Mountain above, fire below

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A lot of people I know turned 30 this year or late last year and frequently what I hear expressed by them is, “I haven’t accomplished anything.”

I’m turning 30 on April 30th. That’s right. It’s my golden birthday. I’m not sure what I have accomplished. Honestly, I’ve more thoroughly considered which Jeffree Star or Melt lipstick I should buy with gifted birthday money. (I count it as nothing short of a birthday miracle that so many cruelty-free makeup brands are re-stocking this month.) Of course it’s worthwhile to consider choices you’ve made. It’s also worthwhile to add some color in your life where possible. Purple lipstick war paint does that nicely.

To my friends who, in their late twenties and early 30’s lament over “not accomplishing anything”, I have this consolation to offer — most people don’t accomplish anything really fascinating that early and even if they have they probably can’t recognize what it is that they’ve done or why they’ve done it. The people who do truly remarkable things early in life usually just end up burning out and screwing up later. Like child actors and poorly made fireworks. Occasionally there’s the freak who manages to have the longevity of the tortoise without actually being one — maybe an elephant? — but it’s not useful to compare yourselves to those people.

Just like comparing yourself to a friend that comes from a really wealthy family who therefore goes on a lot of exciting trips. He or she did not “accomplish” touring Italy for the summer. He or she did not “accomplish” having no student debt and thus being able to take an indefinite internship at an organic farm in New Hampshire. Your friend might be a hard-working, generous, compassionate person, but they are not better than you just because they have a more superficially exciting Instagram.

Your life, like mine, is probably composed mostly of small things. Beautiful, small things. I bet you have done a lot more than you give yourself credit for because those successes were not glamorous.

Maybe for years you took tiny measures to keep your mother or father out of jail and out of a coffin. Had to figure out at 17 or 18 how to be a mother while still trying to figure out what you want. Worked full-time while going to school full-time. Lost your home and had to come to terms with how impermanent such an important structure and symbol can be. Divorced and had to really learn what it means to be independent.

Maybe you learned how to love other people. Decided to have boundaries, but not barriers. Made it a point to be a better listener. Started a garden. Shared affection without expectation or guilt. Gave a gift. Received a gift. Read a book about an unfamiliar subject. Spent an afternoon in a museum. Walked on an unfamiliar trail. Completely changed your career path. Decided to stay instead of leave. Decided to leave instead of stay. Spoke up because you had something to say. Allowed silence because it felt right.

Those things aren’t really shiny or exciting, but they’re still pieces of your life.

Living is necessarily a vulnerable state of being. More than likely, you have accomplished some living. And that’s quite a thing. The shiny and exciting part is you’re not done yet.

 

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If I don’t see you

 

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On Saturday I bought five books of poetry, a book about psychoanalysis, and a book about sailing from the annual library fundraiser. It was hard to get through the transaction. I felt like my skin was peeling off and I was casually attempting to hold it back without being noticed as the library volunteer asked me to enter my pin number. Smile. Say thank you. Say have a good day. Take your bag. Walk away. 

My impulse is to hesitate before each action and contact. I don’t like to touch things without considering them first, without preparing myself. So I have to remind myself don’t hesitate and try not to wince at the contact with my paper bag full of books. Each minor agitation tells me I shouldn’t try to walk home. It doesn’t feel minor. And I was right. Just the sounds in the parking lot made me feel panicked and vulnerable. How could I have crossed even one busy street?

It’s exhausting to try to appear “normal” in this state. While I waited for a friend to pick me up from the library, I tried not to cry and shake. I tried not to let my hands coil and tangle. I tried not to stare blankly too long in any direction or let my eyes dart around in obvious distress. I sat where only people driving by would possibly see my face. The sky was darkening and the breeze hitting my skin smelled like rain.

I texted R (sort of) because I knew he would tell me it’s okay. He did. It helped. You’re safe. You’re okay. Stay here. Sit. Don’t cry. Wait. You can trust your friends.

Experiences like this used to drive me to isolation at home. Days or even a couple weeks would go by and I’d never leave the apartment without R or a close friend. Not even to take out the trash or recycling. I would avoid making any solid plans with people and feel tremendously guilty if I needed to cancel. I tried not to interpret the sound of their disappointment over the phone as annoyance and criticism. I tried not to imagine it if someone texted or called them on my behalf.

It’s easier now to take each day at a time and to recognize that the episode will end. I can’t go for a bike ride when it’s over, but I could go for a walk or wash the dishes. I can make dinner and enjoy the company of a friend.

My mom often used to tell me that as a child one of my favorite things to say was, “I can do it.” I said it with irritation, according to her, as if I was annoyed at the mere suggestion I couldn’t. As if I wanted to prove myself.

