Review/interview October 2009
by Bondo Wyszpolski
Published October 29, 2009
“She’s going to get away. That’s what I wanted to have happened. And how is she going to get away? I sort of bring her into the present and think, ‘How can I help her?’ – and I’m gonna give her a gun.” While it’s not the kind of accessory that we tend to associate with Anne Frank, Reavey explains why she bestowed on the young girl this peculiar gift: “I like the idea that she was not helpless.”
Peggy Reavey and I are sitting at an outdoor table between two coffee shops on Hermosa Avenue. It’s noisy, but it’s just as noisy inside. We’ve met up on this warm early autumn afternoon to talk about Reavey’s solo exhibition, “Now and Anne,” which is on view through Nov. 27 at Gallery 478 in San Pedro. That’s where Reavey’s living these days, although many years ago she and her husband, Tom, were married in Bud and Carlene Delight’s walk-street home in Manhattan Beach and then rented an apartment near the Strand for just $250 a month. Later they moved to 15th Place in Hermosa, and then to Redondo Beach. Reavey’s daughter, Jennifer Lynch, attended all the local schools and became fluent in Swahili. Naturally, you’ll be quizzed about this later.
“The other thing,” Reavey adds, “is that Anne Frank has a very beautiful face. She has a stunning kind of classical face. She looks like the Mona Lisa in many ways, and she has that same smile.”
I suggest that Anne Frank is a real person, a historical figure, and at the same time a symbol (Joan of Arc comes to mind).
“She’s an iconic figure,” Reavey replies. “She’s a symbol, but she is also herself” – and Reavey is adamant that the person not be overshadowed by the symbolism. “To me, once you’re using symbols you’re very far from the feelings.
“My understanding is that this is not a popular or contemporary way of looking at art right now, but I’m very much motivated by and inspired by emotions. I don’t want the images in my paintings to be symbols; I want them to be the things that they are.”
Artists are also like mountain goats; they make some remarkable leaps and manage not to lose their footing.
“It’s very much an intuitive thing when all of a sudden you find yourself giving a gun to Anne Frank. You don’t think about it; you’re just handing her a gun and letting her fight her way out. She needed it.”
“I love contrast”
One of the paintings in Peggy Reavey’s current show is titled “She Was Not Talented But She Hid Anne Frank Behind Her Piano,” which gives the impression that maybe Reavey is being irreverent rather than sincere. But one needs to realize that, in every sense of the word, Reavey works with a full palette.
“Humor and darkness and emotion and love and all those things are all going on while I’m painting,” she says, “and I want them all to be there. Maybe some of the humor, for me, comes in when I think of the title, and I even ask myself, ‘Maybe I ought to watch that; maybe I am distancing myself in a way that I may not want to?’ I don’t really like irony that much. Everybody’s making fun of things all the time, and nobody’s really feeling anything or really saying anything straightforward.
“There is some humor in watching Anne Frank shoot Hitler, and there is some humor in watching my husband go back to the 1800s to help Meriwether Lewis (“Let’s Go Somewhere and Talk”), but it’s not just humor; it’s something I really feel deeply. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t do it.
(Perhaps the reader – or viewer – is thinking: It sounds a little quirky, but with an individual stamp. That could be. Later we talked about the reclusive writer and artist, Henry Darger, who Reavey finds “fascinating… but really disturbing, too.” However, “I love outsider art, and I do feel that I’m kind of an outsider in a way – part outsider, part contemporary artist.”)
“Artists should do whatever they want,” Reavey continues, “and there’s certainly a place for irony, to laugh at things. If you’re just mocking everything, it’s like, ugh – I’m sick of it. It’s so defensive, it’s so guarded. Let’s have some guts and come out and say what we care about and what we feel. And if people think we’re full of shit, let ‘em. Let’s be real.
“I was crying when I was making that Anne Frank painting. I like to begin with emotions. I want to feel something. And it’s usually some sense of loss or sadness, but then you feel it.”
I comment on the layers (and interplay) of ideas that converge in her pictures.
“A lot of layering,” Reavey says. “I love that, and I love contrast. To me, if you don’t have all kinds of intense contrast in a painting it’s just not exciting. It has contrast in not only the colors and textures, [but in] the way the paint is applied and the way you’re painting. I like using different kinds of material and contrast. You’ve got two arrows meeting; that creates the intensity and excitement.”
Reavey’s contemplation of the angelic Anne Frank extends beyond the profound and whimsical depictions of her in paint.
