Discover more from Behind a Door
These are the artifacts of your resilience.
1991. 16mm. 6 minutes.
Content advisory: contains nudity and assault.
Audio description: Voiceover, machinery, drainage, a car horn, electronic music, a car crash, and audio clips from mass media. Subtitles not available.
Dolly picks the lavender when I feel lazy,
content in taffeta and velvet
that’s forever faded from some distant city’s sun.
She eschews shoes.
What we know about addresses
and itch cream in these parts,
she eschews, too.
Takes the heat lying down,
shears the endless grass with the power of
Amen to that.
Maybe once she had a name
but we don’t use it anymore.
Instead we find favor
in the sound of
bare feet on no pavement,
the clackety click
of climbing cats
and eleven aprons
hanging in the kitchen
when there’s no one
left to eat the apple pie
I don’t typically self-identify as someone who has had an intimate relationship with wallpaper throughout my life. But when Behind a Door suggested I write about wallpaper, I realized I had a relationship indeed.
My paternal grandfather—divorced and hacked out of photographs by my grandmother at the peak of his success—made a splash trying to modernize wallpaper in the 1940s by hiring young San Francisco artists to create striking designs for wallpaper he produced through his eponymous decorating company. A scrap of this wallpaper currently survives in the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, as do mentions in the MoMA archive of a 1949 show, Modern Art in Your Life and, of course, the newspaper record if you can find it.
When I was 11 years old or so and had just moved with my family into the house on Sacramento Street in San Francisco that I had known as my grandmother’s, I discovered the basement behind a door leading from a dining room clad in wallpaper and sconce lighting handmade to match it. In the basement, I found sample books of my grandfather’s wallpaper, including samples of the wallpaper in the dining room, which was a light sage green with vertical, knobby vines in flower. Hoisting each sample book, with its several colorways per design, was difficult. I fell in love with the fanciful designs and the way the sheets of silkscreened heavy paper were collected into a mega-sized catalog of sorts, and after further foraging throughout the house, I found some extra rolls of the dining room wallpaper in a closet on a stair landing. Shortly after that, my lifelong inability to put together any kind of passable Halloween costume evinced itself: I dressed up as a wallpaper installer and confused absolutely everyone at school.
Sometimes people who have begun a career of habitually failing at Halloween find themselves, at the age of 22, in Turkey. There, I discovered that wallpaper need not be made from paper at all: the walls of my humble lodgings had been given a wallpapered look by having had a patterned roller dipped in paint used to create a repeating pattern onto a layer of the base paint. My art-school-dropout mind exploded with the possibilities.
Returned to San Francisco subsequently, I was happy applying myself to the castle-in-the-air task of becoming a self-supporting fine artist of some repute (while working at a picture framing shop called Frame-O-Rama) until I discovered that my mother, while cleaning out the basement, had sent her father’s wallpaper sample books to the dump, along with a lot of leftover, outgrown junk. That was many years ago, but I still haven’t found it in myself to forgive her. It’s the last remaining thing on my list. I’ve forgiven her for calling me the Whore of Babylon when I was 14 and she had just coaxed it from me that I was no longer a virgin. I’ve forgiven her for her cold demeanor when I told her five years later about an abortion I had in a foreign country, all by myself. But I have, to this day, been unable to forgive her for throwing out my grandfather’s wallpaper sample books.
While I’ve waited for that forgiveness to come, I’ve had the pleasure of buying wallpaper from the 1940s from Hannah’s Treasures and hiring Scotland’s Finest Painter, based in Everett, Washington, to apply it to the dining room walls of my 1942 colonial revival home on Bainbridge Island. It was a separate pleasure to remove it years later when it started to come up off the walls but was too rigid to smooth back on without buckling, because its removal signaled a fresh start under newish circumstances. Out of the ashes of my marriage had arisen cohabitation, a state of grace, a relationship open to rethinking our space and approach to living, a lossless divorce in which actual divorce is unnecessary; longtime language and patterns of caring—the ones we wanted to keep—could thrive. We asked with new energy, “What’s after the wallpaper?”
Pre-pandemic, wallpaper often inserted itself in lunchtime conversations with my coworkers; when we encountered something special on the walls of a restaurant, we would bestow a Restaurant Wallpaper Award. Yes, it was my idea. (For fun, I run an extracurricular website that maps great food near our various offices, and that is where Restaurant Wallpaper Awards were born and live.)
Last year, for $49.99 on eBay, I found an extant proof of my grandfather’s wallpaper, depicting several loafing Edwardian dandies. (The pattern is called “Something for the Gentlemen.”) I bought it for my oldest son, who is in school for fashion design and construction. Framing made this salvage significantly more expensive, but protected it from damage and gave it pride-of-place above his apartment couch in Seattle.
I have no idea what’s next in my relationship with wallpaper, but I have at least settled on a Halloween costume that has served me unfailingly for many years, though it too is, of course, a failure. Every October 31st, I wear a novelty beret made from astroturf that has a tee on the top and a golfball attached by clear wire, worn with a vintage-store beige sandtrappy-looking crocheted cardigan and a dress the color of a frighteningly well-maintained and fertilized fairway.
I will posit, though, that finding that last bit of forgiveness toward my mother would be a chapter in my wallpaper relationship, lacking in inevitability but more possible for me than concocting an untroubling Halloween costume.
Wetsuits flutter in the wind on a dive boat in Honduras at sunset. by jEs
The title of this issue paraphrases Nicolas Wilton.
Make art and/or writing. Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. We will publish submissions in this ezine or in our first limited edition handbound chapbook.