaged, dirty, broken, and ashamed, and the challenge is—How do you live your life in this condition? It’s an important project to share this condition with others and thereby comfort them. Turning the wound into artwork—something that has magic in it, and extra life, is a very significant accomplishment.”
I respond to almost everything that’s made by someone who has never been trained, but who is full of passion for what he or she is doing. It’s quite fortuitous if we can maintain what we are born with—a relation to objects that hasn’t been muddled up yet by any ideas about how we ought to see them. Walters was born in Jamaica and was a commercial fisherman and a boat builder for two decades. We bought this painting at The Outsider Art Fair in New York City from The Rising Folk Art Gallery in Tennessee. These are sinister, twinned white people with twin, energetic brown dogs. The yellow background seems to torpedo the bellies of these girls—women?—and the surround is murky and romantic. I will never come upon such a sight anywhere else and isn’t this what we’re on the look out for, too, at NOON?—surprise.
Oh, but this is one I hated. I was an ignorant eighteen-year-old. My parents had travelled to Yugoslavia and Romania and they brought home several artworks. My father gave this one a prominent place in the dining room. I thought it was the ugliest painting I’d ever seen. I saw raw eggs breaking, unappetizing and pointless. But now it has become one of my most prized paintings and provides deep refreshment. I can’t account for this shift in my feelings and am only grateful. I am ashamed to say I never had much curiousity about the artist or his country of origin.
This picture book, Naïve Painters of Yugoslavia, was on a display table years ago at The Highland Park Public Library in Illinois where I often went to work. I bought myself a copy and have kept it near me ever since. I’ve selected artworks from it for the covers of three of my books. Recently I discovered on the inside back cover a map and an image that identifies Macedonia, and I recognized the similarities with the Naumovski painting.
I feel deep kinship with this artwork and I wonder why. My father’s family emigrated from Romania, so might there be an inherited affinity? The Brewster Gallery on 57th (closed now) was having a sale and framed paintings on the floor were wildly discounted. One was torn-through, but this was the one I loved and I had it restored. At home the faint signature was more visible and the name Bahunek suddenly significant. In my precious book Naïve Painters of Yugoslavia, I saw that my favorite painting in the book was by Branko Bahunek, except that this image bore no relation to the other. They certainly aren’t related in terms of content or palette and the forms of the people are very different. The painting in the book features a bright, quaint street scene with lanterns and a man who is larger than a house.
Here is an exquisite corpse painted by Leonora Carrington and her son Pablo. Leonora painted the head, neck, and shoulders and she signed her name backwards around the animal’s neck to create a second necklace. She also painted the little bird sitting on a rock. I subsequently met Leonora and I had my friend Melissa Townsend along, an artist and a psychic. (Melissa’s artworks are everywhere here.) Leonora, who was fascinated by the paranormal, was more interested in Melissa than in me and I was disappointed to be left out entirely.
I also purchased two line drawings by Pablo. He inscribed this one: “For Diane: The fear of a life of cherries, the fear again and again and when we get used to it, the fear again. Pablo.” The other drawing is of a hunched, cat-headed figure in a cloak, leaning on a cane. The inscription reads: “Walk along the sands oh cat, walk along, don’t run, walk the horizons fast. For Diane.”
I met Melissa Townsend when I first moved to New York and we became close friends. Almost every time I saw her she would grab my hand, close her eyes, tip her head back and tell me things. At the time, I was having romantic agonies and I would get her advice on those matters. This is the first sculpture of hers I ever bought. It hangs above the entry to our dining room. Melissa had it propped in a flower vase in in her studio and I was so frightened of it.
My father had clairvoyant powers. He gave me this palmistry book when I was a girl. Count Louis Hamon (“Cheiro”) was a popular occult figure in the early 1900s and he read the palms of such notables as Sarah Bernhard, Mark Twain, the Prince of Wales, and Oscar Wilde. This is another one of my books I cherish. I included the The Cheiro Café in my story “Hello! Hi! Hello!”
We were in Italy at a village market. I purchased a white doctor’s coat in order to embroider it, and then I went into a little shop and found thread. I have no idea why I thought of this. I’ve never worn the coat. There are so many doctors in the neighborhood!
I sew most evenings now while I watch the day’s news. I’m curious about what happens when I create accidents, so I don’t always pay close attention to what I’m doing, to the choice of color. I am very impressed by the tactic of one of the Yugoslavian artists—who explained in an interview—that after a hard day’s farm labor he would haphazardly select a tube of paint. He chose whichever color his hand happened to fall upon. I think this is a very exciting idea. When I first began, I wanted to do what that naïve painter described—pick any color. I wanted this to be a respite from my other work, which seemed so fraught and challenging. The idea was that no mistake was possible. And that is my prayer when I make fiction as well—that I might exploit my mistakes or the roughness I put on the page. How can I make something out of my mistake, take an opportunity that otherwise wouldn’t have existed? Put two colors together so that I think, Oh god that’s really ugly, but maybe through repeating it, it becomes interesting. Or maybe it’s not ugly, or maybe it should be ugly. It was at first an experiment to see if I could feel joy in making something, whereas my writing has become much, much more painful. What I’m doing here, it can be sloppy.
Actually, I’ve become more conscious of what I am doing with my needlework and am planning it more, which is making it less interesting to do. This stool covering was pre-planned in that each square or rectangle represents my desire to own a Howard Hodgkin bread board painting. My friends Melinda Davis and Ealan Wingate once gave us a special tour of The Gagosian Gallery where Ealan is the director. In Ealan’s office I discovered a small Hodgkin painting that I could not bear to be without that was valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars. So Ealan and Melinda gifted me several of Hodgkin’s thrilling catalogs instead.
