Su Job—it's pronounced "biblically," she'll tell you—is dying. She has terminal cancer. She would rather not say what kind, which doesn't matter anyway, because on November 3, the day before the election, she found out suddenly that it is all over her body and through her bones; it is everywhere cancer. Job is 52 and a fixture; Seattle artists are organizing an art auction on Saturday, December 13, to help pay for hospice. Her curly, red hair and open face are recognizable to anybody who attends local art events or art schools, where she taught for almost a decade until last year. When I read on the blog of a friend of hers that she wants to use her experience to teach people, I called and asked to talk to her about her life and death. She invited me to her loft in the Tashiro Kaplan Building, where her new rule is the door isn't locked.
"It's surreal," she says first thing. "It's surreal to know, yeah, I'm going to die in the next few months."
Job has a swollen right cheek and sits in a wheelchair, but otherwise looks like all systems are go. She's wearing purple suede knee-high boots, a short black skirt, and a low-cut sweater. Her art is sensuous, too—pornographic wool needlepoint squares, velvet dyed to look like cracked earth. She immediately pulls out a hanger full of collaged scarves she's been selling around the country for about a year. They're high-end but not well behaved and named after architects (Gropius, Toyo Ito, Koolhaas). Rectangular scraps of thick silk are joined together at varying angles, so that the scarf falls on your body differently every time you put it on. And the screen prints on the silk—innocuous-looking patterns—are taken from photographs of the unbeautiful parts of Pioneer Square: the gravel lot in front of the bus drivers' bathroom on Fourth Avenue and Washington Street, the surfaces of steel plates from street construction, a struggling potted cactus in front of Union Gospel Mission that doubles as a urinal. Job knows all these places; she's lived in Pioneer Square for 20 years, and she manages the 619 Western Building, where she squatted for 12 years. One of her cats (Otis) is named after an elevator in 619.
The apartment is full. No surface is clear. Art books and shelves of fabric dye are piled high. She gives me a tour, but it's short. Taking her walker into her sewing studio ("I have the absolute best sewing room in Seattle") and onto her balcony ("I have the best fucking deck in Seattle") makes her legs hurt; she moans as she sits.
"That's one thing I won't get used to," she says, rubbing her thighs. It's a rare moment of complaint. The pain is breaking through the morphine. She jokes that her next art series will be based on morphine-hallucination drawings; she sketches in the middle of the night without waking up. In this morphine state, there is no crying and no anger. Maybe it's the drugs.
"I'm so lucky," she says, talking about not having had a boss until she was 42. Born in St. Joseph, Michigan, and raised mostly in Indiana, she "was wild" and ran away to Colorado without finishing high school but managed to maneuver into college at the University of Tennessee. After that, she established herself by doing large (sometimes corporate) fiber-art commissions before she came to graduate school for art at the University of Washington in 1988. Somewhere in there, she was married for 10 years; "it was the highlight of my life," she says in a dead, funny monotone.
Later, she declares it again: "I'm so fucking lucky." And then again. Again. After four times in two hours, I stop writing it down and start believing her. She's trying to tell me that dying is a privilege.
"It's nice to be able to have unrestricted time, and I know that sounds ironic because I am getting ready to die, but I don't have any commitments. I can blow off any deadline," she says. "I had a girlfriend who said, 'There's nothing good about this, it's all a terrible thing.' And I said, 'No, it's not all a terrible thing. There's got to be something good about it, and you can't take that thing away from me.' It just doesn't seem right that there would be an experience as significant as death that would be all bad. That just doesn't make sense to me."
Finding that good thing is not hard for Job. On the door of the apartment is a dry-erase board. When I arrive it says "Long Straws." About a half-hour later, a woman comes in and delivers long straws. That's how it works: Job writes down what she needs, and it arrives. Another man drops off a greeting card with an envelope the color of grass. Students have been writing letters, like one from a kid at the Art Institute of Seattle whom she told to quit school (it didn't go over well with the administration). He did quit, later going back, and he wrote her recently to tell her about how she changed everything for him. Without dying, Job wouldn't be reading these letters, she says. "I never would have found out how many people I have, never."
Her death itself will probably be self-imposed. The day after she was diagnosed, neighbors and friends—about 40 in all—brought champagne to her hospital room to watch the election. She toasted I-1000, the "death with dignity" initiative.
After her death, Job's 13-year-old cats will move down the hall. She won't go to heaven or hell, she says. Something will happen to her: According to quantum physics, she'll dissipate but not disappear. Maybe a grant will be established in her name. It will not be called the Su Job Award, because that would be too boring. It might be for people like Job, who glue scenes together but don't necessarily rise in the art world. Or, Job laughs, the grant will work like this: You'll get a letter saying you're receiving the award for something you've done in the last year, and you'll have 30 days to tell the committee members why they're giving it to you.
When Job thinks of art now, she's pissed. "We sell everything," she says. She has an idea (she is a woman of ideas) for Jeff Koons. He should have his shit packaged and sent out his bathroom window to a vending machine on the street outside. Make it direct.
When she looks at art now, she sees it differently. After a lifetime of thinking about concepts and theories, now she finds herself disappearing into the form of the thing, not passing by the form on the way to meaning. What's right in front of her is where she's at.