The Danger of Being a Muse

“Nude with Calla Lilies” Diego Rivera (1944)

The summer before my sophomore year of college I began dating a painter. He was a twenty-three year old, six-foot Harlemite named Parris. As an artist, Parris made a lot of things that summer: wire sculptures, stained glassed mosaics, oil paintings — but no work was as interesting as what he made of me.

That summer, for the first time, I became a muse. Though oddly enough, Parris never once painted me. He’d tell me the things I said in passing served as his artistic inspiration. I would talk to him about process, personal liberation, and persistence. I told him he could do anything; that the distance between where he was and needed to be were only matters of faith. He placed my words on a pedestal that it seemed no other part of me would fit. With him, my mind and body remained sadly grounded elsewhere, pining for a middle place where we could be good together.

This insatiable desire signals the fate of the muse — to give all the labor of inspiration for none of the fulfillment of reciprocity. My love was, to Parris, a five star performance. Each night I took center stage, pouring out my chest in exchange for a handclap or, at best, a standing ovation.

In what was a sad and hungry summer for us both, he would use my performances to sustain himself. In the morning, he would wake eager to return to his work, undoubtedly still full from last night’s final act. I would drag myself out of bed at 4AM (before the markets opened) to return to my hellish job at a bank, where I would pass the day still thirsting for some semblance of understanding.

Like summer, this performance came to an inevitable end. Parris, first slowly then all at once, disappeared from my life with little notice. The stage lights dimmed and curtains closed. I began to think the word “muse” had been bastardized into a term of endearment. Somewhere in its origin story it must’ve been a euphemism for “misuse” or “use me,” because that’s just what he did.

After that summer, I began to think often about muses in history —Mona Lisa and her queer smile, Venus di Milo, Dirty Diana. I pitied these women. What dignity could be found in being the object of inspiration? What good was living to inspire when the very act of living is in creation? If a woman handed God the match before He lit up the universe, surely it is as much Her creation story as it is His, right?

I grappled with these questions for a year. After Parris disappeared, I wondered what to make of him after all he’d made of me. Not only did I distrust love, I began to distrust art. Without either, I receded into a boring pain that left me numb and in avoidance of any sort of intimacy. I stopped dating and packed away my own canvases.

After a year of wallowing, I cautiously ventured back into the New York artist scene. At a gallery party I met another painter. Despite being nothing like Parris, I approached him with a fierce sense of self-preservation— never again would I play the muse. Still reeling from my last fling, I hardly remembered how to intimate, so as all great performers do, I faked it. I knew I couldn’t be myself, as this was too dangerous, so instead I was the best, highly reductive version of myself. I was Cool Girl Lite — beautiful, perpetually unimpressed, well-dressed, and sarcastic. The stakes were kept low. When it became stale, I turned him loose. I was no longer a muse, just a user.

The role of user was unoriginal; every woman below 86th street had mastered it long before me. I knew why, too. New York is not a place to make love, it’s a place to survive it. We didn’t discuss process or personal liberation. I inspired nothing in him save a few moments of sweet passion, and he gave me little more than fun.

The New Me was working great, and would have continued to be if not for one crucial fact: she was not honest. Before meeting Parris, honesty had been the imperative of everything I pursued: my love, work, education, and most importantly — my art.

Reflecting on this fact of honesty provoked a crucial revelation I’d long overlooked: I, too, am an artist. I had always been an artist. Being a muse was only a minor part of my artistic portfolio. I considered Frida Kahlo, who is at once the most noteworthy artist and iconic muse. Diego Rivera’s impassioned letters to Kahlo were just not about the awe-inspiring nature of her beauty, but also the immense power of her love.

Power became the crucial factor in understanding my occupation as muse. Musing is foremost an act of creation, and creation is the most formidable act of power. If women are muses, then men are not their artists, but their audience.

Though now less and less often, I still sometimes think of Parris. I recall our last interaction — an unlikely encounter on the steps of Saint John the Divine. It’d been a year since he’d disappeared, and he resurfaced to tell me he was sorry for all that he’d been and all that he could never be. He said he could never thank me for the love I’d shown him when he needed it most. I wished him all the best. We hugged bittersweetly and parted ways for what is likely the last time. After one long year, my summer in Parris had come to an end.

Whenever I recall these last moments I grow a bit ashamed. Not by having been his muse, but by having ever been humiliated by the act of love-making at all, simply because it was not returned in full. I used to think naively of what Parris had made of me, and convinced myself that the answer was simple — a fool. But these days, I no longer question what he made of me, as it’s so evidently clear what I made of him — a better man. I now gaze upon him not as my maker, but my masterpiece. I won’t torture myself in asking if this is an adequate substitution for the love we could’ve made together, as the love I gave alone was more than enough. I was the artist, he was my muse, and that is enough.