Print Study Room: Speculative Nonfiction

“Speculative Nonfiction Workshop” with Associate Professor of English Melora Wolff

Are the words nonfiction and speculation at odds? This online creative writing workshop explores the effects of speculative prose in literary essays about visual art, history, and politics. How does empirical knowledge, conveyed in nonfiction by documented facts, invite or demand imaginative style? How do we clarify and amplify facts through the art of speculation? In this class, students will choose art from the Tang collection to inspire their own speculative nonfiction essays.


How do literary essays on visual art employ psychological speculation to explain or animate the image? What rhetorical techniques activate inscribed effects of visual art? Write a speculative essay on one artwork from the Tang Museum. Your speculative essay should reveal, amplify, and explore the content of the work through personal associations, memories, inquiries, and sensory description. Your essay must document the visible elements and acknowledge the invisible elements of the visual art. Allow memoir to converse with objective fact, as you write the effects of image on consciousness.

My high school mornings always began on the subway. I would read the New York Times “Morning Briefing” in the company of sixty strangers huddled involuntarily close to one another. Since the subway stop for my school was Wall Street, my train’s demographic consisted primarily of middle-aged white business men in suits and coats with their respective newspapers, magazines, and crossword puzzles. There were usually a few women, presumably in their late thirties, in long, awkward-fitting charcoal gray pencil skirts, clutching black handbags, with high-heeled shoes poking out to replace the geriatric sneakers they wore for their train rides.
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If I was particularly early or late one day, I might get a seat, but most mornings I stood at a modest 5’2”, a few feet below the other subway riders, pressed up against the door. I could feel the hot breath of the passengers above me; I could feel their arms reaching over me to hold onto the elevated subway poles. I was comforted by the familiarity of a crowd in an enclosed space, comforted by the simultaneously repulsive and intimately close proximity to strangers during rush hour. These rush-hour subway rides were stuffy in the summer and warming in the winter and claustrophobic all year round.

Richard Estes’ D Train is everything I am afraid of: an empty train in a soulless New York City, a ghost of the New York that I used to call home. I am afraid that if New York is not the way that I remember it to be, then my memories are somehow less valid, less real. I am afraid that New York will be a metropolis of empty buildings, deserted storefronts, and haunted subway cars, deprived of the comfort I once knew and desperately crave. Though Estes’ print was created in 1988, it is a chilling glimpse into an abandoned, post-COVID New York. The orange and yellow seats animate an otherwise lifeless subway car, devoid of the crowds that define the subway and its host city. The D train has gone above ground, and the sunlight floods the sunshine-colored empty subway car seats, illuminating the advertisements and blinding the would-be passengers. The poles are squeaky-clean for no one to hold onto, and the sliding doors are closed, but no one is trying to come inside anyway. The subway’s windows overlook a glimmering river and a bridge. There is car traffic across the way, over on the bridge; those car passengers used to ride this very train.

Even this empty and unfamiliar D-train, a ghost of the bustling subway cars that I have known, still retains the scent of underground New York, a smell that is indescribable to those who have never experienced it, but piercingly familiar to those who have. John Steinbeck must have known this smell and felt these crowds pushing against him when he wrote, in his book America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction, “New York is an ugly city, a dirty city. Its climate is a scandal, its politics are used to frighten children, its traffic is madness, its competition is murderous. But there is one thing about it – once you have lived in New York and it has become your home, no place else is good enough.” The warm air of underground New York permeates John Steinbeck’s words and clouds this D-train car.

I can hear the whir of opening and closing doors, the train rumbling on the tracks, the foggy voice of the conductor announcing train delays to a group of sighing passengers; I know they are there, though I can’t see them just now. This vacant train makes me long for the alone togetherness I used to know: the shared grimaces when another passenger coughs nearby, the unfounded camaraderie when someone holds the subway doors open, and the collective stumbling when the train jerks unexpectedly. I have always known that I love to be surrounded by people, and that my worst nightmare is being alone. I wonder if I was predisposed to love being in large, vibrant crowds, or if I just became accustomed to densely populated spaces and learned to love crowds because they became synonymous with home.

Richard Estes either knew New York too well or he didn’t know New York at all. Of course he visited New York and created artworks of cityscapes, but you can know New York, or you can know New York. If Richard knew New York, he composed this print as his epitome of New York: a subway car with orange and yellow seats and sparkling silver poles, overlooking the skyscrapers and the river. But if Richard knew New York in the way that I want to think he did, he composed this print as the epitome of everything that New York is not: a subway car with clean seats and untouched poles, an empty train car overlooking empty streets. I want to think that Richard was speaking directly to New Yorkers, manifesting their worst fears, warning them of a dreaded future, not of their current New York. I want to think that Richard was speaking directly to me, telling me that he, too, is scared of a vacant New York, of change, of being alone.

