Category Archives: New York in the 80s

More archive art about addiction, from 1991.

In the ambulance with Mom mixed media on paper Fall 1991 Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne Forbes

In the ambulance with Mom mixed media on paper Fall 1991 Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne Forbes

Not much fun, this period of my work!

I can remember at the time, 1991, feeling like, alright, I’ve been sober a couple years, I’ve got a little bit of art school left, if I am gonna make work about being a junkie on the Lower East Side, now is the time.

Hold my place mixed media on paper Fall 1991 Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne Forbes

Hold my place mixed media on paper Fall 1991 Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne Forbes

It definitely felt like I was gonna handle the psychic material and then be done featuring it in my art.

And that has proven true. I haven’t felt any need to revisit that period of my life in my visual art and indeed I don’t talk about it much in my recovery community this last couple decades either. I’ve made enough wack mistakes in 31 years of sobriety to have plenty of other material to talk about!

Dino with me mixed media on paper Fall 1991 Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne Forbes

Dino with me mixed media on paper Fall 1991 Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne Forbes

Most of these drawings, which I made in Fall 1991, were photocopied, colored, painted and collaged together in a large piece about addiction and recovery.

It had text from legal documents, old photos of me, and Miguel Piñero poetry. It was a really nice use of my comics background, combining words and pictures. A wash of sickly translucent green varnish unified the surface, except for three bright watercolors.

Me and Dwinkie mixed media on paper Fall 1991 Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne Forbes

Me and Dwinkie mixed media on paper Fall 1991 Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne Forbes

Dwinkie was a punk girl I used to panhandle with sometimes.

She lived in one of the last totally crazy squats on the Lower East Side, the kind with some stolen electricity, lots of candles, and no running water.

Self Portrait in the Tombs Jan 1989 by Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne Forbes Fall 1991

I did two pieces about the last time I was arrested, in January of 1989.

I spent three days, the 72-hour maximum hold, in The Tombs. Cold turkey heroin withdrawal. It was during a bitter freeze so the cops had rounded up all the homeless women and sex workers they could find, along with the junkies. There were about thirty five women in the cell, half of which you can see in the works above and below. I didn’t draw the toilet.

4am in the Tombs acrylic on paper Fall 1991 Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne Forbes

4am in the Tombs acrylic on paper Fall 1991 Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne Forbes

The sex workers, who were mostly not junkies and not in withdrawal like the rest of us, were bored and lively.

At 4 a.m. one night they were playing Simon Says, and I watched, when I wasn’t vomiting or purging black diarrhea on the single open toilet in the middle of the cell. I thought, “This is incredible material. I’ll use this some day.” I dug the pathos, the Hunter Thompson vibe of it.

left side collage mixed media on paper Fall 1991 Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne Forbes

left side collage mixed media on paper Fall 1991 Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne Forbes

I don’t think about it that way today, though. I think about how sad it was.

And how sad the carceral state and the opioid epidemic and the continuing criminalisation of sex work is. My part as a participant and witness sucked, but addressing the overarching spectrum of human suffering is so much more important. My escape from the sorrow, degradation and horror was in so many ways a function of my privilege.

collage right mixed media on paper Fall 1991 Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne Forbes

I got to be shipped off to a fancy treatment center, and got to stay in a nice halfway house for four months.

I could never have stayed sober otherwise. I also didn’t die when I overdosed on methadone because my mother let me stay at home, horrible as it was for her, while I was using.

20th st with mom collage mixed media on paper Fall 1991 Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne Forbes

20th st with mom collage mixed media on paper Fall 1991 Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne Forbes

My mom was there to call the paramedics, who revived me.

I was so, so incredibly blessed by her compassion for me. Yes, I did the work to stay sober. I have done it all these years. But I also had incredible opportunities, great resources, and tremendous inspiration and support from my mom. Most people have none of those things.

Hazelden mixed media on paper Fall 1991 Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne ForbesThe truth is, I’m not very interested in talking about these shitty junkie stories now.

What I do think is important is how goddam good the work I did then was. The big collage had three bright watercolors in it, about my recovery. The one above is my first night sober, detoxing at Hanley Hazelden treatment center in West Palm Beach on Jan 27, 1989. I painted the night nurse to look a bit like my mom.

