Suzanne Forbes, an expat New Yorker in Berlin. Made possible by the generous support of her Patrons. https://www.patreon.com/SuzanneForbes. Former DC Penciller for Star Trek, former courtroom artist, painting portraits and teaching drawing.
In late summer or early Fall 1989 I did this painting of my beloved, cherished friend John Talbot Wallis. He was staying with me at my little basement apartment in St. Paul, trying to kick heroin. It didn’t work out for him, and he went back to NY and relapsed immediately. I desperately hope he is still alive. Last I heard, in the mid-90s, he was very deep in addiction and had apparently lost most of his teeth. The odds aren’t good, but we junkies are tough as cockroaches. I’ve said a prayer for him every night for almost thirty years.
This was one of the earliest portraits I ever painted, though I had drawn quite a few by this point. To get ready for going back to art school full time, I was taking a painting class in downtown St. Paul, an extension class from the Minneapolis College of Design, with a wonderful woman professor.
I started out painting in acrylic, though there is tremendous bias against acrylics in the figurative and especially portrait painting community.
I really appreciated my teacher’s willingness to let me use acrylics. I was afraid I would have problems with my sobriety if I used oil paints, which involve solvents. I had never been an inhalant abuser, but I was less than a year sober and I wasn’t taking any chances!
I liked acrylics and it turned they are perfectly suited for my run-and-gun, punk rock style of painting, so I’ve never looked back. My palette was a lot more Fauvist early on, partly because I didn’t know how to mix colors or how to see color temperature in shadows.
I had never intended to be a painter – I was gonna be a comic penciller, and have colorists to take care of that! So I had paid little attention to my color theory class at Parsons and stubbornly avoided working in color as much as possible. It was really an accident that led me to becoming a painter, that the only class in the extension program that Fall was a painting class, and that I loved my teacher. I also just really love Fauvism, and I still think my early paintings are terrific examples.
This portrait of John, an homage to The Green Stripe aka Portrait of Madame Matisse, is probably one of the top ten likenesses I’ve ever achieved.
This IS John, who I met at Stuyvesant a day or two after my fourteenth birthday and was close friends and sometimes friends with benefits with til I was 23. He was literally the jolliest drunk I have ever met, a vibrant, loving, wildly creative guy without a mean bone in his body. He was a drummer, an artist, a rapper, and a lover who adored pleasing women.
He turned me on to NWA and The Tubes, and we walked thousands of miles together over Manhattan Island in the 80s. We logged thousands of hours hanging out, writing graffiti, drinking beer, roaming the city or watching MTV. We used to do acid and heroin and watch Jaws 3 in 3D with the colors on the television reversed, laughing hysterically. He had a heart the size of Central Park. Merciful Goddess, I hope he is still alive.
Another redhead, fellow MCAD painter Brad Geiken.
I painted this in the fall of 1990, I think, when Brad and I were together. Brad was a terrific, terrific painter and a really nice boyfriend. He looks mean here but that is the fault of me as the painter, not the man. Or he was mad because I was a shitty girlfriend and he deserved better. He had the most beautiful red hair.
I am incredibly grateful to my Patreon Patrons, whose monthly financial support makes it possible for me to take time to document my art archives.
Until today, no record of these paintings existed – if we had a fire or flood they would just be gone forever.
At the cheese counter I ran at A.G. Ferrari in Berkeley, 1998.
The cool comes from under the trees in the Berlin summer nights, from the leafy plazas and million parks and the green breathing lung of Tiergarten.
You catch a vegetal blast of air that feels almost icy, the way passing the 72nd st Transverse used to feel on Central Park West in August. We’re pretty far north in Berlin, and it stays light til 10pm. The day Anthony Bourdain killed himself I took the U-7 to Eisenacher Str. at 7pm; the long twilight hadn’t even started.
On the subway an American was explaining what Currywurst is to another American. “And the place we’re going is the most famous currywurst stand in Berlin,” she said. I came out of the station by the church and walked along Akazienstr to my favorite Habibi falafel cafe, the one with the strange fountain full of sunken amphorae.