I want to think that Richard Estes read Colson Whitehead’s “The Way We Live Now,” and that Richard asked Colson to meet for coffee, to discuss their shared need to preserve their versions of New York. They meet in a West Village coffee shop, sipping hot lattes and admiring the almost-sold out pastries coated in granulated sugar. They slowly sip their lattes, occasionally distracted by the customers who hurry in and out of the cafe, presumably buying cups of coffee for their subway rides ahead. Richard had initiated the coffee date when he read the line from Colson’s piece, “To put off the inevitable, we try to fix the city in place, remember it as it was, doing to the city what we would never allow to be done to ourselves,” so he eagerly brings up this line a few minutes into their small talk, halfway through their lattes. I want to think that Richard created this print a few days later, as a response to Colson’s words, their coffee date, and the New York they constructed in that West Village coffee shop.

Richard Estes has said that his decision to paint unpopulated cityscapes is a result of not wanting any emotions to “intrude.” Certainly, Richard did not want any explicit emotions to come through; no people means no facial expressions, which are often immediately set the tone, mood, or emotion of an artwork. No, Richard wanted to be far more subtle, to speak directly to an audience of native New Yorkers, who understood that the absence of people in this image did not indicate an absence of emotion. Richard Estes chose to exclude people from this image because it was the most chilling, heart-wrenchingly emotional choice he could make.

Richard Estes had formerly worked in advertising, which he said inspired him to use photographs as the basis for his illustrations. He frequently photographed and subsequently created artworks of Manhattan. He must have been advertising New York, in some way, through his artworks. Of course, New York would never have to be marketed, and no one could ever own New York. But Richard Estes must have been advertising New York as he wanted people to see it: sunny, solitary, and spacious. I wonder if Richard Estes truly saw New York City this way, or if he just wanted to make sure that others did.

Part of me is convinced that Richard Estes was trying to immortalize my New York by, paradoxically, sharing his fears of what he hoped New York would never become. This print has foreshadowed some of the scariest moments New York has endured: 9/11 and the current COVID-19 pandemic, in that both made New York, albeit temporarily, into a ghost town. You can tell a lot about the state of New York and New Yorkers by their subways. A bustling subway subway car filled to the brim with heavily-caffeinated passengers is New York at its best, New Yorkers in their element. An empty subway car with vacant seats and untouched poles is New York at its worst, New Yorkers in crisis.

Or maybe, Richard Estes was sharing his New York utopia. Maybe my New York dystopia is Richard Estes’ New York utopia. Maybe he missed the emptier streets of Kewanee, Illinois, where he was from. This empty subway car may have reminded Estes of his home, the way that a crowded subway car reminds me of my home. Estes could have tried to make New York into his own home by finding New York cityscapes that reminded him of Kewanee, Illinois. If Richard Estes’ New York is reminiscent of his own childhood in Kewanee, maybe my New York is rooted in childhood nostalgia, too.

It is December 2019, and the hot subway air overwhelms my body as I rush down the gum-stained steps of the 14th Street station. I swipe my MetroCard and expertly navigate the turnstiles. I experience the familiar adrenaline rush as I run down the next flight of stairs to the platform, strategically placing myself in front of the car with the fewest passengers waiting to board the train. The flashing orange “0 Minutes” sign on the subway platform signals the 6 train’s arrival, and I run, breathlessly, through the subway car doors at the very last moment. I just barely make it before the “stand clear of the closing doors, please” announcement that precedes the train’s departure. I am relieved because I won’t be marked late on my Precalculus teacher’s attendance sheet; I am irritated because I can feel my carefully-applied concealer mixing with the beads of sweat on my forehead; I am lulled by these familiar sensations, this familiar routine that I have gone through the motions of so many times.

None of the subway car’s bright orange seats are even visible; the seats are blocked by copious passengers. I stand uncomfortably pressed against the doors, carefully shifting my weight so that I do not fall onto any of the neighboring passengers. What if that was the last time and I never got to say goodbye? I can hear Colson Whitehead’s words echo in my head, “At some point you were closer to the last time than you were to the first time, and you didn’t even know it. You didn’t know that each time you passed the threshold you were saying goodbye.” Richard Estes wanted to make sure New Yorkers had a chance to say goodbye.

Goodbye to orange seats hidden beneath crowds, goodbye to routine conductor announcements. Goodbye to early morning subway rides, goodbye to Wall Street workers towering over me. Goodbye to the New York City that I belong to, goodbye to the New York City that belongs to me.

I can hear Truman Capote chiming in, corroborating my melodramatic sentimentality. “I love New York, even though it isn’t mine, the way something has to be, a tree or a street or a house, something, anyway, that belongs to me because I belong to it.” Truman Capote, among others, belongs in my New York. Truman Capote and Colson Whitehead and John Steinbeck might stand on opposite sides of the train, but they still belong on Richard Estes’ D-train; I would like to think that I belong there, too.