When I met Wolfgang, he wasn’t doing sculpture. He is an architect. He started making sculptures perhaps ten years ago. I broke a dish I was very attached to, some sort of ordinary serving dish. Wolfgang glued it together in a very odd way, all wrong! We thought it was great and we displayed it. Then he decided to forgo glue and to use a drill and wire from the hangers that come to us from the dry-cleaner.
Some of these sculptures are made from treasures of ours that broke and we were broken-hearted. Some of these are made from fine, and sometimes rare antique porcelain or homely crockery that we find damaged at flea markets. The bowl he used for “Charger” was gifted to us in its broken state by its maker Gerardo Ribigini in Deruta, Italy. And it makes me very happy, living with a plate, a tureen, a bowl, or a cup that should be familiar, but isn’t anymore. It has not been properly repaired, but now it transcends itself. And Wolfgang does have fun smashing and crashing a plate for a higher purpose!
My story “The Dirty Necklace,” that’s a true story. I was at a Writer’s Conference long ago in Santa Fe where there was a shop that sold old beads. Ropes and ropes of beaded necklaces were hanging from the shop’s ceiling. I saw high up an amber-colored one with irregular beads. The store was very crowded, but I asked a clerk who was with a customer the price, because if it was a crazy price I wasn’t going to wait around. So I said, “May I interrupt for a moment to just ask you the price of that necklace?” And the clerk screamed at me, “You are the rudest person we have EVER had in this shop!” Such a shaming moment. A gallant publisher—and someone I didn’t know so well—heard my story and was outraged on my behalf. He visited the shop on his own and announced, “You were very rude to my wife. I intend to buy her that necklace she inquired about!” And what a very pretty, and perhaps not such a well-deserved ending to that tale. Oh, of course, I paid for the necklace. How gritty it was. I wanted to wear it. It was very heavy. I put it under the faucet and rubbed it with a towel, but this was profound dirt from the ages. It must have been an ancient thing. The dirt came off and off. I washed it once, twice, three—how many times do you have to wash it for it to work? I’d roll it in a towel and the towel turned black. These were big beads, hand carved. Golden, dusty golden. The magic necklace was my remedy. I’ve since given it away.
Often my jewels from the flea market are moldy and dirty and I wash and I wash away their power. These vintage pearls I bought for eight dollars. Had to have them. But they were greasy and had a musty odor. I used hotel shampoo (we were travelling) to wash them. How I wrung at them. The string broke. I felt I owed it to the necklace to repair it—and the pearls still send out the hotel’s Tea Tree Special fragrance.
These mysterious antique figures I found years ago in Portland, Oregon, when on a book tour for my first book of stories. They may be Indonesian. I was told it’s very rare to find a pair that is not a man and a woman. I think of these two as mother and daughter. I was strongly advised to keep them together, to never separate them—and I never, never do. I wish I had asked why.
This is the painting I had in mind in my story “Icky.” It’s a complex painting—the flora, the fauna. Are those conveyances?—houses?—all invented. One afternoon I had a very famous artist over for tea and the only artwork she was interested in was my son Jake’s. This is, I think, one of the most important artworks we own. This, and one of my other son Alec’s—a red-legged, winged figure who’s given his hero’s test his all. He is spent, thoroughly upside-down, yet barely contained by the world he lives in.
There’s another one by Alec I have on the wall that has a green tree trunk, a round, brown crown of leaves, a person as large as the house. That’s what a child does, I don’t know that my sons are that unusual.
This painting inspired my story “The Specialist.” It used to hang in the kitchen over the breakfast table and my son Alec was here just after it arrived. I asked him, “How do you like this?” And he said, “Well, don’t you think that the sky is a little too blue for a blue sky?” I was taken aback that he had questioned the color blue. And then he said, “And don’t you think the water is a little too choppy for that man to be throwing a ball into it for his dog to chase?” I was taken aback again—Well, I hadn’t been aware of any menace and I like to see a cheery painting at breakfast time. Alec’s lack of enthusiasm, delivered with a trace of a smile upset me, even as I understood we were in the midst of a game. I removed the painting to the bedroom.
Now this one I would say is kind of saccharine, a happy face. You might say that it would make a nice greeting card, but I’m partial to it. We found it in Stockholm at a curio shop. It cheers me up every morning. On the back, in flowery handwritten script (in Swedish), we found this dedication: “Given by Bromma Congregation to Fridolf Johansson on his retirement as church guardian and local representative of the church at Ängby and the Ängby congregration in the year of 1971.”
I’ve pointed out to you great artworks I’ve brought home that frighten me. This portrait of a lady—she has tears on her cheeks. I was heartsick at the time I found this and I thought, This is just going to make me sadder. Now she is so radiant that I never notice her tears.
Artists I’ve adored in the past, like Monet—I think I don’t admire his work anymore. Other times I find in such paintings the pleasures of a flower garden and what am I going to call those pleasures? Only sentimental? Am I going to heap abuse on a rose garden?
Overexposure is a hazard for certain artworks. I use them up. In others, there’s some element that forbids one to tire. There’s some mystery left in them—thank god!
The Collected Stories of Diane Williams will be out from SoHo Press this October
Zach Davidson, Madelaine Lucas and Liza St. James are the Senior Editors of NOON