St Paul 1990 watercolor on paper Fall 1991 Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne ForbesThis one is me at a year and a half sober, in my white-painted, loft-like art school apartment.

It was the first place of my own I really set up for my work.

And this is me on the phone with the tv station I worked for, wearing my mom’s nice grey suit, in 1991.

At my beautiful Craftsmen apartment with a fireplace, in my last year of school, already working regularly as a courtroom artist and working hard to break into comics. It was the last piece for the collage; I am turned away from the viewer, because the period of processing and disclosing the past is over.

I never forget it, though. Every night when I go to bed, I say a prayer of thanks for my safety and freedom, and I remember that cell in The Tombs.

Every night, I know what a miracle and a blessing it is that I am alive, and sober, and have a bed to sleep in (except for those two nights in recovery I have had to sleep in my car). Don’t leave before the miracle happens.

These paintings and drawings had never been photographed; until now, no record of them existed – if we had a fire or flood they would just be gone forever.

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.

A New York city subway car underneath a dollhouse in Berlin.

Extreme Sets NYC subway car customized by Suzanne Forbes Feb 2020Sometimes it takes me a really long time to finish a project.

Extreme Sets NYC subway car customized by Suzanne Forbes Feb 2020 Virginia Slims adLike, years and years! Loved ones brought me Extreme Sets’ NYC subway car and subway station from the States in the Fall of 2017.

I customized and installed the station pretty quickly, but then there were problems with the lighting. (There are ALWAYS problems with miniature lighting.) I decided to wait a bit and see what I could figure out.

I researched many different types of lights. I got a new type of LED strips for the station, then decided they wouldn’t work. It still has no lights!

I did permanently assemble the subway car seats, using a combination of hot glue and carpet tape to really square them up nicely, and filled in gaps with my beloved Apoxie Sculpt, a cleaner and more paintable finish than spackle. And I spent several years finding vintage 1980s ads to line the headers and side panels. Brooke Shields for Calvin! Take the Plane to the Train! And of course, Crazy Eddie! He’s practically GIVING this stuff away!!!

But I was nervous about the lights. I studied the solutions in use by action figure diorama people, and battery-operated flexible LED strips with adhesive backs seemed the clear winner.

So I did the final customizing and light install on the car…this month!!

I decided Winter 2020 would be my midlife nostalgia and taking stock time.

Extreme Sets NYC subway car customized by Suzanne Forbes Feb 2020 doorsSomehow, I found the psychic strength and motivation to tackle the huge archive project I’d been putting off since the summer of 2015.

The New Mutants movie is finally coming out.

And hub and I got to the third season of The Deuce, where they are in 1984. The silhouettes of the coats and the way people’s bangs moved gave me such a stab in the heart of grief, loss and unstuck-in-time that I had to stop our watching for a month.

Then once I’d dug into the archives for a couple weeks I was like fine, I can take it, I’m literally soaking in it anyway.

So we watched the rest of The Deuce, and I’m on twitter talking to the New Mutants fans, and on Instagram talking to the wonderful storyboard artist for the movie, Ashley Guillory, and it’s just 80s all over the place. It is poignant, piquant, sickening, and motivating.

I made the arms for the seats by softening styrene cylinders with a lighter, and yikes they looked like my old drug pipe, lying around.

I had to quickly throw out the failed tries (bending styrene is hard!) because seeing them out of the corner of my eye was freaking me out. Once spraypainted silver, though, they look great!

I didn’t tag the subway car with real writer’s tags, for the most part.

I was drained by the emotional work of connecting with all this material, and unnerved by the shockingly real look of the car. I just made up lots of random tags. “SEO” actually appears multiple times, because it looked good! I put up the tags of my dead boyfriends and old friends here and there, in the layers of gray-scale marker, but I let it not be the focus. I needed to get this project done, at last.

It is shocking that I survived, and critical that I work, for all the ones who didn’t.

Having this piece done, and putting it in its cubicle underneath the dollhouse, is like sealing up the now-recorded archives of 80s and 90s artwork. It creates a way forward where nostalgia and grief are gently given their places, and respectfully packaged, out of view of my daily life.

