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Jeannette Herrera’s masterwork sits unfinished on an easel in her Arlington apartment. The 24-by-30-inch piece of Masonite—onto which she had intended to document the life-changing incident that happened to her during the summer of 2004—has been stuck in the planning stages for more than two months. So far, Herrera’s managed to apply only a blue background.
“There it is,” Herrera thinks whenever she passes her work-in-progress. “Wow, that sure is blue.”
For Herrera, a 33-year-old employee of Arlington’s Sterling Picture Framing, painting has become a process by which she stays sane. “I get a picture in my head, and if I don’t paint it, it won’t go away.” When she was younger, that meant pictures of “altar scenes” and “Jesus stuff,” reflecting her daily-Mass Catholic upbringing. By high school, however, the devil had won out.
“All I did was draw dick,” Herrera says. “Because I wasn’t getting any.”
For a painter who exorcises her inner demons by trapping them on canvas, Herrera’s inability to recall the trauma that inspired her unfinished piece is more than a simple case of artist’s block—it’s the aftermath of a night during which she found herself lying with a skull fracture underneath a parked van in Alexandria.
Herrera says she and her fiancé, 28-year-old Jaime Gooch, went out to dinner to celebrate their recent engagement. Afterward, they met up with a girl who gave Herrera some Xanaxes; she took “probably two” pills on a stomach full of booze. At some point she smashed a duckie umbrella against a pole. Her last memory from that night—other than the ambulance ride to the hospital—was of partying with “this angry Mexican dude” who got in her face and said, “That’s the way it’s going to be, huh?”
The day after the attack, the beaten and confused Herrera retraced her steps as best she could, searching for her glasses and a lost shoe. Later, she questioned her friends, who she says didn’t remember much due to their own chemically altered states that night, and pulled police reports, which she says didn’t help, either.
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“I just thought that maybe if I saw something, I would remember,” Herrera says. “I thought my absolute hardest, [but] nothing was happening.”
Following her unsuccessful investigation, Herrera decided to give up alcohol and drugs and concentrate on her art, producing works inspired heavily by pornography and loneliness. Her 2006 oil paintings of “Assassin Girls”—carnivalesque, weapon-wielding creatures inspired by the Japanese art/crime flick Pistol Opera—are on display at Stacy’s Coffee Parlor in Falls Church. Herrera has dubbed her first show “Two Years Sober.”
Herrera’s best paintings reveal the playground of her psyche. T&A is almost guaranteed: Herrera had to censor a pinup girl for “Two Years Sober” with a pair of black-leather panties. (“[The buyer] can just depants her when they want to,” she says.) Pretty Kitty Killer features a naked woman with the head of a bird holding two pistols; at her feet are cats with bullet-hole-riddled bull’s-eye targets in place of their stomachs.
“They represent, I think, what the world looks like in her own mind,” says Carolyn Hofig, a 39-year-old historian who acquired the painting Blue Face Killer by paying off an automobile-accident-related debt of nearly $3,000 that Herrera owed. “Which is a little terrifying—but it’s made with love.”
Credit for the violent subject matter, says Herrera, goes to her recurring dreams—which she likens to the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi flick, The Running Man, in that “[I] have to kill the person in the next room to move on.” Gooch, who was sent to prison for assault in late 2004, has also become an important source of inspiration as Herrera awaits his 2009 release. In this year’s Consolation, Herrera portrays the devil and a skeleton sitting at the edge of a bridge; the skeleton appears to be on the verge of jumping off.
She explained the painting to Jaime this way: “If we were suicidal, who exactly would we listen to? Am I going to listen to the angel, who’s always had it pretty good? Or am I going to listen to the devil, who’s really seen some fucked-up shit?”
As for the unfinished account of her messed-up night, Herrera says that completing the work—total recall or not—and putting the incident behind her is a priority. Herrera says the final product will feature the events of the entire night laid out graphically—dinner, the pills, the umbrella. Finally, toward the right of the board, there will be a “big black chunk of nothing,” which Herrera says will represent her final embrace of uncertainty.
“I really consider myself lucky to not remember,” she says. “The black spot, I’m perfectly happy with it.”—John Metcalfe