Where the guys are brusque and the line is slow but it feels so much like Mamoun’s.
And the falafel is damn near as good. In 1981 my boyfriend Paul and I used to scrape up change from under our bed and walk from the West Village to Macdougal to get falafel at Mamoun’s. I would ask for “extra, extra tahini” and they would laugh at me but fill my falafel til it dripped creamy tahini sauce. Paul slashed his throat with a razor blade in our bedroom when I was fifteen and was hospitalized at Bellevue. My first suicide attempt was two years earlier.
On days I visited Paul at the psych ward I would go to DiBella Brothers and get a Stuyvesant sandwich and marinated artichokes stuffed with blue cheese and eat them on the lawn of a high-rise in the East twenties. I would sit on the grass in that spring of 1982 with a book – Madeleine L’Engle, I was rereading the Earthsea books – and breathe in the good news that I was alive, still, and could feel pleasure.
The first gateau marjolaine I ever made, in 1992 or 1993.
In Berlin on this summer night I had slabs of roasted eggplant smeared with baba ganoush, cauliflower caramelized at the tips of the florets, cinnamon-scented chicken schwarma, pita dredged in green olive oil.
I breathed in and out in the warm cafe, as people came and went and bought baklava at the counter. They don’t make it there, of course, but it’s so good. Pistachio only, no walnut. Also delicious: the basbousa, drowning in sugar syrup.
I didn’t get any baklava, because I was planning to get ice cream, and i can always come back another day. I ate roasted carrots cut slantwise, soft as sweet potatoes. Mint leaves. Again green oil, soft pita. Again mint.
Fresh mint leaves are the single most luxurious affordable luxury item in the world.
I sat for a bit after I finished eating, looking around, breathing.
Cakes, tarts and mousses I made for a party I gave when my first Star Trek comic came out in 1994.
Hand-sculpted gold-leafed marzipan penguins I made for a wedding cake at Dean & DeLuca in 1996.
My breath is safe in my lungs, moving safely, freely. In 1987 in my tiny Chelsea bedroom the paramedics yelled into their walkie-talkies, “Put a rush on that bus!”. My boyfriend Richie hadn’t been able to wake me up.
My heart ticks over smoothly. In 1996 in Adams-Morgan I stood up, stepped one step to turn on Victoria’s oven, stepped one step back to the kitchen table, and called the hotline instead.
I was working at Dean & DeLuca Georgetown in 1996, manager of the bread and pastry and fine chocolate departments. I had the most beautiful food in the world at my fingertips.
It was like a museum of food, our store, and I would cry in the bathroom in the basement.
Here in the Berlin summer, I left Habibi’s and went down the street to Eisfee. Eis means ice cream, and Fee of course is “fairy”. I had Berliner Bar, a vanilla eis with karamell and brownies. The flavor is amazing but the texture was a bit chewier than usual. I walked slowly up towards Gotzstr. eating ice cream with the sky still, still light. It seemed like the sun would never slip over the horizon, like the city was holding it against the skyline.
The first wedding cake I ever made, white chocolate with white chocolate buttercream and handmade marzipan roses.
The charming streets of Schöneberg are lined with restaurants and cafes, and their outdoor tables were full of evening diners. People were eating together, waiters were bringing full plates. I smelled fish skin sizzling on iron, and lemon juice, outside a taverna. I smelled cilantro and green curry, and basil crisping on top of margarita pizza in a wood oven. I smelled tandoori lamb, and roasting doner kebab. Berbere and sumac. Cumin, the scent of life.
I walked up to Jones Ice Cream, and waited in the line, which was no worse than the Bi-Rite line on a Tuesday night in winter.
Bûche de noel with meringue mushrooms and crème brûlées, Christmas 1994.
Jan Diekmann at Jones Ice Cream
Jan Diekmann, who runs the line, saluted me when I came in. I only make it over there every couple months, but I have made it clear how deeply I value the quality of the ice cream. I had a scoop of black sesame ice cream on one of their absurdly good white chocolate cranberry cookies.
