This slightly fictitious story follows my previous posts, “Tales of an Adjunct,” and continues to explain what it’s like to ascend through the ranks of academia.
Who is the patron saint of pregnant women? St. Agnes? No, that’s the patron saint of virgins. St. Lucy? The depictions of her with eyeballs on a gold plate terrify me. Now I remember: St. Gerard Majella. I need an intervention for all the morning sickness. “Oh, St. Gerard, I beseech thee, please make the hurling stop.” How am I going to get through this interview without getting sick?
Riffling through my mother’s box of old prayer cards from the 1940s, I come across one for St. Gerard, the virgin saint. He looks familiar. Then it hits me. He looks like Sting. Except Sting is wearing a monk’s robe and holds a crucifix, flail, and some white lilies. For some reason, the lyrics “Every breath you take … I’ll be watching you …” chime in my head. Flipping the card over, it reads, “O glorious St. Gerard … thou didst bear, like thy Divine Master, without murmur or complaint, the calumnies of wicked men … Preserve me from danger …” The irony of praying to a male virgin to intervene on my behalf seems ridiculous. I’m never going to get a job at a Catholic women’s college. The nuns will sense I’m not a practicing Catholic. They know; they always know. I put the card in my wallet, get into my car, and make my way to St. Mary’s College.
The gates to the college look idyllic as they open on to an allée of gigantic sycamores whose canopy looms overhead creating a tunnel propelling me forward. At its end stands an imposing building, the motherhouse, and a traffic circle. Without clarity, I veer right at the second opportunity, not wishing to stop and ask at the motherhouse. It’s not as if I dislike nuns; I just don’t want to be asked about my views on Catholicism.
I remind myself: focus on the directions. Driving past the nuns’ cemetery, pool and tennis courts, I reflect that it’s quite a juxtaposition. Then my mind moves to thinking about what I’m going to say if they ask me about my artwork. Will I be forthright and say, “My current body of work, Post-Catholic Relics, is about how the Catholic church’s view of women is unacceptable. The Catholic church gives three identity options: 1) virgin, 2) whore, 3) mother. I don’t think those are great options”?
Do I admit that an exhibition of my work was protested by the religious right? That they took out ads and wrote letters to the editors of multiple papers? The police investigated the exhibition to determine if the exhibition violated community decency standards. I remind myself the county prosecutor issued a letter saying it didn’t. People say, “Even bad press is good press.” I disagree. It was a horrible experience. In the exhibition guest book, someone wrote to me, “All you need is a good fucking.” Someone else threatened my life.
I know at least one of the art department faculty members is a nun. What if she asks me to describe some of my artworks? Can you imagine her face when I say, “Well, one piece is basically a jewelry box encrusted with gold beads. Inside there are pictures of Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa, text about female masturbation, and some pubic hair–like Spanish moss”? Will she look at me in horror, cross herself and take out her rosary beads? All I can think is I am not getting this job. Zero chances.
I find a parking space, open the door and immediately throw up in the parking lot. I mumble, “Sorry,” and think, “Maybe the rain will wash it away. Hopefully, that’s enough puking until I’m finished with the interview,” pop a couple of Tic Tacs in my mouth and walk to the art building. When I catch my reflection in the glass door, my thoughts wander. “God, I am huge. Black is not slimming. It cannot hide seven months of pregnancy. Must be all the BBQ chips and lemonade; it’s the only thing I can eat. God, that’s weird.”
A woman with short-cropped hair (think Mia Farrow’s Vidal Sassoon hairdo in the film Rosemary’s Baby), wearing a stunningly large sterling silver Zuni squash blossom necklace and a knee-length crazy quilt–like recycled kimono jacket meets me in the lobby. “Hi, I’m Joan, the art historian. Nice to meet you. This is one of the galleries” (with a sweeping gesture at the open lobby). “I’m sorry nothing is on view right now. We are between exhibitions. Come with me.”
We walk through the pristine hallway, up the stairs and enter a room through an oak door with a frosted glass pane and a transom. The slide library. This one seems a little less dank than the ones I am used to seeing—a bit more sunlight and a little less dust. The vines of a heartleaf philodendron encircle the whole room. I offer, “Excuse me, I can’t help but notice the magnificent plant!” Joan proudly replies, “Yes, I started it in 1972. It is more than 75 feet in length now.” Fighting back the urge to say something like, “Do you have a name for it? Audrey?” (she might not get the reference to Little Shop of Horrors, and I’ll be remembered for being the weirdo who wanted to name the slide library plant), I simply say, “Beautiful specimen. That’s quite a feat.”
