My first morning in Mexico was memorable. My first morning in Mexico found me crouched before a conceptual wooden toilet seat in someone’s conceptual underground home wearing a conceptual white canvas tunic—and vomiting. I was on the set of a shoot for Vogue Mexico, and our location was the Mexican architect Javier Senosiain’s “Organic House,” located ironically on a man-made green hill on the outskirts of Mexico City. I was struck by the fact that this hill, under which the house wound its tunnels like so many hollow plaster tentacles, was covered in living grass, maintained less than an inch short. I was struck by the view of the city, pink and smoggy down the slope. I was struck by how difficult it was to run through the halls of this house due to their slippery carpeting and the fact that no surface, on floor or wall or otherwise, was even slightly flat. Unfortunately, I was also struck by the Mystery Bug—and run through the halls is what I was repeatedly compelled to do, in quest of the wood-finished restroom.
The Mystery Bug is something I get every few weeks, irregularly. It’s been plaguing me for over a year now, but I still don’t know exactly what it is: I randomly get a headache, neck-ache, and…entre le puking. It has caused me to cancel jobs before, like J Crew one morning in New York, but never jobs for which a client flew me across a continent and paid to lodge me in one of the nicest hotels in Mexico City, with a pool and a breakfast buffet featuring squash blossom quesadillas and fried plantain stuffed with pineapple chutney. There was obviously no canceling here. There was only not eating and not drinking, abstaining from tasting the fried plantain (tragic I know) and even from drinking water in hopes that an empty belly would preclude regurgitation.
It did not. Within the first hours of that shoot it became evident that the bug intended to run its course and would let nothing stop it—not even a crew of twenty strangers depending on me, scrutinizing me, dressing me, photographing me, making me up and and remaking me up after I returned greenish from the bathroom. It was a rather inauspicious introduction to a country I had been so excited to visit…
I was in Mexico for two days, the first to shoot and the second to explore, an extension I’d added myself when I realized that this job in this location afforded me the opportunity to fulfill a dream I’d long fostered but never truly imagined fulfilling: a visit to the Casa Azul. This is the name for the home of Frida Kahlo, twentieth century painter, wife of Diego Rivera, and my idol of many years. You must know of her (let me rephrase, you better know of her), cause she’s just mildly 100% amazing, and also cause she’s gained mainstream popularity in recent years for exactly what is so riveting about her: her potent self portraits characterized by striking honesty and raw emotion; allegorical ties to animals, embryos, nature; the unbearable beauty of leaves. The artist was born, lived, and died in a broad and shady compound in the borough of Coyoacán, forty minutes’ drive from my hotel, and it was there that I now turned my sights.
It was December and pleasantly warm in Mexico City, and on that expectant morning of exploration I was up early and ready to make my pilgrimage. Breakfast and a six dollar Uber ride later I stood in the wide red gate of Frida’s blue abode, notebook in hand and a grin on the kisser. Before me lay a courtyard of rustling palm trees and fountains, benches Frida rested on and trunks her pet monkey scaled, paths Frida strode and sky she gazed (or glared) at. The dollop of light she admired, the faux Mayan ziggurat Diego built to display his collection of primitive Mexican statues.
Inside the house were exhibited a bunch of Frida’s enthralling paintings and sketches, some photographs of her dinner parties with exalted artists and persecuted communists, and plenty of eccentric paraphernalia left over from its distinctive inhabitants. The rooms were decked with native art—papier mâché skeletons, cloth puppets and oversized crockery—the walls painted bright, near neon colors, and the textiles woven of floss in clashing shades of pink, yellow, and green. Very clashing…almost tasteless it suddenly seemed…
As I walked through the home of this sort of personal talisman of mine, I realized that Frida up close was not the same Frida I’d dreamed up, and deified, from afar. I realized that I worshipped her less than I thought—not her, exactly, but her personal significance, the symbolism of Frida in my life. For all these years she seemed to speak for me, to express some truth about selfhood that I felt akin to and apart of; and this was real and genuine for a certain time and place (high school, suburban New York). But as a different individual in an altogether different sphere today, embryos, tears, and technicolor suffering no longer hold the same draw. In fact, it dawned on me in that house that day that I now mainly cherish Frida in her capacity as link to a previous incarnation of my own self, a fossil of the spirit and story of another me.
It’s one more phase of my own evolution completo, described in the brushstrokes of another woman, and one more reminder that we are all essentially equal in character—that even the most formidable of our species contain a myriad of clichés or inconsistencies, tightnesses or loosenesses, funny smells. The unbearable beauty of leaves. We all have that too, fanned glistening and glorious behind the bushy-browed, smolder-eyed pith of our individuality.
As I stuffed my notebook back in my bag that afternoon and made my way out of the courtyard of the Casa Azul, I was grateful I’d made that pilgrimage. To pay homage to a past god of mine on behalf of a past me who’d wanted so badly to do so: to pay homage to that past me, too. The visit put me on terms with Frida Kahlo more equal now than servile—and put me on the market for new idols.
It was a day almost as unexpected as throwing up on a shoot for Vogue Mexico—and it was a day almost as memorable. The Vogue shoot, however, didn’t turn out all that bad itself, considering my focus was more on remaining upright and keeping my eyes open than on embodying some vogue-worthy vision. By nightfall all parties were pleased; the stylist approved of the images, my nausea had subsided, and the sun was setting in a fury of rose and russet over the distant city. Frida once wrote “I paint flowers so they will not die.” Painting flowers, or writing blog posts, we all have some way of preserving the things that characterize our days on earth. Of immortalizing a brief reality for years to come—whether it’s a conceptual toilet, growing out of a god, fried plantains not tasted. The unbearable beauty of leaves…