In 2001, my boyfriend showed up to meet a realtor painted in gold-face. His head was mostly shaved, a single long braid sprouting from his scalp. He wore a billowing gold lamé outfit and platform boots. The realtor, in pencil skirt and wobbly heels, stood mouth agape, keys rattling in her hand as he approached.
As I described this scene years later, a group of writers seated under fluorescent lights squinted at me in silence. Some looked skeptical—did that really happen? I heard a snort. We had already gone down the line, laughing at each other’s dealbreakers: an intolerance of snoring, a missed date, a rude comment after sex. The body-paint scenario, however, caught everyone off-guard. Even in a room teeming with writers—people known to be socially awkward and strangely iconoclastic—my story was, let’s say, exceptional. Oh dear. Let’s back it up.
I wanted to be like the painter Robert Rauschenberg. As a young girl in rural Maine, I dreamed of living in New York City among poets and artists and avant-garde musicians. In my early twenties, I read Calvin Tomkins’ Off the Wall, which chronicles Rauschenberg and other artists in the 1940s and ‘50s moving off the walls in galleries into the social scene. Rauschenberg worked with Merce Cunningham and John Cage, creating “happenings” and theater events. Off the Wall had informed the image of myself as an artist. This was how I wanted to live. I had a degree in Design for the Performing Arts. My parents had moved near Captiva Island in Florida where Rauschenberg landed later in life. I had a connection.
When I arrived in Seattle in 1994—on the day they found Kurt Cobain’s body, to be exact—I was determined to become part of a scene. I’d settled for the Northwest grunge scene because a friend was moving there. Without connections or cash, I didn’t have the courage to move to New York by myself. Seattle wasn’t New York, but still. If the scene I was looking for wasn’t there, I was going to create it. I became a member of a co-op gallery near a strip joint in the Denny Regrade, showed my work at The Art Bar. I started singing in a band and even founded a non-profit organization called Undermind Arts Collective. We focused on multi-genre shows. Painters and musicians, potters and dancers. I had big ideas and I needed people with me who shared that vision.
I met NiiLartey De Osu at Zeitgeist Coffee in Pioneer Square, the tables squashed-in close together, coffee served in gigantic ceramic cups. He wore a white turban, a quilted jacket and skinny jeans before anyone else in Seattle did in the early 2000s. His wide nose was pierced with a silver ring through the center cartilage, like a bull, though he was so much more delicate. When I greeted him, I caught a whiff of musky rosewater. I had never met anyone from Ghana and couldn’t quite place his accent. He was just my height—slight for a man, but my god was he beautiful. His demeanor was the polar opposite of my own self-conscious shyness. He was just where I wanted to be, who I wanted to be: a painter, a fashionista, a visionary.
NiiLartey and I fell into what was at first a platonic relationship. He was living with his then girlfriend and new baby in a walkup artists’ loft. By the time he was evicted, we were deep into a project called Ode to Icarus. The performance piece he had envisioned was composed of forty actors and dancers: Icarus on a palanquin that lifted into a fifteen-foot metal winged shape, shamans and sibyls, nymphs and muses on roller skates. An orchestra (named Pleione after an ocean nymph) composed an original score. Artists from around the city created looming twelve-foot paintings of the twenty-four Hours in female form. Cinematographers, opera singers and costume designers. All volunteers.
The energy and chaos of those days had me buzzing. While working my day job in event production, I spent every spare hour trying to find funding for the project, producing my first major artistic event. NiiLartey had dreams of grandeur and I was right there with him. His big dreams weren’t the dealbreaker; I was down for the work, for the all-nighters, the hook-ups between cast members. People flocked to us at 619 Western, an iconic art loft building.
We were surrounded by characters who were looking for a scene as well. What young artist doesn’t long to be hip and relevant? There were swingers, heroin addicts and gender-fluid folk, people who didn’t quite fit with regular society. But we also attracted a handsome polo player studying law and a prim, tightly pretty costume designer who went on to work at Nordstrom’s. We hosted nights with beautiful boys dressed in boas and actors in body paint.
Our cherubic, dreadlocked, twenty-year old on violin fell in love with the jittery guitar virtuoso. He changed his name from Jeff to Manos. He practiced flamenco guitar in the bathroom six hours a day. We printed flyers with Rumi poems and left them under car windshield wipers. Nights, we rehearsed Plato’s Symposium, which would be performed at The Last Supper Club.
Think Terry Gilliam’s Lost in La Mancha with no budget all. For a one-night event.
Naturally, I became romantically involved with NiiLartey. He was incredibly charming and disarmingly persuasive. He had a philosophy he called Neo-illusionism, described as “the culmination of all the art movements in history.” His manifesto included statements such as, “Neo-Illusionist innovation is the combination of the vertical line and the horizontal line that form a cross, which is a locator. With this as a point, one can move through infinite volume, thereby enabling the artist to create multiple dimensions of any given subject.” He had the gift of storytelling and the magnetism required of all good narcissists. There should have been so many dealbreakers before the real estate meeting. There were warning signs and red flags. There were lost friendships and drunken fights.
The morning I awoke in our shared loft space—which I had cashed in my meager retirement fund to payroll—to find my laptop had been stolen, I should have quit. Someone (likely one of the actors) had climbed through an open window that led to the fire escape and absconded with the only copies of our rehearsal schedules, our posters, our music files. NiiLartey pulled out his video recorder to get footage of me crying over the loss. Everything was performance, every act documented. Others would have thrown in the towel then. Walked away with a hand over the lens, saying ‘no photos.’
I bought a new computer, designed even better flyers, called everyone to get their emails again. I took more freelance jobs to pay for fabric, for canvas and paint, and started from scratch. We ate white rice from an electric cooker in the corner while actors practiced reading Book Six of The Aeneid atop a wooden pedestal. After rehearsal, we had drinks and three-dollar truffle fries at happy hour down at McCormick & Schmick’s. My skin broke out in rashes. I lost twenty pounds, and still, I was living the artist’s life.
Six months in, we lost the majority of the cast once it was revealed that NiiLartey had not written a script. The scheduled performance date was two months away. With the whole production burning down around me, the heat of loss singeing my skin, I was still determined not to leave this man and this project because I was not a quitter. Because I believed art could change lives and that I, too, like Rauschenberg, could be pivotal in the art world.
Did I believe in Neo-illusionism? Well. NiiLartey made prophecies such as “nightclubs will be the world’s new churches.” He threw in ideas about figure painting and God and the Fibonacci series. He wanted me to type up his manifesto. He held Sunday “salons” where he’d pontificate to a small group of devoted followers, other talented actors and musicians who, like me, wanted to live in art and create for a living. Nestled amongst the velvet, neo-classical furnishings were egos and personalities; there were hook-ups and trysts. NiiLartey and I did not have a love affair; we were figureheads. Director and Producer. We looked the part; we lived the part. And in fleeting moments, it was exhilarating.
Imagine my devastation when I emerged from my car to glimpse him strutting down the street in his gold get-up, how I tried to act like I wasn’t uptight about his stunt. We explored the potential new loft space like this was a perfectly normal way to behave. I don’t recall the reason he gave for dressing in gold. Likely some philosophy centered on faux spiritualism and social commentary. I took in the tourmaline flooring, the stainless-steel fixtures, pretending we could afford the lease, mortified I hadn’t immediately aborted the look-see.
I may have embellished for my writing class about the dealbreaker. The gold lamé made a flashy story, but I’m not sure there was one single breaking point. Shortly before the real estate debacle, NiiLartey and I lay in bed after a typical less-than-stellar sexual tussle. Deep down, I knew he wasn’t really into my body; he lusted after my producer brain. Nor was I in love with him; I adored what he symbolized: artist with a capital A. I stared up at the glow-in- the-dark stars he had stuck to the ceiling in the sparse, cold room, tears threatening. I breathed in his rosewater scent as he talked about the future. When we were old, he surmised, we would sit in rocking chairs on a wide porch and reminisce about our brilliant lives. Who was going to buy the house with that porch, I wondered? I knew then I needed more than his lofty pursuit of art to satisfy me. Ambition, in whatever form, was no substitute for love.
“I don’t want this,” I said quietly, but I don’t think he heard me.
Whichever moment was the actual dealbreaker, it took me months to leave him. Incredibly, we finished the project, performing Ode to Icarus in Pioneer Square on Oct 3, 2002. The evening culminated with NiiLartey smashing his own paintings in a fit of rage at two in the morning outside the Last Supper Club, the emotion of finality perhaps too much to bear. With no project looming, with no funding left, the nonprofit quickly fell apart in the coming months.
I moved to an island and revived my own artistic pursuits. The last time I heard from NiiLartey, he called asking me to co-sign a loan for him, putting my house up as collateral. This was years after the Icarus project and my emotion around NiiLartey had faded and transformed into fond-ish memories of those crazy days. I could only laugh at the brazen ask. No, I would not co-sign a loan. By that point I had learned artistry does not require insanity.
Artistry requires work and dedication and a belief in your project. Belief in yourself rather than in someone else. I’ve found that dreams can morph and shrink and still retain a kernel of your original idea. I am no Rauschenberg, but I’ve had my moments.