It was a serenade of salty, buttery, umami-rich sweetness, yet with a grassy and floral creaminess. I love the way you taste the grass in good cream.
I will go ahead and say Jones Ice Cream has better flavors than Bi-Rite. At Jones each flavor is actually even more superbly calibrated, but Bi-Rite beats them on texture. I ate very slowly, paging through “Sweet Berlin”, a book of Berlin pastry chefs, confiseurs and chocolatiers. When I was done I dodged through the line, and thanked the counter staff quickly, as I often do at such times. “Vielen danke! Sehr lecker, lecker-lecker!”.
And then got out of there, because you don’t take up people’s time in the evening rush.
Gateau mârjolaine with white chocolate gates and handmade marzipan roses, and petit-fours, made for my first wedding in 1995.
I walked up Goltzstr to the St. Matthias Kirche, which is being repaired, like every other fucking building in Berlin. I smelled a breath of lilacs at the edge of the small park there, though it’s past their season, and I saw that among the wild roses there is a little cherry tree, laden with shiny fruit.
There was a tiny path worn through the loose flowering bush, but I left the cherries for the kids who will come to the Markt am Winterfeldplatz tomorrow.
At the Markt am Winterfeldplatz I once bought a handmade praline of milk chocolate ganache dusted with bee pollen; my friend Monique bought flaxseed oil they grind as you watch.
In 1987 I was sitting in the Cocolat cafe on Fillmore st., eating Alice Medrich‘s three-chocolate mousse cake and drinking a split of ice-cold Piper Heidseick I had shoplifted. I was high on heroin and I was still absolutely fucking miserable. I said to myself, fuck, if this mousse can’t make me happy, drugs really must not work for me anymore.
I went to my first recovery meeting just a couple days later. It was another eighteen months before I got sober, but that moment was the beginning.
I went back to San Francisco in 1991, two years sober, and went to that Cocolat and bought Mme. Medrich’s cookbook, Cocolat. It was the first serious cookbook I bought as an adult, and I made that three-chocolate mousse cake for the opening of my first art show at school.
I spent my tweens reading Vladimir Estragon’s Waiting for Dessert column in the Village Voice and Craig Claiborne in the New York Times. But it was Innumerable hours studying Cocolat and The Cake Bible in the 90s that formed the beginning of my professional food career, which put a roof over my head when none of my other skills could.
I walked up to Nollendorfplatz, where I picked a sprig of lavender and sniffed it over and over as I waited for the bus, as the sky darkened at last, as everything turned blue.
Astringent, spicy soapy, floral, herbal – lavender is everything. I can’t believe I’m alive. I am stupidly fucking grateful to be alive. In Culver City in 2005 I was curled up on the floor of the bathroom of my second husband’s corporate housing, cradling the phone, holding on to the hotline. I had taken the scissors, the sharpest blade I could find in the place, in there with me.
Holding on to the hotline like a subway pole. The hotline was the only dignity in my pain, the only justification for my existence now that I was discarded by my life partner. I was experiencing the worst emotional pain I had known since I got sober, and I wanted so badly to be dead, but the hotline held me. They told me I had value when every particle of my brain was telling me otherwise.
Halloween cake with hand-sculpted marzipan and royal icing bat, raspberry mousse heart and vanilla Bavarian brain for Halloween, 2001.
When food doesn’t make me happy, I know I’m depressed.
Gateau Marjolaine I made for my 50th birthday, Berlin 2017.
I don’t mean pleasure; as a libertine, a person with lifelong disordered eating, I can use sugar and carbs to get drug-like comfort even when I’m deeply depressed. I mean happy – that sense of exhilaration and wonder, at the alchemy of flavor.
At the mystery of how the elements of the food come together.
For me, eating is reading a story, thinking about where the food comes from on the planet, the food traditions of the culture. About the antecedents and variations of the dish.
I never eat pasta without remembering my training at The Pasta Shop in Berkeley in the late 90s.
Coulibiac of saumon made for Daria’s 30th birthday in 2017, recipe from The Pie and Pastry Bible.