As I try to come to terms with being disabled, I frequently have to reaffirm for myself that I can do things. I’m under the impression that this is really common experience for disabled people (and I suppose very young children). How do you acknowledge and make accommodations for your disability without it ruling your life? How can I help other people see the full range of my capabilities while also not misleading them about my condition (which always leads to more complications, inconveniences, and worry)?

Quitting school was not a solution.
Isolation was not a solution.
Hiding was not a solution.
Lying was not a solution.
Stubborn pride was not a solution.
Pretending I would just “get better” was not a solution.

They’re still not solutions.

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In the past two months I’ve sold more art and writing than ever before. I’m engaged in two separate collaborative projects and hoping to begin work on planning the next Cat Party exhibition. There are other ideas circling my mind that I haven’t had time to work on yet. My enthusiasm and curiosity has not waned at all.

I guess it’s not something you say. I am doing things to enact the belief that I can still do things. Otherwise I don’t know what I look like as someone who can. I can’t see anything now. I am feeling around in the dark for my well, for the words to connect and for my world to inhale deeply.

 

WRITING + art, people, life

 

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A couple Thursdays ago I gave a talk at ETSU about art writing, which was also my first time doing anything like that. Thankfully I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this subject so I had plenty to say and organization of the overall lecture came fairly easily.

In my own experience as a writer and an artist, I have noticed there are a lot of overlapping characteristics between the two roles. To make the prospect of writing about art more approachable, I thought using a known frenemy for illumination would be helpful. 

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1. There’s no substitution for doing the work — Exactly how it sounds. If you’re not in your studio working, you can’t hope to make improvements as an artist and the same goes for writing.
2. Self-motivation is necessary — No one cares if you stop writing or making art once you graduate, except for maybe a handful of people who love you. It takes time and diligence to keep yourself going.
3. Seemingly unrelated assignments can get you closer to your goals / interests — I like how Neil Gaiman described this necessity when talking about the early part of his career:

Sometimes the way to do what you hope to do will be clear cut, and sometimes  it will be almost impossible to decide whether or not you are doing the correct thing, because you’ll have to balance your goals and hopes with feeding yourself, paying debts, finding work, settling for what you can get.

Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be – an author, primarily of fiction, making good books, making good comics and supporting myself through my words – was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal.

And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain.

4. Opportunities are sought, but also created — Opportunities exist for artists in a lot of different forms, such as juried exhibitions, exhibition proposals, grant proposals, etc. but there is also some creative problem solving required. Once we’ve made the work, how do we share it with people? How can we take steps toward our respective mountains?

I used Vision magazine, a student-run independent art publication in existence between 2007-2010 at ETSU, as an example. Robert Prowse, at the time a communications major who was friends with a lot of art students, recognized a deficit in art writing and exposure. Since he had experience selling advertisements for the East Tennessean, had taken some journalism courses and had connections with writers as well as artists, he was able to pull together strengths in various individuals (especially Ben Townsend Hamm, the art director of the magazine) to create a product that benefited many.

I wrote a few feature articles on students that they later used when applying to grad schools, which I also used when applying for writing jobs. When Jennifer Culp took over as editor, she was later able to use that experience for editorial and writing jobs. Some students learned about interviewing or reviewing subjects, other students learned about being interviewed and seeing their work discussed publicly in print.  It was a support structure that was needed and created within the community. No one gave them permission to do it or handed them the tools.

5. Communication with a known and (hopefully) unknown audience — Bouncing off of the above point, well, even good things that people love can fall apart. One of the primary reasons that Vision didn’t survive was because it kept speaking to and pooling resources from it’s known audience. Students are by default a transient demographic. Narrower still are the fine or studio art students.

During my talk I quoted Scott Contreras-Koterbay’s article, Elephants As Free Radicals, on Dennis McNett’s visit to ETSU  —

“I find myself often thinking at art world events that the only people who are there already approve of what’s being done; rarely do outsiders find their way into an art event, intimidated by the cliquishness of the community. Art that is for the art community merely speaks to the converted…”

Something I did not anticipate needing to do in regard to this talk was tricking artists and art students into caring about it. If we cannot stand to communicate or see ourselves translated for an audience, how can we possibly hope for anyone else to care? And if we only intend to speak to ourselves, to the converted, then what exactly is the point?

6. Engagement = Growth

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I ended my talk with two examples of how intentional and unintentional engagement with my community, which always involves some degree of willful vulnerability, stimulated questions, discussion, and growth. One worked out really well and the other did not.

When you’re writing about art and allowing it to exist within a larger context, it’s complexity and connections within vast territories grows. When you’re writing about art, you should be writing about people and life.