Woman Swallowing a Bitter Pill, 1979, pencil
There were reasons enough for C. to be depressed for several years, and there were times when she was in fact deeply depressed, particularly in the Seventies, though I cannot be specific about dates.
Once or twice, a mere matter of a sentence or two, she glanced at the idea of seeing a psychiatrist, only to conclude immediately that a psychiatrist wouldn’t be able to help her. She was right in that, I’m sure. To have helped her, a psychiatrist would have had to be very intelligent indeed, and know enough about art and the art world to take seriously, and not merely as symptoms of unreasonable anxieties, what she had to say about what was being done to her and how she felt about it.
Once or twice, too, a later remark of hers suggested that she may now and then have contemplated suicide, or at least yearned for the release of death. She also once said briefly that there had been a period when people and their doings all seemed absurd to her. I don’t know what, if anything, she told other people.
Where I was concerned, her depression manifested itself as a chronic irritableness. Equipment, such as toasters or the extra-fine pen that she liked to draw with at times, didn’t work, cops gave her parking tickets maliciously, the lighting in her studio was impossible, and anything that I did, such as washing up the dishes or tinkering with the lawn, was likely to be done wrong. (As may in fact have been the case, of course.)
At times, too, we seemed to be involved in the psychological game known as WDYYB—”Why Don’t You? Yes But.” Which is to say that I would suggest a series of solutions to some practical problem, such as the lighting in her studio, only to have each rejected in turn.
And she generally, during those times, assumed that anything that looked as if it might be agreeable or promising of better things to come—an invitation to a party, a visit from some out-of-town art person—would turn out disappointingly.
Where the art scene was concerned, that seemed a pretty accurate estimate.
I had thought, for example, that she was exaggerating about the cool, at times patronizing, at times outright hostile receptions of her at galleries in New York and Montreal on the two occasions when she nerved herself to make the round of the galleries with a portfolio and slides. She came back sick, exhausted, and demoralized after those trips.
But in 1979 I got a taste myself of what she was talking about. when I spent ten days at a marvellous Toronto festival of horror movies organized by Robin Wood and a friend of his.
I had taken along, without telling her, the catalogue of her great 1977 Dalhousie exhibition, and during one of the brief periods when I wasn’t staring at the screen in the Bloor Theatre or listening to speakers, I went to a couple of galleries, the Marlborough and Gallery Moos, introduced myself, indicated that C. was interested in showing more widely than in Halifax but was diffident about it, and produced the catalogue.
The young woman at Marlborough was obviously simply not interested in what she saw as she flipped through its pages. She had, I think, heard the name Carol Fraser but it wasn’t one that lit up any lights for.
She suggested that I leave the catalogue with her, and intimated that she might, perhaps, get in touch with C. But of course she never did.
The older woman at Moos was more responsive. She knew of C. She had even seen the Expressionist Image show that she curated at the Mount Saint Vincent Art Gallery the previous year, and when I said something to the effect that there had been some hostile comments about it, said emphatically that it was absolutely right, that it couldn’t have been better.
But she also said, with a finality more absolute than the younger woman’s incuriosity, that C.’s own work had become too complicated now. Evidently C. had painted herself out of the game, whatever the game was. The Moos lady, too, obviously had no interest in engaging herself with the images in the second copy of the catalogue that I had with me.
The pane of glass was there, thick and unbreakable.
I did not tell C. what I had done.
C. was a deviant. And in the Seventies, during our local art-power struggles, there was no court of appeal.
In so far as there was sympathy, with one or two passionate exceptions like Nita Graham, it was simply at the personal level. “Poor Carol! But isn’t she making too much fuss about what really isn’t all that important? I mean, we all know she’s a good artist and a nice person. Why doesn’t she just stay in her studio and paint?”
It drove her to distraction at times to be among people, including artists, who genuinely couldn’t see that major aesthetic principles were at stake.
She was effectively voiceless.
The Door, 1974, pencil