“The Purple Necklace —Jim Pirtle in Performance” by Jack Livingston
On January 9th in Houston, TX, Jim Pirtle returned to his home and studio. He had just spoken by phone to his partner Amanda, and was anxious to get back to her. She was distraught about a potential job loss that might occur the following morning due to her drinking that day, after a solid period of sobriety.
Jim calmed her down and said he would be there right away. They would support each other and figure out the problem. Everything would be ok. He had no reason to think otherwise. When he arrived, Jim found Amanda dead from suicide, hanging from a column in the middle of their shared domicile.
To write the above paragraph is difficult. I would like to tell you a less overt version of the story that removes the blunt pain of hearing about Amanda’s abrupt and immutable decision, and, as a friend and colleague, I want to protect both Jim and Amanda. It is hard to even write the word “suicide” and attach it to this situation, or to the name of any person I know. Yet this impulse to shelter others from the facts and emotions, from the very words, is exactly what Jim Pirtle has decided not to do. And for good reason; suicide happens all the time, to all kinds of people, from all backgrounds, for a complex variety of reasons.
Despite a state of deep despair, Jim immediately began to talk openly about Amanda’s suicide. Not just to friends in person, but to larger groups via social media. Writing carefully composed often-daily posts on his Facebook page, he recounted the grieving process as he lived it. Reading these posts was the most powerful personal use of social media I have ever experienced.
The taboo surrounding suicide is strong, but, as an artist, Jim Pirtle is someone who has never avoided taboo. He mines it, both in conversation and in his art. In Houston, and elsewhere, Pirtle is well known as a savvy and sometimes extreme performance artist whose work elicits strong emotions from his audience, balanced by altruistic underpinnings. His past work has dealt with transgressive topics and included layers of irony as a way to break through to greater societal truths.
Pirtle is also the longtime owner of Notsuoh
(Houston spelled backwards)—a downtown Houston bar located in a historic building on Main Street. It is a bohemian gathering spot known for good conversation, quality chess, and an ongoing series of often-unorthodox performance art works. He lives, now alone, on the floor above the bar. While he was not isolated, the use of Facebook to talk of many aspects of Amanda’s death and its repercussions became a significant form of grieving and a different kind of social interaction not available to him otherwise.
A large readership began to follow this ongoing diary. His page has 1,325 friends, and is set to “open view”. Many people reached out to Pirtle personally behind the Facebook comments, most reinforcing the fact that conversations surrounding suicide are rare, yet it seems that almost everyone has been affected by such deaths, or their own struggles with suicidal impulses. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention over 40,000 Americans die by suicide every year, and over a million attempt it. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. It is all around us, yet many blame the victims and ashamed families hide the truth.
Pirtle kept posting in this manner for forty days, with an ongoing personal narrative beyond talk therapy. Avoiding platitudes, he described his life in real time as it occurred: the pain and struggle, the continued living in the room the suicide took place, and ponding exactly what had happened to Amanda to cause such a thing.
He began to educate himself about suicide and question what he learned. He related how awkward, yet needed, it was to discuss suicide in public. He described how, at an art opening, just standing near a group of his old friends was full of ameliorating warmth no words could match. A swim at a local pool became a metaphor for how he was navigating and surviving the post-traumatic world he was pushing through. Then, at day forty he announced this first wave of grieving, including the Facebook posts, was over. His teenager daughter (from a previous marriage) and her well-being became his primary focus. But the story did not end there. It has been a long process and it continues. Anyone who has lost loved one, especially to suicide, is forever changed.
Many urged Pirtle to publish his work in some form, to transform what he had written into one document to be preserved and shared. He took this advice, and started doing some public readings from the work. The response was immediate and redemptive. Feeling confident he was on the right track, Pirtle decided to transform the text into a new performance piece to share with a broader public, with people who did not know him or Amanda before, to bring to light the taboos surrounding the issues of suicide, loss, and grief.
After a few months Pirtle revisited all that he had written. He included text from many of the Facebook posts and from personal writing not shared previously, turning it into an edited forty page manuscript. From there, Pirtle created multi-layer videos to go along with sections of the work, and then took the resulting performance on tour, far away from Houston to new audiences. He did a few East coast dates as a test, and now has booked another set of dates in the same region.
As a part of this current expanded tour, Pirtle contacted me looking for a space in Baltimore to perform. When I lived in Houston twenty years ago we were not close friends, but community allies, part of the same close knit art scene. For The Purple Necklace Tour, Pirtle is funding the project himself and taking no compensation, but he needed a venue and an audience.
I reached out to Peter Bruun, founder and director of the New Day Campaign, an organization that addresses behavioral health issues through public art presentations in a wide variety of formats. Bruun, like Pirtle, does not shy away from taboo and wants to recast what is often considered shameful or unspoken into the public dialog to remove stigma. The New Day Campaign sponsors multiple exhibitions and events that, as they state, “illuminate stories promoting compassion, empathy, and understanding—all with the vision of making the world a more healing place.” With short notice, The New Day Campaign became the sponsor for the Baltimore performance of The Purple Necklace. The date was set for Wednesday, June 17th at Single Carrot Theater, after they granted use of their space. The Contemporary offered advice and lent a large video screen. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention stated their support of Jim’s work by providing informative pamphlets that will be made available at the venue.
Pirtle’s performance on this tour is a work in progress, and will vary from city to city. It is an emotionally charged work to perform and witness and audience members from other cities say they came away acutely affected. In Baltimore, the artist will premier the first full spoken text combined with video version. It promises to be a compelling night—created by an artist who has much to tell us, not only about suicide and the death of a loved one, but how to keep on living while continuing to honor their memory.
Following the hour long performance Peter Bruun with host a conversation with the artist, along with Sharon Strouse, an art therapist specializing in bereavement, and author of the book Artful Grief , and Cheryl Maxwell, President of the Carolyn Ann Foundation, dedicated to awareness of mental illness.
The Purple Necklace—Jim Pirtle in Performance
Sponsored by the New Day Campaign
Single Carrot Theatre
2600 N Howard St
Baltimore, MD 21218
One night only: June 17, 2015: 7:00pm to 9:00pm
Admission is free
Seating is Limited
Author Jack Livingston is an artist and a critic for BmoreArt. He is currently producing the upcoming podcast series Conversations for BmoreArt.