Exposure

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Exposure

I sat in Volta this morning with my nephew, sipping coffee and trying to read. Almost all the art I’ve made over the past two years currently hangs at the cafe, and I was distracted as I overheard several strangers pointing, commenting, and appreciating the work. A father and his young daughter came over and introduced themselves when they realized I was the artist; the daughter put a gleeful hand over her mouth as she registered her dad’s explanation that I was the person who’d painted the pictures she’d just been admiring.

These are warm moments for an artist, yet I’ve spent most of my shows trying to avoid them. For many years when I exhibited, I wouldn’t leave any contact information with my work, even though it was all for sale and I needed the money. People would have to hunt me down and inquire privately. I told myself I didn’t want to be identified because I was somehow “humble,” but the truth was, I didn’t want to be identified and rejected. I was worried that a critical response would impair my painting process and potentially my ability to paint. Even today, no matter how hard I try to maintain a psychic distance from my work–to see it as separate from me and not a reflection of me–I still experience my art as a deep part of me; it’s how I spend almost all my spare time, and whether I like it or not, when I sit amongst my paintings in public, I feel like there are pieces of my soul hanging all over the walls. Yikes.

This feeling isn’t new or unique, though; being creative in any endeavor is inherently vulnerable territory. Makers of all kinds put ourselves out in ways that are risky and therefore courageous. Artists battle myriad internal struggles to birth works of art, and then face “the public” to share beyond controlled studio environments. Maybe this is why many of the highly creative people I’ve known seem to hover just above or beyond the social fray, giving off an air of what seems at first sniff to be snobbery or elitism. Of course these aren’t ideal qualities–“too cool for school” vibes are exclusionary and unkind. But perhaps at the heart of this external thickening of the personality is simply a well-intentioned form of preservation, a way some artists have learned to navigate the uncertain world and still inhabit and converse with exquisitely sensitive inner lives. Maybe I’ve unwittingly come across to others as “too cool for school” as well, when really, I just felt tiny, frightened of rejection, and overwhelmed with the desire to curl up and disappear.

But then there are little girls and their fathers, pointing and smiling, and taking the uncomfortable social step to say hi and make themselves known to me because I was willing to make myself known to them.  I keep learning from these sorts of encounters, receiving gifts from the connections that come from openly identifying myself as the person who made the art. Maybe I’ll never find this part of it easy, but as I continue to paint regardless of shows or sales or public interest, I’m starting to believe it’s also worth it to stop treating the inherent vulnerability of art-making as a valid reason to stay hidden, unidentified, and socially aloof.

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