We learned that microscopic corrugations in the surface of the century-old bronze dies give the best extruded pastas their sauce-grabbing power. We tasted forty-five-year-old balsamic, syrupy thick, and Cowgirl Creamery fromage Blanc made that day, and there was always Acme Bread.
The cheese period of my Pasta Shop education was especially precious. I trained with a Neal’s Yard cheesemonger. She taught me how to break an 85 pound wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano, and taste the first flake from the heart of the wheel. The head chef at the Pasta Shop was a joyful grey-haired Deadhead who ate kimchi for breakfast every morning. She was wonderful. Amazing food women have guided me all my life.
The summer I was 24 I worked as a cook in a restaurant on a boat on the Mississippi River, with a group of other women. We would bake off the night’s desserts in the hot afternoons, music playing, the windows of the boat all open, cutting whole flats of ripe peaches, until everything smelled like ripe peaches. Cooking with those women are some of my most cherished kitchen memories, even though one night a body washed up in the inlet next to our boat.
Making flourless chocolate cake for Daria, 2017.
When Spalding Gray’s body was found in the East River in 2004, I thought it was a sign.
Depressed people think crazy shit like that. I had been so depressed for so long, it just seemed like I couldn’t possibly find the strength to keep going. I thought, what is the point of making it another decade and then giving up anyway? I thought, he fought it all that time only to lose in the end. I was tired of calling the hotlines, of hiding how I felt from everyone. I felt like I would get better, then get worse, and each time I was sick I was more exhausted.
But then I got to leave my toxic job, and I started painting again, and I got on Wellbutrin, and by 2005 I was doing great – until my husband left me. Between that, the Great Recession, losing my house and losing my art business, I was down for the count until 2011. And yet, that wasn’t the end of the story. I thought my story would end like Spalding Gray’s, a long battle, the appearance of making it clear of the weeds, and then losing after all. That isn’t the story I got.
The story I know today is the story of the miracle of not being depressed.
My story today is that I have been in true, complete, uninterrupted remission from my lifelong depression for almost six years. It is the story of smelling green curry from a cafe table and feeling it as a celebration of life and human magic. Instead of feeling it as a rebuke.
Once in 1995 I was standing by a pond in a park in Hartford, looking at some ducks on the water. My comic book had been cancelled, I had no apartment and my stuff was in storage, my first marriage was coming apart, my student loans had just defaulted and I had been severely depressed for a year. I felt really pissed that there was this beautiful scene, that I was supposed to appreciate, when all I could think about was how many Tylenol it takes to kill yourself.
It seemed like a cruel cosmic joke, those fucking ducks. That’s how the world feels, when you’re depressed. It affects every part of your worldview. I remember the relentless negativity and hopelessness of most of my life quite clearly. But I’ve never operated from that system of feelings, despite dwelling within it for the majority of my time on the planet. I’ve always, always proceeded as if things were gonna get better, as if I would be ok someday, no matter how bad I felt.
Vegan chocolate cake with vegan chocolate mousse I made last month. Photo by Daria Rein.
I was always blessed with a dunderheaded amount of what has turned out to be, surprisingly, justified faith.
Thanks to my extremely high resilience score, and the love and support I’ve been blessed with all along, I believed in a possible future without depression. But I felt the pain of that worldview most of the time, and the pain and pressure of it were unbelievable. It’s only now, having been released from it for almost six years, that I can begin to understand how pervasive and relentless and exhausting it was.
I fought like a lioness to save my body, my soul, my work, my love.
I would never say I won, because I have no idea what will happen tomorrow. Luckily, I already had pretty good skills for taking chronic illness a day at a time when I entered remission from depression. Twenty-nine years of sobriety, and three rounds of cold turkey heroin withdrawal before that, have given me certain abilities. One of them is the ability to be fucking grateful not to be in pain. SO grateful it’s like a whole emotion, like being in love. Another is the ability to relish reversals of fortune.
I never imagined I could be this deeply, consistently, profoundly happy.
