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Ada Risi Character Sketch

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“Ada Risi is a force to be reckoned with. The seventy-eight year old artist has been the standard bearer in the world of avant-garde art for nearly half a century. But who is the woman behind the persona? What forces shaped her into the artist opening her one woman show in New York’s tony New Museum? Stay tuned for tonight’s Portrait of The Artist, when David devotes the entire hour to this fascinating story.”

Ada paced the small space behind the heavy gold curtains. Five precise steps to the right then turn and five more to the left. Back and forth she marched, but it wasn’t nerves that kept her moving. Rather, it was Ada’s outsized personality that chafed at being trapped in this tiny space waiting to be introduced.

“No stop signs, no fear,” she whispered to herself, hearing the words in her mother’s voice as the host in his shiny grey suit finally wrapped up his effusive introduction and the canned applause swelled. There was no audience, the studio was carefully lit to give an impression of space and a sound technician in a booth somewhere would insert the fictitious audience’s response to her words. Such was the nature of interviews in this time of pandemic.

One deep breath and she stepped boldly through the curtains, smiling and waving at the non-existent audience. David Foster grasped both her hands and made kissy noises in the air in the general vicinity of her cheeks, which looked very warm on the monitors but it did not escape Ada’s notice that while the camera panned in on her, David was busy scrubbing his hands with sanitizing gel. Ada wondered what he would have made of sailing up the Yangtze River in a chinese ferry boat with 180 other people packed like sardines for four days as she had done with a short-lived but vigorous lover, Edouardo, in the early sixties.

She’d left Edouardo in the midst of a tour of the Zhangfei Temple when she met Moreign, a green-eyed Irish lass with a mild talent as a sculptress and a voice like the angels. They had spent a glorious three weeks backpacking around China that had left Ada with a raging case of Dengue fever and a small sculpture of her nude body asleep on a mat that still held a place of pride on her mantelpiece.

Oh, how Julietta had laughed and laughed when Ada told her the stories. She had been appropriately shocked for about twenty seconds to learn her daughter had dabbled in a same sex relationship but then Ada had always been unconventional. Julietta had fled Mussolini’s Italy while Ada was still in her belly and she was determined to raise her chick free of fear. Whether through her determination, or Ada’s own moonchild nature, she had certainly grown up fearless. It made no difference if she was racing her horses along the shore, or dancing alone with her skirts tucked up and her arms in the air, or defying societal norms in the name of art, Ada was a force of nature.

Federico, Ada’s father, had died in the smallpox outbreak in 1947 and mother and daughter had spent much of their lives since then together. The first few years Julietta had taken care of the house and Ada’s accounts while her daughter had wandered the globe gathering experiences and inspirations for her art. Later Julietta had traveled to wonderful exotic locations with her daughter. Together they had ridden elephants in the Golden Triangle, trekked as far as the second base camp in the Himalayas, and even went body surfing in Kauai. Late in her 90’s now, Julietta no longer traveled although Ada showed no signs of stopping. Even the cancer diagnosis and double mastectomy had barely slowed her down. “Besides,” she had once reasoned to Julietta over midnight margaritas, “I’ve got the knockers of a twenty year old.”

“Ada, I’m so glad to have you here. Our audience loves to get to know the people behind the art. So let’s dive right in and start with the question on everyone’s mind… You’ve been linked to quite a few major names, both in the art world and beyond. Why is it you’ve never married?” Ever observant Ada spotted the predatory gleam in the host’s eyes and for a moment she regretted her rash promise to set no restrictions on the interview. She dismissed the pair of warm, earthy brown eyes that haunted her memory and drew her famous flamboyance around herself like armor.

“Why Darlink, it is the art. The art is my lover, and it is a jealous lover indeed.” She laughed lightly as if she hadn’t a care in the world and from the unseen sound booth an audience laughed with her. In truth, Ada had very little accent but the heavy European pattern of her speech was another layer of the armor she wore. When Ada the artist appeared in public everything about her was designed to draw attention, from her accent, to her brightly outlandish wardrobe, to the untamed corona of vividly red hair. Ada the woman could easily blend into a crowd with simple clothes and a quiet, if somewhat formal manner of speaking. Even her outrageously red hair could be tamed into subtle behavior if she so desired.

“There was someone once, an artist like myself, of singular talent, but they chose to walk away from it all.” She stopped herself as those brown eyes hovered in her memory once more. Dwelling on the past would not change the present. Choices had been made and she had to live with them alone.

With the instincts of a car salesman David sensed he wasn’t going to get any more information from a direct approach and he switched tactics, chuckling along with her and asking about her childhood in upstate New York. Ada flirted and laughed and told charming stories about being thrown from her pony and the time she was “asked to withdraw” from primary school for painting in her schoolbooks.

