As she speaks, Cay Bahnmiller drags a cracked-polish fingernail across a brick wall to depict the way some lives are more linear than others.
She circles an index finger on a pile of papers like she’s mixing paint as she describes the importance of her influences: Anna Akhmatova, Ted Berrigan, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, Alfred Hitchcock, Hank Williams, Etta James, Dinah Washington, Bessie Smith, Beethoven, Frank Lloyd Wright and Freud, Rothko, Cézanne, Kofi Annan and the list goes on. Some of the names come up so frequently, it’s musical, like returning to a refrain.
Bahnmiller is known in Detroit art circles as a talented, highly eccentric painter dedicated wholly to her work. Her pieces evoke the raw fragility of our urban existence.
“I think she is one of the most original and profound painters in our community, and I am not alone in that sentiment,” says gallery owner Susanne Hilberry.
Cass Corridor resident Bahnmiller hasn’t had a solo exhibition of her work in 13 years, but she never stopped painting. That much is evident in the more than 70 pieces that cover the walls and floor and even hang from the ceiling of Ferndale’s Susanne Hilberry Gallery. To use the word prolific would be a great understatement.
She cancels two appointments for an interview before finally making it happen. As she sits down in Avalon International Breads on a Saturday afternoon, energy ripples through Bahnmiller’s soft and expressive frame. As she speaks, three or more different ideas often find themselves in one sentence. She layers her words like her work layers paint over text, over fabric, over wood, or like the interview tape layers her voice singing above an espresso maker, nearby conversations and all the other noises at the bakery.
“We’re all electrical particles,” Bahnmiller says. “I have a tendency where if they do an MRI, I’ll shut the machine down. I find every time I go through anything, it beeps. I’m charged, I guess. It’s a painter’s energy.”
Her show at the Hilberry is a lot to look at, but it’s by no means overwhelming. Much of the work is confrontational, with signs reading “keep out” hanging from the ceiling or “nothing but needles and broken glass” mounted in a block of cement.
It’s been a long hiatus since Bahnmiller’s last solo exhibition in 1990, but her work is very personal, and it’s not difficult to see that she prefers a private life. She explains the elements of her works, such as the “keep out” signs, and her anger comes out.
“A lot of the signs simply are signs that I made to put on my yard because I’ve been broken into so many times,” Bahnmiller says. “I have nothing to hide. I was raped 13 years ago. Besides almost losing my life and having my back broken, I went through the 36th District Court system to have the man that did it walk. Sometimes, justice is bought.
“So when you see the metal sign and it says, ‘keep out,’ it’s on many, many levels,” she says.
At the same time, her work is dreamlike and organic, with nods to closed eyes, sometimes emitting a feeling of being tucked in and read to.
Bahnmiller is extremely well read and collects all kinds of texts — books, poems, philosophy. Many of her paintings and sculptures have words or poems painted into them, or the names of poets, or actual pieces of paper that she’s ripped out of a book. Included in the show is a table that displays laminated examples of words that she makes into paintings, along with books that she’s altered ever so slightly with paint.
“If I read it over and over, it becomes a painting,” explains Bahnmiller. “And I think that people should read more. And look at the screen less.”
Bahnmiller’s first show in 1979 “was nothing but a study, like a homework room with paintings and blueprints, very Bauhaus and severe,” Bahnmiller remembers. “My palette was very cement-like and gray and earthy.”
Bahnmiller was born in Detroit in 1955. Her father worked for Ford and her family moved to Argentina for a few years in 1959. They took a ship from New York Harbor.
In Bahnmiller’s works there are a number of references to Ercilia, a woman in Buenos Aires who took care of her and her brother. She has many rich and vivid memories of these times. She remembers that her nanny had to sit next to Adolf Eichmann on the bus before he was caught in 1961. Her childhood stories pervade her works and persona.
“Often, when you talk with Cay, the descriptions, the sights and sounds and smells and experiences of those four or five years from ’59 to the middle ’60s in South America, you sometimes feel like no matter what you know in terms of chronology, that she’s talking about today or yesterday,” gallery owner Hilberry muses. “The smells, the starch in the pinafore skirt, walking up the gangplank, being so close to the floor and water because she was so young. It can get very confusing no matter how well you know her biography, because she is so intense, whether it be about an interchange now or a memory all those years ago. It just doesn’t seem to be a memory.”
Bahnmiller says her life as an artist began at an early age.
“I started making things when I was about 6. Pivotal was making a clay swan for Mother’s Day (in third grade) and a teacher let me take home a jar of paint and a brush so I could make it better and better and better and that was it. In fourth or fifth grade, I got a book on still life, landscape and figure drawing. I bought oil paint, got hooked on oil paints and watercolor, and did this study and did that study and just kept going from there. It was not a matter of, ‘this is what I’m going to be someday.’ It was matter of, ‘I’ve always made things and I’ve always written,’ and I think in my adolescence and teen years, for me it was a way out, mentally and spiritually.”
To the viewer, her work is a far cry from escapism. It calls out injustices, political and social oppression, local and worldwide.
“I’ve always been told I’m too sensitive. I find that most of the world isn’t sensitive enough,” says Bahnmiller. “I’ve had some people say that they find the show troubling. That pleases me. If you’re comfortable today, I’m a bit concerned because there are so many people that are not comfortable.”
She explains the inspiration behind specific pieces in the show. There’s “Sweet Dreams,” a collection of found and personal objects embedded into some kind of a child’s mobile: “When people have a baby and they saturate the room with all the Fisher Price, it’s so boring and overkill and a waste when other people have nothing to eat. My idea was: ‘That’s what I would’ve hung over my child’s bed with a nightlight.’ It glows in the dark and has music.”
About her piece “Ondine,” she says: “There’s a poem by a German poet, Gottfried Keller. All I know is that the basic repetition of the poem is that he’s skating on ice and he keeps seeing a woman’s face come up under the ice, but he couldn’t get to her, he couldn’t free her. Her face was forever before him. It was just such a powerful image.”
Dropping her off after the interview, I notice a “no trespassing” sign on the side gate. I see her walk up to it semi-cheerfully, bend over to pick up a scrap, examine it and then drop it, turn around and smile.
Cay Bahnmiller’s show runs until Nov. 8 at Susanne Hilberry Gallery, 700 Livernois, Ferndale. Call 248-541-4700 for information.Melissa Giannini is a freelance writer. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org