Digital painting of Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan based on this photo by Yo Venice!.


I wanted to do a digital painting of Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan. Was just something I decided several days ago that I wanted to do. I started one based on an unattributed photo, and I stopped, because I wanted a picture of them in front of the ocean at Venice Beach, where they lived before returning to New York. I decided it was either that or nothing at all, and hence likely nothing at all. Then the next day I came upon this picture posted by Yo Venice! at Flickr. I wrote and asked permission to do a digital painting based on it and Bret gave permission. Thanks to them. I appreciate it.

For the past month I’ve been reading news articles and blog postings on the suicides of Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan. If you’re not familiar with the story, you can read about it and find a multitude of links at The Blue Raccoon, The Seaword, Theresa Duncan Central and Dream’s End. But the very short of it is that they were both artists who became convinced that they were victims of a conspiracy against them being carried on by Scientologists and others. On July 10th, Theresa, who kept the blog, Wit of the Staircase, apparently committed suicide with Tylenol PM and bourbon. Jeremy Blake, her romantic partner for 12 years, committed suicide on July 17th, the day before her funeral, walking into the ocean.

A lot of speculation has gone on concerning the pair and it’s not my desire to add to it. Like I would have anything to add, when I didn’t even know them. I didn’t even want to write a post on the matter but then, having been drawn to the story, I felt compelled to do a painting and, as you’ll see in a matter of a few paragraphs, it was my working on the painting that generated this post.

But I think it’s pretty well impossible for the general public to try to divine exactly what was going on with them, as everyone is only going to have a piece of the puzzle, even those who were close to the couple. And I imagine Jeremy and Theresa were just as confused, at times, alternating confidence with the sense they too only had a few pieces of the puzzle. Isn’t that how most people feel about their lives? Sometimes confident in their beliefs, and awash in doubt and confusion at others.

Theresa has been the more prominent of the pair in many stories concerning their deaths, which I think has to do with the fact she committed suicide first, then Jeremy followed–and she also kept a blog. I, like some others, would have my interest in the pair partly stirred because of her blog, which I doubt I would have read had I come upon it while she was alive as she used fashion as a platform for communicating ideas and that’s just something in which I’m not interested. But, drawn to the story, I read.

She tended to use a fair amount of quoted/excerpted material on her blog, highlighting and piecing together with thoughts of her own, and I found it troubling and interesting that the days before she died she kept with this pattern, but only using quoted material.

Such as on July 8th, she blogged this quote from Gills Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus

A child in the dark, gripped with fear, comforts himself by singing under his breath. He walks and halts to his song. Lost, he takes shelter, or orients himself with his little song as best he can. The song is like a rough sketch of a calming and stabilizing, calm and stable, center in the heart of chaos. Perhaps the child skips as he sings, hastens or slows his pace. But the song itself is already a skip: it jumps from chaos to the beginnings of order in chaos and is in danger of breaking apart at any moment…”

Which I only note here as perhaps speaking on Theresa’s state of mind as she was to commit suicide two days later.

On July 8th, Theresa also wrote she was preparing a new political essay on Dick Cheney, who she’d referred to in a July 5th post as Emperor Cheney.

On July 9th, just the day before she commits suicide, her posting was “Wit and the Warrior Heart: What Tarot Card Are You?” That entry, its text (but not the accompanying image) taken from a “What Tarot Card Are You?” site, ended with,

It is time for you to be independent, to become your own person. You may need to look at your relationship with your father, or your relationships as a father.

This was combined with the posting, “Goodnight, Children, We’re in the Arms of the Great Lover” with a montage of images of a woman in seeming distress, fearful, accompanied by the following quote from Rupert Brooke’s, The Great Lover,

Then, the cool kindliness of sheets, that soon Smooth away trouble; and the rough male kiss Of blankets…

Apparently, she sometimes referred to readers of her blog as Children of the Staircase.

On July 10th was her last post accompanied by a fashion image of a woman apparently in the action of removing her mask. That post was a quote from Reynolds Price.