“You had some medical issues about ten years ago, didn’t you? But the critics said you came back better than ever as far as your art was concerned.”

“I found a lump in my left breast. After it was determined to be cancerous my doctor tested me for the BRACA gene and it showed that I have a genetic predisposition towards cancer. I didn’t want to live in fear so I chose to take control instead of waiting. I had a full mastectomy and reconstruction. Dr Matthias is also an artist, wouldn’t you agree?” She thrust her chest forward with a cheeky grin as David tried to contain a sudden cough, his eyes glued to her bosom.

“Umm… yes, well. You often refer to yourself as an “experiential artist”. Can you tell us what you mean by that? Ada was pleased to notice that David had difficulty dragging his gaze back up to her eyes. It seemed that the host was the one struggling for composure now.

“In my newest interactive installation there is a room filled with silicone breast implants of all sizes, along with giant before and after photos of the women who have had implant surgery. Some were reconstructive like myself, some wanted their breasts enlarged for one reason or another, some wanted breasts that would remain eternally youthful looking. Every person’s experience is different and yet the solution was common to all of us. This is what art does, it takes our individual circumstance and puts it into the context of what brings us together.”

“I’m almost afraid to ask but I just have to know, I heard a rumor that one of your new exhibits was inspired by being trapped in an outhouse?”

“I was hiking in the Pamir mountains in Afghanistan with some friends and we made camp for the night at about 12,000 feet. I was awakened after midnight by a huge clap of thunder and of course once I was awake I realized I needed the restroom. At this point the rain was coming down so hard that it was bouncing back up and pouring both ways so I didn’t want to have to deal with the mud on top of everything else. Fortunately there were these brick relief huts at various spots along the trail and I remembered that we had passed one about a hundred yards back. I knew I was going to get soaked either way but the hut at least offered a better chance at not ending up covered in mud all night so I grabbed a small battery torch and set off down the path.

“At 12,000 feet elevation the storms are pretty intense and along with the sheets of rain was a spectacular thunder and lightning show. Now, the relief huts are these tiny, squat little buildings of cinder block with sheet metal roofs and there’s a three inch gap between the two all the way around for ventilation. Inside is basically a bench and a hole in the ground but at least I would be out of the mud and downpour. So I did my business and I was about to leave when as soon as I opened the door the biggest volley of thunder I have ever heard before or since shook the whole building and a long string of lightning flashes began. I was mesmerized. I don’t know how long I stood there in that doorway just immersed in this fantastic display but eventually I saw another torch bobbing down the trail toward me. It was my friend, who had gotten worried when I didn’t return. I tried to describe what I had experienced but I didn’t have the words. Instead, when you visit my installation there are colored lights and sounds in every room to represent the nature I saw in those mountains.

