Dual in the Sun
IF I EVER FOUND MYSELF IN EL PASO, my friend Michael Peranteau said, I should visit Jim Magee, an artist who was creating two distinct bodies of work: sculpture under his own name and paintings under the name of his alter ego, Annabel Livermore. Peranteau, the former director of Houston’s DiverseWorks Artspace, then warned me that Magee was shy and would not show me his work unless he felt comfortable. And he cautioned me not to ask about Annabel, whom Magee refers to as his “close companion.”
Soon after our conversation, I realized that a road trip I was planning would take me through that West Texas city, and Peranteau arranged for me to be Magee’s houseguest for a weekend. The evening I arrived, the artist greeted me at the door of his 1908 Arts and Crafts—style home and ushered me through a book-lined den to a verdant courtyard he called “Annabel’s garden.” A tall, broad-shouldered man who walks with a slight limp, Magee is fifty, but his grizzly beard makes him look more grandfatherly than his years, and his eyes are an infinitely gentle blue. He chatted with me for a while and then, noting my exhaustion, asked kindly, “Why don’t you let Annabel draw you a hot bath?” I didn’t know it then, but among Magee’s friends, Annabel is famous for her baths, which contain essence of peppermint, sea salt, and other ingredients. I hesitated, never having had a bath drawn for me before, and certainly not by a person who doesn’t exist. “A bath would do you some good,” Magee prodded, and I agreed, waiting to see what would happen next. Nothing happened. We talked some more while I puzzled over what to do about my bath. When I finally got up to retire for the night, Magee showed me to the bathroom, pointed out the bath things, and left me to myself.
Those who know Magee learned long ago to follow his lead and refer to Annabel Livermore in the third person. He describes her as a glove-wearing retired librarian from the Midwest. He does not cross-dress; Annabel does not make appearances. Yet while no one has ever met Annabel, her impastoed oil paintings of ominous mountainscapes, voluptuous flowers, and haunting street scenes have won many devotees, including Texas first lady Laura Bush, herself a librarian (although not yet a collector); Dallasites Nona and Richard Barrett, who own an extensive collection of Texas art; and writer Patricia Knop and her husband, screenwriter-director Zalman King ( 9 1⁄ Weeks, The Red Shoe Diaries), of Santa Monica, California. Annabel early on chose El Paso’s sister city, Juárez, as her primary subject, painting everything from Palm Sunday processions to prostitutes and transvestites in gritty bars. Though often shadowy, her subjects are infused with an insistent grace. Flowers are haloed, Van Gogh style, and a diner waitress can seem like the bearer of manna. In one classic painting, Easter Morning on the Road to Casas Grandes, an enraptured Mexican housewife finds herself levitating several feet above a road. In Scene From the N Bar, tiny angellike women dance in the palms of a patron perhaps too inebriated to believe his eyes. After Annabel, through Magee, graciously consented to an unprecedented interview by fax, I asked what a nice lady like her was doing in the seedy cantinas of Juárez. “What makes you think the N Bar is not a place for nice ladies?” she replied. “Truth be known, ladies of all shades spend their evenings there.”
El Paso gallery owner Adair Margo was attracted to Annabel’s narrative, almost folksy paintings because they capture something of the mournful, kaleidoscopic texture of life on the border. In 1987 Margo mounted Annabel’s first solo exhibit and sold nearly all of her work—a rare occurrence for an unknown artist. When Margo first met Magee (after a friend had given her the usual caveats), she recalls that he told her, deadpan, that “Annabel lived in his boiler room and collected shovels.” Noting that artists often find it easier to relate to the public in an indirect way, Margo says, “I think he’s one of those exceptionally bright, exceptionally sensitive people. There’s a fine line there, but I don’t think he’s crazy.”
By the time of Annabel’s second show in 1990, her oils and watercolors had been discovered by collectors. “It’s one of the only exhibitions where we’ve actually sat down and said, ‘Look, should we buy the whole exhibition?’” says Richard Barrett, who ended up with four of the eighteen works. Annabel now has trouble keeping up with the demand for her paintings, which take more than a year to complete (she works on several simultaneously). They have been shown all over Texas and in Los Angeles, Santa Fe, and Juárez and are on view through November 30 at Houston’s Lynn Goode Gallery. Her next cycle, paintings of Big Bend landscapes, will not be completed until the fall of 1997.
The elusive artist’s spunky personality has been rounded out in catalog essays; artist’s statements; taped exhibition tours recorded in a cracked, grandmotherly falsetto; and the “extended titles,” actually free-verse poems, that accompany most of her paintings. When she expresses opinions like “a painting should never be so large that you cannot turn your back on it. That is a matter of courtesy”—as she did in an “interview” Magee provided for an exhibition catalog—she brings to mind nothing so much as a lively spinster, elegant but always in sensible shoes. In addition to her celebrity as an artist, Annabel also enjoys a modest reputation in El Paso as a philanthropist: Some of the proceeds from sales of her art go toward the Annabel Livermore Flower Fund, providing fresh flowers to patients at Thomason Hospital, which has the city’s only public trauma center, and she donated about $20,000 worth of her paintings for the hospital’s ecumenical chapel.
Only recently has Magee slightly relaxed his guard about Annabel’s identity. He seems to regard her as a visitor, a guest