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In Conversation With Gloria Vanderbilt

07/09/2014 06:02 EDT | Updated 09/08/2014 05:59 EDT

Once upon a time I sat down with Gloria Vanderbilt and we talked as if cut from Midnight in Paris.

This is how it all came to be.

It was a bright summer day last year. I tweeted a shot of the glorious sun and hashtagged SUMMERDAZE, but it was far too hot, and afraid of being 'ponyboyed' by my fellow Torontonians, I succumbed to Corrado De Luca, rambunctious galleryist, who requested a meeting on the patio.

I arrived to find a cigar in Corrado's right shirt pocket as he rubbed his lips with excitement.

Gloria Vanderbilt. He told me all sorts of things. Stories about his visits to her New York studio, her famous peanut butter and jelly sandwich diet, her charm. It all sounded incredibly romantic. Surreal even. I became the Owen Wilson to his Woody Allen. Yet I couldn't get passed the last name. Vanderbilt, and all the history that came with it.

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That day, Corrado sent me the soft copies of her work. At the time we featured Victor Mitic and Barb Hunt on our walls, works that are overtly controversial, dark yet philosophical in subject matter. In contrast, Gloria's child-like phrasing and bright pre-school palette were charming and fairytale-esque, easy.

Then I found myself wandering down her artistic statement, heard about her sense of loss. When the twelfth hour came, spontaneously, shamelessly, I fell in love. I went to the gallery to preview her pieces in person. I remember that feeling. The feeling that you've entered her mind and space. That you've understood something about her that goes beyond her surname. The youthful lines, the transformative palette, the nostalgia. Her artwork was beautifully autobiographical. And very provocative.

A week later, Corrado and I sat down on the patio again. Yes, we would exhibit her work at the club. I pushed for an interview. He pushed for lunch. We shook hands and smiled. He smoked his Ramon Allones' cigar as I sipped my tea.

Fast-forward a year; our interview was scheduled on the same day as the Mayor's Arts Lunch, and a day before her opening reception. We had an HBO documentary crew, a DOP, a secondary videographer, handlers, a boom operator and a 20-minute hard stop. Within those 20 minutes, I hoped to demystify an icon.

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Raji Aujla: You change disciplines, subjects, themes so often it seems hard to pin you down to one statement as an artist. You've written quite a bit about sex for example but have omitted it from your painting until this newest exhibit. Why?

Gloria Vanderbilt: I've written an erotic book and I had this sort of dream, this fantasy and it turned into a book called Obsession. It has nothing to do with painting at all. Painting can be erotic in the way Together Alone in the Unknowable Night is. And I really don't [long pause] well, eroticism really depends on the head it doesn't really depend on the vagina so to speak. So, I'm getting into an area where I shouldn't be. [pause] What was the question again. [laughs]

R: How about a subject we see often in your paintings, Joyce Carol Oates.

G: Oh yes, I'm obsessed with her.

R: What about?

G: I think she is one of the great beauties, great eccentric beauties. We've been friends for many years but before I met her, I was obsessed with her. First of all, she's very tall and she's reed thin like a birch tree or something just standing. She has no curves and is very androgynous which is so extraordinary. Her white skin, her face and wild hair. I've done lots of paintings of her. And I also like to give her all the paintings so she has quite a collection of my imagination of her.

R: You've had her as a subject several times in your paintings but it doesn't seem like you've painted different iterations of her. It seems instead like your portrayal becomes more and more deepened.

G: I really haven't got her. You know there's something which is so fascinating to me. To my view, she is a great beauty. But there is something Olive Oil about her -- the character in Popeye the sailor man. There's something, sometimes, in Joyce's face that is a flash of what makes it to me so fascinating. She's this extraordinary beauty capable of so many nuances.

R: Your next pursuit then, is to try and 'get' her?

G: Well, I'm going to work and paint most of the day so that's what I'll be doing. And um, praying that my son stays safe. He's right now in Iraq. [pause] I always, when I see him on the television, I imagine him surrounded by a white light. And that's my love. And because I'm his mother it's very powerful. [laughs] It's going to protect him.

R: So much of your work seems to be this sort of celebration, yet I remember reading that you have this feeling that you were born into a sense of loss. Is there a point where those two impulses intersect?

G: You know, there's a very dark side I did not discover until very late. The sense of loss comes from when you don't have parents. And you go through life feeling that something is terribly wrong and it's your fault but you don't know what it is. So that's the sense of loss.

But then of course, you overcome that by finding work that you love to do and people that you love. And that makes everything okay.

That's why I don't like to read anything about myself: so I can stay clear of any negative images floating around.

I often think about movie stars that read all this garbage that comes out about them and is smoothed over and edited and re-written. It really can affect them, you know.