In the midst of my annual cleanup, which involves shuffling piles of stuff around my apartment so that, in the end, I still can’t find anything, I came across the bundle I made of the mail Serena sent me during the last ten years of her life. As always happens with these futile exercises, I come across something interesting and the piles remain in their senseless places. The invincible chaos endures as I become absorbed in the rediscovery of Serena’s art. Drawings, collages, and poetry, for the most part, and occasionally even a letter or a joke, or a riddle. Even the envelopes were works of art, each with a different made-up name, generally a droll pun, as part of the return address. Everything was saved in the envelope it came in because it was all of a piece. There was no way to frame or display anything. Looking at the art or poetry involved opening envelopes and re-discovering the treasures inside.
A side effect of the lithium was shakiness of the hands. She could no longer execute the perfect drawings as she had before and so made these astonishing collages, or combined paint with collage. Her penmanship had been spectacular at one time but now she typed the poetry. It seems to me that as the mechanics deteriorated the work became even more profound and beautiful. Where she had worked with plates and presses she now gave life to her vision at copy machines in the public library.
As far as anyone knows she might have been the greatest artist of the twentieth century. No one will ever know and she wouldn’t have cared. The “art world” was alien to her. She had no stomach for it so she lived her life with this incredible passion for art that was seen by almost no one, and then she died. She swallowed all the pills she had left and went to sleep.
Serena was a student at L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts when we met. I either met her there or at the Swiss Hut. I was not a student at the Beaux-Arts, merely an habitué. At the “Hut” I was both. Wherever it was, Serena and I became friends for life. The summer her boyfriend left we hung out almost constantly. They were amazing times, fun and exciting beyond belief, because Serena was crazy in a way that I loved, was smarter than anyone I knew, and had a passion for art that was actually thrilling. She never stopped studying the masters and reading everything in sight. Her knowledge of science and history, as well as all of art and everything seemed boundless. Her generosity of spirit seemed boundless, too. She made me feel that every one of my own pathetic attempts at art or writing were masterpieces.
I moved to Vancouver and within the year she arrived with her new husband. The marriage didn’t last long. Then her series of hospitalizations began. I can’t even begin to contemplate the horror that was her mental life. Once or twice a week, when she wasn’t in the hospital, she’d knock on my door and visit for an hour or so. We’d have coffee. She loved the blues and I made her some tapes. Eventually she moved to the east side and I saw her less and less until finally almost a decade went by during which I saw her no more than three or four times.
One night she called and asked me to come by. She was flipping out again. I made excuses and didn’t go. . . didn’t think I could handle it . . . thought there was nothing I could do and then I’d be sucked into madness myself. I never forgave myself for that but she forgave me. Meanwhile the outpouring of her art never ceased. Her apartment had layers of nicotine and dust on every surface – art and art materials were everywhere. She produced volumes of collages and poetry in ring binders. An architect’s flat cabinet was crammed full of larger works on paper. Cardboard boxes, milk crates, this stuff was everywhere. Paintings were stacked up in a walk-in closet. The place hadn’t been painted and barely even cleaned in sixteen years. Serena found a precious equilibrium that would have been shattered in minutes by painters or cleaners mucking around her apartment.
Starting around 1990 I made a point of getting together with her every week. At first I thought it something I should do for her – so few of her friendships had survived the years of sickness. But soon I discovered I was probably getting as much if not more out of it than she did. Serena was an inspiration and in spite of everything was funny as hell and a brilliant conversationalist.
I didn’t see her for almost four months. Stupid. Transit went on strike and expecting it to end any day I just waited. Could have taken a cab but I waited. One night her neighbour called to say Serena was dead.
I’ll be posting more of Serena’s work online.
Photos we took of each other one day sometime around 1964:
Patricia, from Vancouver, wrote on january 19, 2006:
Brian.. I didn’t know Serena but I remember you speaking of her and I have looked at her art on your website. I like what you wrote about her. I think a life needs honouring. You did it beautifully. I was moved by her death when you told me about it some time ago. Funny eh when I didn’t even know her. Damn death anyway. Why does it have to end with such finality. I am these days very conscious of death just standing over there. Still reading your stuff with great enjoyment amusement and sometimes with a lurch in the heart.
Michael, from Vancouver, wrote on February 2, 2008:
hey brian , read and was touched by your piece on serena . we were close friends at beaux arts in 1961-62 . here we are along with another pal richard wilson overlooking the plains of abraham on a trip to quebec city . lost track of serena when i moved to vancouver in 1963 . i think i bumped into her and chatted a little on broadway in kits sometime in the mid seventies maybe she was just married . during the heady days at art school even though we were both still vergins we had wonderful times together . i am always amazed that we you and i have had such similar experiences — memories of people and places — although in fact we didn’t actually cross paths that often . . . michael
Pat, from Toronto, wrote on July 4, 2008:
When killing time between my job activities, sometimes I google people I knew in high school. Curious to see what they’re up to now. Last time I saw Serena, she was striding down the street, about to “move to the city” from Pointe Claire. I was in awe of anyone who had that confidence. I was friendly with her sister Jane – ever hear of her? – I was very sad to read your ‘memorial’ piece about Serena, and grateful that you wrote it. Keep up the blog!
TF wrote on May 17th, 2012:
I knew Serena in Vancouver, she liked to play the harmonica, and had a pair of leather chaps. She was older than me, and seemed to be always laughing. I can remember a very cold winter night we spent together in a railway shack somewhere near SFU, just an old pot belly stove, and animal skins to keep us warm. She seemed to be always on fire, moving, unsettled. I can remember her dirty hands, and her laughter as if it was just yesterday.