A New Times Art Critic Reconnects with Underground Comic Icon Joyce Farmer, the Person Who First Inspired Her to Be One

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Leonard, an inveterate gossip and master at manipulating people, had a way of making you feel disloyal if you consorted with "the enemy" — or so I was led to believe. After Joyce and Leonard officially split in 1982, I rarely saw Joyce, though she wanted to keep our friendship going. Before responding to her Christmas card, the last time I had seen and spoken with her was at Leonard Kaplan's standing-room-only memorial at Laguna Art Museum in 2008. It took Leonard's death to free us from the invisible ropes with which he had psychologically hog-tied us — mostly me, if truth be told.

Almost 28 years later, we've re-entered each other's lives. I had completely forgotten about Joyce's close ties to Phoenix, the place I would move to in 1992 and where my career as an art critic really began. Had I stayed in Southern California, I never would have had the opportunity to write for New Times on and off for 17 years or for other art publications, both national and international, to which I've been privileged to contribute.

But Joyce's artistic career really didn't begin until after she left Arizona for good.

Joyce Farmer's connections to Phoenix run wide and deep. And when you know her history, you aren't surprised that she embraced feminism with a passion in its formative days. Three marriages ending in divorce (though she's been married to fourth husband Palma Goulet for almost 20 years), a rape, a stalker, and a whole lot of instances of someone telling her she couldn't do something because she was a "girl" made her a prime candidate for female liberation.

Her real mother, Cordelia Freeman Farmer, who appears in Special Exits in flashbacks, died in the Goodyear ranch house of Joyce's maternal grandparents, Roy Lawrence Freeman and Myrtle Brooke Freeman. Cordelia died at the age of 37 of congestive heart failure caused by having contracted diphtheria as a child. Joyce, her only child, was 11.

"I think my grandparents went to Phoenix in the teens, but they didn't stay because my grandfather moved around," Joyce told me. He was a manager for Kress five-and-dime stores, whose job was to open a new store, get it running, then move on to starting another store. Luckily, before the stock market crash of 1929 came along, her grandfather sold off his Kress stock, for which, according to family legend, he was summarily fired.

By that time, the Freemans had purchased a 160-acre parcel of land 41/2 miles west of Goodyear from its original homesteader owner and had a place to go after Roy became unemployed. Roy and Myrtle built a house on their cotton ranch, using river stone they foraged from the Gila River.

It was a well-known ranch house to the Goodyear and Avondale communities, according to Joyce, because they had a swastika, an ancient Hindu, Buddhist, and Navajo symbol, on the chimney. Her grandmother was an artist and into Indian philosophy, Eastern and Western. During World War II, that swastika stuck in the craw of her grandparents' neighbors, but her grandmother steadfastly refused to get rid of it.

Joyce also has vivid recollections of playing with her two older cousins in the irrigation ditch that supplied the ranch with agricultural water, a pastime in the mid-1940s that would give most present-day parents panic attacks. "We were warned the pump was dangerous. The oldest, 11, was in charge of our safety. Playing in the catch basin where the 12-inch pump pipe discharged its waters was a common activity for kids back then."

After Joyce's grandparents sold the ranch in 1952, they lived in the Palmcroft district near downtown Phoenix. The old ranch house was finally pulled down only four or five years ago to make way for residential tract housing.

Before her father Roy's remarriage to second wife Esther (Lars and Rachel in the novel) in Los Angeles, Joyce was shipped off to live with her maternal aunt and uncle, who enrolled her in eighth grade in Avondale. She went back to L.A. to Samuel Gompers Middle School for ninth grade, where she vividly remembers an incident at school: "In junior high, they wanted you to choose what your career would be. I wanted to be a draftsman like my father; I was told I couldn't because I was a girl."

After high school, she met her first husband, Don VanderLinden, at Art Center, married him in 1958, and produced a son, Paul. The fledging family moved to Phoenix in June 1961 when Don got a job as an industrial designer for General Electric.

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Kathleen Vanesian