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 whose privacy should be respected lest she take her leave. For this story, he refused to allow himself or the work he creates under his own name to be photographed and only reluctantly consented to be interviewed. He may have gone so far as to coach the associates he knew would be interviewed: One Thomason Hospital administrator told me with a straight face that Annabel Livermore had attended meetings about the chapel.

At first glance, Annabel’s narrative works seem to have nothing in common with Magee’s heroic, abstract wall-mounted assemblages and triptychs made of scrap salvaged from the Juárez dump. Yet the sculptures are lyrical—their crumpled metal and sprays of rust have an emotional strength, and like Annabel’s paintings some of them have poems for titles. “Neither body of work could exist if the other didn’t,” says Ruth Fine, the curator of modern prints and drawings at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. “There’s a certain set of images and energy and ideas that had to be put in one to keep it out of the other.” In 1991 DiverseWorks Artspace in Houston and the San Antonio Museum of Art jointly mounted a major show of Magee’s work, and this past summer Dallas’ McKinney Avenue Contemporary hosted a Magee retrospective that is now on view at Arizona State University in Phoenix. Far too big for most private residences, Magee’s sculptures have found homes in museums, including the Dallas Museum of Art, the New Mexican Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe, and the El Paso Museum of Art.

Perhaps Annabel is Magee’s road not taken; the placid history he invented for her is certainly far different from his own. In fact Jim Magee seems to have lived several lifetimes, Annabel’s not included. He was born in Fremont, Michigan, where he washed cars at his father’s Ford-Mercury dealership and played high school football. When his sister, Houstonian Susan Wente, reads Annabel’s poems, she recognizes people and places from their “ideal childhood”: “Annabel is tied in to Midwestern values, to the town we grew up in.” After attending a small Protestant college in Michigan, Magee hitchhiked through West Africa before entering the University of Pennsylvania law school. When he got his law degree, in 1971, he went to Paris for two years, where he became the assistant to two sculptors who encouraged him to return to the States to produce his own work. He did a brief stint as a Pinkerton guard in Boston and then moved to New York, renting a warehouse in a Staten Island junkyard. He learned welding at a trade school and supported himself with part-time work. As Adair Margo relates it, Magee was dismayed by the rough, high-stakes Manhattan art world and retreated to an abandoned underwear factory in upstate New York, where he lived alone and made sculptures. It was about this time, in 1976, that Annabel first appeared. In her catalog “interview,” Annabel says she began painting “out of despair” and that a priest nudged her out of depression by advising her “to look at God’s handiwork in order to better appreciate the wonder of the world.”

Wente says she never worried about her brother as he went from job to job and place to place. “He needed more stimulation than most,” she says. “He needed change and adventure. It has brought an incredible depth to his work.” In 1977 Magee designed the set for an opera based on Anne Sexton’s poems that traveled to California. On his way home, a detour to Mexico took him through El Paso. Magee says he’s not sure exactly what made him want to return there and settle down someday—perhaps it was the lazy pace some attribute to the lithium in the water supply or perhaps it was the dilapidated sprawl of Juárez. But first, he had heard stories of money to be made in the oil fields of Texas, so he packed up Annabel’s sketchbook and joined the tide of roughnecks who wrestled heavy machinery all night and squabbled over Odessa’s scarce beds in the early morning. Then, in 1981, he moved to El Paso for good, taking a room at the YMCA. Two years later, he bought a house and opened Mesilla Ironworks, a shop where he welded elegant candlesticks and other items for the home.

In the shop, which is the size of a small airplane hangar, Magee was able to construct his massive assemblages, and in the sun room at the back of his house, Annabel had her own studio. By the end of the decade, the two careers had begun to take flight almost in tandem, and Annabel became interested in doing something for Thomason Hospital. By fax, she explained to me that she had first visited the hospital when a “friend’s assistant” wound up in a mental ward there. Distressed by the drab institutional walls, she recalled how Matisse had once hoped to cure a sick friend by placing sheets of brightly colored paper around his bed. So, beginning in 1990, under Annabel’s aegis, a cadre of well-heeled women gathered twice a year to deliver colorful flowers to the patients. The hospital had for years intended to provide a chapel as a respite from the chaotic emergency waiting room, and Annabel’s offer to donate art for the chapel was the impetus the project needed, says Jim Booher, Thomason’s director of facilities. But it was Magee, of course, who attended meetings and helped design the space.

Booher guided the project through the hospital bureaucracy and fiercely protected Annabel’s identity. Many members of the Twenty Plus Club, a group of senior hospital employees that sponsored the project, still do not know who Annabel is. But those who did catch on, like Dora Muñoz, who was the group’s president at the time, attributed Magee’s artful dodging to modesty rather than perversity. And even administrators were loath to look a gift horse in the mouth. “When we were first introduced, it was out of respect for her privacy that I didn’t really delve into why or who,” Booher says, carefully avoiding specific details of the meeting. “I’ve never felt the need to deviate from that mode of thinking: She’s a gracious lady who has provided us with art that we would never have been able to afford.” When Henry Ornelas, Thomason’s chief operating officer, wanted to thank Annabel for her donations, Booher gently explained that she worked “through Jim.” Ornelas was surprised but accepting. “I work with very unique individuals in our profession,” he says. “You can’t stereotype people because they’re different.”

The chapel, called a meditation room, opened last year. The soothing trickle of a wall-mounted fountain, just like the one in Annabel’s garden at home, greets visitors. Her vibrant floral watercolors dot the walls like miniature stained-glass windows, and the colonial-style purple benches face a painting of a river canyon at sunset. Below it, an altar painted in metallic purple awaits the gifts of flowers, rosaries, and money often left by the families of the hospital’s mostly Catholic clients. The space is a testament not so much to Annabel the artist as to Annabel the mysterious force that seems to energize those around her. Meanwhile, deep in the belly of one of the hospital’s parking garages, where no one can observe her, she is at work on her own Southwestern Sistine Chapel, painting a vivid sky on a barrel-vaulted ceiling that will be the meditation room’s crowning touch.

Speculating on the Magee-Livermore duality, collector Richard Barrett points out that Magee is middle-aged and Annabel is elderly. “She could be a surrogate mother figure,” he says. Perhaps Annabel is a way for Magee to express certain aspects of his personality—the part that empathizes with those around him, the part that wants to create art in an accessible, narrative format, and perhaps most important, the part that wants to have a positive impact on his beloved city. What’s remarkable is not so much that she has been able to accomplish those things for Magee, but that she’s been able to inspire others as well.

“I’ve never known anyone who was willing to be altruistic on this kind of personal level, to just go out and do something like that,” says Janis Keller, who has long been an integral part of the Flower Fund. The wife of an El Paso realtor, Keller describes herself as “highly cynical, highly skeptical.” Yet when her own role in the altruism is commended, she demurs. “My part,” she says, “is that I believe in Annabel.”

Shaila Dewan is a freelance writer living in Houston.