When I began looking into the fracas that derailed a proposed public artwork that would’ve stood in the plaza at 18th Street and Columbia Road, an editor here suggested I pay particularly close attention to the rodent angle—-some opponents of James Simon‘s Bicycle Musician sculpture took issue with its inclusion of a small bronze rat that would’ve sat on a bench in the plaza.
After all, my editor said, the rat is the patron saint of Adams Morgan.
“It is, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” says the Adams Morgan-based artist Manon Cleary, whose varied and celebrated career has included 25 or 30 paintings depicting white rats.
Once upon a time, before she was mostly confined to her palatial, antique- and ephemera-stuffed apartment in the Beverly Court building on Columbia Road, Cleary used to sit on the stoop and observe the packs of rats that would crawl out from under the structure. She began painting rats in the ’70s, after she included two white rats in a cover illustration she made for a 1973 issue of Potomac, the precursor to Washington Post Magazine—-it was for a story about scientists at the National Institute of Mental Health experimenting on humans instead of rats. Around that time a friend gave her a rat as a birthday present; it was named Ramona, or Ramon. At first she thought the rat was female. “It had enormous testicles that I thought were breasts,” she says.
Manon Cleary has a pet rat, Boo Boo. Cleary lets her play on her bed and rock-climb on her body. But today, Cleary had to lock Boo Boo up.
“She chewed through my tube,” says the 61-year-old artist, watching the red-eyed albino rampage around in her cage. “That’s OK,” she chides. “You deserve it.”
Cleary takes the four steps from Boo Boo’s box to her bed and sits down on it, legs crossed. She reaches over to the cannula stretching from the oxygen machine by the dresser and straps it around her head. Ever since her lungs gave out in 1999 from prolonged exposure to toxic fixatives and a since-discarded smoking habit, she’s been compiling a mental list of health hazards: moldy rooms, Comet cleanser, perfumed women in elevators. Now Boo Boo is on the list, too, for severing the plastic breathing tube on one of Cleary’s portable oxygen tanks.
“Hurray, kill Mommy!” deadpans Cleary.
She showed me her current rats, Sable and Angel (the latter is white), as well as some rat-related memorabilia—-like her rat shrine, her membership card from the Rat Fan Club, and several recent rat-related publications that have reprinted her work. There’s Jonathan Burt‘s 2006 book Rat, a history of the creature that’s part of Reaktion Books’ “Animal” series and includes one of Cleary’s rat paintings. Two more works appear in the introductory issue of The Rodent Reader from earlier this year, along with a profile of Cleary by the magazine’s managing editor, Mil Scott. (Her rat works, and her works in general, have appeared in numerous other books and magazines.)
So while Cleary wasn’t crazy about about James Simon’s proposed sculpture, she was mostly irked by his rats, which look like “look like dinosaur embryos with tails,” she wrote last week. Looking at his installation of rat figures from Brazil, she says she isn’t sure that he’s ever even seen a rat.
Rats, Cleary says, don’t deserve their stigma: They don’t smell; they’re quiet; they’re friendly. And since owning her first rat—-which, she told City Paper in 2004, died of “high cholesterol and no movement”—-she’s learned much about how to care for them. For one, she always owns two at a time, so they can keep each other company. The Rat Fan Club’s founder, Debbie “The Rat Lady” Ducommun, even taught Cleary how to save the life of a rat that was choking by swinging it by its tail like a helicopter blade. Rats, Cleary says, have no gag reflex.