She showed up at the train station in Philadelphia a few months back, her thick black braids wound into a crown at the top of her head, her expression direct and stern. There were beads of blood above the neckline of her blouse from her necklace of thorns. As I stared up at her oversized image, I noticed a monkey playing with the barbs that adorned her right shoulder, while over her left, a cat was arching its back as if ready to pounce.
Sighing over her unique beauty, I dug into my purse for a scrap of paper to jot down the dates of the exhibit.
Growing up, the only images I saw of people with disabilities were in charity posters that featured children with wide pleading eyes and misshapen bodies. I don’t recall the words that accompanied these pictures, but the message was clear. Money should be given so that others wouldn’t have to live like this. Meanwhile, these kids were to be pitied. And, by extension, so was I.
Thankfully, we girls with disabilities also had Helen Keller — an extraordinary woman who, blind and deaf since infancy, overcame remarkable odds to become a writer and public speaker. She was smart, determined, and accomplished. The perfect role model for a bookish girl like me — except that, just like my more able-bodied friends, I wanted to be viewed as sexy and beautiful, too.
I wish I could remember the first time I saw a Frida Kahlo painting. It was probably in college. Though I was a lit major, I found every excuse I could to hang out in the art building, breathing in the promising scent of charcoal as my friends worked furiously on drawing projects that were already overdue. Maybe one of Frida’s regal self-portraits hung on the walls there. Maybe I saw a poster in somebody’s dorm room. All I know is that once I discovered her, I learned everything I could about her wild life and her broken body. She’d had polio as a girl, and as a young woman suffered permanent damage to her pelvis and spine in a bus accident. Many of her paintings are unflinching portraits of pain. They can be hard to look at, yet, at the time, I couldn’t get enough. After all, daring, gorgeous, sexual Frida was the antidote to the telethon posters I’d seen all my life.
The weekend of her first appearance in the train station, I saw the poster advertising the Frida Kahlo exhibit everywhere. As Dan and I waited in a bus shelter one evening, I stared into her dark eyes beneath that famous unibrow, noticing for the first time how its curves were echoed by the wings of a hummingbird she wore at her throat.
“I wish we could see it together,” I told Dan.
“You know, I went to a museum once and listened to the audio tour. It was kind of interesting.”
I pulled him into a hug. I have friends whose sighted partners won’t go to museums with them. In fact, Richard and I only went to a couple of exhibits together in the ten years we were married; during those visits, he zoomed through the rooms as though he had a plane to catch.
Dan called the accessibility office of the museum.
“If you really want the audio tour you can use it,” they said. “But we can do you one better.”
They assigned us a private guide — an art historian named Fern who often gave tours to blind and visually impaired visitors.
“You’ve been blind since birth?” she asked Dan easily as she led us toward the exhibit hall. “Okay, so that means you have no knowledge of colors. That’s helpful for me to know.”
The first painting was titled Self-portrait with Monkeys. I stared at it, realizing that while I’d pored over prints for years, I’d never been in front of an actual Frida Kahlo painting before, the brush strokes made by her hands inches from where I stood. Fern described the size of the canvas and indicated, by drawing a line at Dan’s chest with her hand, how much of the figure is shown. She had him feel the neckline of my blouse to get an idea of what Frida was wearing and tapped him to show where the monkeys’ hands rested on her torso. I was rapt as she built the image detail by detail, finding the precise words for each texture and expression. We then moved on to Frida’s wedding portrait with the famous muralist, Diego Rivera. Fern placed my hand over Dan’s to show him how Frida’s hand rested on Diego’s upturned palm. She and I talked about the difference between this flatter folk style and the three-dimensional quality of the first piece, answering Dan’s questions about what shadows look like and how artists use shading to create depth.
But the rawness of some of the other images made me catch my breath. Frida’s body wrenched open to show the cracked column of her spine. Nails peppering her skin. Full anatomically correct hearts worn on the outside. I thought of how lucky I am that my disability does not cause pain. I also felt fresh gratitude for having been able to bear a child. Frida’s desire to be a mother was palpable. One painting showed lactating breasts lacking the cover of flesh. Others featured fetuses floating free of her form to represent her many miscarriages. In portrait after portrait, she cried tears of milk. The painting Moses depicted the Biblical figure floating in the basket his mother had placed him in when she gave him up to save his life. Milk tears dropped toward him like rain, the source being a womb spliced to show a curled infant within.
I wondered if Frida would have been able to produce this body of work had she succeeded in bearing children. But then I thought of how motherhood has enriched my writing. True, in the first year of Ethan’s life, I barely succeeded in reading a magazine article, let alone writing one. Still, once I got back to it, my son became one of my richest subjects.
I’m quite convinced Frida still would have made great art had she the good fortune to birth a child. Not these particular works, but others. Meanwhile, as I walked the gallery that contained the paintings she did create, I found myself falling deeper in love. With Frida for the bravery with which she showed herself. With Ethan for being my child and my muse. With Fern for bringing these paintings to life for Dan with her words. And of course with Dan — for figuring out a way to let me share one more piece of my world with him.