Antoine Vollon, Mound of Butter, 1875-1885. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Antoine Vollon, Mound of Butter, 1875-1885. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

MOund of butter

1. The first time I came out to someone with impact on my professional future, it was my adviser. She asked me why I had not emerged from a swamp-like summer with the first chapter of a thesis. I broke down in her office, sobbed: I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to continue school despite my scholarship and jobs, because I had come out, again, to my parents. They were deciding whether to cut me out of the family at a time when I wasn't financially independent. And if that happened, a degree in art history would need to be put on hold for something responsible. (I felt derailed and deflated). I hardened a lot that summer, kept my head down, convinced my parents to keep talking to me, wrote my thesis about Renaissance nuns-- a safe topic.

2. I wrote about the female body, about starvation as means to holiness and food as a symbol of human-ness. I read about women who so longed for agency of their own lives that they believed they saw angels during communion. I wrote about repentant prostitutes, ensconced, eating nothing but gristle. I researched papal dispensations, which convent was allowed to eat meat, which patrician family donated cases of olive oil for better treatment of their daughter. I read about miracle women who claimed to survive on food left for them by God himself.

3. And of course, then I found the "lesbian nuns," the ones who fasted until fainting and would only sleep in each others' presence, who called each other their Christian brides and had a relationship that, to my modern, starving eyes, read tinged with lust and regret.

4. A confession: I bought a stack of contemporary chef's biographies and all I could think about was food poisoning in the middle ages, and a theory that it later caused the Salem Witch trials. I'm researching Toulouse-Lautrec (and his images of lesbians, naturally) and keep getting hung up on notes of his group's ridiculous hangover cures.

5. Recent trip to the NGA and came across a whole room of Impressionist food still life paintings and gasped when I saw this Vollon, titled "Mound of Butter."