APRIL 2001 COVER STORY
By Kaizaad Kotwal
Those words are from one of Linda Howard's favorite songs, How Soon Is Now? That title resonates strongly with Howard's life, her art, and her long struggle with depression through childhood, adolescence and into early adulthood. It is ironic that Linda Howard shares the exact same name as a very popular romance novelist. Ironic because Howard the artist does work which is, at just about every level, anti-romantic.
Linda and I sat down at The Coffee Table in the Short North where she serves coffee and where she creates most of her art. "The light is just so amazing in here," she says, sitting across from me dressed in muted grays and black, her reddish-auburn hair glowing from the setting sun spilling in through the enormous windows of the coffee shop. Linda gets increasingly animated as she passionately, intelligently, eloquently, and very frankly shares the unflinching details of her thirty-one years of existence.
Linda Howard was born on June 21 in 1969 to a blue-collar father and a homemaker mother on the East Side of Indianapolis. Before the youngest Howard was born, there was first a son, David, and another daughter named Maria. Today, David, 34, is living in Chicago with his wife and their daughter and "listening to Rush Lim-baugh," adds Linda. Her sister Maria, now 39, is single, living in Indianapolis and working as a psychotherapist, mainly serving the Hispanic populations in the area.
The Howard patriarch is originally from Indiana while the matriarch hails from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. One of the first striking facts that the artist shares with me is that she would never have been born had her parents not lost triplet boys in between the first two children. "They were born only a month premature, but in those days they didn't have the medical technology to save them. Today they would have lived," notes Linda. Her father, who is very religious and conservative, would say that "it was simply meant to be," acknowl-edging that in life even tragedy has meaning and purpose, manifest here in the complex and talented existence of his young artist daughter. Linda also believes that "every-thing happens for a reason."
Linda maintains a good relationship with both of her parents, especially her mother who is "very much the stereotypical Hispanic mother for whom the children are her world." Linda points out that "she is the sweetest, most giving person. Any emotion that she has is right there on her sleeve. I get that from her." However, the good relationship between Linda and her mother has certain limitations in that she is unable to share all of her art with her mother because "she worries too much." But even what little of her art she does share with her mother, she shares none of her creative output with her father.
"My dad is in denial about the fact that I'm even a sexual being," says Linda, "and it would only upset him to see my art, and it would force him into the pressure of trying to save me." "What good would it do," she asks rhetorically, "for him or for me?" Linda's art, briefly stated, is very powerful, sexually so, with darkly poignant and satirically funny undertones. "He wouldn't approve of what I'm doing," she concludes. It is clear that even though Linda doesn't perceive the world precisely as her father does, she has a deep compassion for his worldview and a profound love for the man he has always striven to be. "Because he never had any great models," explains Linda, "he picked up religion to try to be a good person and that's great. So he's a bit judgmental, a bit uptight, but he has tried his best his whole life."
If Linda appears adept at examining psychological reasoning behind human behavior, it is because she has struggled mightily to understand her own psyche, her own behaviors and life patterns. Between the ages of 10 and 23, Linda suffered from severe depression until she started taking Zoloft. "I couldn't believe how much it changed my life," she says. Linda is unabashed talking about her mind's affliction, as well as the possible abuse in her childhood. "I am open about my depression like a diabetic is about the fact that they take insulin every day," she says about her continued use of Zoloft. "I'm just not blessed with the right chemicals in my brain," she concludes matter-of-factly.
However, Linda did worry about how the prescription medication would affect her creativity. "Taking the drug meant that the very essence of who you are is being tampered with," Linda argues, "and if I'm not tortured, how is the art going to change?" It is the double-edged sword of every afflicted artist. "I'm not going to be able to cut my ear off and send it to someone if I'm on medication," she jokes with a loud laugh while beaming from cheek to cheek.
Similar to her demonstrative mother, Linda doesn't shy away from wearing her rawness, her sensitivity out in the open. And like the unabashed awareness of her depression, Linda is also keenly aware of the fact that there is a family history of such illness. "Members on both sides of my family have shown all sorts of symp-toms," she explains. Her father had two cousins who ended up in mental institutions. "One of them had a habit of suddenly yelling and then dropping all of her clothes." An uncle on her mother's side, who used to be a psychotherapist in Venezuela, "also has his problems."
Perhaps the most extreme case, however, is that of her great-cousin Ethel, on her father's side. Ethel, who lived with her family in Leroy, Illinois, killed her whole family in 1933, including a sister, her father, uncle and nephew. "The family used to be excellent marksmen and had an amazing arsenal," Linda recollects, "and Ethel had been having these problems with headaches." Continuing this story that reads a bit like the tale of Lizzie Borden, Linda says, "she had an appointment to go see a doctor about those debilitating headaches on a Monday, and on the Sunday before, she went on her shooting spree." Eye-witness accounts indicate that Ethel "was frothing at the mouth, rolling on the couch before running upstairs, grabbing the gun" and starting her massacre. After the event she ran away, crawled into a drain pipe, and when she was found a day later, she had died of exposure. Ethel's sad tale has been captured in a triptych by Linda, somewhat out of gratitude that the young artist has found a way out of the darkness and debilitating nature of depression.
Linda has no real formal training in art except for a year at the Heron Art School in Indianapolis where she "failed miserably." "I literally flunked out because I was so depressed and so bored with the fact that they were trying to teach me everything they had already taught me in high school," she recalls. Undeterred by that awful experience, she gave art another try and hasn't looked back. She had her first show in Columbus at Lollapalooza to which her mother travelled from Indianapolis. However, after observing her work at the show, Linda's mother made an offhand remark about Linda seeing a psychiatrist. She would have brushed aside this comment had it not been for the fact that she believes her mother was not joking and instead was seriously worried.
I am the son
And the heir
Of a shyness that is criminally vulgar
I am the son and heir
Of nothing in particular
- The Smiths
Linda spent over a decade of her life lacking energy and motivation. "Imagine if you were tired all the time. Everything dulls, the senses dull, and it was like that all the time," she says. These textbook signs of depression "shaped everything and affected everything" about her life. How could it not? Adults have enough trouble coping with this debilitating illness, imagine the impact on a young child coming of age in an era when our medical understanding of mental illness was so lacking. In fact, so poor were the coping skills in Linda's time that three teachers during her junior year reported her to the school counselor because they thought she was on drugs. "If you weren't visibly crazy or slitting your wrists, they would offer glib platitudes like 'Come on, chin up!' or 'Get over it!'"recalls Linda.
In 1985, right around the time Zoloft emerged on the pharmacists' shelves, Linda went to an internist and immediately was given a prescription for the new medication. Soon after getting this long overdue relief, Linda fondly remembers a day "when I was walking to work and I felt a breeze on my face with the sun and the warmth and I just had this big smile on my face . . . I felt so good and I didn't remember ever feeling something so simple as that," she concludes. "What a revelation it was!"
And those worries about how the medication would alter her creativity were soon allayed when she realized that her productivity increased. "The added moti-vation allowed me to work more; because, even though I had always drawn, I never had that thing in me to drive me on." The more she accomplished, the more self- confident and motivated she became. And this cycle of regeneration allowed her to develop as a person and an artist. "I stopped growing emotionally at 10," she says, "so I had a lot of catching up to do."
Today, life is good. "I have a great life," she exclaims with her hallmark smile, her gray-blue eyes lighting up from the depths of her soul. "Today when I think of myself back then, I think about what if I had known then that this darkness would not go on forever."
I'm human and I need to be loved
Just like anybody else does
&endash; The Smiths
Much of Linda's journey has merged into her art, which is all at once detailed, beautiful, powerful, enigmatic, technically masterful and saturated with meaning, maturity and meticulous multi-layering. Each piece that Linda works on, no larger than 8 x 11, takes her anywhere from 40 to 60 hours of "very fine, detailed cross-hatching and pointillism with ball-point pens, markers and color pencils." Linda says that she creates art because it makes her feel good and because she loves doing it. "It takes me into a meditational space," she explains, "and of course I also love seeing other people's reaction to the work because it gives me a whole new insight into myself."
Linda denies that her work is trying to say anything political or social. "I'm not trying to make any grand statements, just personal statements." Linda explains that her art is usually about things that are going on in her life or unresolved issues from the past. She generally starts with a story in her head and breaks it down into characters representing varying aspects of her own multi-faceted persona and "between the natural self and the other constructed selves from what we've been taught" there is usually a lot of conflict, she says. Her work is a powerful combina-tion of the figurative, the iconographic, the allegorical all steeped in dream imagery, rooted in psychological churnings and manifest as vivid stories within a single frame.
In her piece titled Hound, we see this process vividly at work. "This piece is about when I first shaved my head," Linda explains, pointing to the figure at the right of the painting. "I was amazed when I used to walk through campus with my hair unshaved, and not necessarily dressed up or with make-up on, and I would get all these unsolicited remarks from men. As soon as I shaved," she recalls, "the remarks stopped." Linda believes that it was these men's own "homophobia" that caused those lewd comments to stop. "After all, they didn't want to admit being attracted to this boyish thing," she says.
Linda points out a young girl in one her paintings who is being led away &endash; from a man walking a vicious hound &endash; by a bald woman. The two females in the picture are both Linda's selves and the hound symbolizes the beast within the man. And while this in itself reveals many layers to the painting, Linda points out more. Indicating the bleeding wounds on the man's hands, she explains that, "even the guy has been hurt by the dog." And with a comic touch she indicates that the man has a fishing tackle for a heart, "nothing else, just a fishing hook."
Her father's intense religiosity, coupled with her own spirituality, has inspired Linda to explore a lot of religious iconography in her work. In Cuando bailo (Spanish for "When I Dance"), a painting she did after breaking up with her ex-fiancee - a period in which she went out dancing a lot - we see a Catholic school girl, her sexuality bursting out of her checkered uniform. Her head has a horse's bridle on, and "she is being held back by Jesus." The Jesus figure has no eyeballs, and for Linda this works as a metaphor for the way in which human's have bastardized the spirit of Jesus, with their own hypocrisies and their own human trappings, in essence blinding the prophet from his own greatness and his own benevolence. The young girl's limbs are replaced by innumerable writhing serpents "symbolizing writhing, dancing, sexuali-ty, penises, Adam and Eve, and the original sin."
What is compelling about her work, in its layered detailing, is the fact that the viewer is forced to examine the piece very closely in order to see all the facets of the image. In doing so, the spectator must confront what he or she may normally shy away from. Thus, Linda's skilled technique works at two levels. It allows her to create beautifully textured pieces and gives her a way in which to lure her audience right to the surface of the paper.
In Entertaining, Linda explores the false nature of those people "who value 'entertaining' and the ability to be clever and amusing to one another," over making any kind of real connection. In the piece, a row of men stand, false mask-like faces all stuck in grotesque smiles, eating what appears to be balls of excrement. "They're eating turds," Linda confirms, "while I am under the table, with all my zits, with all my fat, raw, nerve sensitivity openly exposed." For her, the true merit of people lies in "their substance, their honesty and their kindness."
Inspired, self-confident, and feeling blessed by all that life has to offer, Linda has indeed found the light at the end of the tunnel. Yet, somehow she realizes that this is just the beginning. "I am slowly inching towards just doing art and getting away from serving coffee," she confides. In addition to her personal art, she hopes to pick up spot illustrations for book covers, CDs, music magazines and the like. As Linda looks to the future it is certain that foremost in her mind is the title to one of her favorite songs, How Soon Is Now? Given her talent and her self-actualization, she won't have to look much further for the answer. Now is virtually here!
The artist can be reached at