A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens–second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter. Millions survive without love or home, almost none in silence; the opposite of silence leads quickly to narrative, and the sound of story is the dominant sound of our lives, from the small accounts of our day’s events to the vast incommunicable constructs of psychopaths.

The post was titled, Storytelling On the Staircase.

And yet it was not in Theresa’s words, this post about how storytelling is essential, as well as the hearing of the stories.

On July 6th she had given this following quote from a Reb Brezsny, Village Voice horoscope:

What I hope you will do in the coming week, Scorpio, is rescue from obscurity any important thing that is on the verge of becoming unspeakable. Be a retriever of that-which-is-about-to-disappear. Be a rememberer of that-which-is-close-to-being forgotten.

Who can say whether or not she felt she couldn’t tell her story in her own words at that point, or if she indeed felt she was telling her story, and it didn’t matter that it was the quote of another. Or maybe she felt she had lost her story. The impact is strong, regardless.

It’s possible she may have even felt she was potentially rescuing something from obscurity by committing suicide. Who knows? There seriously is no way of knowing.

The thing is, those posts probably had a good deal of meaning to Theresa, and are both straightforward as well as cryptic. One could labor long over them, wondering if her political essay on Emperor Cheney was in there somewhere. Did she herself choose to represent herself as the Emperor? Did she do the quiz, through chance, name her as the Emperor of the second, and if that was the case what did it mean to her that The Emperor was her card? It’s impossible to know which is the case. It’s impossible to know if she thought of the Children of the Staircase when reading the final sentences on the Emperor card. One may think they know, but it is impossible to tell what she was thinking and how all these things might have had meaning, received by her in a straightforward manner or cryptically.

One could search her blog for clues ceaselessly, and it will still remain cryptic. There is no telling exactly what all the subjects covered meant to her.

“We are as forlorn as children lost in the wood. When you stand in front of me and look at me, what do you know of the grief that is in me and what do I know of yours? And if I were to cast myself down before you and tell you, what more would you know about me that you know about Hell when someone tells you it is hot and dreadful? For that reason alone we human beings ought to stand before one another as reverently, as reflectively, as lovingly, as we would before the entrance to Hell.”

That’s a quote from Franz Kafka, posted on Theresa’s blog on July 5th, speaking on compassion in the face of the mysterious Other. All of us forlorn children in the wood, just as in the July 8th quote we are all children lost in the dark, attempting to build order out of chaos.

I doubt there are many young children who look about them and see their world as chaotic and without meaning. At first, we take our meaning from simply being. We are. The compulsion to tell stories precedes the quest for meaning. Developmentally, children don’t start questioning life and death until they reach about the age of five or six, and later for many. That’s not to say life and death and chaos haven’t entered awareness before then, and some consideration on these things. But how we question does change about that time, and we are already wanting stories and telling stories before then, which may be an essential precedent for that quest, the inclination for narrative.

In the past couple of weeks, a close relative of a friend of my husband attempted suicide with Tylenol PM. For a couple of days, the individual in a coma, family and friends didn’t know if they would be survivors of a suicide or an attempted suicide. Suicide can have long term devastating effects on family and friends. Thankfully, this person lived.

When I was in my early 20’s, I made an attempt at suicide. I was very very drunk at the time and simply rashly followed the idea of suicide when it popped into my head. It landed me in the hospital where I spent a lot of time examining the paintings of Magritte, whose mother had committed suicide when he was thirteen, and I thought a lot about the need to tell stories and have them heard and hear stories. In my case I also, first and foremost, needed to just stop drinking. My son, H.o.p., knows nothing about that story yet and won’t for a long while.