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“I believe in the imagination. What I cannot see is infinitely more important than what I can see.” – Duane Michals

When Duane Michals returned to his hometown of McKeesport, Pennsylvania, in 1985, I imagine that he did not expect to work. Well, perhaps he was always working, if work for Duane is making art and making art is work. He was always creating. But I’m sure he did not expect to pick up his camera on this trip, for this was a strictly personal and ruminative visit.

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He might have decided, after a particularly melancholic visit to his childhood home, now crumbled and decrepit, to take a walk downtown. I picture that McKeesport, being a fairly small town, is quiet at night and Michals must have longed for that quiet in this time of personal reflection, his head always seemed to be filled with potential projects to explore. It might have been late February, the three-month-old snow would be soiled in the streets, resembling a pewter slush rather than a fresh, porcelain wonderland. Michals’ dress shoes would slosh through the sludge, cars passing by every so often, spraying the dirty street water onto his dress pants. A streetlight would switch to “go” above his head, the green glow momentarily illuminating his soft face and rounded glasses.

His brain, like mine, must run at a million miles an hour at all times, hungry for new faces, new stories, new worlds yet to be discovered through the lens of his Argus C3. Perhaps the buzzing sound of the phosphorescent, red neon sign prompted Duane to stop outside of the Theatre Bar, a downtown McKeesport landmark for over 50 years. The lights and movements behind the blurry windows must have captured Duane’s attention, behind those walls are stories yet untold. More likely, this would have been shelter from the cold night and from his incessant thoughts. In my mind, he enters.

Maybe the theater is bustling inside. I see a stage at the back wall; it is empty for now but the waitstaff and stage crew are buzzing about with pre-show energy. A waitress might be placing white linen tablecloths on the bare tables in the audience. Another waitress might follow with a match, lighting a small decorative candle as the centerpiece of each table. Duane slips in and, noticing a dim hallway to the right, moves slowly that way and out of the action. The stories are too obvious here, he might think. There must be something worth seeing in the dark. At the end of the hallway, I imagine a staircase lined with worn wooden railing. Perhaps the faint sound of music floats down the stairs into Duane’s ears, beckoning him like a siren’s song to venture up. He slips the Argus C3 out of his pocket – evidently he will not be taking the night off from work. The music has stopped and sound is suspended for a moment. I imagine that Duane hears gruff, deep voice of a man pierces through the silence.

“—and if I catch you one more time, you’re out of here.”

“You’re crazy. You know I have nowhere else to go if you—”

“Do you think I give a flying fuck? I’ve already warned you enough times not to bring that shit into work and I catch you using thirty minutes before curtain? You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“You know I’m the best you’ve got, man. You know people only come in here to see me perform.”

“Well, everyone’s replaceable.”

I imagine a door slams, punctuating this dialogue. Duane’s heart must thud faster in his chest. There’s danger ahead but danger makes the best kind of story. At the top of the staircase, I imagine that Duane finds a man in a clown’s costume. It doesn’t seem like a particularly fancy costume; in fact, it looks quite poorly made, perhaps the type of costume one would buy at a pop-up Halloween store. The material looks thin and it has a gold belt painted on, rather than an actual belt to cinch the waist of the wearer. It might be, say, a light green and purple diamond pattern – clashing colors are perfect for a clown. He wears an itchy-looking, purple lace collar that hugs his neck perhaps a little too tightly.

The man rubs his eyes and turns around to face Duane. I imagine that they hold this gaze for a moment until the man begins to laugh. If they were to speak, I’m sure it would go something like this:

“What’s so funny?” Duane asks.

“I don’t know,” laughs the man.

“Well, you should know. You’re the clown, after all.”

At this, the man ceases his laughter and pulls out a gold foil star from his pocket.

“Wow. How funny,” he says. “Would you like this as your prize?”

“Wait,” Duane says. “Don’t move.”

He lifts his camera and snaps the photo.

When he arrives home after his trip, Duane goes into his darkroom and begins the process of creating a silver gelatin print. After exposing the printed photo to light, he would place it gently in developing solution. As the liquid churns back and forth over the print, the paper fades first from white to dark grey and then slowly the image of the clown-dressed man develops into view. Using tongs, Duane lifts the print out of the solution, letting the liquid chemicals drip softly back into the bin. Duane looks into the eyes of the man, the Harlequin, and I imagine that his brain switches on again. The stories in this face are endless.


“Good portraits fail because they show you what famous people – what anybody – looks like. I don’t care about what somebody’s face looks like, but I care about who they are, what they represent, their energy.” – Duane Michals

I imagine the “Harlequin” in Duane Michals’ photo Harlequin is an actor on the precipice of stardom. What a thrilling place to be – the precipice of breaking through and becoming something great. He wouldn’t have known that greatness was coming soon but, in retrospect, he could look back on that time before and feel proud. I imagine this to be true because Michals captured a lot of people in his Portraits series who were on the precipice of fame. For instance, in 1975, Michals took a portrait of a then 26-year-old Meryl Streep. The portrait was taken three years before her breakout role in The Deer Hunter, seven years before Sophie’s Choice. Meryl Streep is now a 21-time Academy Award nominated actress.


