The Creative Scene in Vanishing New York

Tompkins Square and Washington Square in the 80s and a sort-of artist named Susan

The Rider-Waite tarot deck dates to 1910. (Amber Sexton)

I’ve recently remembered an old transient friend I had as a teenager. When I was a kid trying to be punk, my friends and I hung out all summer in Washington Square Park, which was close to where I lived. I was there smoking cigarettes, drinking Pepsi in the squat glass bottles with the thin styrofoam label and eventually taking LSD every few days.

You ran into a lot of people sitting in a cluster, near some of the drug dealers but away from some of the others, and people passed in and out of your acquaintance. One of these people was a very harmless seeming guy named Dan who later hung out in Tompkins Square park and murdered and ate his ex-girlfriendEveryone knew him. He was kind of thick, a dope, and no one was remotely fearful of him in any way. His ex-girlfriend was a topless dancer and Dan cooked her and served her but he didn’t get all the way through her “meat” before he was caught.

There were many people who did break dancing shows for tourists but only one guy beloved by all who gave his name as “Michael Jackson is God” and was kind of protected by everyone who referred to him solely as “Michael Jackson is God.” He lived the character 24/7 and didn’t speak much. Once he climbed a large tree and couldn’t get down and everyone gathered with the cops, saying, “Please, Michael Jackson is God don’t jump.” He eventually fell or jumped and broke his arm, but everyone was pulling for him to climb down. He was a vulnerable but cherished person who did indeed do the best Thriller busking act.

And then there was Susan. I’m actually not sure and I don’t remember her last name, but I’ll call her Susan. Susan didn’t look like a punk and she was too old to be our friend, probably in her mid 20s. She dyed her hair about every two or three weeks, different shades but all blonds, browns, reds, black, with permanent dye. She was told by a doctor she wasn’t going to have any hair if she kept up and her hair was thin. She had a head that seemed kind of pointy on top because her bangs were so short. She smoked a lot and talked about quitting. We all smoked a lot and were still enamored with our fake adult powers to do so.

Susan was notably strange and sort of magical, the kind of magical when an adult is interested in you and seems a bit eccentric in a way that lets you fill in more.

Susan had injured her face and jaw several times. This is because she fell down often and when she did, she protected her hands by pulling them away. The reason she protected her hands is that she was an artist. I was sort of fascinated by an artist who felt it was in her hands, but wondered if she didn’t fear she would hurt her eyes, which seem even more important. Perhaps this was because I’d later become a photographer. The fact that she actually sometimes had a bandage on her face from this was also intriguing.

Susan worked for the artist Christo, and also Jeanne-Claude but they went only by Christo at the time. She was Christo’s assistant of some kind. I remember she once let me look through a big book of portfolio images and I said the wrapped islands looked like birthday candles. She told me she would tell him that, she loved that. I felt kind of special that she liked me for me. As if I were a full-grown whole person, not the teen aspiring to be cool. I didn’t have to be cool, we were just people. I think Susan even came to my house when my mom was there. But my memories are so spotty and blended together; I could be inventing that.

Susan lived in New Jersey and that was well before I began going to Maxwell’s in Hoboken and I really didn’t know much about it there or in Jersey City and I actually had no geography in my mind of where Susan was. Even though as a kid my dad and stepmom, and siblings lived in Middletown and then Red Bank and I was there weekends and summers, I really didn’t understand much of where anything was.

Jeanne-Claude and Christo, pictured here receiving the Ellis Island Heritage Award in 2005, had a studio in SoHo in the 1980s, where Susan served as an assistant. (Martin Dürrschnabel)

Christo’s studio was in Soho so it makes sense that Susan would stop and hang in Washington Square before getting on PATH trains home. But she also had a car. I don’t think she drove it into the city much. But that was very different from most young adults living on their own in NYC. I can’t remember where Susan was from, but not the city, that was obvious.

Anyway Susan was so committed to her art, and being an artist. And she clearly was. She was such a genuinely one-of-a-kind person that you knew she was an artist. She talked about painting, and that she painted with enamel paint. I’ve since met someone else who uses that medium to make large wood panel works cut out in the shapes of the outlined forms. I didn’t question this, but I took it seriously.

One day, Susan invited me and I think probably others in our gaggle of friends but I can’t remember, out to her place in NJ. I can’t really remember how I got there. I am sure I was in Susan’s car at one point. Maybe she picked us up from the train. We got to her house, which was upstairs in what was probably a two-family home but you could still see into the living space downstairs. So maybe it was roomies in a single family. I remember she had a VCR, which was not something everyone had yet. None of my friends or I had one. Susan’s house was where I saw the movie Evil Dead for the first time. But it was a movie that was fairly new, it had come out in the last year but I hadn’t actually heard of it till Susan told me I must see it. I remember being riveted and in disbelief of the artistry and comedy and how good it was. This set me off on becoming a gore film fan at the time and I even subscribed to Fangoria.

At her home, I finally got to see Susan’s art. This was the thing that rattled me and changed something in my feelings for her.

Susan made largish panel paintings that were pretty much exact replicas of the Rider-Waite tarot deck. That seemed to be it. Those were her paintings. All of her paintings. The enamel paint made sense because it was pretty much duplicating the unblended colors of the shapes within the line drawings in that deck, kind of like a comic book. This is what Susan was throwing her chin out to break her falls for. Hands needed to make enlarged versions of art by someone else (if you look it up it’s Pamela Colman Smith; I don’t pretend that I knew anything about her at the time or even thought of the artist of the Tarot deck as an artist.)

Perhaps there was something conceptual being accomplished by their arrangement when all were assembled. Perhaps there would be something more I didn’t yet understand. But she was absolutely committed to this, and if there was anything different between her work and the Rider deck, I wasn’t seeing it because I did not have it as reference in front of me. But it was undeniably so similar as to be undetectable for someone unprepared.

Anyway, this was just really bizarre. Her emotion and dedication to art, living in art, working at a job for quite notable controversial artists, all of that was genuine. I didn’t know if she was blind to the paucity of her own contribution, but she must have been. At least to the world of painting there wasn’t much there. As a lived person, she herself was kind of a piece of art. I wonder if she ever did work in the performance medium that took hold over the next handful of years. I think she would have had a knack. I really would like to see her again, to know what happened to her, but I don’t even know her right name, and I only knew her for, I guess, one summer and a bit more.

Amber Sexton

Amber Sexton is a Brooklyn-based photo editor and photographer.

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