Frances Farmer Defends Herself, graphite on paper, 52 x 360 inches. Originally produced for NW Art Now @ TAM

“Listen, I get liquor in my milk, I get liquor in my coffee and in my orange juice, what do you expect me to do, starve to death?”

I found this quote while researching Seattle’s iconic Hollywood starlet Frances Farmer. (Farmer was one of Kurt Cobain’s muses; he famously wrote the song “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle” for Nirvana's 1993 album In Utero.) The quote was part of her defense before a police judge after an arrest in 1943—a response to a question about her addiction to alcohol. Farmer had become addicted to booze and benzedrine while working in Hollywood. She had been prescribed the latter as an appetite suppressant when her studio insisted she lose weight in order to continue starring in film roles. 

Soon after this encounter in court, Farmer was involuntarily committed by her mother to an asylum. She spent the next decade in and out of mental institutions, subjected to electroshock therapy and sexual abuse by orderlies. Farmer was arguably Seattle’s “star” hysteric—not so unlike Salpetriere Hospital’s heavily documented Augustine in the 19th century—a woman acting out too much for the mores of her time, committed, photographed, condemned to the sphere of specimen, but still directed to act for a celebrity-crazed, voyeuristic public.

I began this drawing on March 22. I worked on it for 44 days (using just my 0.5 mm mechanical pencil)—up to the afternoon I delivered it to Tacoma Art Museum on May 6. By the end now, I’m seeing the pattern emblazoned on the back of my eyelids when I close them to sleep at night.

Frances has not yet had her revenge on Seattle; to this day, not a single public monument has been erected to her, but she remains one of the Northwest’s greats.