Heather Adels, Rhode Island artist, standing in front of one of her works.
I want to tell you about Heather.
On Wednesday morning she wasn’t feeling well.
She had a sharp pain in her side, she told me.
She’d been googling appendicitis.
I asked her, “Will you go to the doctor?”
And she said yes, and didn’t argue. And that was unusual, because she was a busy woman and doctors visits cost money, unpredictable money, you never knew how much. She went but by then the pain had stopped. They said she was okay and let her go.
Throughout the day we talked.
By that I mean we texted, and by that I mean we used WhatsApp.
She lived in Providence and I live outside of Boston. For a month we’d been texting each other links to real estate listings. We planned to buy a house together in Rhode Island in the fall. I promised her she could have a dog. She kept trying to upsell me on chickens, which worked, and a llama, at which point I said, “Listen. No pets taller than me.” Her response: “Mini llamas?”
I went to work and after work I met an old friend I’d worked on a project with and we went to a storytelling event.
When I got home, I texted her and told her about it. We said goodnight by text Wednesday evening at 11:02 PM.
The last thing I ever said to her was that I loved her.
The next day at 11 AM I texted her again. “Hello, gorgeous! How’s my best girl?” I had a busy day at work and it wasn’t until 6PM that I looked again.
It wasn’t that she hadn’t responded — when she wasn’t painting, she worked with children and they were a handful — it was that she hadn’t read the message. That wasn’t like her at all.
I called and called and texted and sent a Facebook message and I thought, “If I don’t hear from her by 8 o’clock I’m going to drive down there, and her car is going to be gone and her apartment will be empty and I’ll just feel dumb because she had the week off and had so many plans and had friends and relatives in places out in Central Mass where the cell signal is not so good.”
But then her mother called me.
Heather was dead.
She was supposed to pick up her brother at 8AM, and she didn’t show up; they called the police.
The police went in her apartment and found her body.
She thought she was okay, she wasn’t, and she went home and she died.
She was 41 years old. This photo was taken the day before she died.
Heather’s friend Kim took this photo of her the day before she died.
Heather was not like other people.
One time, I saw her pet a bee.
She was sitting in a patch of flowers that always grew in my lawn. I liked them and always left a patch unmowed for them to grow. The bees liked them.
She had gotten a bee to land on the tip of her index finger, and she was petting it, lightly, with the tip of her other index finger.
“You can pet it,” she said.
“No, honey,” I said. “The bee won’t sting you, but it will sting me.”
She could talk to street mutterers, and calm inconsolable children, children even their parents could do nothing to help.
I saw a deer walk up to her in the forest, get less than arm’s length from her, sniffing the air around her.
Whenever I came into her presence I’d feel a sense of relief and well-being wash over me.
“It’s like I’m dating a character from a children’s book,” I said. Just a little unearthly.
Don’t let yourself think that she wasn’t a grownup; she was responsible, scrupulous with money, prompt, hardworking. I once saw her Priority Mail her electric bill so it wouldn’t be late. But…she wasn’t quite like us.
Heather at Misquamicut Beach in Rhode Island, August, 2016
Years ago on our anniversary, I said, “Don’t tell anybody because I’ll lose all my street cred, but I wrote you a love poem.” This is that poem.
I love you all your ways
Your marvelous ease
Your glorious difficulty
A finely made scientific instrument
And fairytale forest creatures
Had a baby
And it was you
I love you all your ways
Your impeccable sass
Your inventive femininity
I do not love all my ways
My glittering bitch
My sturdy butch
But I love you all your ways
And you love my ways for me.
I wrote this on six index cards and carried it around in my pocket for a week because the idea of giving it to her made me so bashful.
This was taken just after Heather’s 40th birthday, last November. We went to Quebec City to celebrate it.
Whenever she wasn’t working with children, she was painting. Constantly painting. Her paintings were on masonite, the hard, pressed board you find at a hardware store. The masonite was then mounted on a wooden frame so it wouldn’t warp. She would then put layer after layer of gesso on each of these, sanding between each coat. When she began painting, the surface was shiny, hard, almost like glass or vinyl.
Then would come the stencil. She’d mark repeating patterns on the masonite with pencil. Then, with India ink, more lines, not repeating, here, there, figures. Then came the paint. There was often an underpainting in a color opposite of the final piece; she said it was how the paintings got the distinctive glowing backlit feeling so much of her work has. Then, layer after layer of acrylic paint, very thin, like washes, so thin and translucent that you could see the layer underneath. Some of her paintings had as many as thirty such layers. Sometimes I said, “You are providing work for hundreds of graduate students of the future. They’re going to have a field day discovering all the underpaintings with their sophisticated gizmos.”
“Ring,” Heather Adels, acrylic on masonite, 3ft by 3ft, 2013
Heather’s work was abstract until it wasn’t. If you kept looking, you’d see things. It has a kind of “Hidden Pictures” quality, where you’d see something, then look again, and not see something. Because of the many layers, her paintings looked different at every time of day and in different lights. In the morning a work like Ring (pictured above) would have a dominant color of teal green, luminous, like it was lit from behind. At midday, the red tones of the central ring figure came to the fore, glowing garnet.
She also created works on paper. First would come linework with India ink, using a pen with changeable nibs, dipped in a small well of ink. Then, colored pencil. There were the drawings I often called “the critters” — figures in the center of the page that seemed to have a personality. As time went on, the drawings expanded to fill the page. “My drawings and my paintings are merging. Maybe they will separate again someday and maybe they won’t.”
In 2016 she started doing what she called “infinity drawings” — drawings done on papier mache spheres, using the same techniques as her drawings: first, India ink, then layers of pigment from colored pencil. Some of these are small, the size of a baseball; one is large, cast on a yoga ball.
“Seed Memory,” Heather Adels, ink and pigment on papier mache, 2017.
She had recently gotten gallery representation, a major step forward for her career, which she was thrilled about.
Eulogy for a fairy princess:
Once upon a time…
Once upon a time there was a fairy princess.
Most people did not know she was a fairy princess but that’s because most people are blockheads.
The children knew, though. Children loved her. Don’t children always know?
One rainy day we were walking down Thayer Street, where a man was asking for spare change in front of the coffeeshop and having a conversation with the sky. Upon seeing her, he dropped to his knees in a puddle and said,
O lady, my lady, my queen
That guy. He knew.
When they write
Once upon a time there was a fairy princess
They are writing about women like Heather.
But also when it is written:
“For who can find a virtuous woman,
For her price is above rubies,
And nothing thou canst desire can equal her,”
…they are also writing about women like Heather. Heather did not try to be good; she simply was good.
How do you pay tribute to a fairy princess?
Hug a child;
Plant a flower;
Sing a song;
But most especially: Try not to be such a jerk.
Because if we — even for a moment— can see through our selfishness and self-centeredness, our own little world that’s all about us — then maybe, we too, we mere commoners, we too can see, and be, the magic.
Here lies a fairy princess. My love, who I love.
I published this piece on Medium on March 26, 2017. Heather died on March 23 and her funeral was on April 4. Many of my current projects come out of my love for her and the experience of losing her.