Anyway, I was working yesterday on the digital painting of Jeremy and Theresa based on a photo taken it seems May 31, 2005. I don’t know what they were celebrating. But here they were celebrating something. In a beautiful place. Looking over the ocean. The setting sun shining on them. Their troubles had already begun. There is perhaps some bittersweetness. Hope and dread and confusion. Which will win out? When will loss overpower faith in the future, or simply being. Just as sometimes when one looks at a photo and thinks back and decides the sun was really very good that day, and somehow even that becomes a fearful loss.

And H.o.p. asked me who the people were and why I was painting them. I told him they were two artists who had died. He asked how they died. I said that life had become perhaps too painful and confusing, so Theresa had taken too much medication with alcohol and had thus died, and that Jeremy had been with her a long time and after her death he had walked into the ocean.

H.o.p. asked, “Why is there so much suffering in life?”

I didn’t want to get into it at the moment, this subject having come after a string of others, so I somewhat off-handedly told H.o.p. to go ask the Great Spirit and come back. And because we’ve talked about life and death and the circle of life a lot but we’ve not talked about suicide and I wanted to think a moment about what to say.

H.o.p. walked away for about fifteen seconds and returned. “O.K.,” he said.

“What did the Great Spirit tell you?” I said, expecting him to say something like, “Nothing.”

Instead he said, “The Great Spirit told me that alcohol can cause a lot of suffering and if she hadn’t been drinking alcohol she might still be alive.”

H.o.p. may be right on that. A lot of speculation has gone on about Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan, but it could be that the most certain thing–whether Theresa’s suicide was impulsive or planned–is that the most lethal combination that afternoon may have been the alcohol with her state of mind. Which is not placing judgment. A lot has been written on what was possibly the reason for Theresa’s suicide, and I just think H.o.p.’s simple response may be about the most certain an observation that can be made of what is a sad, perplexing story for some and a tragedy for others.


  1. Siddhartha feels he can learn nothing more by joining again with the Samanas or the followers of Gotama. Eventually, Siddhartha reasons that his overthinking compromised his previous attempts at enlightenment. His zealous attempts to attach himself to religious movements or ways of being that appeared to offer enlightenment have been in error. He has, in a sense, been trying too hard to find what he seeks. Siddhartha stares down into the river and begins to feel a strong affection for it. He resolves to not leave its side.

  2. I like the painting. I hadn’t really known anything about either of these two people, so I looked at your links, and then some other stuff out there. It’s all very sad and kind of compellingly interesting.

    Most of the internets stuff is about Duncan, and almost none of it about Blake. I wonder what’s up with that? Perhaps if she had killed herself and Blake had not followed, it would have shocked some people in a very small art world and a very small (but widely dispersed) blog world, but the reaction would have been more, I dunno, appropriate, like sadness, and some sympathy or empathy for her distress. Now it is “sinister, brilliant, unstable woman takes both of them to destruction.” (This is a summary, not a quote.)

    My reaction to reading her attack on Anna Gaskell is that it might be methamphetamine at work, not alcohol, though I suppose it could be both at once, not that that matters.

    I was surprised at the ill-will a lot of the blogs, articles, comments, etc, (not yours) had towards Duncan. OK, so maybe she was paranoid. Contact with scientology could certainly make anyone paranoid, even without benefit of substance abuse. (I have a lot more ill will towards CoS than towards some poor woman who killed herself thinking a bunch of people were out to get her. Assuming that was one of the reasons.)

    This not a very focused comment. H.o.P’s summation seems much more to the point.

  3. Jim, there’s a good bit of that out there, what you’ve summarized.

    H.o.p.’s first response was to step past the personal into the universal, to wonder why there is so much suffering. He took the story to its biggest, broadest why. Then he took the telescope down to a magnifying glass and saw a known equation that included alcohol and at least for his own understanding he comprehended the alcohol as the ingredient that ultimately decided the outcome that afternoon.

    Of course, H.o.p. could be wrong. But I was immediately returned to one of AA’s principles being “Don’t take that first drink”, meaning that after that first drink you’re in its grip and your possibles dramatically narrowed. And it seems in certain cases of depression (never mind its cause) the same could be said, don’t take that first drink, because it narrows your possibles.

    In other words, if I was with a person and I realized they were suicidal, and they had a drink in their hand, my first thought would likely be, well, let’s get that drink out of that hand because it’s certainly not going to help matters any.

  4. I hope H.O.P. also figures out that suicide is the ultimate selfishness, no matter the reason…it leaves the rest of us wondering what we didn’t do for whoever chooses that path…where were we remiss? Were we too damn busy with our own little disasters…were we uncaring? I’m sad she felt so…..
    whatever it was she felt, but I’m more sad for Jeremy…the trip into the ocean seems…so solitary…so isolated, he must have felt totally abandoned….damn her!!

  5. I read your post with interest. I share H.o.p.’s feeling and thought, about why there is so much suffering, why do people suffer. It does make me have some understanding about what led Siddhartha to try to answer that question, to want to relieve suffering. I feel it these days, too, when I look at elderly people, look at the frail, worn bodies, and I wonder why it is that these worn out bodies are subject to the falls, the things that wear them out. I irrationally think things like “isn’t it obvious they can’t take the falls, the things that chip away at them physically and psychically.” Sometimes it seems that way about others, too, that they are given too much to bear in their lives.

    With regard to suicides, I haven’t known personally too many people who ended their own lives. But there was someone I had known, over a 12 year period. I can’t say he was a close, close personal friend. But he had been veterinarian to my pets for those years and I knew his children, his wife, had his children in some classes I taught. His suicide came completely out of nowhere, to me. I was so deeply sad when I heard he had killed himself. What I learned after his death was that he had suffered from bi-polar illness throughout his life. The form his took did not have him cycling through manias so much as he cycled through deep depressions. His family had known of this for years. I think theirs was a close and loving family. Anyway, the depressions apparently cycled more often, more deeply, and medication was less and less effective. He was a very good, a very lovely man. I know that I’ve always heard that people who’ve known someone who commits suicide are invariably angry at the person’s selfishness. But I have never felt that about his death. I felt only the deep deep sadness that he was in so much pain, so much pain that the only way out seemed to be ending his own life.

    I’m sure there are some people who end their lives and do so angrily. There are probably some who want to hurt others. But my guess is that some also do so impulsively, maybe not really even thinking about how permanent death is. And there are others, like this man that I knew, who may simply be in so much pain that they just want it to stop.

    As for the role of drugs and alcohol…I am no fan of any of those substances. Neither do I feel a sense of judgement about people who abuse them. But I feel sad, and sometimes angry, at the way those things waste lives. I think it is one of the ugliest legacies of the 60s and 70s drug/alcohol culture, the widespread use of those things by young people. I’m sad that some people get permanently wrecked on the shoals of drug and alcohol abuse; I’m sad that others lose years, though glad that some do find their way out of that.

    I was struck, too, by your digital painting and the way that it evoked David Hockney, though really nothing like David Hockney at all, except the compositional feel.

  6. Nina…of course you are right to feel deep sadness for the loss of your veterinary and friend…bi-polar illness and some of the medications used to treat it can be a deadly combination… .and you are right that most suicides are done on impulse, however, all suicides are selfish in that at that moment whether on impulse or planned, whether drunk or sober, whether high on drugs.or mentally ill.. whatever the reason/excuse, one is only concerned with ones self at that moment…it is a totally self-indulgent act, committed with no regard for those one leaves behind….those who love him are left with that awful guilt….what else could I have done? I just can’t handle that part of it….in the painting she looks happy and he looks pensive ….it does summon Hockney to mind…

  7. The picture is stunning and the story very sad. and H.o.p.’s observation is very insightful and delightful in its non-judgemental nature. It’s just too easy to dismiss actions we don’t understand.

  8. dear mr. idyllopus,

    This picture was taken at my home and I was wondering if it is a digital image or an actual painting. If the former, would you be opposed to striking a C-print for me, or in the latter case may i see the finished piece if it has not been spoken for?



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