on grief, and celebrating life

*i started writing this post months ago and never finished it. instead of starting over, i’ve decided to just finish the post today and publish it as is. grief is an ongoing process and i feel like i spent much of 2022 grieving. it’s 2023 now and while i know i can’t magically be “done” grieving, i want to move past the actively thinking about it and feeling it all the time phase. today is the day of nita’s memorial gathering and hopefully that will help move the process along.

today is all souls day or day of the dead, november 2nd. i haven’t traditionally been someone who has observed this day, but this year i’m feeling the call.

my boy sticker in his younger days

the first part of 2022 was consumed with the grief of losing my dear sweet feline familiar sticker. stencil and i are mostly adjusted now, though i do think he’s pretty lonely without his brother around. but i’ve made the decision to not get another cat right now. so stencil and i have gotten into a more codependent rhythm. he’s 14 and sleeps a lot in the daylight hours, but i’ve been working on making him come to bed with me at night, blocking off the hallway door so to limit his ability to howl at all the neighborhood cats at the front door all night long. it works for the most part until about 5am when he gets hungry and starts trying to wake me up, so i’ve had to start going to bed earlier to ensure a decent amount of sleep before that happens. (these animals run our lives!) but i miss my sticker boy every day and can hardly believe it’s been nearly a year he’s been gone.

what nita looked like around the time i met her

but another death is more recent, and since i’m actively still in the process of going through her earthly belongings, the grief is ongoing. my dear friend nita, who was also my employer for many years, printing t-shirts and selling collectibles on ebay, and was also somewhat of an art mentor to me (though i’m not sure she really knew that), died in early september. she was found dead in her home, having slumped out of her wheelchair in her kitchen, onto the floor. she had multiple health issues going on, including congestive heart failure and uncontrollable diabetes, had been in and out of the hospital several times over the past few years, and frankly had really been suffering with her diminished health and lack of mobility. so it wasn’t exactly a surprise when friends found her there after not being able to get in touch with her for 24 hours. but she had managed to rebound each time after getting out of the hospital in recent years so i guess we all thought she’d do the same again this time. sadly, she did not. she was stubborn and committed to dying in her house, not in a hospital or nursing home; and so she did.

nita had no living blood kin that we know of. she had a legal will that left everything to an old friend of hers. but we also found a handwritten will of sorts – “the list” as she titled it herself – that specified about 20 people to receive very specific things of hers, and then another 25 or so to have the opportunity to claim something from her estate that would be of personal interest to them. the list was dated in january 2022, so recent enough that we, her friends and caretakers, felt like we should honor it, and thankfully her heir and executor also agreed.

tracking down all these folks became an obsession for me, as a way to honor my friend and her wishes. nita used facebook a lot and so that became a way to find some of the folks i didn’t know; i was able to reach a good amount of them by simply sending them a facebook message. but some never responded or even saw my message, and others weren’t amongst her facebook friend list… so then i had to start going through her belongings to try to find phone numbers. we poured through endless notebooks that nita used to make lists, sketch out art pieces, and jot down her thoughts. we had her iphone but for many months we didn’t know the passcode to get into it to get to her contacts app. amazingly, finally, we discovered one of the last times she was in the hospital she gave the code to one of her dear high school friends who was part of the caretaking team and we were finally able to have access to it. i found many more phone numbers though still not all. her phones had given her a lot of trouble in recent years and i think her contacts list was not all there. i gave it my best effort but there were still a few folks i wasn’t able to reach; i can only hope someone else via word of mouth was able to notify them about her death.

i did delegate some of the phone calls out to other folks, but i made a lot of them myself. making those calls was hard, but was also a gift, as i got to hear all kinds of stories about nita and the many ways that people were connected to her in her lifetime. if you know me then you know talking on the phone is not really my jam, but i was glad for these conversations to help move our collective grief along and to flesh out more of the story of nita’s life that i didn’t really know the details of.

nita was an artist and a collector of vintage toys, ephemera, books, graphics, advertising memorabilia, and anything circus, western, magic, comics/cartoons, pop art, folk art, and new orleans, amongst other things. her art was a mixture of screenprinting, painting, and collage/assemblage (she usually just chose the term “mixed media” when describing her work), using both original and appropriated imagery from the past as well as physical objects. for much of her life she printed t-shirts to make a living, serving a mix of commercial clients as well as collaborating with other artists and friends, and printing her own designs.

i didn’t know much about her childhood before her death – she rarely ever spoke to me of her family of origin – but i keep discovering bits and pieces, the more i go through her things. i found her birth certificate and was surprised to learn she was born in birmingham, alabama in 1948. some notes on her phone indicate her family lived in fort lauderdale, florida from ages 1-6, but then her mother left her father, tearing her away from him, which was a significant early trauma for nita. i’m not sure where they went next but she mentions staying a lot on her grandmother’s farm in rural mississippi, outside meridian. this is where her love of horses and other animals probably started. eventually she ended up in new orleans and attended riverdale high school in jefferson and then studied art at the john mccrady art school in the french quarter, later taking more classes in art and photography at tulane.

