The Beatrice Picture

daniel thomas

That drawing of a black-haired woman wearing a cross-necklace around her arching neck is certainly the most iconic image THE SWOON ever produced. Her pretty face graced our first EP, a collection of songs under the title Ben Son Ben Son Beatrice (later included on the album THE SWOON along with the Neverland sessions). We used the face of that young woman on the t-shirts we sold at concerts—ugly white t-shirts emblazoned with the deep thought, “Love is the saddest song ever sung” written like a caption underneath her image. We used that picture for posters, flyers, promotions, and there’s even a rare and hard-to-find chapbook of lyrics from SWOON songs with her picture on the cover. The woman’s face also featured in the video shoot for Square Dance Candlelight.

And then there was the big stage backdrop. We had an enormous 8 x 12 cloth backdrop of the same picture which we hung behind the band for live shows.

So who is this mysterious woman and what’s her story? I don’t think we ever explained that in any meaningful way to anyone. People had a lot of theories. Fans used to assume it was a picture of Jeana Gillispie, our keyboard player. It wasn’t. When I dyed my hair black, people began to assume it was supposed to be a drawing of me! That must have sent some mixed messages.

The true story behind the picture goes a little bit like this. When I was a freshman or maybe a sophomore in college, I took a Medieval Literature class on Dante. It was a grad-level class, and I had to get special permission from both the teacher and from the head of the English Lit department to register for it. (The latter was not a problem. Emmett and Austin’s dad chaired the department.) Turned out I was one of only three students in the Dante class. I didn’t like Divine Comedy nearly as much as I thought I would, but I did like Dante’s personification of God’s love in the character his own courtly-love interest, heavenly Beatrice. Dante expressed his spiritual yearning for the Beatific Vision through conflation with his own unrequited sighing lovesickness for a girl he knew named Beatrice. His overwrought imaginary romance with earthly Beatrice ended poorly for him. She married some other Italian dude and died young. Dante’s obsession with the afterlife probably had a lot to do with his obsession over Beatrice after her untimely death. He cast her as an angelic being in Divine Comedy, orchestrating Dante’s apocalyptic journey from hell to paradise. The Beatrice metaphor was obscure enough to be cool, and it carried an emotional payload. So I wrote a song about it, which is just the kind of crazy stuff kids did back in the 80s.

We made that song the title track for the EP Ben Son Ben Son Beatrice (often mispronounced as “Benson Benson Beet Rice”). And we needed a picture for the cover of the release.

We should have put a picture of the band on the cover the cassette case; that would have made some sense. I wanted Beatrice on the cover. We commissioned an art student from Southwest State University named Akira Oshima to draw the picture. Akira was an amazing artist with a talent for beautiful eye-catching portraits. Emmett and I (we were college roommates at the time) gave him some direction and handed him a photo of a model clipped from a magazine with the head tilted at just the right angle. Akira did an amazing job interpreting the concept with pen and ink, and I think he charged us about $25.00. His picture really seemed to capture the vibe: “This is what it looks like when you swoon.” I don’t know where Akira went after school, but it looks like he’s still making art somewhere out there. Thanks Akira. Best $25.00 we ever spent.

We started putting that picture on everything, but we never bothered to offer an explanation. Isn’t it obvious? That’s Heavenly Beatrice from The Divine Comedy, the personification of God’s love and humanity’s yearning for divine order and perfection.

Mark Derby had a friend from Worthington named Angela Behrends who offered to create the backdrop for us. As I remember it, she stitched together two heavy white sheets, used an overhead projector to project the image onto the surface, and painted the face onto it. I think she only charged us for the fabric. Angela is now an assistant professor of art at Dakota State in Madison, SD where she is still making great art. Thanks Angela.

That’s the story of the Beatrice picture. I still kind of like it. In the age of glam-rock and hair bands and MTV, Beatrice looks disinterested with it all, staring off into the distance, as if she has caught sight of something the rest of us don’t see.

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