You can read more about my dollhouses and their function as memory palace (Gedächtnispalast), Valhalla and memorial below.

My first action figure dollhouse. My action figure subway station. The X-Men’s dollhouse.

My Rahne and Dani lovebird action figure customs, Douglock custom, and queer New Mutants art from my archives.

The New York subway I knew, in the 80s.

From the vaults: art about addiction, from 1991.

Self Portrait with Dino Jan 26 1989 by Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne Forbes Fall 1990On Jan 27 2020 I celebrated 31 years clean and sober.

These paintings are from Fall 1991, when I was just turning three years sober. I had several excellent painting teachers at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, the school where I finished my degree after I got sober. These paintings were part of a series I did with one of them.

The one above shows me and my friend Dino in her flat on First Avenue, the night before I left for treatment, January 27, 1989.

Self Portrait with P at the Jane West in 1987 by Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne Forbes Fall1990This one, of my longtime on-and-off boyfriend P. and I, is at the Jane West Hotel.

It was an SRO then, I think it’s fancy now.

Self Portrait Panhandling 1988 by Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne Forbes Fall 1991My main income as a junky came from panhandling.

Not because I was opposed to sex work – I have always known and loved sex workers – but because my father, my first abuser, made me so self-conscious about my cellulite! I found it very hard to see my own body as a commodity.

Self Portrait Panhandling with subway entry in 1988 by Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne Forbes Fall1991These paintings are pretty dark, I know.

Their surfaces are excoriated, like my skin was then. I literally scraped away the paper.

Self Portrait Panhandling with subway entry in 1988 by Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne Forbes Fall1991 cuBeing a junky was bad then and it’s bad now.

Self Portrait snorting on LES in 1988 by Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne Forbes Fall 1991I have always had a ferocious sense of self-preservation, beading up between the lashings of self-destruction.

I wasn’t a needle user til my very last night before treatment; I snorted instead, in the bathroom of every restaurant and bar that would let me on First Avenue.

I worried a lot, at the time, about what the alkaloid plus whatever it was cut with was doing to my sinuses.

Yesterday I had my first sinus ultrasound, at my first visit to a German Otolaryngologist.

He ran the lube-slick device over my cheek, and he yelped, “Jesus Christ!” And said no more, except that I must get a CT scan immediately and I may need surgery.

Luckily sinus surgery not too big a deal and we have incredible German health insurance that will cover everything! But yeah, I guess there was a reason I was sick eight times in ten months last year.

I am so lucky, so grateful to be alive, to be here in Germany, to be working.

Self Portrait panhandling 1989 by Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne Forbes Fall 1991I feel such grief for the huge population in the States living in opiate addiction.

Harm reduction matters and #narcansaveslives. Don’t leave before the miracle happens.

None of these paintings had ever been photographed; no record of them existed – if we had a fire or flood they would just be gone forever.

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.

 

More Rahne and Dani queer New Mutants art from the 80s!

Rahne Dani New Mutants Queer Love Movie and 1986 art by Suzanne ForbesApparently, in 1986 I predicted the future on-screen LGBTQ romance of New Mutants Rahne and Danielle, aka Wolfsbane and Mirage!

Wow, I had completely, completely forgotten these existed!

Rahne and Dani double page love scene spread by Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne Forbes May 1986Holy heck I made so much queer art with the New Mutants!

Thanks to the support of my Patrons on Patreon, I try to do a little archiving of my vast lifelong art archives every month. I hit a goldmine of late-80s and early 90s stuff this week. Rahne long panel by Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne Forbes May 1986

Because these drawings, which are all dated May 7- May 12, are on illustration board, they had gotten stored with larger works from a slightly later time.

I believe these were all drawn in May 1986, not long after I first met Chris Claremont, based on the level of my skills.

And also because the love scene is totally inspired by Kory and Karras in one of my very favorite issues of the Titans, New Teen Titans (vol.2) #19 (1986), which was drawn by Eduardo Barreto!

Rahne’s makeover is an echo of the X-Men scene in issue #210, where Rogue goes to Bloomingdales, which is what Chris was writing an outline for in his little stenographer notebook the day I met him.

I haven’t seen any of this artwork in decades!

Literally, the box was packed up when I lived in West Hartford, where I drew my last issue of Star Trek for DC. That was Fall 1995. New Mutants Rahne makeover May 1986 by Suzanne Forbes aka Rachel KetchumIt traveled all over the US with me, and finally to Berlin, like all the other boxes of art!

 

Obviously, I desperately wanted to show the kids having a good time!

One of the (many) things I was always (fondly) hassling Chris about was the lack of PARTYING in the book. It was the 80s, f’r chrissake! I loved them, I wanted them to be happy for at least a night.

New Mutants party scene May 1986 by Suzanne Forbes Aka Rachel KetchumDani is making a vision bouquet for Rahne! Isn’t that so cute???

I drew Kitty drunkenly phasing through the couch and Sam shrugging and toasting her with his beer!
New Mutants coming out story May 1986 by Suzanne Forbes aka Rachel Ketchum

But like all coming-out stories, this one takes an emotional turn for a while.

Having myself been through the awkward moment when you’re fifteen and you tell your best female friend you have a crush on her, I didn’t imagine it would go perfectly smoothly.

New Mutants Rahne and Dani coming out story May 1986 by Suzanne Forbes aka Rachel KetchumI was optimistic. I believed those mutant girls would get together!

My own girl crush confession had resulted in hot shower sex and waking up in spoons. And my mom took her and I to brunch next morning! So I had a hopeful take on things. I feel like the (sorry it’s so hard to see) text did a pretty good job of mirroring Chris’ style.Queer New Mutants double page party scene May 1986 by Suzanne Forbes Aka Rachel Ketchum

Look how happy they are! This drawing totally reminds me of Calvin and Hobbes dancing.

I am truly enormously excited about the New Mutants film, and so excited to see my vision of Rahne and Dani’s love on the big screen.

You can read about how I became a New Mutants fan and my journey to become a comics penciller here, and you can see my Wolfsbane and Mirage custom action figures here!

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 drawings existed – if we had a fire or flood they would just be gone forever.

For the archives: My queer gaze, as expressed in pinups.

Pinup of flapper Spring 1982 or 3 by Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne ForbesI was always drawing pretty women, as a teen.

I was inspired by the great illustrators, like Alphonse Mucha and Maxfield Parrish, then by SF artists – by sixteen my bedroom was wallpapered with Boris Vallejo- and then by the comic artists who were known for their “Good Girl Art”, which does not mean art of good girls.

I believe the golfing flapper above dates from Spring 1983, when I had dropped out of Stuyvesant and was taking fashion illustration classes at The Art Student’s League of New York, waiting to be old enough to matriculate at Parsons. Before I discovered comics in Fall 1984, I wanted to be a newspaper fashion illustrator, which was a total real job then!

This drawing of a futuristic sex worker, in an imagined 2001, is probably from late 1982 or early 1983.

I can date most of my old drawings pretty well by what I had learned of my craft at that point! This drawing shows the street-hustling sex worker (although that term didn’t exist then) checking in with her boss via a little Bluetooth type headset, and dosing herself with drugs via a push-button in her hand that goes to her arm. Not a judgment – I just knew a lot of sex workers who were junkies in my teens, and I thought it would be nice if it was convenient for them. It looks like I designed it to be safe and prevent overdoses.

This bondage girl is from later 1984.

I think it may have been one of the portfolio drawings I used to get into Parsons – you were supposed to do an illustration from a book and I did The Story of O. Yup, I got into Parsons School of Design with a GED and a bunch of smutty pinups.

Fetish pinup drawing by Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne Forbes Oct 29 1986This one, from 1986, was probably drawn as a present for my friend Chris Claremont.

Because it’s signed. I didn’t sign most work until the 90s, except when giving it as a gift. Why didn’t I sign my art? Because it wasn’t good enough to meet my own standards yet most of the time. It didn’t look like what I saw in my head yet.

And I was really IN the process of learning to get better, and really just working the process. Some days I still am!

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 modern media record of these drawings existed – if we had a fire or flood they would just be gone forever.

 

 

For the archives: self-portraits from the 80s.

Self portrait with Gix 1981 or 1982 by Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne ForbesThis is a deep dive, my darlings.

Pretty freaky to look at and handle these drawings. They have been in storage for decades, traveling the US and the world with me. The one above is the oldest. It’s a picture of me and my friend Gix, drawn probably winter 1982. I would have been fifteen and Gix seventeen. We are both wearing clothes and jewelry we actually wore at the time, and smoking, as we did, all the time. For the Europeans reading this, the header comes from a saying attributed to P.T. Barnum:

There’s a sucker born every minute, and two to take him.

Self portrait Spring 1984 by Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne ForbesThis one is from Spring 1984; I believe it is the self-portrait I drew for my Parsons application, or the study for it.

I wore harem pants a lot in the first half of the 80s. I don’t apologize; they were the only form of pants I ever liked. My husband and I are watching the first season of “The Deuce” and last night Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character was wearing earrings exactly like the ones I am wearing in this drawing, which were silver and turquoise, with hawks on them.

Self portrait in Betsey Johnson style dress by Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne Forbes circa 1985This is from around 1985, I think.

The dress here is very similar to a flowered, corseted Betsey Johnson dress I owned, although drawn much longer, and the drawing is probably a school assignment.

Self portrait Spring 1986 by Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne ForbesThis is from Spring 1986.

I was a sophomore in the Illustration Program at Parsons and chipping, which means using heroin only on weekends. The still-life below, a 1986 class assignment, is also sort of a self-portrait; it’s my cigarettes and my pipe (people used to smoke heroin, no idea if they still do). Clean and sober 30 years this past January 27, babies!Pipe drawing by Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne Forbes 1986

And this one below is also from late 1986, or early 1987, I believe. Self portrait at 312 w 20th st drawing by Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne Forbes probably Fall 1986 or winter 1987

You can see some painted self-portraits from when I was newly sober and first learning to paint here in another archive post.

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 modern media record of these drawings existed – if we had a fire or flood they would just be gone forever.

 

Archiving some very early portrait paintings.

Portrait of John Talbot Wallis by Suzanne Forbes aka Rachel Ketchum fall 1989One of the very first portraits I ever painted.

In 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, Elizabeth Erickson.

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!

Portrait painting of JTW Fall 1989 by Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne ForbesBecause it was a beginner’s class, we started in a limited palette, and the painting above really shows how new I was to handling paint.

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. Detail portrait of John Talbot Wallis by Suzanne Forbes aka Rachel Ketchum Fall 1989My 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.

detail Portrait of Brad Geiken by Suzanne Forbes aka Rachel Ketchum Fall 1990Another 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.

Portrait painting of Brad Geiken prob Fall 1990 by Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne Forbes editHere is another painting of Brad, unfinished. I wish I’d finished this one. What a great subject to paint he was!
Portrait painting of Brad Geiken prob Fall 1990 by Rachel Ketchum aka Suzanne Forbes edit

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.

The Anthony Bourdain Memorial Ice Cream Crawl. Cause you gotta have food at a wake.

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 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. Photo by Daria Rein.

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

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).

Resources:

In Berlin,

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/

The NHS.

The National Suicide Prevention Helpline.

Rob Delaney’s amazing post on depression and getting help.

The Trans Lifeline.

Wandelism in Wilmersdorf!

 

limo destruction at Wandelism March 16 2018 by Suzanne ForbesI finally got out to visit the Berlin graffiti/street art community!

I’ve been wanting to start documenting this huge and crucial part of Berlin’s art scene since we got here. But it just hadn’t worked out until now.

This week I heard about an art installation, an Urban Art Temple, called Wandelism.

Denis and Marina at Wandelism March 16 2018 by Suzanne Forbes

And it was only three subway stops away! So I contacted the organizer and was invite to come by and make drawings of the artists at work. Work was wrapping up but I met some lovely folks and got to sketch some of the action. Everyone was super friendly and chill. I met Marina Zumi, one of the artists, who had the coolest Jessica Jones vibe going on, and Denis Leo Hegic, who was documenting the event with a camera guy.

Artist on scaffold at Wandelism by Suzanne Forbes March 16 2018I was very happy to begin connecting with this community, which is both so familiar and so different.