in the 70s she and her then-partner bronwyn alfano started p.a.s. studio – port allen sisters studio, as they were living near baton rouge in port allen after fleeing new orleans due to an abusive male partner of bronwyn’s. (the above newspaper clipping is from the lsu reveille in 1974. nita and bronwyn did an interview about being lesbians, publicly coming out, which was a very radical act for the time. though nita never mentioned this to me she was clearly very proud of it as i found numerous copies of this newspaper cut out folded up in her various wallets and notebooks.)

via p.a.s. studios, they printed lesbian-feminist t-shirts and stickers and posters of their own design. in 1976 when they moved back to new orleans onto carondelet street, they added some creative friends and renamed themselves the new orleans wimmin’s graphics collective, keeping many of the same designs from p.a.s. but expanding their offerings. she and many of her friends were part of the second wave feminist/lgbt community that thrived in new orleans in the 70s and 80s, including the lesbian-feminist commune atlantis. nita would go on to print under the name zatso tees as well as scream printing in the 80s and 90s. (i worked with nita in the 90s as her printing assistant.)

alongside her screen printing business she also did personal artwork, which usually involved old photographs, often of herself as a child and/or members of her family or friends and lovers, and appropriated graphics from vintage advertising, toys or ephemera. she loved everything circus, western, space, and animals, often drawing from the 50s time period of her childhood. one of my favorite pieces she did was of her father, who owned a gulf gas station in fort lauderdale, florida. i found a postcard that was advertising his gas station, with presumably him in the photo; she used that as the basis for the piece, inserting a retro toy car with driver graphic into it, representing her. it’s titled “dad taught me to drive.” this piece sums up nita in so many ways, including her sense of humor. but also, most importantly, her love for her father and the melancholy associated with the memory of being torn away from him at such an early age by her mother.

“dad taught me to drive”
the advertising postcard Nita based the piece on, of her father’s gas station

sometimes her pieces were relatively simple like this, a composite of the postcard and the retro car/driver graphic, printed onto canvas in black and white, and then hand painted in bright colors. but sometimes her pieces were much more elaborate, especially the circus themed ones.

“life’s a carnival, only for some”

“life’s a carnival, only for some” is one of her more complicated pieces. the main part is a similar formula to the previously mentioned piece – a composite graphic taken from old circus board game covers, posters, books and other toys, printed onto a piece of wood in black and white, then hand-painted. but then on this one she adds the boy and girl cut-outs that attach and fold out from the sides, as well as the baton that hangs from the bottom and the bar that protrudes away from the surface of the piece, with small cut out pieces dangling from it. it’s quite elaborate. (also, as a printer, she did editions of her prints and then often made multiples of the finished pieces. this one is labeled 1/20 but i’m not sure how many finished versions of this piece she made.) i don’t know when she first made this, but i do know she was working on versions of this piece in the recent decade.

“stella the bearded lady”
“freaks: airline hwy sideshow outside new orleans 1967. what we called ourselves in the 60s”

adjacent to circus/carnival themes were sideshows. she wrote in an artist statement for one of her shows at hanson gallery on royal street in the 90s: “these people were different. like us, in some ways. we felt a bond, to say that i am proud to be different.” (by “us” she meant lesbians, or lgbtq+ people.) “stella the bearded lady” and “freaks” were two pieces that were in that art show that were based on photos bronwyn took in the 60s-70s at sideshows in the new orleans area.

“dreams of dale”

nita also loved vintage western stuff, particularly cowgirl imagery, and stars like dale evans who were popular in her childhood years. the young girl in the photograph standing in front of a vintage automobile in her piece “dreams of dale” is a dear friend/ex-lover of hers. the girl is in a cowgirl hat, surrounded by images of evans, various cowgirl outfits, a horse, and a magazine cover with evans on it.

“dyke: womon identified”

i found this piece going through her things. i’m not sure if she ever finished a version of this as i don’t remember ever seeing it when she was alive, but it was buried underneath piles of things, folded in half, which i assume means she wasn’t happy with it or never finished it. it is “signed” as nita did, but the edition is not noted. regardless, it’s one of my favorite things i’ve found at her house. it’s unframed and on canvas. the picture – the original of which i also found in the house – is of nita as a young child with one of her younger cousins, likely at her grandmother’s farm in mississippi. (nita in the red.) this may have been one of the pieces she worked on for a cowgirl art show that she contributed to in the 90s. proudly identifying as a dyke is one of the many things nita and i had in common and bonded over.

lavaun and nita

nita had many significant relationships in her life but it was lavaun who was the love of her life. they traveled in overlapping activist and social circles in new orleans and had met earlier in their lives, but re-met again in the early 90s and instantly fell in love. they had a few happy years together before lavaun’s illness finally claimed her – she died of complications due to AIDS in 1996. nita made many, many art pieces celebrating lavaun in their time together and in the years after. i don’t have pictures of many of them but here are a few.

