Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work

Barking at the Moon

Dog Barking at the Moon, Joan Miro, 1926

The story of how I ended up married to a Spaniard and living in, albeit temporarily, in Spain, is a long one with many beginnings.  One of them starts in Carlise, PA, a small college town outside of Harrisburg, where my friend Leslie grew up, daughter of second generation Italian immigrants.  From what she has told me, her life there was remarkably American in many ways.  Her brother the football star, their ranch-style home in the suburbs, a red convertible on her 16th birthday.  But there was lots from the old country, too.  Her father ran a small shoe factory and her family has a strong appreciation for good design and rich food.  I am not sure how often they traveled to Italy, if at all, but it was a place that was central in her imagination and in her day to day life.

Our paths crossed in college and opened up a world I had never known. Leslie was an art history major who kept little almond cookies in her off-campus apartment. When her parents came into town, they would take us down to Little Italy for a meal that would last forever and include wine and Sambuca. The colors in her clothes went together in ways that had never occurred to me and she always had beautiful shoes. For a girl like me who wore mostly flannel and Birkenstocks, for whom going out to eat meant Chinese food with water, this was all something new.

After stumbling through four semesters of Spanish in a futile attempt to learn the language that I knew would serve me well as a social worker, I decided it would be more efficient and much more fun to take a year off and live abroad.  Specifically, I was thinking about volunteering in Central America.  A friend of mine from high school had worked on a development project in Nicaragua, and so I sent off for a bunch of brochures to learn more about these opportunities.  My naive and idealistic self figured that I could change the world and learn Spanish.  One day I was discussing the idea with Leslie when she looked at me and said, in a direct but non-judgmental way, "They speak Spanish in Spain, too, you know."  That comment, combined with a Spanish film class that primarily focused on the work of Almodovar, was enough to sway me.  Why change the world when I can live in Madrid?

I had been living there for several months, working as an au pair in the city's exclusive Barrio Salamanca, when Leslie came to visit.  She was spending the year on an exchange program in Italy.  Together, we took the overnight train from Madrid to Barcelona, arriving exhausted but giddy at the break of dawn.  The only part of the trip I remember, other than this train ride filled with young Spanish soldiers on leave, is a picnic we shared in the Parc Guell, sitting on a bench facing the city.  While we were there, I am sure Leslie tried to help me see the art she knew so well, exposing me to the shapes and colors that make this city so unforgettable.

I was thinking about Leslie and that time in my life, our trip to Barcelona, when I visited the city again last weekend.  This time via plane with my husband and two children.  Rushing to see everything in two short days, we arrived at Parc Guell just as the sun was setting.  Only a few minutes to see the tiles sparkling in the sun before it all went dark.  Who knows what images the kids will retain in their memories.
Parc Guell at dusk

For me, the colors and shapes of Miró, Picasso and  Gaudí remain a puzzle but the advent of audioguides in all these museums certainly helps.  For a few Euros, one can rent a headset that will describe the artists' lives and a few select pieces.  It's kind of like having Leslie whispering in my ear, with an English accent and background music.  Listening, I learned the stories of the art, the artists, the people they knew, the places they lived.

Two pieces, in particular, connected to me and my work about incarcerated women. The first, which I included at the top of this blog, is Joan Miró's Dog Barking at the Moon.  When the design was first sketched, it included words. The dog barking, "Bow wow," to which the moon replies, "You know I don't give a damn."  The ladder on the left side is an image that appears in many of Miró's paintings and is a symbol of a dream escape, a way out of war or whatever it is that this earthly life brings us.  Am I that dog?  Barking about women, prison and food to a moon that doesn't care and won't listen?  Or perhaps the dog is the incarcerated woman, pleading for attention she will never get. Kind of depressing except for the ladder, the imaginary exit, hope for a better place.

The second piece, more obviously connected, is Picasso's Woman with Cap.
Woman with Cap, Pablo Picasso, 1901
Picasso drew this portrait when he lived in Paris and used to visit a sanitarium that incarcerated  sick women. This woman probably had syphilis, based on the white color of her cap. Interesting that the title focuses on that one piece of clothing, the piece that marks her as "Other," that separates her. Couldn't Picasso, of all people, see beyond that? The story here, of a young Pablo - he would have been about 20 at the time - visiting these women in their prison, painting their pictures, makes me wonder. Did they talk?  What did they talk about?  Would he bring them gifts?  Share food with them?  What did they think of him, with all his brushes and his funny Spanish accent? What would they think of me?