Mabel Maney: Past Imperfect

Mabel Maney has shaped, stitched, glued and word processed her ’50s kitsch vision of dysfunctional family life onto the pages of books.

“My mother taught me always to be cheery and perky,” quips Mabel Maney. “Even when I’m writing about murder I have to make sure the characters wear the right shoes.”

She sits primly — each bright red hair just so, lipstick to match — sipping ice water with the self-contained demeanor of a schoolmarm. Look again and notice the humor twinkling in her eyes. Like some dry, wisecracking ’40s movie star, it always appears like the next thing she says is going to be a joke — usually at her own expense.

I’ve gone to interview this artist-cum writer over lunch and we break the ice by talking about moisturizers. It’s a topic women over 30 find hard to resist. Mabel tells me, with authority, about at least a dozen skin products she uses, and we bond for a moment over the importance of exfoliants. This is all amusing, but I feel like I’m talking to one of the ultra-femme characters from her satirical Nancy Clue mysteries, and I’m impatient to break through her smooth exterior.

She talks quickly, her thoughts tumbling out over one another in run-on sentences, and tells me about the birth of Nancy Clue three years ago when she was an MFA candidate in visual art at SF State. She’d been working on hand-made books as art objects, when she injured her back and landed in bed.

As she lay there, bored and in pain, she tells me, she began “thinking about the missing mother of the ’50s and ’60s — the medicated, Valium mother — and thinking about my own mother. She is an incredibly important person in my life. I mean when I was a kid I was desperately in love with my mother and desperately jealous of my father. When she’d get mad at my father she’d say, ‘you and I are going to run off together.’ And I believed her. I didn’t stop believing her until I was 27.”

While in recovery, Mabel began reading books from that era, chiefly her childhood Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames books. “And I noticed that the subtext of Cherry was very homoerotic — the world of women, the uniform fetish, all the nurses. Cherry is written for girls, yet they always describe them in this luscious detail like, ‘her curvy figure, her starched uniform, her glossy hair.’ Then I realized, Nancy and Cherry should fall in love.”

Mabel wrote the main text of the book during her three-month bed stay and then had to find a way to integrate the work into getting her visual arts degree.

“We had our graduate show coming up, so I boiled the essence of the book down into 14 one-page chapters and blew them up to these giant linen panels. They’re bordered by ’50s curtains, so they’re very ’50s kitsch, and fabric and female. They hang from the ceiling and you walk through them. Around panel six, you get that this is this lesbian take-off of Nancy Drew.

“I showed that work, and someone said, ‘Oh, I wish I could take this home. I wish I had a little book.'”

Mabel color copied and hand-bound thirty copies of the “Case of the Not-So-Nice-Nurse,” and brought them to A Different Light bookstore where they sold out in the first couple of months. When the book came to the attention of Cleis Press they asked to see her still unfinished original manuscript and bought it without hesitation.

“The thing is,” she tells me, “I would be a wage slave right now if I hadn’t lucked into getting a book published. It’s a great thing — and totally unpredictable.”

The fast-selling, “The Case of the Not-So-Nice Nurse,” and its sequel, released last month, “The Case of the Good-For-Nothing-Girlfriend,” chronicle the adventures of Nurse Cherry Aimless and Nancy Clue, girl detective. Cherry is the ever-unwitting protagonist who, in the first novel, runs into a pack of lesbians and finds herself in a San Francisco gay bar sharing drinks and kisses with her long-time idol Nancy Clue. They solve a mystery in typical 1950s girl book fashion — without mussing their hair, and making sure to have a nutritious snack after pushing a man into boiling water — and in the end, go off to live happily ever after.

But the wit of these crafted parodies belies the real story just beneath the joking banter. Nancy Clue, is really an incest survivor who killed her father when she’d finally had enough. Cherry’s father-knows-best is an angry alcoholic. And Cherry’s aunt, along with a convent full of nuns, have been kidnapped by greedy, violent priests who are going to kill them in order to pull off a real estate deal.

“The first book we called the ‘Bad Dad’ book as a joke,” she laughs. “The characters are just my idea of male authority. They have power they don’t deserve. They’re corrupt and evil and absolutely not what they’re supposed to be.”

In Mabel’s books, just beneath the surface of the nuclear family the GOP is pining for a return to, lives the very same dysfunctional family they revile.

