Woman in the Morgue

“Oh, what a life I lead!”

She died alone. For weeks her body lay unclaimed in the local morgue. A zip-tied toe tag the only companion of a once zestful and joyous life now all but forgotten.

Have you shoveled new hatched hissing rattlesnakes from behind your stove into a coal shuttle and raced them to the woods? Heard the screams of night stalkers? Jumped at the earth-shattering crash of dropped trees? Have you ever snapped fresh asparagus tops off their six-foot stalks and packed a fistful to eat as you walk? Marveled at the color of food growing wild? Stood at the edge of spring-fed marshland teeming with life? Traveled rapids on barn planks? Slid snowbanks on your back? Dug tunnels through 15 feet of snow to reach a road? Watched a twenty-foot black snake circle an old stone building and drop his head into the freshwater trough, seen his jowls puff-full from each drink, arch back and swallow? Felt your hair fly from an eagle’s wings speeding less than four feet over you? Watched bees tunneling a nest underground, or the massive ant hill mounds on rocky hillsides? At midnight seen the silent ballet of a red fox run like the wind on tippy toes across the crisp tops of white snowbanks, his path marked by the red bleeding catch in his jaws? Stumbled on a Civil War campfire’s rocks, still circled, ever cold? Backed off downwind from a bear with her cubs? Run for the shotgun at the sight of a prowling mountain lion? Seen water animals you never knew existed, watching you watching them, both in wonder? Let baby water snakes bite you to know the feel? Run outside into dawn because a passel of screaming peacocks crash landed on your roof? Watched a day’s then night’s flood waters fill field and meadow up to within inches of your boot-toe, then (as the farmer predicted) subside? Turn your flashlight on eight, ten deer tearing across your meadow into the dark forest and never figure what spooked them? Seen wild turkeys roost in trees at sundown? Walked along a moonlit trail, felt the air move in a gust and ducked a massive owl’s silent wings (was that an 8-foot? Ten-foot spread?) as he dives beyond you to his meal? Come up on hovering fragrance before the roses? Watched frogs burst from tadpole to land-hopping life overnight, carpet acres in every direction around the pond making a roaring, deafening, guttural mating song under starlight? Seen the spirits of things, conversing with old friends and strangers who were not there yet spoke aloud in your twilight ecstasies of solitude?

Just who is she, this frozen cadaver? This forgotten corpse that once squealed with delight and exclaimed: “When I launch each day I am almost in a fainting delirium”?

Born in New York, her first years were spent in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in a top-secret military compound where her 25-year-old father, a chemical engineer, was helping put together the atomic bomb. After attending 14 schools in districts widely scattered throughout the Midwest by the time she was 12, her family relocated to Southern California where she graduated high school and took classes at the La Jolla Museum School of Art.

At age 17 she drives solo cross country to Vermont in her father’s brand new 1962 Sunbeam Alpine convertible (light blue, black leather interior with wood dash) and briefly attends Goddard College. Then on to London to St. Martin’s School of Art. Still a teenager, she hops a train to explore Poland and Russia at the height of the Cold War.

Back in the States, she settles into an apartment in Brooklyn up above the storefront headquarters of the militant Black Panthers, deftly juggling careers and lifestyles:

      – billboard painter swinging in the breeze on a scaffold over Times Square

     – press Secretary to Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro

     – portrait painter commissioned to paint William F. Buckley, Jr. while balancing   

       her infant son on her lap

     – news writer at CBS, ABC, & Fox TV

     – waitress & bartender at bohemian bars in Greenwich Village

Boldly seeking fresh horizons and new memories, she abandons Brooklyn for vistas equally wild but more mountainous. In Harpers Ferry this self-proclaimed ‘city girl’ slogs through “the worst Blue Ridge winter in 200 years,” writing stories by candlelight in a log cabin and painting landscapes plein air in surrounding meadows.

And then her estranged 23-year old son is killed in a car accident. And his father waits three months before telling her. And she goes insane with grief and guilt.

