I never met Tschabalala, but I have a lot of her stuff. The summer I moved into a new studio building was the same summer she moved out, and because she was on the same floor as me, I was there for the move-out. Tschabalala’s success was obvious; she had a quarter of the entire floor, all of her studios with brand new doors and locks. I never saw her, but her assistants were there most days, gluing and painting onto giant canvases, sometimes with the doors slightly ajar. I kept my door ajar too, and for several weeks I scurried out after loud pushing and dropping noises to find treasure in the hallway. A bright blue shelving unit, an industrial fan, crates of half-used paint. Tschabalala was, unbeknownst to her, furnishing my entire place.
One day I knocked on one of her doors. Her assistants had placed a glass desk in the hallway, and I wanted to take it, but could barely lift half of it. An unassuming boy my age took off his headphones to look at me. Hello, I said. Are you strong? Could you help me?
It was Mo, I learned. He was Tschabalala’s first assistant, after she taught him at Bard. He’s worked for her for several years, but while she was moving the studio to upstate New York, he decided to stay in New Haven. We lugged the glass desk to my still half-empty studio and then stood around talking about New Haven before he went back to his work. I continued unpacking and reorganizing, working slowly on my first piece in the new space, Midnight Drive. A few hours later, I heard a light knocking on the open door. Mo was just outside the room, his hands at his chest. He asked for a studio visit, and I ushered him back in.
I have no good pitch yet, I told him. The work still tumbles out of me. Some of it is in line with my artist statement, and some of it is very different. Privately, I wondered if any of this was going to get to Tschabalala. I kept my door open that summer, in case any of the assistants would wander in and want to meet. But Mo was the only one who ever came in. And it became obvious to me that he was unconcerned with his boss—if I envied him for being close to her, the feeling began to melt. We exchanged handles, and when he left, I scrolled through his work. His most recent paintings were of gorgeous, multicolored Black people against Van Gogh’s green and blue fields. I loved it, and I was honored—I was in my first real studio, and he had been my first real studio visit.
Mo made me realize my elevator pitch sucked. I told him my work was about the burden of living a young life online, but nothing about Midnight Drive suggested that. I was working with an outdated model, a statement that reflected my work from a few years ago. I was changing, and as a function of change, the parts of a whole were wonky and incongruent. I was saying one thing but meant another. I wasn’t thinking so much about digital life as much as I was political life; Deana Lawson’s work popped into my head when I was at the easel, as did Barbara Kruger’s. I took a trip with my best friend to a tiny town in West Virginia and took pictures of trucks and American flags and fall fields. The guest house we stayed in had Peter Saul’s catalogue from the New Museum and I took it home; I thought about my own Americanity as something just my sister and I share, and about motherhood in a post-Roe v. Wade world. I wanted to capture something rich in a complicated culture. I thought of Andy Warhol’s giant, silkscreened guns. Mo, in asking what I was working on, had no idea the type of neurological firing-off he had caused.
With Tschabalala being gone, the floor got much quieter. I moved from one room to another, smaller one after six months, and I messaged Mo asking if he would be in the building, since he once told me he was considering getting small room for himself. He confirmed that he would be in room 230 in November. When I went back to the studio the next day, I checked my door, which read 229 in black, block lettering. Want anything, neighbor? I responded. I still have your boss’ hand-me-downs.