It can get better, and statistically, it just plain WILL for some depressed people. Happiness has a U-shape for many and you can age out of depression, or get better through treatment, or heal. I have no idea how to share that truth with those who are suffering, to get it in under their aching chests where it can grow.
Suzanne Forbes photographed at home by Mirella Frangella, May 2018
I only know my story, the story of walking around on a summer night so glad to be alive I feel like I won the lottery. Eating ice cream.
I wrote here about how Longterm Remission from Severe Depression is Fucking Possible.
And here about how Depression is a Disease, and Most of Us Aren’t Doctors.
More writing about my fancy-food career here and converting US recipes for Europe here (Guerilla Peanut Butter Pie) and here (Five-Car Fender-Bender Flapjacks, GF).
If you’re having suicidal thoughts, the Berlin Crisis Service (Berliner Krisendienst) offers telephone and in-person help in English at nine centres throughout the city: www.berliner-krisendienst.de/en/
So I tabled it for a while, to see if I got more comfortable using pastels.
One of my beloved Friend-Muse-Patrons sent me a box of Prismacolor Nupastels for my birthday. Those were my favorite pastels in college, if I could have been said to have a favorite in a media I do not love. They are square in profile rather than round and both harder and more waxy than most pastels. I find them much easier to control and they lay down a lot of pigment on my toothy Canson Mi Teintes paper.
I also knew I needed a workable fixatif to freeze each layer of color as I laid it on.
But I was having trouble finding the kind of workable fix I used in art school.
Eventually I figured out that Winsor and Newton “soft fixative” is the same product. It’s sold as Professional Fixative now in the US, I believe. It’s a (virtually odorless! brave new world!) spray fixative that holds the dusty pigments in place, and creates a new layer of tooth for the next layer of pastel to catch on and adhere to. I ordered some and went back to the picture of Viva this week.
The process of adding layers of Prismacolor Nupastels to a portrait on Canson Mi Teintes paper by Suzanne Forbes, 2018
Pastels are imprecise anyway, so I can use them fairly well with my injured hand.
The problem with workable fixatif, or any fixatif, is that when you spray them on, they adhere the pigment particles to the paper with an adhesive medium. Which has the effect of darkening the pigments. I hadn’t had much trouble with the Lascaux fix I’d been using, but the new can totally knocked out my highlights.
After each spray of fix I had to go in and restore the highlights. The paper got coarser and coarser, although as promised the fix does build a new layer of tooth. You can continue to add pigment on the surface for a long time. The lightest values in the drawing you see in the photographs aren’t properly fixed; they could easily be rubbed or wiped off. But that is a problem for another day.
I feel like this is a nice depiction of Viva’s beauty and mischief!
Thanks so very much to my Patrons on Patreon whose financial support makes it possible for me to experiment and grow as an artist. You sustain me.
The Zoll is where packages from America are held for ransom, if they don’t get lost.
I finally had to go there a while back, due to the error of an Amazon seller. I had scrupulously avoided it for three years!
Of course I made a drawing. Everyone there was perfectly nice, contrary to the yelp reviews.
If you are planning a move to Berlin, do not mail yourself anything or have anyone mail you anything bigger than a postcard.
The Zoll will open it and charge you duties on it probably even if it is a gift or even if it is your old clothes from college. It’s just not worth it to wait a million years for your package to arrive, then get a letter from the Zoll, schlep over to the Zoll, take a number, wait in line, go through the scary mystery door, and experience your package being probed before you pay at least 18% duties on it and probably also 18% on the cost of shipping.
Items under 20-25 euros including shipping are exempt, but the exact amount seems to be variable and they still take FOREVER to arrive. If you must go, follow this excellent protocol from yelp user Karim S.:
Both eBay.com and Amazon.com have a “Duties/Import charges” function that sellers can use. If your checkout includes those, and you pay them, your item will arrive fine.
This is the only exception to shipping stuff from the US. eBay’s International Shipping Program is fantastic and now even ensures items from the UK make it here, as previously they never made it. They would just disappear or be returned. (See my post on my hatred of the German postal system here).
