Out novelist Carol Anshaw has written some of the best lesbian fiction of the last 25 years, including her 1992 debut, Aquamarine, and 2012's Carry the One, but her newest work is more visual. The Chicago-based writer has an art show at Rockford University in Rockford, Ill., called “Carol Anshaw: Walking Through Leaves,” which shows off her paintings of another queer writer: Vita Sackville-West.
"Of course, I came to Vita by way of Virginia Woolf," Anshaw says of her muse, who is most famous for her relationship with Woolf, despite their both being married to men. "Their affair was complicated. Each had something the other wanted. Virginia longed for physical intimacy with a woman. Vita, who was a pedestrian writer, wanted to be a great writer, and to be in the presence of a great writer." Woolf’s Orlando was inspired by their romance, and Sackville-West's work, though never as celebrated as her lover's, was surely influenced by Woolf.
But it wasn’t just Sackville-West’s romantic ties to Woolf that fascinated Anshaw.
"She had a title. She was deliciously arrogant. She knew what she wanted and just took it," Anshaw says. "A lot of what she wanted was a lot of women (and a few guys) in her bed, one at a time. She didn't care if she dragged them out of this marriage or that long-term relationship. She wanted them to love her. She seduced them by flooring them with attention, luring them out of this dinner party, or into her castle from her garden at night. She appears to have been irresistible."
And then, Anshaw says, "She dumped them. She was quite wicked in this way. The more I read, the more lovers turned up, and the more wicked she seemed." Anshaw began painting small portraits of Sackville-West’s lovers. But capturing them all on canvas was not an easy pursuit.
"Just when I thought I was through, another would turn up," Anshaw says. "Some I couldn't find images of, but I've got 13 at this point. And if anyone has a snapshot of Vi Pym or Bunny Drummond, please do send it along."
From there it seemed fated that she'd begin to paint Vita herself. Vita was striking, with dark features, a strong jaw, and a pronounced nose. She wasn't conventionally beautiful, but she had a masculine air that commanded respect. She was effortlessly stylish and appeared to carry herself with a swagger. All of these things made her irresistible to her many suitors and to Anshaw the artist.
Anshaw, who said she was more of a "Sunday painter" until a couple of years ago, found that she wasn't interested in writing about Vita. That would be "too much like a biopic. Or worse, a bio play."
"But much of what's interesting about her were private scenes that—cell phone cameras being a long way off—were never photographed," Anshaw says. "So I started making them up from something in a diary entry or a letter."
Sackville-West was nothing if not prolific, so there’s a lot of material to work with. Anshaw's paintings capture her at various points in her life, from her tryst with Violet Trefusis to a present-day scenario in which the painter meets her muse (Vita and Carol Talk Across Time). “Walking Through Leaves,” which opened Nov. 22 at the Clark Arts Center Gallery in Rockford, is open through Dec. 13, but you can also find photos of the work on Anshaw's blog. She originally had no particular thoughts of showing the paintings, but when a Rockford professor read Carry the One—in which one of the main characters is a painter—she looked her up, saw the paintings on her blog, and suggested a solo show.
"From there on, I painted like a mad hatter, with the conveyor belt moving faster with each passing month until the past few weeks, when I often painted until 2 or 3 a.m.," Anshaw says. Some of her paintings are classic portraits, showing close-ups of Sackville-West or her lovers' faces and postures, while others focus more on Sackville-West’s environment, from her work desk to her front stoop, with one of her many canine companions.
Now that the show is up, Anshaw says she's setting her muse aside to go back to work on her first love: writing. "I am back to writing a new novel," Anshaw says. "I am a little tempted by a photograph of Vita in Persia, but I'm resisting that pull, and for the moment at least, Vita and I have parted ways."
As to what makes the process of painting so different from working on a book, Anshaw says that's something she's asked a lot. "They use totally different sides of the brain. When you're painting, that whole other writing side shuts down," she says. "I always play rock on the radio when I'm painting, but I couldn't write a word with noise and lyrics spinning around me. Also, for me, painting is a relief from writing. Painting has its own demands, but it's also a cave I can go into and hide. Hours disappear."
Much like the time you might spend reading Carol Anshaw's novels or Vita Sackville-West's love letters.