“My idea is not to make anybody feel comfortable. My idea is to make me uncomfortable.” – Duane Michals

Perhaps a similar fall into stardom occurred with the man in the Harlequin photo. Or, maybe not. Maybe the Harlequin was content to remain a clown, feeling the thrill of live entertainment without the pressures of fame, getting high off of the smiles and laughs the audience would so graciously give. Or, perhaps the reality is much bleaker. Sure, maybe he never left the small stage but maybe the reason was not so much for the love of performance. Maybe he had no other choice. The Harlequin would come home to his dingy one-bedroom apartment every night after work, peeling his clown uniform off of his sweaty limbs. He would run cold tap water over his face. The water has a certain musty smell but the cooling sensation still satisfies him after prancing across a stage all night. He would lie on his bed and stare up at the ceiling, wishing for a way out of this fool’s life, hoping that something would come from the sky and burn the theater to the ground.

Perhaps Duane Michals has some sort of magical, intuitive power that allows him to capture potential famous and talented people before they make it big. What if he were to take a portrait of me? I imagine the whole ordeal would be quite uncomfortable – I hate being photographed and I don’t think I could relax enough for him to capture anything resembling a candid. I shudder at the idea of making it big. All I want to do is surround myself with stories.

My grandmother has a recurring dream in which I write a script, hand it to a Broadway producer, he throws it into the sky and with a flash I am on Broadway. Maybe she is like Michals with this intuition for seeing stars. Maybe she just has strange dreams. I don’t put much weight into it, if anything it makes me feel guilty for choosing a path that is so uncertain, a path that can only be seen in dreams. Perhaps I am the harlequin – the fool who has been seduced by the promise of art, only to find that it’s not nearly as it seems.

In the trailer for a documentary about his life and works, Duane Michals’ voice recites a note that he is writing on the back of a photograph, something he often does.

“It is no accident that you are reading this. I am making black marks on white paper. These marks are my thoughts, and although I don’t know who you are reading this now, in some way, the lines of our lives have intersected here on this white paper. We meet here. We touch for the length of these brief sentences. It is no accident that you are reading this. These words have been waiting for you. This moment has been waiting for you. Remember me.”

For once, I believe. I really believe Michals when I read this. I was drawn to the Harlequin over every other photo in the gallery. This is no accident. This moment has been waiting for me, he has captured me, and I won’t forget it.

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In the painting, the grass, although green and healthy, is trapped. It sprouts from narrow fractures in the ground, suffocating under barbed metal fences. The cracks emerge from a mound of brassy rock that’s sizeable, yet feeble in appearance. Tall pillars of a factory sit on the top of the rock, crushing it, weighing it down. Above, clouds of relentless smoke pollute the sky, which has already faded to black. While the factory emits greenhouse gases into the air, never slowing down, the plants in the rock cling to what little fresh air they can find; they begin to decay.
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When I was young and naïve, still viewing the world through a child’s lens, my mother would read The Giving Tree to me at bedtime. I remember the tree loved the boy. She gave the boy her apples and leaves because she wanted the boy to be happy and seeing him happy brought her joy. The boy played and swung from her branches, without an ounce of selfishness. He was young and naïve like me, never seeing fault in the world around him. The boy and the tree were friends, they loved each other, and the tree was happy.

The smoke spewing out of the factory reeks of sulfur, burnt rubber, and the smell of a lit match. The smog forms a thick seal in the air, and it is noticeably more difficult to breath. The painting, titled Study for Factory, was created by Ian Davis, who comments on climate change through his artwork. His work often places masses of spectators or industrial workers within a wasteland or next to impending climate disasters. A crowd of people stand around a cluster of dead trees that have been removed from nature, workers in a salt mine observe a leaky pipe that’s spewing out black ooze, a pile of limousines float in the ocean, and an oil tanker spans across a long, windy road in the middle of the desert. Enormous rooms with tall ceilings are filled with people, but they are complacent, powerless. They sit in grids, fill rows of seats in a theater, or in a stadium. The people are overwhelmed by actions of industrialization. They can’t keep the climate from imploding around them. Although Study for Factory doesn’t have people in it, I imagine them there. A large bus approaches the rocky hill under the factory. The paint on the bus’s passenger side has almost fully chipped off and there are scratches on the rear-view mirror. It reminds me of the fractures in the rock.

A group of around ten men in white lab coats step out of the bus, and begin to climb the hill, toward the factory. They work at the factory, operate its machinery, and feed products into a conveyor line. If they want to, they can change the speed of the machinery, even turn it on and off. If the machines stop, the sky outside would start to clear, the sun would shine, and the grass would grow from its confine. The people can make this happen, but they don’t. Like puppets on a string, they put consumerism and industrialization above the needs of the Earth. The planet is dying, pleading to be saved, but the people ignore its cries for help.

