Voice

One of the most fateful days of my school career was my final critique of Painting I. By that time, I was committed to my art degree, because I understood that all I really wanted was to make things. But I had no awareness yet of the struggle it was going to be to get through the program, and in retrospect, that crit was the first stirrings of it.

I had never worked with paint when I signed up for the class. Not really. All but one or two of my peers had been painting for years, and understood the medium; they’d all taken art classes in school and had some understanding of what they were doing, some goals they wanted to achieve. I was self-taught, having had only Photoshop and watercolor at my disposal, with some dabbling in the cheapest acrylics money could buy. My paintings from high school were on cardboard; I had never once touched a canvas, and I felt fancy for having actual watercolor paper, but the watercolor block was a completely new concept to me when it finally occurred to one of my professors to give me one. I knew I wanted to learn more because I loved working with color so much, so I threw myself into the course whole-heartedly, and spent it focusing solely on learning how to paint. My time was spent practicing technique, experimenting, trying to reconcile the way my mind understood color with the way oil paint behaved, which was so different than anything else I’d worked with in the past.

My teacher never gave me any indication that this was problematic. He was supportive, in fact, listening to me when I spoke about the way Photoshop worked in comparison to the paint, letting me play as I would. I enjoyed myself for the entire semester, only to be ripped apart by both my teacher and my peers at the end of it because they couldn’t figure out what I was trying to say, and when they asked me, I had no answer.

I wasn’t trying to say anything. I was trying to figure out how paint worked.

This would become a sore point for me for years and years after. I didn’t care about art with messages in it and in many ways, I still don’t. I wasn’t in it to bash people over the head with my opinions. I just wanted to make things, and it frustrated me endlessly when my professors proceeded to reject idea after idea after idea. I was told to my face, in front of all my peers in a critique, that my interests in fantasy work were cliche’d and boring and they didn’t want to see them, and I blamed all of this on the fact that my work was supposed to have a message. I did not understand why they couldn’t just let me make my art. I only wanted to improve in a technical sense, and their froufrou super special art philosophies were diverting me from my goals in such a way that I still haven’t been able to go back enough to come close to meeting them.

Years later, I’m finally starting to understand. I was taking the idea of “saying something” with my work too literally. I thought they were trying to force me to install some sort of thesis statement in everything I did, probably a bullshit one like all the other students seemed to be working with most of the time, and this was only reinforced when they went crazy over things like a teddy bear I made out of window screen and stuffed with things like tampons and makeup and a pregnancy test. What an amazing commentary on the discordance between and juxtaposition of childhood and adulthood, the way that all children have the person they will become inside of them, the soft comforts of youth fading to make way for these grownup issues!

No. I made it because I wanted to make teddy bears for a while and I knew that crap like that was the only way they were going to let me do it. That “commentary” was a complete accident. I wasn’t trying to say anything at all.

So, looking back now, yes, my work was almost entirely voiceless back then, in that there are more ways to communicate than thesis statements and outright messages, and I wasn’t focusing on that at all. Never once did it occur to me that I should have been examining just why it was I took such comfort in the act of making a teddy bear, and drawing conclusions about what I found there, and using those conclusions to help other people understand things in turn. Perhaps if I had been able to articulate just what it was that drew me to what I wanted to make, they’d have let me get away with far more, instead of reducing me to flailing around in an attempt to find something that would satisfy them enough to get me my good grade.

I don’t regret being focused mostly on technique — I had exposure to materials during my school years I will probably never have access to again, and despite it all, I learned a lot about what I like doing process-wise. I also still believe that my professors handled me wrongly. I don’t care what you think is cliche’; you never, ever, ever tell a young person that what is important to them means nothing. If I had been guided into examining myself more instead of encouraged to abandon my own interests entirely just because they had no interest in them, who knows what I’d have accomplished by now? Perhaps it wouldn’t have taken me over five years after my graduation to realize they had actually sort of taught me something.

My lingering bitterness aside — I’m working through it piece by piece, I promise; I don’t actually want to hold on to this negativity — I have been struggling with my art these past several months in that I am unsatisfied with it, and I have some idea of the sorts of things I’d like to pursue, but the specifics and therefore the process have been eluding me. It has been difficult to dream up any kind of starting point that makes sense, and I feel like Alice confronting the Cheshire Cat, being told that if I have no specific destination in mind it doesn’t really matter what direction I choose anyway. I have been trying to find my voice, and now I’m starting to think that’s the key to it all, if I can learn to see that voice not as something that delivers proclamations, but as something that explains in more subtle ways.

