A memorial celebration of the life and work of Jennifer Wynne Reeves took place on September 6 at St. Marks Church in Manhattan. I was invited to write a tribute, which Dana Martin Davis read in my stead.
The sentencing hit us hard. Not guilty of a brain tumor, your Honor, not guilty! As if there were an appeal in matter’s court. No, not here—not when you’ve been sentenced to the electric chair by a dire statistic. (…) We sat in the neurosurgeon’s waiting room, waiting for the pathology report, the sentence. My uncle squeezed my hand so hard I thought my bones might crack. Walking out to the car he asked, what stage are we supposed to be in now: the anger stage, the denial stage? It’s the zombie stage. Just get me out of here, use an ax, a gun, a ratchet. I don’t care. We stopped for something to eat, steak salad with blue cheese dressing and pasta, faux Italian cuisine, guilty of suburban delight, grateful for small crimes of comfort and a pesky jab of hope.
When Jennifer began posting the course of her illness on Facebook, she was laying her life bare to the public.
Her missives were short and to the point, and always accompanied by a painting or one of those blobby creatures populating photographs of landscapes, many of them white with snow, but tinged with the dirt-brown edges of an early thaw or framed by bare branches that resembled pencil marks on smudged white paper. Day by day, into the steady stream of the Facebook newsfeed, Jennifer transformed her experience into art: the custom-made Freddy mask she had to wear for radiation treatment, the hospital stays and the indignities these seemed to rain down on her, the ever-impending specter of death on the horizon—and all of it offered to the community of artists convening there each day to escape the solitude of their studios and keep abreast of each other’s work. Jennifer was deeply dedicated to this community. And while it’s hard to formulate what it was that led to her work’s wide popularity, it was certainly her courage that impressed her admirers the most.
By the time she asked me to edit her book Soul Bolt, Jennifer had already been operated on for glioblastoma multiforme. There was no hiding from the fact that it would return; time was of the essence. And so we set to work. Forty-one texts in varying stages of completion, roughly divided into the subjects love, illness, and artmaking, brimming with linguistic sleights of hand and metaphors that conjoin with her visual art in complex and unexpected ways. For me, it was a matter of learning to see with her eyes, to hear with her ears, to understand the very structures that led from image to narrative. It meant understanding language on Jennifer’s terms and defining parameters based on this, which could then be used to judge whether the writing “worked” or not. I invite any of you who knew Jennifer to imagine this process for a moment; to imagine the countless feisty, funny, passionate comments and edits exchanged with this very stubborn woman. Even though I’d absorbed the Jennifer code and her peculiar way of slipping from metaphor to abstraction, from art critical observation to autobiographical reflection—it became an ongoing battle of wills.
We went through three months of edits; it was tough, and fun, and exasperating. Just as I finished editing a text, she would rewrite it. At some point, she reported that she’d been to the neurosurgeon, and that the cavity the excised tumor had left behind was shrinking. It was progress, and she was convinced that our correspondence had played a crucial role. I continued editing. She continued rewriting everything. We wrangled over words, chiseling her sentences down to make them resonate all the more powerfully. At some point I had to start calling things “final edit,” “final edit one,” and “final edit one a.” But Jennifer never stopped changing things, even after the first edition of Soul Bolt went to print. The artist’s proof copy she sent me was full of cross-outs and corrections. In her dedication, she thanked me for the word “junked,” which, she said, she’d decided she liked after all.
The best artists change the way we see; the way we think about things. Jennifer found a means, through her art, to defy reality—and she did this audaciously, elegantly, and with incredible discipline. Her art and words resonate with joy.
I wear a Freddy mask for radiation. I go to the Heard Museum and mull over the narrative drawings of Black Hawk, his pooping horses, his smiling warriors smiling at death because they know their home is safe. They’ve said their goodbyes. Time is of the essence according to the material picture, but not according to the painting I see, will see; have made, will make. My soul bolts from here, lives on a no-time timeline in art. Thank you, thank you very much, dear Paint-Maker in the Sky, Wonderful-Clump-Slinger. I bow to you, elastic air-mud, skilled in your nothingness, your infinite emptiness that is so, so, full. I pick up my pencil at the beginning of a picture, at my so-called looming end, and rejoice evermore.
Jennifer Wynne Reeves, Cast Your Grid. 12 x 15.5 in., 2012