The entrance to the conference room is off the slide library, and Joan leads the way. It feels like a safe room. I speculate, “Was it designed in the early 1970s for administrators and faculty to hide from protesting students?” I enter the room. The members of the art faculty stand up and introduce themselves—William (painting and printmaking), Jay (photography), Beth (fiber arts and printmaking) and Sister O’Kelley (painting and drawing).
Members of the committee ask questions about my experience organizing exhibitions. I talk about managing the art gallery at Ohio University as a graduate student and working with nationally known artists. I mention curating exhibitions for the Women’s Caucus for Art in Houston, including a show of works by women who were currently or had been in prison. “Most of the work was already gathered for us, but the guards let us meet one of the women in her cell. She handed us the work in the most pious fashion. It was a drawing of Jesus as a woman; many other works were religious in nature. I would characterize the recurring theme as looking for hope.” Sister O’Kelley nods approvingly.
“Women in difficult situations, I think, are often misunderstood. As an undergraduate student, I worked in a women’s shelter in Boston located in the Fenway, not far from Kenmore Square. It was considered one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city at the time. On Friday and Saturday nights, I (along with another worker) would get there early to make coffee, put out food, linens and blankets for the couches, and whatever items had been donated (clothes, underwear, feminine products, etc.). There are a lot of misconceptions about the homeless. Women are vulnerable to being assaulted. They are also likely to have mental health problems and a system that doesn’t allow for long-term residency. Our job was to give them what they needed, make sure there was order and make sure no one smoked in bed. It taught me a lot about compassion and judgment.” Sister O’Kelley smiles.
The interview continues as interviews do: “Where do you see yourself in five years?” (With a 5-year-old.) “Tell us about an experience with a difficult artist?” (Aren’t they all difficult? Or let’s just say “high maintenance”) “Budget management?” (There’s actually a budget?) “Supervising students?” (Power tools can be fun for girls) “Public relations?” (I am known to write catchy exhibition titles—Taking a Byte of the Apple: Digital Art by Five Area Women).
Then came the question I’ve been dreading. “What is your experience in dealing with controversial art?” I try to minimize/avoid the question by answering briefly, “Yes, I’ve had some experience.” Before I can add anything else, Joan pipes up, “I am sure you’ve heard about the sculpture we had on campus that was vandalized. We invited a nationally known artist to create a new piece to display on the campus green. She created an abstract piece, colored like the mineral cinnabar, that was comprised of several large, textured, bulbous forms. I think we overestimated the campus’s ability to appreciate abstract art. People hated it—students, faculty, staff, alumnae and the administration. They didn’t think it was art, but pornographic and referential to the male anatomy. It was dubbed ‘The Balls of Saint Mary’s.’ A petition was penned for its removal. Then, it was vandalized one night and broken into large sherds, as if someone hit it with a sledgehammer. We had to pay the artist for it—$20,000. The pieces are stored downstairs; we don’t know what to do with it. The gallery director resigned in protest.” By the end of Joan’s story, time is up, and I have to meet the dean. Good. Dodged a bullet.
The meeting with the dean is in an imposing dark-paneled office, which smells of old polished wood like my grandmother’s house (which, coincidentally, was across the street from a convent and church). The dean is a formidable woman—pragmatic, serious, intellectual—a chemist. Her dress is a dull, belted, handmade cotton shirtdress, which she wears with sensible taupe-colored lace-up shoes. She sits upright in an ornately carved chair with tufted forest-green leather and presents herself as if to convey, “Don’t you bullshit me. I’ve survived in a male-dominated profession, and I can and will, if necessary, take you out.” All I keep thinking is “Is she a nun? She has got to be a nun.”
After the dean, I meet up with the search committee for some wrap-up questions. Near the end of the interview, they ask me when I can start. I say dryly, “Right after the baby is born in July,” to which they laugh (I’m not sure why. Maybe it was my delivery. People tell me I’m funny but not on purpose). About a week later, they offer me the job, a 10-month, half-time contract position as lecturer and gallery director.
Up Next: Tales of a Lecturer and Director, Part 2: Power Tools Are Power