I read the The Giving Tree again this week. I don’t know why I liked it so much as a child. It isn’t about the sweet friendship between a tree and a boy like I thought it was. The tree doesn’t just give and give, the boy takes and takes. He grows old and greedy. He is selfish, like the people in the lab coats. He sells her apples for money, he exploits her branches to build a house, he cuts down her trunk to sculpt a boat, and in the end, sits on her stump. He doesn’t care for the tree; he lets her die. He only cares about himself. Still, she wants him to be happy. She gives him the world, and he burns it to the ground.

The factory workers are almost to the top of the hill when suddenly, the rock below them begins to tremor. They look up at the factory and its pillars are perfectly still. The ground continues to shake, now harder and more aggressively, but the pillars remain sturdy. One of the workers points to a pipe near the factory’s entrance, yelling “look!” to his colleagues. There is a noticeable crack growing from the side of the pipe. It thickens, spreads, then bursts, creating the sound of a cannon firing.

Without warning, a mixture of chemicals, oil, and gas pours out of the split pipe, streaming quickly toward the workers. Gravity pulls the pollution down the hill and it molds to the cracks where the grass desperately seeks an escape. The spill plasters the grass with a dense coat of its toxins. The rock, which was once brassy orange in color, is now ashen and cold. The workers aren’t safe from the spill’s devastation either. They freeze in their tracks as the oily conglomerate covers their shoes, brushing against the bottom edge of their coats. The workers are immobile, overpowered by their own workplace. They’re no longer in control. Even if they want to, they can’t turn off the machines, even slow them down. The pollution is unruly, unstoppable, and kills everything it touches.

In the aftermath of the factory’s damage, Ian Davis and Shel Silverstein approach the scene of the factory together, looking out at a toxic wasteland. They’re both wearing yellow hazmat suits to avoid breathing in the deplorable air that surrounds them. The ground is sticky, glossed over by dark goop. Nothing is living. Ian and Shel walk up the hill where the workers stood. Two thirds of the way up, ten pairs of steel-toed boots lie stuck in the oily rock. The workers are nowhere to be found, but their boots mark their presence, the fact that they were at the scene, to blame for the disaster. Ian turns to Shel and lowers his head, with a look of disappointment, but not surprise. They both knew this would happen. When Shel wrote The Giving Tree, I bet he knew that people are just as greedy and selfish as the boy in his story. Maybe he even based the character of the boy off of someone he once knew, perhaps a businessman, or the CEO of a large corporation. As for Ian, he has been depicting climate disasters in his artwork for years. He tried to warn the world, and not enough people listened.

Why did the Giving Tree love the boy? Wasn’t she angry with him for exploiting her gifts? He cut her down, reduced her to nothing, and still, she gave to him. He doesn’t deserve it. He was vile, corrupted by the desire to make money, overwhelmed by the need to make it in the world. She didn’t need him and would have lived without him. The Earth flourished and thrived for millions of years before humans came along. I learned about that in my geology class last semester. It makes me feel smaller than ever.

I am sitting next to the Giving Tree, who is nothing more than a stump. The boy abandoned her years ago, and I am the only company she has had since then. I don’t touch her or the remains of her bark. Instead, I sit next to her, feeling the rough October breeze brush against the back of my neck. I want to apologize to her, but I don’t know what to say or how to say it. After a few minutes of silence, I turn to the tree and weakly let out, “I’m sorry the boy betrayed you.” There is more silence. I know she can’t answer—she is dead. Still, I imagine her responding to my comment. I let the wind hit me with more force and slowly close my eyes. I can see the Giving Tree’s trunk suddenly grow toward the sky, like the pillars of the factory. She is tall. Strong. Resilient. I imagine her leaves returning, glistening orange and yellow under the October sun. Her apples return one by one, growing from her sturdy branches. Nobody is around to pick them or exploit her gifts.

The wind whirs loudly then I abruptly open my eyes. The Giving Tree is a stump again and I am unable to help her. I am small. I can’t bring her back to life. We killed the Giving Tree, and there’s nothing that I, or anybody else, can do to change that.

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Nan describes her Ballad series as an autobiography as well as a collection of images depicting drug abuse, and violent and aggressive couples. In that context what makes this image so hard hitting is its vacancy. The passive violence and aggression of emotional manipulation by which the lover executes, through his absence.
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Nan frames the photo so that the girl takes center stage and the elements around her give context. Her body is the largest part, making her face unimportant to the rest of the scene. The positioning of her body slightly curled up on her side suggests her attempt to comfort herself. In photography, painting, and in general, art composition, space taken up by a certain object and especially, how the object is framed, is often indicative of its importance. Looking at the photo, we see Suzanne’s body consumes most of the space on the bed and in the photo itself. She is off center, striking imbalance and giving the viewer a sense of discomfort. The body consuming most of the space is an indication of her treatment by her lover – her face, her identity, unimportant, shadowed and unlit by the little light within the room.