“she never lost her dignity”
not a great photograph of the piece, and i don’t know the title, but this is one of many pieces nita made about lavaun’s life using photographs and text in a screenprinted collage

even up to her death, nita was working on artwork and hoping to get back to a physical shape where she could print and make more art again. one of her last pieces was a carnival game themed construction piece that she sold to a friend.

“carnival/spin a prize or spin a value” (2021)

i wish i had one photo that showed the whole thing but i never saw it all finished to take a pic and these photos were on nita’s facebook profile so i’m guessing she took them herself. but you get the idea. it was quite an elaborate construction, a freestanding table of sorts with the spinners on the sides and all the prizes in the middle. though she could no longer screenprint due to her physical disabilities, she used color and black and white copies of scanned imagery as a stand-in. she worked on this for a long time and had a second one in process at the time of her death that she didn’t finish.

there’s so much more of her work i want to share but i don’t have pictures of much of it. i’m hoping over time that i can get folks who own nita’s work to take photos so we can make a memorial web page with all her art on it, to remember her by. she was a significant artist and deserves to be remembered and celebrated beyond her immediate circle of friends.

nita was one in a million. i’m honored to have been her friend and one of the dozens of caretakers she assembled around her in these last years of many physical and health challenges. like most of the caretaking team, we all had our own lives and went in and out of being able to give nita our time. i personally now wish i’d given her more of my time. but i know we all did the best we could under the circumstances, and nita was not an easy patient to work with. she was stubborn to her core and determined to not die in a hospital or nursing home or other facility. she wanted to die at home, surrounded by all her things, her precious collections and memories. and so, in the end, she did. she did it her way. i only pray she did not suffer in her final moments.

i miss you, nita. and i loved you dearly, even though i fear i wasn’t always great at letting you know that. i have so much to be thankful for, grateful for, about our time spent together. all those years sweating our asses off in your screenprinting shop in your basement on algiers point; all those trips to thrift city on carrollton and lunches at parkway bakery back in the 90s when it was still just a corner store; all the t-shirt designs of mine that you shepherded me though making separations and screens for each color, and printing at no charge so i could sell them to fund things like trips to the march on washington in d.c. in 1993, or for the lesbian avengers as a fundraiser so we could make stickers and do our direct actions around town; all those beers we drank together at charlene’s, talking politics; all the time spent at jefferson flea market or quality flower shop when it went out of business, or krauss when it closed, mining for treasures we could resell via magicmonkey collectibles on ebay or craigslist.

so many memories over the 30+ years we knew each other. you didn’t know it but i thought of you as my dyke mom, an older dyke who took me under her wing and mentored me not only as a printer and an artist but as a dyke and a human being. i will forever be in your debt and will strive to be as kind and generous as you always were to me and everyone around you. your spirit and life lessons will always live on via me and the army of lovers and friends you collected over your lifetime.

i don’t know what it will look like but i know i will be making art about nita in the future. and i already know the title of at least one piece:

nita loves everybody; nita is love.

3 thoughts on “on grief, and celebrating life

  1. Starla Anderson

    Thank you for sharing what you know about Nita’s life and your relationship with her, Mags. And for posting photos of some of her work that really shows her interests and her talents. I spent time with Nita and LaVaun over the eight years of LaVaun’s illness and got to know her in a friendship way that she really was open to friendship with straight people like me who are accepting of and even interested to know people who aren’t like me. Maybe being a teacher helped me to learn that we’re all different in different ways and that is what makes life interesting … I really enjoyed meeting Nita’s friends and spent some good times with many of them, even after LaVaun died. I haven’t seen Nita since she moved away from Algiers but we stayed in close contact with emails and phone conversations – she was very helpful to me in my efforts to try to understand what it meant to be gender neutral as one of my grandkids identifies. I’m still struggling with that because as an old woman I feel pretty gender neutral even though I have a husband – he gets what I mean because our sexuality is behind us and I’m still voicing my views in local papers in quite adamant tones, certainly not feminine. But I’ve also accepted that I’ll leave planet Earth not understanding a whole lot and it doesn’t really matter as long as I tried … Your tribute to Nita helps because she didn’t feel a need to understand everything either. In terms of gender neutral identity she said, “That’s a young person’s thing, Starla.” And I agree that there comes a time when the next generations step up and we move aside … Thank you again for your reflections on this beautiful, loving woman. Starla

    Reply
    1. mags Post author

      Thank you so much Starla for commenting and sharing about your friendship with Nita! She spoke of you often and I know she loved you and treasured your friendship. And thank you for your kind words about what I wrote.

      Reply
  2. Pingback: hello 2023 | art by mags!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *