The other day my mind wandered back in time to my first years here in DC. I lived in a group house because I was a poor student. There were two women living in the house—both ex-wives of artists. Louise Downing was the wife of Thomas Downing, a member of what is known as the Washington Color School. Tom Downing was not the most very famous member of the Color School. That privilege went to Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland. To some extent Downing faded into obscurity.
Louise was French-Canadian and she spoke with somewhat of an accent. She had brown curly hair and wore false teeth. She favored bare feet and flowing mu-mu type dresses. She was short and stout, but she had a French way about her. She was boisterous and demonstrative. She liked to talk with a cigarette between her fingers and had a deep throaty, cigarette smoke laugh. She smoked a lot, too much in fact. She had serious heart issues. She had a chest zipper, and her voice was gravelly from smoking so much. She cooked amazing French food, well, French-Canadian food.
I think she left her husband because he had become abusive. I was never clear if they had actually divorced. I do know that she had come to live with us while she worked to get custody of her son. She had no job and no money. She slept on a couch on our screened-in porch.
Even though separated, Louise was obsessed with making sure her husband Tom’s work was on the art market. First, she thought he was brilliant and second, they needed the money. She had a very long story about how the paintings were in storage and she could not get them out until she paid off a debt. I was never clear exactly who had the lien. But she could not put her hands on what were very valuable works of art.
I loved Louise and we spent hours sitting around talking. At some point, she became convinced that I should meet her husband and date him. Louise was very much afraid she was going to die of a heart attack and he would be left without anyone to take care of him and her son. She focused on me. I had not one bit of interest in this. But she insisted that I meet Tom so I agreed to lunch.
We spent the day walking around D.C. talking. He was interesting enough to talk to. But we had not a thing in common. That it was awkward does not really say enough. I was 22 at the time. My interests were not the same as a man in his fifties.
At some point, he asked me if I wanted to see his work. I said, sure, why not. He took me to a walk-up apartment in Dupont Circle. What I found there was odd but somehow fitting. The only furniture was a folding chair and a crate that stood in for a coffee table that held an overflowing ashtray. That was it. His dot paintings were lined up along the walls. They were not even hanging. I think he was sleeping on the floor in a sleeping bag.
I sat on the chair while he sat on the floor. He asked me what I thought about his work. My thought was, um, those are circles. I am not an abstract expressionist lover. I am not even an abstract expressionist liker. They seemed pointless. But I told him they were quite interesting. I tried very hard to be enthusiastic. I am not sure why. I felt like he needed to impress me.
After about an hour I looked at my watch and apologized that it was time for me to go. I just needed to get out of there. I had done what Louise asked and that was enough.
When I got home, Louise was so excited. She wanted to know every detail. I talked a bit but I think she realized that her husband was just not for me. She was fine with that. Not long after Tom moved to Provincetown, I believe, and Louise got custody of her son and they moved to Georgetown. I would visit her there and watch her cook French meals.
One day, I have never understood why, she gave me a pair of earrings and a gold ring. It was a gold band. I thought it was her wedding ring. It sure did look like one. She was vague about what it was. It was as if she wanted me to have a memento of our time together. We soon lost touch. I think she followed her husband to Massachusetts, and I never saw her again. Tom Downing died in 1985. I’ve looked for Louise on the internet but that was almost 40 years ago, and I am sure she too has passed on. I still have the ring and the earrings. I remember her fondly. She was a bright spot for me when I first came here.