Etsy’s function for this doesn’t seem to work properly, etsy sellers aren’t aware or made aware of Germany’s duties, and etsy stuff will be lost in the void or Zoll’d.
Amazon.co.uk also works fine, much better than an ebay.co.uk transaction without the International Shipping process.
If an Amazon.com seller doesn’t list duties/import charges for an item over 20 bucks, they didn’t set up the item sale properly and your stuff will wind up at the Zoll. Don’t risk it.
Just ask your friends to bring you your stuff when they visit. *cough* or your mom who might heroically bring an extra suitcase just of your stuff.
Or buy it from the UK, til Brexit. The equivalent of Target here for cheap good value basic clothes and household furnishings (but only online) is bonprix.de. You can get a LOT of amazing stuff on the eBay.de free classifieds, ebay kleinanzeigen. There are Facebook groups for free stuff and “sell your stuff”. Avoid craigslist, it barely works here. Also, IKEA delivers. Other Nature, the lovely queer sex shop, sells US brands of toys, harnesses, packers etc. which *they* pick up at the Zoll and pay the duties on, specifically so you don’t have to have a creepy violating experience ordering the intimate products you like best.
Just don’t ship stuff from the US.
Well, if you must, you can use MYUS.com, which is a shipping service. You get a shipping address in the States from them, you ship your items there, and they ship your items to Germany. (Or anywhere, I think?) The items arrive at the one FedEx office in Berlin, which is out somewhere near the Zoll, and then FedEx ships them to you. And THEN, a week or a month later, you get a big bill from FedEx for your duties! Which if you don’t pay, will promptly be referred to collections, which you can’t really dodge in Germany, and you’ll pay another 50-75 euros in fees! Not that I know anything about that. Cough.
She wanted to do another session, while I was actually working, so we set up a time with Shakrah, who I had recently started a second portrait of.
Suzanne Forbes painting Shakrah Yves photographed by Mirella Frangella June 2018 all rights reserved
I love Mirella’s work and her way of using available light and her handheld flash to capture a close and realistic view of her subject.
Suzanne Forbes painting Shakrah Yves photographed by Mirella Frangella June 2018 all rights reserved
We were so relaxed and comfortable with her presence as she worked.
During the sitting, at one point Shakrah was lounging elegantly on my boudoir chair while Mirella shot some close-ups of me.
I looked up and saw her and I yelled, “THAT is the look!” and grabbed my brush to make superfast big changes to the painting.
I changed her pose from standing to sitting in about ten minutes!
Suzanne Forbes painting Shakrah Yves photographed by Mirella Frangella June 2018 all rights reserved
As you can see, I changed the painting quite a lot. I don’t often make such big changes between the first and second sittings, unless some new aspect of my model just captivates me. Or I accidentally painted my model standing on the wrong leg, like in this portrait of my beloved Friend-Muse-Patron Ramon!)
Somehow I feel like you have more of a sense of Shakrah as a singer in the new version even though I haven’t painted the mike in yet, like she’s pausing by your table in the cabaret.
We had such a lovely time working together with Mirella, it was amazing. Once my hand is healed enough for the cast to come off Shakrah and I will reconvene and finish the painting!
You can see our first sitting here and the previous portrait Shakrah and I did together here. Thanks so, so much to my beautiful Patrons on Patreon for providing the monthly sponsorship that allows me to tell women’s stories and collaborate with women artists!
My friend Miss Natasha Enquist was performing and I very rarely draw outside, so I wanted to take the opportunity.
I was sitting in the shade in the tent with Roxie so I was drawing MNE from a new angle, her very lovely and hard-earned posterior!
I was intrigued by the way the straps of the accordion delineated her shoulders. An accordion is such a heavy, breathing instrument; I love to draw the way people play with their whole bodies.
I especially like the fashion-illustration style of this last one.
I was gonna be a fashion artist before I discovered superhero comics. I don’t know how long it’ll be before I can draw live again or use a pencil/brush pen, because of the bus accident I was in. So these are the last new drawings for a bit! But my orthopedist says I should heal up just fine. Meanwhile, I’ll be finishing up other things and doing other kinds of art 🙂