So, what am I trying to say?

Reflection

Something that I am often struck by lately is the way that so many artists look exactly like the art they make. Abigail Larson is a beautiful willow of a woman who has sleek, gorgeous hair and works magic I cannot comprehend with her eye makeup. The Frouds look like they live in the oldest and wisest tree in the forest, and they create their works while staring out the window at their neighbors. In more personal experience, it is the people with amusing piercings and unnaturally colored hair who produce the most striking linework, and the people who work witchcraft with color tend not to have much black in their wardrobes. Probably because personal style is just as much a form of expression as anything else, it never, ever surprises me to see the face behind the work anymore.

This has left me wondering with some bemusement just what that means for me, given that I am years out of practice and my work is either mired in the aesthetics and problems I had when I was a teenager, or chock full of cartoon dragons.

Earlier this morning, considering this and that and other things, I stumbled upon my answer, one that is stupidly obvious and only illuminates my problems all the more: It isn’t through appearance alone that our work shows off who and what we are. Years ago I knew a young woman who was berated in our class for giving herself rules and sticking to them in her paintings. She confided to me later that this comment had been a huge blow to her, because it was by giving herself rules and sticking to them in life that she’d pulled herself out of a difficult time in her adolescence and given herself the power to succeed, and she’d just been told that that same tactic was holding her back artistically. I knew another who was so impatient that she would knowingly rush her paintings, leaving them looking half undone, and refuse to hear critique on them because it was only a hobby. Her later marriage failed — in part — because she treated it much the same way. Those I have met who seem to struggle the most with their work are always struggling with some other huge part of their identity at the same time — gender seems to be a common factor — and in school, those who were careless about their presentation were also careless of their materials and their space. Sometimes, these people were not even mindful of the presence or needs of the other students who used the studios.

And now, here I am. During my schooling, it was commented on that I had an unconscious tendency to zoom in on things when drawing or painting from a still life, picking one little tidbit of the setting and magnifying it to fill the whole page. To my immense frustration, I was fussed at for being “too precious”, for getting absorbed in tiny details and working them to death, for latching onto an idea and running with it up until the moment it seemed it would not work, and then dropping that idea entirely. I was all over the place back then, trying everything and casting it off in an attempt to get my professors to accept something I wanted to make and lay off otherwise, feeling helpless and dissatisfied because I felt like I had to please them — because pleasing those above me was essential to my success. I had a habit of picking everything apart and viewing things in terms of patterns, not understanding things unless I could see how the pieces fit together, and always building things through plans instead of letting my work take shape organically. I was berated for this, too.

This year I am working actively through a lot of residual anger I’ve been carrying with me over the past decade, figuring out what the real problems are and solving them in an attempt to stop displacing my feelings. As I figure things out, it becomes easier for me to see the parts of myself that aren’t so angry with more clarity. And now I realize:

I fixate on tiny details everywhere. I cannot see the forest for the trees; I lose sight of the big picture in favor of whatever small part of it has caught my attention. I am terrible at focusing on one thing at a time and pick up and drop things as the whims strike me; that’s why I am always surrounded by works in progress, and sometimes there are so many that I sit paralyzed, unable to decide which one to put my energy in at any given hour. I am struggling with my voice as an artist because I have spent the past few years pouring my energy into my Etsy shop, in the hopes that I would please enough customers to gain recognition. Having grown up with an autistic brother, I am still entrenched in routine, and the instant something deviates from my plans I have to drop everything and redo those plans. Without them I feel like I have no control.

It was all there all along. I just hadn’t made the connection between art saying more about my friends than appearances alone, and my own art saying more about me than appearances alone — because I cannot see the forest for the trees. This year, then, needs to be the year that I take several steps back and really look at things, and give myself the opportunity to understand who I am and what I want, and what I need to do to get there.

I am not a content, satisfied person. I am happy. I have a lot to be happy about and I am glad. But I am not satisfied, and that needs to change. Maybe I don’t need to seek contentment with my work and contentment with my life separately. Maybe these two things are intertwined, and that’s the big picture I have been missing.