The next chunk of months are a blank. Then somehow she finds herself living out of a 1974 Chevy Suburban (“The Blue Thunder”) and tent-camping under redwoods 3,000 miles away in Big Sur, California. She hauls canvases out from under the seat and paints on rocky cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. She writes. She publishes a collection of short stories. She opens a gallery. She rents a cabin from Al Jardine of the Beach Boys and illustrates a children’s book he is writing. She even takes a few months off and returns to New York to become cameraman’s assistant for CBS TV’s “Survivor Africa.” Challenge begets challenge, and she endures.

And then she meets the editor of this biography in an online forum, and a remarkable correspondence ensues which quickly blossoms into something deeper and avalanches into an exchange of nearly three-quarters of a million words. What we know about that body in the morgue is told in her own words from near-daily emails over a span of six years to a fellow-writer and photographer who lamented her anonymity and proclaimed, early on: “My goal is to help you achieve the recognition you deserve.”

The Preface below mentions that her “oeuvre will forever be flawed and incomplete,” and details some of the difficulties reconstructing her narrative. But many of the pieces do in fact fit together and provide glimpses into her life and work.

We know, for example, that her’s was a restless spirit intent on soaking up experience far and near. “Until my last breath I’m going to be exploring new things . . . My final words will be: Tomorrow I’m going to start something I just thought of.” She lived to create. “I am a writer who paints, and a painter who writes.” She was a loner. “I can’t stand communities or being part of a group. Can. Not. Stand. It.” She preferred and sought out that “screaming solitude of quiet, that crowded empty where your flesh is pressed and manipulated by vast nothingness.” And, not surprisingly, she was a self-reliant individualist whose causa sui project was Sartrean in scope. “I revel in the thought that I have constructed my life in such a way that I am the only one accountable for my time.”

Her stubborn self-reliance, in retrospect, admirable in so many respects, nevertheless hastened her downfall.  Her “relationship to health care and the medical community was fundamentally adversarial and enormously complex,” we note in the chronological section of this biography. “She defined herself as a rugged individualist and adopted the corollary that force of will alone could banish disease and restore health. When a second opinion was needed, she trolled the Internet.” Told she had cataracts, for example, she dismissed her doctor as a “quack” even as she admitted, “I can’t always tell where the goddamn ground is, or when my brush is touching the canvas!” Eventually forced by encroaching blindness to accept his diagnosis, she exclaims, perhaps thinking she should have munched more carrots: “I have a cataract! I’m ashamed and furious that I could let it happen.” Rejecting medical advice and commonsense preventative health care and instead relying on self-diagnosis, celebrity docs and dime-store cures, her health slowly deteriorated.

Over the last four years of her life gone is the illusion of control as she underwent quadruple bypass heart surgery, radiation and chemotherapy for brain tumors, was diagnosed with Stage Four lung cancer, and fell and fractured her hip. On that slab in the morgue lay a broken and disease-ravaged body but until her death at age 74, her spirit never wavered, her optimism remained strong. “I will be painting and editing my short stories and sending them out,” she wrote in a final heroic email beset with typographical jerks and squiggles, “I just have to stick with it and push against the impulse to quit.”

Restless spirit, stoic individualism, creative passion, unquenchable zest for life – these are the artifacts this volume attempts to excavate and reconstruct from artistic and literary shards left behind by that woman in the morgue. A woman who smiled and laughed and winked and flirted, a woman who stretched and prepped raw canvases with gesso and squeezed the last drops of precious paint from shriveled tubes with pliers, a woman whose 50+ years of journaling recorded once-precious hopes and fears and triumphs, a woman with a sponge-like sensibility who could swoon in the presence of flowers growing wild, a woman who jotted down vignettes and stories and wrote children’s books full of love and laughter. A woman confident and compassionate, bursting with life, eager for new challenge. A woman for all seasons.

The name on that toe tag is Barbara. Barbara Sparhawk. And this is her life.

– from the foreword to Barbara Sparhawk: Expressionist Artist & Writer


All three Volumes of Barbara’s biography are now available. (318 pgs.)

Included under one cover are over 150 color reproductions of major artworks, dozens of ‘fire-side’ chats, and a lengthy annotated timeline.

Read online, download pdf to your computer, share with friends – all for FREE!


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