Nan’s framing of the photo and the series of photos in which Suzanne appears, is autobiographical, and it only leads me to think about Nan’s experiences in the realm of love and heartbreak. Did Nan stand mentally where I stand when framing and looking through the lens to take this photo? Did the way Suzanne lay down also evoke similar feelings or experiences in Nan’s life? And I wonder if she met Suzanne outside this motel in Mexico; Nan sympathized with Suzanne and decided to wait with her. She knew the pain, the insecurity that waiting can bring, and she decided to keep Suzanne company. Suzanne was young, and Nan probably felt even more compelled to keep this young girl company. She maybe even felt a sense of care, hoping that the person she was waiting for wasn’t dangerous or taking advantage of the girl. As the sun started setting, they sat together in the amber lit room. Suzanne lay on her side while Nan thought about where she might travel next. In this moment, she sees an opportunity to capture the moment before her. Late into the night, a girl waits for her lover, lying on her side, face shadowed by her body; Nan clicks the shutter on her camera. The girl on her side, trying to sleep in the hot and dry room in the hotel, hoping to be awakened by her lover’s entrance; a dream she hopes will come true.

The essence of such dreams is so heavily dependent on things that will not come true. I remember the feeling of that longing that tears the essence of your being, but how I went about it, and my mindset at the time, I struggle to evoke with the same intensity as back then. Though my ability to truly recall such pain is hindered by the growth of my own strength, there are certain facets of the experience that haunt me – facets that cause me to see myself in the girl in Nan’s photo. Suzanne reminds me of myself – the thoughts I assume that she had, were the ones I had. The longing, the wishing, the waiting, and wanting answers to a question that would never be answered. Curled up on a bed in the dark, wondering when the wait would be over, absolutely sick with being in love with this person, knowing that what you wish for is hopeless.

I imagine where I was, all curled up, probably not turning the lights on, listening to the hum of my mini-fridge, fighting with myself to ignore the phone. Food wasn’t appealing, nothing was appealing, and I wondered if anything I did mattered. I felt sick and I bet Suzanne felt that way. The way she lies aimlessly on her bed stripped of its sheets. Young, naive, and lovesick. Sick with herself, her desires, disgusted with the fact that she can’t fight the disease that ails her. You want to vomit, but you haven’t drunk any water, and your head won’t stop pounding with hurt. It’s funny how the emotional aspects of things sometimes manifest themselves physically in our bodies – she thinks to herself, quietly laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation. You’re suffering, but it doesn’t feel right, it doesn’t feel like valid suffering. I think to myself, it’ll be over, it’ll pass, but it doesn’t end – your thoughts continue to spiral. When did it become 12 a.m.? Drowning, in the yellow ambient light, she feels sicker, wondering when it will all end. What was the appeal of this sickness? You knew you’d end up here, but you took the chance anyway? How did you end up here? Was it his smile or maybe how he towered over you and gave you the warmest hugs, or the jokes you shared together and the little affectations you developed from spending time together. All of it blended into this sickness, this suffocating air that kept her on the bed. “Get up she told herself” – but she just couldn’t.

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When I look at Robyn O’Neil’s 2004 drawing To Receive Willingly What Comes Next, I am drawn to the simple complexity of the scene. My heart cries out in longing and melancholy angst; I find myself staring into O’Neil’s mind, translated to paper through her hand. In her mind, shown to me through her artwork, I see radical acceptance of the world and everything within it.
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We dance with ideas, known only to each other through art and prose. And so, my attempts to understand her mind, her intention, are inevitably futile; I am left with curiosity and hunger that will never be sated. The only recourse: accept uncertainty. Anything else would be foolhardy. For ideas will travel, from one mind to another, until they fade out of memory and out of time; I am but a minuscule part of the collective consciousness.

Did O’Neil intend to evoke these ideas within me? Each detail of To Receive Willingly What Comes Next conjures existentialism, drawing me in further and further to a conclusion I feel I will never reach. I am left with graphite and paper, a scene of tranquility and truth.

A singular bare tree reaches up towards the sky. Wrinkled and worn, the tree bears years of scars, a long and battered life. A ram, whose tracks indicate its solitary existence, consumes a small sapling. The snowy mountains break apart in the invisible wind, fading into nothingness. And the pale sky, oh the pale sky, encompasses all; all calling to my philosophical instincts.

A gnarled tree – not the branch, the tallest tip of the tree – reaches up to oblivion. Thinning as it rises, desiring nothing more than to finally reach the stars, to take its place in immortal light. There is no conscious thought, no deliberation, only desire. The endless wind berates the tree day in, day out, always attempting to halt the tree’s ascent. Their conflict of wills is eternal; the inevitable fate of death versus the desire to become something.

The ram munches on the sapling, its only sustenance for the day. And the sapling is good. Young and strong, with soft pine needles that fill the ram’s stomach. But the ram’s meal is only that; a meal. There is no company, no mate, no pack, only its tracks. Alone in this harsh winter landscape, alone in this harsh world. Yet there is comfort for the ram in this solitude, though, in this snowy world. A connection to the moment, to the Earth. Acceptance of reality, if you will.