All the World’s A Stage

This month, I married the man I have been with for thirteen years.

It was June of 2013 when he finally proposed. I’d been around so long by then I was really already a part of his family, and the nagging about tying the knot had been going on for quite some time. So when he finally brought out that ring and we made it official, my entire world was essentially ripped out from under me and tossed into the air like so much confetti by a horde of delighted almost-in-laws. The planning started immediately, and with it came a constant push and pull in regards to what I needed to do and what I wanted to do, wedding-related and otherwise. I wound up dropping many of my personal projects the closer and closer we came to the wedding itself, so as to focus as much time as I could on getting things ready. All this and I wasn’t even doing anywhere near the bulk of the planning. Hubby is blessed with a large and enthusiastic family — several of them helped with the real work, and Hubby handled most everything that required some sort of financial negotiation. Despite that, I was stressed for a solid nine months, so much so that I’m only now starting to remember what I’m like when I’m feeling free and having fun.

It was more than worth it in the end. The wedding was perfect. The whole family has been raving about it and there wasn’t a thing we’d have changed or tried to improve. Hubby and I have come out of the experience proud and pleased with ourselves for what was accomplished, which is a great start to married life, I think. I also learned a lot of really important life lessons, like if I’m going to design a whole dress from scratch I need to give myself a year rather than four months to actually build it, and if I’m going to do intensive detail work by hand I should never, ever do it on a deadline.

However, there is one thing I wish I had realized earlier, which might have made planning the whole experience a great deal more fun: What we were really doing, in the end, was putting on a show.

The first glimmers of this idea came the night before the wedding, when various family members banded together to help finish up the embroidery I had decided my dress really needed to have, leaving me free to enjoy myself at last. Then, on my wedding day, I had my makeup done by a professional artist for the very first time. I was raised never to use makeup, having been told I didn’t need it, and now I don’t know the first thing about how to use it; thus I was able to sit in the chair and enjoy having my own face used as someone else’s canvas without any real understanding of what was going on. I also, for the very first time, had my hair done in a way that wasn’t simply walking into a Cost Cutters and having it chopped off. The women of the wedding party were there with me, all of them excited and squealing about what our hairdresser was able to do — tricks and styles we would never have been able to manage on our own. We were seeing ourselves with new faces, seeing what we were able to transform into with the aid of someone who actually knew what they were doing.

The wedding party wore Victorian clothing, a direct result of one of the spiteful ones declaring that if we weren’t going to set a dress code he was going to show up in a top hat and tails. This made Hubby and I perfectly happy and so the idea spread like wildfire throughout the young people of the wedding, and we all spent the day in costume. My dress resembled a princess dress, and having had personal stylists sprucing me up hours before, I felt like one. I entered the room walking to a Pirates of the Caribbean fanfare, having rehearsed the night before on my own to find exactly where I needed to step in every part of the music. The caterer, who was also in charge of the decorating, had gone wild with our themes, turning fantasy books and Legos into classy and dignified Victorian accoutrements, and everyone was delighted by the entire setting. I had expected since the proposal to leave the wedding wanting to hide my introverted self in a hole and not speak to anyone for months until I had recovered. Instead, I feel bright and cheerful, and encouraged by the way everyone around me felt.

We all had fun. We could have more fun with that same crowd. I could throw Halloween parties, Lord of the Rings parties, a masquerade ball, let everyone come together and have fun pulling together costumes and helping me to decorate foods that match the themes and come up with clever decorations. I have always dreaded parties and social gatherings of any kind, never been interested in the hassle of putting them together. Now, I’m suddenly wondering if I’ve just been doing it wrong all these years, and if I could have as much fun as I did at the wedding again if I concentrate on the production instead of the hassle. I wonder if I’d have had more fun going into the wedding itself if I’d seen it as a show I was helping to put on, rather than a scary and momentous life event that I was going to have to survive.

I have long seen simple things as shows. Because I work at home, I don’t leave the house much, and so even getting dressed for a day out can be like putting on a costume for me. In retrospect, I feel silly not thinking of my own wedding the same way; after the fact, the connections are obvious. It makes me wonder just what else I’ve been seeing as frightening and imposing that I could have been seeing as fun all along, if only I had wrapped my head around it a little differently.

Lesson learned. Now it’s on to the next big thing, I suppose.