“When I think about Anne Frank of course I want to save her, and [out of that] comes the terrible fear that, would I have had the courage to save her then? Would I have had the courage to risk absolutely my life to hide her? If you didn’t have the courage to do that, then what’s the point of being alive? It’s troubling, it’s heartbreaking: Would you have the guts to do that?”
Courage. In the line of fire, we can only hope that we rise to the occasion.
The Lewis and Reavey Expedition
Another historical figure with whom Peggy Reavey has a special bond is Meriwether Lewis, the leader of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1806), which set out from what is now Illinois to map our vast and, at that time, unknown continent.
“It’s fascinating to read the journals,” Reavey says, “what they went through.” Each day was a challenge and the dangers ranged from being accidentally separated from one another to enduring mosquitoes and fending off Indians and wildlife. Reavey points out that while the astronauts could at least send out a distress call – “Houston, we have a problem” – Lewis and Clark were literally off the map. To quote Martha and the Vandellas, they had “nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.”
As Reavey conveys it, Meriwether Lewis kept his composure and didn’t complain. “If you’ve ever been along a river when it’s summertime and the mosquitoes are out,” she says, “it’s just hell.” But Lewis simply noted: “Mosquitoes very troublesome” – perhaps a real understatement when it was impossible to stop at a convenience store and purchase a can of insect repellent.
There’s no cussing, no swearing in the journals, Reavey adds. “Of course, he figures he’s writing this for Thomas Jefferson, so maybe he wrote for posterity.” I suggest that there were two sets of journals, and in the one that didn’t survive he’s swearing constantly.
“So he’s out there doing all this incredibly brave stuff,” Reavey continues. “They misread the grizzly bear at first; they really didn’t think it was that dangerous. And of course they almost ended up getting completely killed by them several times. And when they did shoot them it took eight shots to kill these things [that are] coming right at them. There’re some segments of the journal – you can’t believe Walt Disney didn’t write it! And they almost lose the boat…” One disaster is apparently averted when their Shoshone Indian translator Sacajawea – the woman on the U.S. dollar – jumped into the water and prevented the craft from floating away.
In one sense, an explorer like Lewis resembles an artist who has ventured into unfamiliar terrain, and it’s easy to see why Reavey might be drawn to this part of the story.
“He was exploring,” she says, “and ideally, when you’re making something, you’re going into the unknown; you’re trying to do something and you don’t know how you’re going to do it. And you do get lost; you don’t know what you’re doing.”
Thrown back on his or her inner resources, it’s in similar situations that a person is most alive, because they often have to come up with creative solutions – or end up in the grizzly bear’s food bowl. But Reavey also knows that there’s no comparison between the relative levels of danger:
“It’s easy for me; I’m in a studio, safe, I have food to eat, and I’m not cold and wet. And I’m a coward,” she says with a laugh; “I don’t even go camping.
“At the very end of the story you find out that Meriwether Lewis killed himself because he could not cope with the life at home. He came back from this heroic journey, but he couldn’t deal with it, could not deal with maybe the lack of intensity. A lot of Ph.D. theses get written about why this happened.”
Reavey has her ideas.
“He was severely depressed, and probably bipolar; that’s the way I look at it. Some people say no, there was a conspiracy to kill him, but my understanding is that he had attempted suicide prior to that, too. He was a serious alcoholic and was using opium. Oh, and he couldn’t get a date! I think what happened is that when he would fall for a woman, he would be so intense he would scare them away.”
Meanwhile, “everybody else that went on the journey is doing okay. Clark had a woman he was engaged to, and when he came back he married her and became very successful.”
Reavey figures that Lewis operated on the excitement and that once his heroic days were over he simply wasn’t able to adjust: “He’s not out there drawing maps of places nobody’s seen,” she says. “He couldn’t handle it when he got back and he had to pay debts and do all these normal things. I just think that he had a frankly artistic personality. Very adventurous and totally fearless, as far as I could tell.
“Anyway, he killed himself. I felt that was so tragic for this guy who had done something really braver than anybody’s ever done – in my opinion – in this country, and so I just wanted to save him; I wanted to comfort him.”
Reavey considered setting him up with the already-married Sacajawea. “Then I realized that other people have written these sort of cheesy books about how they have a relationship.”
I throw out a suggestion: Maybe Sacajawea has a sister?
Eventually, Reavey came up with her own unique suggestion:
“I thought, well, I’m going to send my husband back to make friends with him. Because Tom would do that. He would feel compassion toward him and try to help him; and of course it doesn’t really work in the painting but he is back there trying to be helpful, trying to be kind. Because everyone had abandoned him.” Even Jefferson, she says; even Clark. “So I sent Tom in there to be kind to him.”