“What’s so intriguing about ’50s imagery is that it carries this innocent look, but if you twist it a bit you see that there’s nothing innocent about it at all,” says Maney.

In the second book, Cherry is still surprisingly all-around naive, but where her relationship with Nancy is concerned, she’s downright stupid. Nancy drinks day and night, ignores Cherry and brings home other women. Cherry tries to rationalize this behavior but finally gets fed up and goes to a gay bar to get picked up.

“I asked my publisher if I should make Cherry smarter,” remarks Mabel,” and she said, ‘Do you think you get smarter because you have a relationship?'” Maney laughs, “no, I get dumber. So I want her to be a parody of first love. And I wanted the night where she gets dressed up and goes out to be her big co-dependent breakthrough.”

“I like to say I used to be Cherry, but now I’ve gotten help and I’m not.”

Mabel Maney’s house is filled with books — children’s books, old dictionaries, science books, (“I want the girls to get more scientific”), and the obligatory Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series’ — these volumes, and numerous paintings of her dog Lily, seem to comprise the bulk of her possessions. I’m at her apartment a couple of weeks after our first interview, this time at Mabel’s request.

“We have to do it again,” she tells me in a frantic phone message waiting for me when I return home from our initial lunch. “I didn’t say anything interesting.”

I call her back to assure her that she was very interesting, and debate the merits of her suggestion that I refer to her back injury as, “being hit by a meteor,” just to, “to liven it up.” Still, I schedule another meeting.

I’m glad I’ve come the minute Mabel leads me into her workroom. On a large wooden table sits a display of hand-made books from her art-school days. This home exhibit reveals Mabel in a way that no lunch conversation could.

From the first piece to the last her theme emerges. An initial attempt is a book, about an inch square, which opens like an accordion. On one side in block print it reads, “My mother and I never got along, we fought like cats and dogs. On the flip side it reads, “My mother and I got along great, we were best friends and never fought.”

Slightly larger books are replete with gaudy Catholic archetypes. “I wanted to be a nun when I was ten,” she tells me, “because I thought nuns just got to stay home and read all day.”

As we move through the chronology the books get bigger and more elaborate. They are all stories of girls and women — or more aptly, daughters and mothers — trying to cope with the unconsciously hostile world of the ’50s and early ’60s. In these stories, girls get bigger and bigger, while their mothers take them to doctors and fret that they won’t fit into acceptable roles. Women spend entire lives inside their homes, invisible to the world — or they get amnesia, which doesn’t matter to their husbands who prefer to keep them well-groomed but befuddled.

In one beautiful, oversized tale, a mother and daughter take off cross-country to escape the father. Streams of words lead across a brightly colored map of the country, dotted with pictures of potential adventures. As each stream ends you are forced back to the beginning to take another road. The book unfolds like a map in panels that have been sewn together. On the back is a story culled from a reference work about women crossing the plains. To the existing text, Mabel has added layers of meaning by pasting words over words, and subtexts next to historical texts. Sewn outlines around mountain ranges and trees add another texture, giving this whole piece the feel of a quilt.

“I got a lot of shit in grad school for sewing and doing things with fabric,” Mabel remarks. “I think what happened was that in the ’70s feminist art was really heavy on fabric and things. But it didn’t make any sense to me, this hierarchy of materials.”

The love of fabrics and sewing run deeply through Mabel’s life and work. She shows me a lovingly constructed book about her grandmother. “Everyone in my family was a lawyer or business person, but my grandmother Mabel was a seamstress and she taught me how to sew. So she’s the only other artist in my family that I can trace back.”

We sit in a coffeehouse in Potrero Hill, not far from her home. As we talk, Mabel cheerfully greets, or is greeted by, half a dozen of the café patrons. Since she began writing these books, her life has revolved almost entirely around this two-block radius.

“I want to write one book a year for a while until I have a complete and utter nervous breakdown from sitting in my room, by myself, all day long, for years and years and years. Then I’ll probably make visual art. Because it’s really hard to sit this much and be alone,” Mabel admits. “Sometimes I’ll be in my pajamas until 7:00 in the evening because I’ve been writing and there’s no reason to change.

