“Seeing comes before words.”
–John Berger, Ways of Seeing
On the night I met C, the man I’d one day marry, he took me up to his studio on the top floor of our college’s art building. It was the beginning of our junior year. An hour earlier, at a house party, he’d kissed me. We’d noticed each other two weeks before, at a party at that same house. We hadn’t spoken then, exchanging only furtive glances.
But at our second encounter, C met my eye and wove his way toward me. He asked my name; I gave it; then we were kissing. I’d had my fair share of casual hookups at that point in my life, but I knew immediately that this wasn’t one of those. “I’ve never done anything like that before in my life,” C told me later.
That night in his studio, he showed me an oil painting in progress. It depicted an illuminated highway billboard at night. The image on the billboard was of C stretched out on the ground, naked save for some peacock feathers covering his groin. Eyes haloed in spiky makeup, he stared directly at the viewer, his expression brazen and penetrating. Below, in pink cursive, were the words “Please, Touch Me.”
“It’s sort of a joke,” C said. He’d taken the assignment—Advertise yourself—literally.
But I loved the painting. Even though it was supposed to be campy and ironic I thought it had a genuineness—a poignancy, even—that I couldn’t quite pinpoint. Whether C intended it or not, the painting made me want to touch him.
Later, he told me that he’d based it on his senior portrait from high school, which an ex-girlfriend had taken.
I laughed. “Your senior portrait was you naked with peacock feathers?”
The ex-girlfriend had organized a nude photoshoot in the woods, he explained, half-sheepish, half-proud. I felt a prickle of jealousy—doubtless the shoot had involved more than just photography—but now I understood what I found so affecting about the painting. It was C’s gaze. I’d been the object of that gaze; it had turned me molten in a crowded room. But here, I supposed, I was experiencing the ex-girlfriend’s gaze, too. The boy in the painting wasn’t looking at me; he was looking at her.
“Please, Touch Me” was a one-off. C didn’t do much self-portraiture. He was more interested in natural and man-made patterns: the fractals in tree branches, the spider webs of city streets, the meandering sprawl of a river delta.
The first painting he did of me didn’t immediately announce itself as a portrait. It looked, at first, like a field of glowing yellows, oranges, and reds. On second glance, facial features emerged: an eye, a nose, a mouth. My face, sliced up and overlapping itself. When I saw the painting, I felt myself flood with pleasure. I also remember thinking, ugh, my nose looks huge.Now, I feel a tenderness toward the girl in those drawings, knowing the joys and pains that await her.
C often sketched me while I read or wrote or peered into my computer screen. I loved it when he drew me, loved the intensity of his gaze on my body.
We still have those drawings. When I look at them now, a decade later, it’s like re-encountering myself, or a version of myself. It’s not the same as looking at photos from that time. The camera lens performs an indifferent vacuuming of pixel data, whereas both poetically and technically, a drawing can show what the artist sees more clearly than a photo. Their lines follow the contours of their attentive vision, giving form to the object of interest, ignoring the background noise.
Now, I feel a tenderness toward the girl in those drawings, knowing the joys and pains that await her. And yet I can’t help but judge myself. Was that really how he saw me? Was that really what I looked like?
“If you look at me, who do I look at?”
―Portrait of a Lady on Fire
As a girl, I was constantly looking at women. I was enthralled by my high school biology teacher, a willowy young woman with long hair and a solemn face. I’d heard that she’d been dumped by her boyfriend, but this made her more compelling: her sorrow was a story I could tell myself about her. I was drawn to girls my own age, too. There was D, who with her fine features and small breasts looked like a porcelain doll, and V, who was my friend and sometimes stripped down to her underwear in my presence, thrilling and terrifying me.
It frightened me to feel so drawn to women’s bodies; I worried it meant I was a lesbian, and whenever I had a crush on a boy I threw myself into it with relief. What it really meant was that I was bisexual, but I didn’t yet have the language for that. The daughter of American ex-pats, I lived in Costa Rica, a conservative Catholic country. I knew few openly gay people and no one who identified as bi. It would be years before I’d acknowledge my sexuality to myself.
Looking at women gave me ideas about how I wanted to be perceived. I didn’t like how I looked when I smiled, so I kept my face serious in photos. I was bookish and quiet; I had a group of close friends but wasn’t popular, but I understood that, in the right light, these qualities could seem like mysteriousness, which was its own kind of allure. Anyone watching could project whatever they wanted onto me. Whether I returned their gaze, confirming or disproving their assumptions, was my choice. It felt like a kind of power.