The mountains, bastions of the old world, bastions of earth, begin to fade away in the endless wind. The snow that had covered the peaks for millennia begins to fade away, the bare rock exposed. Winter is ending here; winter is ending everywhere. The destruction of the sanctity of the mountain and its winter citadel is eminent; there is no salvation, no liberation from this fate.

A man’s body lies in the snow. Dressed in all black, with white running shoes – the laces left untied, one hand on his stomach, his expression obscured by his profile. Is he alive or dead? Forever stuck between life and death; he could be alive in the realest of ways, as an idea, without ego, without animated life. Or, he could be dead, having never taken a breath or had a thought, a lifeless etching of graphite on paper. Lost to the sands of time; yet immortalized on paper only to decay; perpetually caught in this limbo, between life and death, between existence and nothingness.

Oh, the clear, clear, pale sky. Oh, infinity is in reach here. The endless sky, the clarity that the open sky brings. All the world, brought together by the sky, brought together by the endless expanse of the cosmic void beyond.

My heart aches for the pale sky. The desire to reach, up and up, till I touch the stars. But the fog of cities, the fog of human indifference will only thicken, suffocating the world, obscuring the stars. And without the stars, without the pale sky, we shall sentence humanity to oblivion.

To receive willingly what comes next … to open our hearts and minds, to accept the true nature of our existence. To let go of ego and self, to let go of this small planet and journey into that pale sky to bask in the truth of our insignificance; how small we are, how obscure we are. And so, I accept my meaninglessness, my arrogance, my fraction of the great cosmic void.

For true love is acceptance, and I love this small little planet rocketing through space. Earth is our home and our salvation; the pale sky, the ancient mountains, the perfect harmony of the natural world … nothing is more beautiful than the landscapes of Earth.

And we humans? We have the audacity to violate this harmony, the audacity to violate this planet and rob it of everything that makes it special. The fog of human civilization suffocates the planet, killing animals, trees, the mountains themselves, all in the name of profit. Humanity’s vices and sins, greed and hate, lust and pride will condemn this beautiful planet.

We are therefore left as Schrödinger’s cat, perpetually left in limbo between salvation and destruction. What comes next? Do we step knowingly into the unknown, accepting the nature of humanity and the planet as it exists? Do we venture into that clear, pale sky and beyond? Or turn our gaze inward, and expose humanity’s rotten soul?

When we examine the soul of humanity, do we not also examine the blackness of our hearts? Is it possible to cast just judgement on others without knowing our sins and failures as individuals? Or do we fall into temptation and desire, victims of our worst impulses?

The plight of humanity has, and always will be, the struggle between life and death. Purity and sin, right and wrong, good and evil – all dichotomies reflect this basic truth. If humanity is truly alive, or we are decayed and dead beyond reason already, rests on our willingness to accept our own deaths and the ultimate death of humanity.

When humanity turns to dust, when our time has expired, the Earth shall reclaim us. We shall fall, and we shall die. This is inevitable, and we must accept this fate. We are temporary. Our ideas, our wonders of the world, will fade away, never to be thought of again. And when our ideas die, when there is no one left to conjure ideas, humanity shall truly be dead. But the Earth will live on; the snow shall reclaim the mountaintops, the ram shall continue its lonely trek, the gnarled tree will continue to reach up, and the pale sky shall encompass all yet again.

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I’ve come across a great piece of artwork lately, the Burlesque comedienne in her dressing room, Atlantic City, N.J., photographed by Diane Arbus, the artist slash photographer who dedicated her career to depicting the marginalized. In a review of Arbus in The Guardian, the editor suggested that she understood instinctively the conflict of “people who are pathetic, pitiable, as well as repulsive,” and then exploited them artistically. The review, of course, spiked my esteem, trapped me in the sway of the anxiety and discomfort of a show woman, and furthered my speculation of the story behind her, the burlesque comedienne.
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She is sitting by a window with a rusted windowsill. The walls around her are very bad, and old. The black and white picture almost makes the background marble-like, and expensive. And I am not saying this just to give a vain, fluffy review, like an irresponsible, docent intern. I distinctly remember doing that while working in a small museum at Lake George, where a nice old lady walked up to me and “complimented” me, “You added a little bit of culture to the area.” Anyway, I never took that job seriously. When people came, I said, “This artwork is a combination of Surrealism and Impressionism, Romanticism, and blah blah blah…”—without knowing what those words actually are. And people often bought my nonsense.

This one is different though. When I look in the image and see the marble-like walls, I feel an expensive, Gothic-like aura. The fluorescent light seems avant-garde, as if the curvy black cable is a part of the design. A neat mini calendar is stuck on her mirror, probably circled with the dates of her gigs. Right next to it is a big bottle of transparent hair spray. It is very delicate, and gives out a weird kind of diamond-like shine. It looks like one of those “revolutionary,” luxury skin-care products for which you have to overpay.