“I always say that I became a writer so that I could stay home with my dog,” she claims. Indeed, all her books are dedicated to Lillian Bee her sweet, 14-year-old Sheltie, but I sense there is more at work in the choices she’s made for her life than the glib, therapy-savvy responses she gives. However limiting, she’s comfortable here, on the hill, in the bosom of an extended surrogate family.

The themes and ideas of the biological family Mabel left behind in Ohio almost ten years ago permeate her work. But like Freud, it’s always the mother to whom she returns.

“My mother bought all the ’50s line. She thought she was not as smart as men — she’d say that — and it made me really angry. One thing I think women my age have, are really different lives than our mothers. I feel like I need to do everything that my mother didn’t do. I think of who she was when we were young, she’s different now because she’s had 35 years of burying herself. She drank. My dad drank too. And I feel like she was stolen from me, like that amnesia victim book. You know you lose your mothers when they lose themselves.”

“My mother doesn’t know about my work except for the Nancy Clue stuff, which she hasn’t read. She has no idea that I have stacks of stories about her or that I stand up in public and talk about her. I think that all of my work about my mother is really about loss and grief. I mean she’s alive. But because she became an alcoholic so young and only quit drinking a few years ago, there’s been 25 years of estrangement between us.”

From real life to art, from art to words, Mabel has shaped, stitched, glued and word-processed her family portraits onto the pages of books. If she has preserved her mother in these hand-made albums, it may be in her novels, within the negative portrayals of heterosexual men, that we get a clue to her relationship with her father.

“I do very little work about my father,” she says. But I feel like there’s something really wrong with him. He has no conscience. He’s the kind of person who would go berserk and kill his own family. I don’t stay in their house when I visit, because he has so many weapons, and I think, what if this is the night?

“When my father got sick this summer though, I was literally in tears for days. And it was because all of a sudden I had to think about him, and I had gotten him out of my mind years ago. For me, there’s 25 years of stuff that I won’t access with him. It’s not like we’re going to sit down together and talk about anything ever.

“When I read family stuff in public I’m terrified. These are really old, painful family secrets and it would hurt my father to know I was talking about them. But I feel like I need to — like that’s my position in the family. I think that’s true of the artist in the family. We’re just telling the truth. But it’s exhausting and it’s also complicated.”

It’s getting cold at the café and I ask Mabel if there’s any single thing she wants people to know. She thinks for a moment, then says, “Tell them not to loan the book. Make their friends buy it. Because this is the thing that I’m learning about small presses, it’s really nice to loan your book to someone, but we all really need the sales.”

“You know,” she adds, “my best friend from 9th grade made me stay up one night and we went through old letters. And all of my letters were about art, writing, girls and my mother. I think it’s the theme of my life. I think that’s a good thing.”

Mabel Maney’s graduate installation of The Case of the Not-So-Nice Nurse is currently on display at Highways in Los Angeles. Her hand-made books from World-O-Girls can be found at Christopher’s Books in Potrero Hill. Her short stories appear in the Manic D Press anthologies, Signs of Life and Beyond Definition. The Case of the Good-for-Nothing-Girfriend is published by Cleis Press.

December 14, 1994 ©Suzanne Rush

Workhorse Ethic: Her Majesty the Baby

Her Majesty the Baby finally takes matters into their own hands

“We’re not pretty. We didn’t get it from prettiness,” singer Lee Paiva says emphatically about her band’s first CD, Mary. “We didn’t get it from sexiness. We worked, and worked and worked.”

This is no overnight rags-to-riches story. After making music for nine years, Lee and guitarist Terri Winston, the founders of Her Majesty the Baby, would be insulted to find themselves portrayed like toothpaste-hawking celebrities on a glossy magazine cover.

“We’re workhorses. We don’t get all groomed and come out and fluff around and put on a show and then go back into the stall and let other people do everything behind the scenes,” Lee insists. “We’re obsessed.”

Terri laughs, “Our booker, YaVette always says we’re a little more hands-on than other people.”

Hands-on is a good way to describe the all-consuming project that precipitated the band’s year-long disappearance from the public. Starting in the autumn of ’93, Lee and Terri built a recording studio from the ground up, reformed their band with three new members, and, recorded, engineered and released Mary, their first CD.

The thing those glossy celebrity profiles never tell you about is the crisis in consciousness that happens when an artist realizes that if they keep following the rules — if they keep waiting for someone else to recognize their worth — they’re never going to be able to quit their day jobs.

