In 1982, at the newly opened art space ABC No Rio, Bettie Ringma and I exhibited "Unforgettable Moments Drawn by Real Life People," the war drawings we collected from Vietnam veterans along with drawings of personal recollections of other traumatic experiences like rapes, muggings, drug addiction and the MGM Grand Hotel fire in Las Vegas. At a time when expressionism, political art and outsider art were all popular new currents in the art world, the exhibit attracted much attention. The socially-committed art critic Lucy Lippard found the show "hideously moving" but questioned whether it promoted "justice for the oppressed" or merely reflected "esthetic tourism or simple sensationalism." In a way, Lippard was echoing Bettie's own feelings about the moral ambiguity of the project and her growing concern that I was too interested in "effect only without consideration of the nature or content of the effect." "Unforgettable Moments" would be the last of our collaborative projects together.
I was five years old. I was with my sister and my girlfriends playing in the meadows. I was picking my daily bunch of flowers and had drifted away from the group. Then all of a sudden there were these guys. They may have been 11 or 14. They lured me into this hay barn. I was curious and trusting. I don't remember much specifically about the rape. I have repressed it for a long time. But I do remember it was very terrifying. I just lay there helpless, my panties were pulled down and they were all around me. There was no way out. I was trapped. The strongest I remember is the moment when the farmer, who must have seen us go into the hay barn from his faraway farm house, knocked with his wooden shoes on the wooden wall of the barn. He jumped up and stared over the wall to check us out. He yelled. The loud sounds shocked me as though I woke up from a coma. That was sort of my recovery. The worst was afterwards when I was in the farm with the farmers, and my parents, sisters and friends were there too and everybody was staring at me, as though I had done something wrong. And all the questioning, like in a trial. It all did not solve anything, but it sure taught me something!
My girlfriend and I were at his house to calm down his sister. We were talking and drinking when he suddenly left the room. About a minute later he called me, and when I came out he grabbed me and threw me in a dark room. He said, "you're going to give me some pussy. you've been getting to me all day!" We were fighting on the bed. I tried to get the light on. But he punched the shit out of me, and I screamed, "Sandra, get me some help!" We were right across the street from where we hung out. She found some of my friends, and they came back and started banging on the door. He had snatched off my pants and my shoes. Now he grabbed me and pushed me out the door, and I was screaming, "He raped me!" All I had on was my top and my panties. He never did penetrate, but eventually he would have. I got him arrested, but he got off. I was 19, and after this you couldn't get me in no house with a man.
I started shooting dope when I was 16 years old. I shot dope for about 15 years. I shot dope in law school. I shot dope in medical school. It was my answer to everything. Dope to me was periods of being dead. That's what you're paying for... serenity.
Do you see the picture to the right? That's King Heroin. It's a street or person image that is usually tattooed on somebody's arm. It shows the sun as a chinaman covered over by clouds. That's me in the foreground tying up and getting off.
This is a drawing about me and cocaine. I started right off shooting it. I didn't start the acceptable way... sniffing it. Once you start shooting coke you live for it. When I started using it I was healthy. But I got to a point where I had to stop looking at myself. I had marks on my arms and marks on my hands, I couldn't even shake hands with anybody because I had been abusing my veins so much. Then one day I ended up in a hotel room tearing my clothes off because I had to see what I looked like. I saw myself for what I was. I was so skinny that when I stood up I could feel the bones in my rectum. My skin was hanging like I had tuberculosis or something. I knew something had to happen 'cause I saw my own death.
One incident that has always stuck in my head was when I robbed this family who had a store. They weren't particularly well off. They were just trying to make a living. I got very little money... maybe $300. They were very scared. I was basically a courteous robber. I would say thank you and ask for their forgiveness. I had a gun but I don't think I would have used it. I like to think I was stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. That's why I have angel wings on my back. But I felt guilty about this robbery.
I've been mugged twice. The first time was when I was walking out of the subway at 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue. I had passed a bag lady and was wondering what she was doing there. The next thing I knew my progress was being impeded by an arm around my throat. He had been hiding in a doorway. He threw his arm around my neck right at my voice box so I couldn't scream. She must have signaled him, and then she grabbed my bags filled with books. The scariest was when I started to black out as he was strangling me. I looked at his face and he looked very angry. As he strangled me he stared right into my eyes and I stared right into his eyes. I think my gold chain stopped him from killing me. I think he decided to take his hands off my neck and grab the chain.
We were on the nineteenth floor. We woke up thinking there was smoke and we saw black smoke coming through the doorway. We opened up the door and we realized the hallways were filled with smoke and we could not get out. After awhile the whole room was totally filled with black smoke... you couldn't see the bed anymore. You couldn't breathe. We went into the bathroom and started to fill the tub up with water. Then we took towels and put them into the bathtub and then we wrapped them all around the door but the smoke still kept coming through. Finally Bill picked up a table and threw it at the window. If you couldn't break the window you weren't going to make it.
There were helicopters flying all around. I saw that all of these people were standing on the roof. All the fire engines had ladders going up and the firemen were running back and forth. There was a man standing there with a megaphone who kept saying "stay calm... stay away from he windows... don't jump." But I saw a couple holding hands who jumped from the 26th floor. Some people thought they might make it by tying one sheet to another sheet. Some tried to jump from one terrace to another terrace. Everybody was screaming.
Gladys describes her experience during the MGM Grand Hotel fire (4'40)