There is a great range of works in the Wandelism Temple. There are murals, pieces, large scale flaming sculptures made with played cans, scale models of trains (I want one for my action figure dollhouse so badly!) and entire rooms painted up by individual artists. You can reserve a time for a guided tour here, or come to the vernissage on Saturday March 17 at 3pm. You can see tantalizing pics on Instagram here!

Art team at Wandelism March 16 2018 by Suzanne ForbesI was shocked to see everyone wearing masks, like AT-8 and Damian Yves Rohde here.

In my day the idea of graffiti artists wearing masks just hadn’t occurred to anybody, and if it had, none of us would have had money for them. Although of course they could have been racked from Pearl Paint like cans, I guess!

Young artist at Wandelism March 15 2018 by Suzanne ForbesWe just called what you spit up after a long night “technicolor phlegm.”

Much better to protect your lungs and health, so you can have a long working life. My people died young, mostly, and there is grief in revisiting the graffiti world for me, but also hope and joy. Like the sight of this young woman artist, Alice Gruen, drawing in her book. I’m looking forward to the opening on Saturday!!

As always, I am so grateful to my Patrons on Patreon, whose monthly financial support makes it possible for me to document Berlin life and art!

A New York subway station under a dollhouse in Berlin.

Peter Parker Rogues Gallery in customized action figure subway Suzanne Forbes Dec 2017Earlier this year I discovered that action figure photography is a thing.

Like, a huge thing. There are all these groups on Instagram of guys – it’s only guys, as far as I can tell – taking serious photos of their 6″ (dollhouse) scale action figures. As the toy photography culture has grown, props for it have also become a thing. And a company called Extreme-Sets (which tells you a lot about the dudebro culture of the toy photo groups) has emerged, creating pop-up cardboard sets for your action figure photo shoots.

When they came out with a subway station that had a NYC subway map and a subway car that looked like a classic NY car, I knew I had to have them.

Look at this, you can practically hear Electro saying “Ayy, whaddaya whaddaya?”

But shipping was ruinously expensive. Lucky for me, some friend-muse-patrons were coming to Berlin for Thanksgiving!

Once I opened my new sets, I set about kitbashing them. Kitbashing is a term from the model car world, I believe, that I learned after it found its way into dollhouse culture.

My dollhouse, for example, is a radical kitbash of a standard dollhouse kit.

I trimmed down some elements of the Extreme-Sets station and changed their proportions so it would feel truer to an 80s’-era station.

I customized my station by cutting the panels apart and melding them back together in new forms. That way I could feature the subway map and have the parts of the panels I liked best clearly displayed.

I added a poster for the original Terminator movie. It’s 1984 in my subway station.

I mounted the panels on the deconstructed interior of the IKEA door modules on the bottom center cubbies of my dollhouse, using carpet tape. I spackled the grooves where the panels met and colored the spackle to match.

Customized memorial subway station panels Suzanne Forbes dec 2017Then I tagged the station and the train car with the tags of my 80s graffiti writer boyfriends and people I knew back in the day, and my own tag, with my crew, Acid Writers. I posted what I was working on Instagram, with the hashtag “AcidWriters”. It showed up as an official hashtag, so I browsed through the images, and saw people I recognized.

That’s when I found out another one of my boyfriends from the 80s was dead.

We had a high-risk lifestyle. I don’t know why I had expected he’d be alive. To be honest, I hadn’t thought about what he was doing in many years. There’s so much grief and loss from those days; I don’t borrow trouble. Matt was drinking hard by the time he was twelve.

Making art, and my dollhouse in particular, is a way of processing grief and turning it into tribute.

My dollhouse is a safe house for my memories and stories, a home for all the things that matter. How much I loved Peter Parker and the New Mutants when I was seventeen. The refuge that fantasy books provided, starting with the Narnia books when I was eight. The impossible, inconsolable grief of the death of my best friend and love of my young life at nineteen. The New York we roamed and loved, and the way Berlin recalls it.

Berlin is a recursive, palimpsest city, drilled down deep into the underworld, like New York.It seems completely right to build a tunnel to the past under my dollhouse here, a secret shrine with coded messages.

Stories are the immortality of love, and telling my stories are my tribute to the dead.