Requiem For an Artist You've Never Heard Of

RIP Jean Marie Macaluso, graphic memoirist extraordinaire.

This week we lost my sister-in-law, my husband Brian’s eldest sister, Jean Marie Macaluso, who was a prolific, talented outsider artist, and in her own way, a memoirist.

A little over a month ago Jean was hospitalized with Covid. While she was there, doctors discovered she had stage four ovarian cancer, which had metastasized to many spots in her body, including her lungs. Compromised lungs + Covid = a hastened end.

Jean had been unwell and wasting away prior to Covid, but not deathbed-level unwell. She didn’t know she had cancer because she distrusted medical professionals, and authority in general, so she avoided going to doctors. She lived with mental illness and submitted to just enough of an examination years ago to qualify for SSI benefits, but otherwise chose to go untreated. It made her difficult to be around—unpredictably moody, alternately incredibly charming, and aggressively alienating.

Jean drew and painted constantly, filling up sketch book after sketchbook with what was essentially graphic memoir. She worked primarily in self-portraiture, collage, and autobiographical writing, trying to make sense of the world through self-examination.

That focus led some to label her work narcissistic. But while Jean herself could often be a self-referential boor—repeating herself loudly, incessantly, ad nauseam, until you started looking for a way to escape—as a memoirist myself, I appreciated her approach, and enjoyed much of her work.

Born in 1950, Jean was a true hippie. She and two of her sisters attended the original Woodstock festival in the family’s VW van. (They told their parents it was a “cultural event” and they handed over the keys.) She raised her family in a commune in PEI, and after her four sons were grown, she traveled the country, sometimes hitchhiking, sometimes on Green Tortoise buses. From time to time, she was homeless. She loved attending Rainbow Gatherings, and spoke often (sooooooooo often) about wanting to recreate that sort of utopia in her everyday life.

I admired the way Jean boldly embraced and studied her shadow—something I struggle with in my writing. I loved that she had a sense of humor about herself and her mental illness. One time her mother said to her, “I think you’re getting crazier,” and she quipped, “Well, that’s my job mom—it’s what the government pays me for.”

Her work could sometimes be rudimentary, like that of a child. Other times, it could be more detailed and complex and rich. Now and then she’d PhotoShop her face onto representations of other characters in a way that reminded me of Cindy Sherman’s work.

In her art and her writing, Jean often pondered and flirted with death. Last week, when Brian and I masked up and paid her a visit, she seemed resigned to it, but also scared.

At one point, she whispered to Brian, “Hold my hand?” and he of course obliged. I am glad I was there to witness (and photograph) it.

I will miss you, Jean Marie, as a presence in our family, and as a source of creative inspiration. ❤️