This May Day I spent the afternoon with Whitney Matheson, a writer whom I know just slightly but have admired from afar. The sunny spring day augured a hopeful, new start: people were out in force on Park Slope’s Fifth Avenue, many no doubt recently vaccinated.
I had met Whitney just one time before, pre-pandemic, at a reading that our mutual friend comic book artist Dean Haspiel had organized. She read from a piece that was essentially a hilarious yet touching telephone conversation between two friends. I loved how she used dialogue to capture those moments between people when it is not just what is spoken but what is unspoken that conveys so much.
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Over drinks and food at Al Di La in Park Slope, Whitney shared her pandemic experience which included getting Covid in late February 2020, back when doctors didn’t know from coronavirus and thought she might have strep throat. The writing on the wall became all too clear in March when she lost her sense of taste and smell, and New York became the epicenter of the pandemic. Fortunately, Whitney has long since recovered and has now, like me, gotten both her shots. When I ask what kept her going during this challenging year, without hesitation, she answers: Work!
That work comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, including the pay-the-bills writing of production notes, commissioned reviews and more for film, TV and other clients, which was fortunately robust during the pandemic; and her own writing projects, a mix of kids’ books, a play, TV pilot, and comics.
About Whitney’s comics: I am a big fan! They chronicle the stuff of her daily life, from the heartbreak of not seeing friends or being able to go out in the city to encounters with her eight-year-old daughter, which are hilarious and poignant and unexpectedly profound. She began creating them in 2020 when working at the Gowanus Comics Artists, a studio comprised of more than a dozen cartoonists, and now posts daily diary comics that you can access via social media and her Patreon platform.
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As if that were not a full enough plate, during the pandemic, she and Dean also started Nightwork Studio, a home for their creative collaborations that include TV shows, plays, videos and podcasts in which they debate important questions such as, what would you do if you accidentally killed your studio mate? For the record, Whitney would not chop up Dean’s body, though she might roll him in a blanket or ignore his bleeding body and just run away. Through a Nightwork Studio video, I also discovered the story behind the giant creepy clown painting that lives on the wall of their studio.
Here I would like to note that Whitney seems to specialize in discovering the beautiful and the bizarre. For fifteen years she was the creator of USA Today’s “Pop Candy” blog which ran from 1999 to 2014, and where she gave voice to the indie, retro, offbeat, and delightfully silly. Her posts were loved by many for bringing a taste of alternative culture to a mainstream publication.
When I ask what she has missed most and relishes getting back to post-Covid, Whitney talks about the concerts and the movies and the plays and the people and the culture that make up the beating heart of the city. Losing those things just a year or so after she moved back to New York City has been hard. More and more, though, things are starting back up. This Monday, her daughter will return to school following over a year of online and hybrid learning, and this summer her family will travel to Virginia and Tennessee to see relatives for the first time since 2019.
For our outing, Whitney wore a black dress with white piping, black patterned tights, and black boots, plus her Whitney Museum bag because it says Whitney. Also red sunglasses that make her look like a 1950s celebrity, and these amazing rings (see closeup below), the two silver ones belonged to her Tennessee grandmother, and the big center black one was her own find.
Fascinating fact: For the past fifteen year, Whitney has only bought and worn black and white clothing with accents of red. No maroon or mauve or other muddied hue, she emphasized, only red or perhaps yellow or silver – the accent needs to be a strong bright color. I wondered aloud if this indicated a hyper-controlling personality or a desire to see things in a black-and-white way, but neither of these are in keeping with Whitney’s temperament. She said the black and white just makes it easier to get dressed.
Dean had tipped me off about Whitney’s color preference, and in her honor I wore a black and white dress, one I had thrifted two summers ago on a trip to Sweden, accessorized with my daughter Flora’s big white sunglasses and two pops of bold red color: my heels and my Dinosaur Design bracelet.
Following our drinks, we walked along Brooklyn’s Fifth Avenue which was hopping with people and live music and restaurants on the street. We went to an art opening for one of Whitney’s neighbors, and perused a Japanese market, where Whitney got treats for her daughter including latte-flavored Kit Kat, Super Lemon candies (excellent Roy Lichtenstein-like packaging), EveryBurger, a burger-shaped chocolate filled candy, and candies that come in the shape of a toilet.
On her website Whitney describes her childhood: “I grew up in a small, fairly conservative town in Virginia, where my childhood mirrored millions of others: I watched a lot of sitcom reruns, ate my share of Happy Meals, spent Friday nights at the mall. At some point in my adolescence, though, it hit me: There’s so much more out there. I wish I could name one moment that triggered that realization, but I think it was a confluence of events, many of them related to art and culture.”
As I see it, this quest for finding what more is out there, is the key to making art both during and hopefully post-pandemic; and what makes hanging out with Whitney and reading her work so much fun, and so full of delightful and unanticipated discovery.