My inner college feminist resisted the idea of being C’s muse. I had literary ambitions: I wanted to be a novelist, an artist in my own right. I knew that artists twisted muses into projections of their own desires, discarding them once they’d outlived their usefulness.
But I didn’t anticipate how much C would influence my own work. Though he wasn’t a writer, he quickly became my first, most trusted reader, helping me to see my work in a new light. I’d never met anyone so interested in my writing, so eager to hear me talk about it.What I’d found in C wasn’t just a lover and a friend. It was also a creative partner.
I trusted C’s criticism and he trusted mine. Years later, after we’d married, C wrote me a letter reflecting on this: “I saw in you someone my own creative spirit could serve. From this shared place, you would be someone whose criticism I needed, who could tell me what I might see if I weren’t numbed to the sight. And I could tell you what sentence you’d read if you hadn’t already tried two-dozen variants of it. And we would both appreciate the help, and the help would feel good giving.”
It felt—it still feels—like hubris to say it, but what I’d found in C wasn’t just a lover and a friend. It was also a creative partner.
Winter break of our senior year, C visited me in the Bay Area, where my parents had moved after I left for college. I was lonely, in the depths of what would later be diagnosed as a major depressive episode. One afternoon in Golden Gate Park, C snapped a picture of me sitting in a tree. Months later, he turned it into a painting, titling it “Girl in Golden Gate” and submitting to a group show.
The night of the opening, an oncologist whose wife also had a piece in the show bought it to hang in his waiting room. His wife kept repeating that no one could feel sad in the presence of such a beautiful image.
But the painting’s new audience would be cancer patients, and I wondered if seeing that painting of me on the wall could possibly improve their situation even the tiniest bit. I doubted it. And even if the painting did cheer someone up, the joke was on them: that girl in Golden Gate was clinically depressed.
In the intervening years, C has made a modest income selling paintings and prints. His biggest client is a hospital chain in Louisiana. Every time he gets a new commission, I think of “Girl in Golden Gate” and wonder if it’s still hanging in that waiting room. I’m much more aware now than I was at 22 of the cultural assumptions attached to images of young, white, thin women like me. Part of their appeal is their familiarity—the walls of Western art are full of nameless white girls—and their passivity, their acquiescence at being looked at. A kind of alchemy occurs between the image, the gaze, and the viewer’s projection. A sad girl in a tree becomes something else.
Which is to say: the girl in Golden Gate isn’t me. She never was.
When I was 23, in an effort to jolt myself out of an agonizing creative dry spell, I signed up for a fiction class and wrote a short story about a young, broke painter who recently dropped out of art school. It was the first thing I’d written in over a year that excited me. I showed it to C. “This could be your novel,” he said.
So I began. That novel took me nearly seven years to write and bears only a passing resemblance to the short story that engendered it. But what has remained constant throughout each revision is my own preoccupation with seeing and being seen, an obsession I’ve had all my life, but that C catalyzed in me when we locked eyes from across a room.
As I was struggling to find the book’s emotional core, I became deeply, unexpectedly infatuated with a woman I’d recently met and was finally forced to reckon with my sexuality. Though I remained committed to my marriage, I knew I couldn’t continue ignoring this part of myself.
Gradually, my novel’s beating heart became the relationship between its two female protagonists. Their relationship is romantic but also artistic, and I poured into it everything I knew about looking at and longing for women, in life and in art. Crafting these characters—envisioning how they saw and felt about each other, how they made art with and about each other—came to feel like stepping into a parallel life. And sharing my work with C became a way to explain what I was feeling, all that yearning and confusion. It was like opening a door I’d long kept closed and inviting him inside.
Still, the relationship in my novel is a fantasy, a projection of my desires and ideas. All fiction is. All art is. We take what we love, what fascinates or disturbs or animates us, and we turn it into art. C knows this as well as I do. The woman in his paintings is me but not me, just as the paintings are his but not him. My book is now out in the world, an art object that contains so much of me, now a vessel for strangers to fill with their own desires and ideas.
A few years ago, C and I attended our college reunion. Struck by a fit of nostalgia, we went looking for “Please, Touch Me,” which he’d sold to the university and is now part of its permanent collection.
C reached out to touch the canvas. I watched my husband re-encounter himself, or a version of himself.
I like to think that on the night I met him, some small part of me already knew that he’d be my muse as much as I’d be his; that he’d read every draft of my novel: hundreds upon hundreds of pages annotated in his spiky, untidy handwriting; that he’d speak about my characters as if they were real people. That with his help, I’d sharpen my own gaze and turn it inward, giving form to everything that had been gradually swelling inside me.
Sirens & Muses by Antonia Angress is available from Ballantine Books, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.