“Unfortunately that's all we have time for today. Join us next week when our guests will be Kate Michaels and Sam Remington. And make sure to visit the New Museum, Ada Risi Retro Perspective opens tomorrow.” The canned applause swelled again as David clasped her hands warmly and the studio lights went down.

~~~~~~~

Ada was doing the final walk through of her installation, checking each image, every light cue and display, trailed by a reporter from Art World magazine. A photographer was setting up at the far end of the main room, getting ready to shoot a series of publicity stills that Ada was certain would get people talking. As the lights shifted from blue to pink and back again Ada pointed out parts of the narrative and the photographer’s assistant posed a group of models in austere, asian inspired gowns around a small dais. The photographer’s light meter flashed continuously, competing with the moody purple light.

“Every detail in these nine rooms is part of the story.” She spoke over her shoulder to the reporter, her accent thick as she adjusted a few strands of yarn draped over a thick branch, meant to represent a discarded spider web and the transience of beauty.

“Ada?” The voice was hesitant, hoarse, but familiar somehow and Ada shaded her eyes to look past the atmospheric lights overhead.

“Who is dat?... Claire?” Her imperious manner dropped immediately, the reporter forgotten as she hurried toward the slight figure in the drab hoodie. Claire’s normally warm brown eyes were guarded and heavy with sadness as Ada hurried toward her old friend. “Claire, you are like a vision. Did you come to see the preview? Look at you. How have you been? Where have you been? Why have I not looked upon that absolutely magnificent face in over a decade?” She cupped Claire’s cheeks briefly then stepped back again. Something was clearly wrong with Claire, and for all of Ada’s airs and attitude she was at heart a person who cared deeply.

“I’ve been busy.” Claire shook her head, not ready to speak about the reasons that had led her to seek out the woman she trusted.

“Busy, good. There is nothing worse than not being busy.” Ada didn’t know what caused her formerly vivacious friend to be so withdrawn but she had her suspicions. Richard had always been difficult and volatile, in the art world such behavior was celebrated as the mark of true genius. Ada supposed they had Van Gogh to thank for that. But there had been rumors, one could hardly be part of the insular community and not have heard that Richard’s outbursts had grown exponentially, while the biting wit he was known for had devolved into petty tantrums and spite.

When they had all three been friends together Claire was a gifted and empathic artist but she had been enthralled with Richard’s outsized talent, and passion to match. Ada had watched while Claire made herself smaller and smaller as Richard’s fame had grown, and so had the distance between them until their friendship became nothing more than holiday greetings from the Connecticut farmhouse and show announcements from Ada’s Soho loft. Whatever was bothering Claire, Ada still loved her enough to respect the distance Claire was trying to maintain.

“And how is Richard?” She probed gently, hoping Claire would open up and unburden herself. “Still sexy I imagine. You were very smart Claire, you married a man who’s sexiness came from his talent.” It was as close as she dared come to speaking her mind about Richard. “Are you painting again? You were always such a sensitive artist. You had such an absolutely magnificent way of taking the past and making it feel present. Of course I always envied your decision to step away. Being a woman in the art world is like being a Christian in the Roman Empire.”

“Ada, it’s time for the shoot.” Whatever Claire might have been about to confide closed down again as the photographer’s assistant interrupted their conversation.

“This will not take long, wait for me at the bodega on the corner and we will have coffee. Please, Claire.” Ada spoke barely above a whisper, her accent hardly noticeable as she touched Claire’s arm quickly then turned toward the dais, her armor firmly back in place. “I am sorry to have kept you waiting my darlings. Remember, art is not about beauty, it is about reality. Take me as I am, double mastectomy and all.” The models and Ada dropped their robes as the photographer snapped quickly, catching Ada with her arms defiantly in the air.

Claire wasn’t going to meet Ada again, she walked right past the bodega and was nearly to the subway entrance when she suddenly turned back to the dark, tiny market and ordered two Caribbean coffees. The cups had barely begun to cool when Ada appeared, dressed casually and with her hair tucked into a fedora she was nearly unrecognizable to anyone who didn’t know her well.

“I’m glad you came.”

“I almost didn’t. I’m not even sure why I came to the gallery at all.”

“Claire, can’t we talk like we used to? You were always so sensitive. I worried about you when you fell in love with Richard. It isn’t easy to love an artist especially one with a talent and ego as big as Richard’s. And you were always so enthralled with his talent, at times I thought you were more in love with the talent than the man.”

“I love him, I always have. And his talent is part of who he is. But, Ada, he says such awful things now. He can’t paint and it’s killing him. Sometimes he is the same passionate, loving man he always was but more and more he is becoming someone I can’t reach. And what’s worse is he knows it too. In his clear moments he wants this one last show to prove he can go out on top, but then he gets foggy and he can’t finish his work. The university canceled his class. I don’t know how to help him.”

“When I was a small girl my father had a little flower garden of pots on the steps by the back door. He had so many flowers, and they were all so beautiful. All except one rose bush that would not bloom. He would become so despondent because this one plant wouldn’t respond that he stopped noticing the beauty of all the other flowers around him. His success didn’t mean anything in the face of that one failure.

“Mama couldn’t bear to see him so sad, she started saving her used coffee grounds during the day and at night she would slip outside and mix the soggy dregs into the soil around the rosebush. Soon it flourished and bloomed with the prettiest coral colored roses. My father thought his fussing over it had finally paid off and he was so happy. Mama never told him what she had done, even when he told everyone how he had saved the plant with his constant care.” Ada brushed a hand in the air as though sweeping away a cobweb. “I don’t know what made me think of that. Claire, my dear, when are you going to let me paint this Madonna face of yours.”

~~~~~~~~

The huge canvases that covered the gallery walls were so vivid and colorful that even Ada’s gypsy garb couldn’t compete as she wandered from room to room examining the paintings with a critical eye. The crowds of people with their glasses of champagne were nodding their heads knowingly and talking about “the trademark Smythson style” and “the volatility of brushstrokes that only he could achieve” but Ada merely smiled and continued to move through the knots of people.

She spotted Claire standing with Richard and his agent beneath the largest canvas in the show.

“Ricardo… Ricardo, bello” out of love and respect for Claire, Ada put aside her anger towards Richard and offered him a generous smile as well as her cheek for a kiss. He looked confusedly at her for a brief second then pasted on a huge grin. Ada knew he didn’t remember her but that was okay, maybe the past was better forgotten.