For Her Majesty the Baby that moment came two years ago. After building a large, local following the band had landed a coveted spot on the bill of the ’92 BMI showcase — the showcase at which, in previous years, both Counting Crows and Primus had been signed.

“We did probably the best show we’d ever done as a band,” remembers Winston of that night. “I think the big illusion was that we thought that if we did a really great show and there were all those labels there, why wouldn’t someone sign us?”

“We never heard one single word from anyone,” adds Paiva. “There’s no one like us that’s selling millions of records right now so nobody’s going to want to lay their job down on the line for us.”

Without obvious pop songs or overt sexuality, they’d never be an easy sell, but being ignored completely was unprecedented. Even in their earliest incarnation in Rhode Island, as a duo performing with a drum machine and a 4-track for back-up, the group had attracted attention.

Under the tutelage of Throwing Muses manager Ken Goes they won the ASCAP new songwriter’s award, recorded two demos — one with Suzanne Vega’s producer Lenny Kaye — and landed a big bucks record contract with Phonogram in London. Then the deal collapsed when Phonogram went out of business.

“We were broke. We were depressed, and we had just enough money left to get out of there,” explains Lee. So they loaded up the truck and moved to California.

“When we first moved here we had a hard time getting gigs,” recalls Terri. They reformed as a 4-piece band, dug in and started over, rehearsing and performing relentlessly until Her Majesty the Baby was regularly playing to sold-out crowds of zealous fans wearing cardboard Burger King crowns.

“I have this picture of our fans,” Lee smiles. “They’re kind of shy, they don’t go out a hell of a lot, they’re intelligent, and they have a lot going on inside them. It’s like, housewives, wallflowers and geeks — and we totally love that,” she adds, “because they’re the ones who are really sweet and special.”

Sitting at my kitchen table eating chocolate, Lee and Terri act almost like a married couple. They’ve worked together for so long that they laugh at each other’s private jokes and finish each other’s sentences. This evident bond between them has been tested through periods of richer and poorer more than once.

“What getting signed meant to us was to get money to record, so that we could have a real collection out there. I didn’t want a Jaguar,” Lee stresses. “I just always felt like, as an artist I would never be able to get out a collection of my work.”

When no offers came after the BMI show — and their drummer and bass player left the band — Lee and Terri stopped waiting. With the help of Lee’s husband Jake, an investor friend, and homeless teenagers from the Ground Zero teen center, the duo and their newly formed band built a recording studio.

“This studio thing was an intersection of amazing grace,” Paiva explains. “We had what, for a studio, was very little money, but for us was freedom.”

Working during the day and then building the studio, auditioning players and recording with the band at night, Lee admits, “Part of the sound of this album was shaped by exhaustion.”

But Mary‘s smooth mix of pretty guitars and lush vocals belies engineer Terri’s lack of experience and the band’s fatigue. After three previous turns at professional recording with only lackluster results, Terri says, “We started to see that every time we went into a big studio, we had to leave everything in control of someone else. So then we get into our own studio, and Lee says ‘it doesn’t sound right,’ and sometimes I didn’t know what to do. The difference was that I would try what she wanted.”

Using the trial and error method, some songs, like the brilliant opener “Fendaya,” took up to 22 mixes before they were satisfied. But to Lee, the creation is worth the effort. “Doing music is about living beyond coping, beyond just surviving — it’s about being fully alive.” In the song “Jazzo,” she sings, “We may be doomed, we may be wise, we jump at things, they toss aside, you may be lost, but you’ll be found, we’ll never tear this lighthouse down.” Indeed, the emotionally charged songs on this recording evoke the feeling of that light that shines at the end of a dark journey.

Already receiving frequent airplay on KUSF, Mary‘s release marks the end of one journey and the beginning of another. With a new line-up Lee calls, “jammin'” — including members Bennett Green on drums, Maggie Law on bass and William Kendall on guitar — Her Majesty the Baby is back working the clubs. Who knows, maybe they’ll get that deal yet. Maybe they’ll get to quit their day jobs. Maybe that doesn’t matter after all.

“We finally got our CD out, but I’m still going to be living here — doing shows, writing and recording here. We’re not going anywhere. This is what we do,” Lee says with a wistful smile.

February 1, 1995 ©Suzanne Rush

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