A young woman remembers the glory days when she was semi-famous in Milwaukee, before the haters took her down.
Photo by Cynthia Talmadge
From the novel Sorry to Disrupt the Peace
About five years ago, I was semi-famous in Milwaukee for a brief moment, I even received attention in the local newspaper. I referred to myself as an emerging artist, I made crumbling assemblages out of found objects, and innovative performance artists and sculptors and writers surrounded me. There was an art critic for the local weekly who could not stop writing about all of us. It was a beautiful time, people had art galleries in their attics, and every weekend there was a show to go to, or some kind of absurdist performance theater, where women took off their clothes, even ugly women with misshapen bodies, and men swung around their erections like police batons! Afterward, all of these fashionable and intellectually advanced people, even the ugly ones, went to a bar with a two-lane bowling alley in the basement. No one seemed to care that anyone was ugly, it was beside the point. My fame was very limited to a specific group of people who lived downtown, no one in the suburbs cared about us. Not even my adoptive family knew about it, partially because they never read the weekly newspaper and partially because it was for such a brief time. People were drawn to me, people searched me out, they asked where I was if I wasn't there, some people even said I was mildly beautiful. I was always very plain and somewhat shabby, no matter, there must have been an aura of artistic intensity around me, even though I didn't go to college for art, I studied English. You can do anything with an English degree, a guidance counselor told me. I fashioned myself as an artistic person, artistic in my way of living, artistic in my choice of clothing. My favorite shirt at the time was found in a garbage can at the intersection of Farwell and Pleasant, a turquoise sweatshirt with an appliqué of a dog and rabbit in a hot-air-balloon basket. The hot air balloon itself was pink suede.
Then something went wrong, someone turned against me, perhaps out of jealousy, I'll never know, and he or she circulated a rumor that I was an artistic hack and called into question the originality of my work. An article in the weekly newspaper appeared with a photo of me and my work captioned: "Appropriation or theft: the failed work of Milwaukee's Helen Moran." It was an ugly scene; everywhere I went people whispered I was a plagiarist and a fraud. A side-by-side comparison of my work to the works of Joseph Cornell and Henry Darger showed certain similar technical flourishes and extensions, and although it was easy to see an unabashed and perhaps uncritical admiration, my found texts and assemblages were not exact copies, my intention had been to participate in the conversation, not to reproduce what had already been produced. The rumors and words wormed into people's brains and poisoned my reputation, right as the artistic group began to gain national attention in Chicago and Minneapolis. I no longer received invitations to basement bowling alleys or damp attics or absurdist theater performances or group shows or biennales, over the course of a summer I was expelled from the artistic group, I was driven out like a leper. I wanted to shake people's shoulders and scream, Everything in the world is a palimpsest, motherfuckers! But no one would meet with me; no one returned my calls.
I retreated to my disgusting basement apartment in a decrepit part of town. I stopped getting dressed or going anywhere, which was a convenient time to do that, since my adult acne had flared up. For a year or so, I sat in a basement room with dim light and hatched a plan to escape. So the rumor over time became true, like an oracle, although at one time I had talked to everyone and listened to everything, and no one, nothing, had escaped my friendliness or astute observation, in the end I had transformed my mildly beautiful self into a functioning hermit with a sour taste in her mouth. I no longer carried myself with an artistic aura. I started to hunch over if I went anywhere, which was seldom.
How is someone supposed to live like that?
I decided to start over. I moved to New York City. It took me years to find a stable living situation, yet I was saner than I had ever been in my entire adult life. Helen Moran, a sane and functioning adult in New York City: How is it possible to keep your sanity and exist on crumbs in the drawer?
You'll see, I said to no one. I'll show you. Someone will pay me one day to divulge how I lived so frugally, elegantly, and sanely in that glittering, amorally rich, and enormous hellhole.