She sits right next to her dresser, wearing a pair of metallic open-toed high heels with a velvet bustier top that shows her body contours, looking all sharp and stage-ready. Her hair is appropriately curled in the 70s style, with a dramatic victory roll. She has her brows shaped in aggressive angles, with massive eyelashes and exaggerating eyeliner highlighting her eyes, which are clearly not at peace. Their lack of contentment, weirdly, gives out this charisma that she has a rich mind. I seem to see her eyes rolling, telling me, “Missy, I can offer way more than your gigs. Even the balloon on my table has a sophisticated story.” Her lip fails to stretch a smile for the camera, but it would have been tacky with her red lipstick and the flamboyant image altogether, had she done so. It is the sense of melancholy, or even anger that makes her story so imaginable.

Now, as a comedian, I share what I think of and try to be honest, with the hope that you will find my honesty hilarious. It’s unusual for me just to compliment something without making fun of it. But her eyes, the moment I made eye contact with her, I knew that I have to talk about her, to share her story with you, and to tell you my many sentiments that this piece of art aroused.

She is probably struggling or at least not happy with her situation. You see, burlesque shows started with comedy as the star. But with TV as another great option for successful comedians, and stripping making dancers the top of the burlesque totem pole, comedy faded out and turned into a minor part of the show. Those who remained were either not talented, or not men. People like her had to be the most laughable funnymen for the least attention.

On stage, she would be this dramatic, ridiculous, probably sexy figure, frequently flinging her dress, moving her buttocks, and speaking nonsense in a heavily accented voice, all for getting some laughter from the audience. There would be no communication whatsoever. The laughter was not for her whimsical thoughts; the applause was not for her talents; the booing was not against her stances. She probably acted, screamed, and laughed as hard as she could, while her soul slowly withered to speak. Did she have a hard day at work? Was her ex doing well on television? Did the producer listen to her ideas?

On a rough day, when some rude, vulgar audience-man groped her legs, faking that it was an unintended mistake; when her fellow comedians, all men, had their talents appreciated by all as she caved in in her dressing room, tired of proving that she too was gifted and full of original ideas; when she had to play a ridiculous role that brought her so much guilt, not because she barely wore any garments, but because she was stepping on her own dreams, her dreams of showing her many creative thoughts; when she saw performers making disrespectful jokes on stage as the offended minority–whether people of color, or women–faked laughing, and thinking in her mind that no, this is not how it should be done, I imagine she cried out in heart; I hope she cried out in heart, speaking to herself that she could’ve done better and more, had she been given opportunities…

Once again, I had such pleasure and honor, to stand here, to talk about me, and to thank you.

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Two young black girls in front of Lady D’s stand on a checkered linoleum flooring in the way of the door to the shop entrance. Two young, playful girls posing for the camera, in front of the ice cream parlor in 1976. Signs in the shop window advertise ice cream, 55 cent hot dogs, and chicken n’ chips. Behind the window there are bags of popcorn and jars of candy, the store inside seemingly empty. Pictures of ice cream cones are painted, or pasted, on the glass of the windows. To the tunes of Stevie Wonder they’d been dancing, or jumping, or giggling just before this photo was taken, when the photographer said Smile! Or maybe he’d said Pose! They had felt like movie stars, in front of the camera’s eye. A vision of childhood innocence.
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They’re sisters, if not by blood then by heart. Together they played hopscotch on the street across from a certain park in Harlem. They’re members of a neighborhood group of kids, self-proclaimed rascals who would frequent Lady D’s for sweet treats with handfuls of quarters and nickels. Something about the smell of candied nuts and chili dogs had drawn the photographer to take their photo, fueled by the nostalgia of his own life as a young boy in the city. Born in New York in 1953, Dawoud Bey was familiar with this lifestyle. He grew up in Queens, where he’d spent sunny afternoons walking to a local library. He would stay for hours perusing countless books – he preferred the ones of photography. In one of those many books he would eventually find one photo that would stay printed in his mind, flashing like a lightbulb whenever he was reminded of it.

His first camera was gifted to him when he was 11 years old. He saw in his mind a portrait of a young girl from Birmingham in 1963. She was the same age as he was then, perhaps the same age as the two young girls he photographed in front of Lady D’s 13 years later. He thought of that image when he saw them. He heard their laughter, saw their youthful joy and was reminded of the photos from the books he read when he was young. He was reminded of four young lives lost in Birmingham in 1963. Inspired by the sight of the way things should be, he captured the image of the two young girls in front of Lady D’s. He took their photo to commemorate their lives, to honor all the lives of those who would have lived before them.

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Pattern by Erin Barry ’16
Inspired by the exhibition The Jewel Thief
The Tang Pattern Project celebrates the Museum’s 20th anniversary. Organized by Head of Design Jean Tschanz-Egger, past and current Tang Design Interns created patterns inspired by the Museum’s exhibition and event history.