And what does Tom say about all this?
“Oh, Tom thinks it’s fine,” Reavey replies. “Tom always finds himself in my paintings. In one case he’s being very kind to Meriwether Lewis, and in the next he’s got scissors stuck in his back.” She pauses. “I was a little troubled about it because Nathan Birnbaum, who was the head of the Angels Gate program, sort of teased me about it: ‘Oh, you’re just gonna go rescue everybody,’ like that was sort of infantile. But I thought, well, in a way I guess there was something to that, but I just feel like you have to shake up these things and move things around so that you can really see them and experience them. Otherwise they’re just sort of frozen.”
“When Molly Barnes says to me, ‘Do you think your paintings are like your ex-husband’s movies?’ I sort of understand. There is a place where they intersect, but my work is very different. He would never be doing things about Anne Frank or Meriwether Lewis; there’s just no way.”
As it turns out, Peggy Reavey was once married to David Lynch (“Blue Velvet,” “Twin Peaks,” Mulholland Drive,” etc.), who is among the foremost film directors of our day.
“I was his first wife. He’s on his fourth,” she says. That was back in Philadelphia.
They’d attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and Lynch was only just starting to move from painting into film. “We were married for about five years,” Reavey explains; “we lived together for six. But we bought a house back there, in a pretty rough area, for 35 hundred dollars. It was a big house; it had been apartments and it had three stories and he made the movies on the third floor.” Movies? Well, very short experimental films that at first were only a couple of minutes in length. “You can get those short films on DVD, and you can see me throwing up blood and things like that.” Reavey laughs at the memory.
Lynch began receiving grant money from the American Film Institute and he made longer and longer films. I mention that the first one of his pictures I recall seeing was “Eraserhead,” and Reavey comments that she typed up the script for it. The grants and the prospects of even more support and encouragement lured the couple out west.
However, Reavey says, “At a certain point I didn’t really want to go on in the film thing. I didn’t have a place in it. Also, I had been living inside his imagination and working at the service of his imagination for quite a while. I related to a lot of it, but I couldn’t be interested in being one of many people following instructions; that just was not my thing.” After all, she says with a laugh, “He’s a director! – and he’s got a huge, powerful imagination. When you’re around him you operate within his vision of things, and it’s easy to lose touch with your own. I don’t say that as a criticism; that’s the way directors are, and he’s a great director.”
Those were formative years that David Lynch and Peggy Reavey spent together, and it doesn’t seem like the marriage ended acrimoniously with lawyers lined up in the hallway. “There was nothing to fight over when we split up,” Reavey says; “that just wasn’t an issue.
“He’s a great ex-husband. We’re friends. I’ve been married to Tom for 32 years, so that’s a long time ago. It’s sort of like talking about somebody you dated in eighth grade. That’s what it feels like now.”
There is, of course, an enduring collaboration between the filmmaker and the painter that shouldn’t be overlooked, and that’s their daughter, Jennifer Lynch, a filmmaker in her own right whose movie, “Surveillance,” can be bought or rented. At the moment she’s editing “Hisss!” which was shot in India.
And did her Swahili ever come in handy? Glad you asked.
Reavey recounts a little story about what happened years ago when, after moving with Tom and Jennifer to Redondo Beach, Jennifer was enrolled in Washington School:
“I guess they ask the parents of new kids to fill out a bunch of forms. I had an attitude about the forms (bunch of bureaucrats, nobody reads them, etc.), so when they asked if any languages besides English were spoken in the home I wrote ‘Swahili’ – and forgot about it.
“During the first or second week of school, Jen came home very indignant. They had taken her out of art class to take a test in Swahili. She kept telling them, ‘I don’t speak Swahili! I really don’t!!’ – but they were going to get extra funds if they had a kid who spoke Swahili so she took the whole test, which was lengthy, and which she flunked.
“I apologized, and we – of course – laugh about this… but I think she still gets just a tad annoyed even today.”
What a great anecdote, and what an impish sense of humor! It nicely complements my impression of a very talented, witty, and intelligent artist.
Now & Anne, paintings by Peggy Reavey, is on view through Nov. 27 at Gallery 478 (478 W. Seventh St.) in San Pedro. A reception, with the artist being present, takes place between 6 and 9 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 5. Hours, Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., or by appointment. (310) 732-2150. ER