catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 12 :: 2008.06.13 — 2008.06.27



Art critics talk about art, artists talk about where to get good turpentine.               
Kenneth Leong, The Zen Teachings of Jesus

It wasn’t long before I was addicted. Soon, Saturday mornings were filled gentle pleading and outright begging. The Lexington Public Library—I had to have it.

Most of my memories of our five-year stay in Lexington, Kentucky are pretty vida noir. My father had just retired from his job of 25 years as Principal of the White Oak Center—a boys’ training school for juveniles just a bit too young to be placed in the Jackson State Prison. Now, my dad was embarking on a PhD in Gerontology at the University of Kentucky, and my mom and I were embarking on our first real Southern fried United States experience. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there are millions, or thousands, or at least hundreds, of reasons to love the Bluegrass State. There’s the annual Kentucky Derby, a carnival-like event where pedigreed horses gallop amidst perfectly manicured fields of green, and debutantes swill Mint Juleps by the gallon. There’s Mammoth Cave, where for a fee, you can tour the historic hole in a rock; a home for bats and capitalist ventures alike. There’s Maker’s Mark Whiskey, among others, and a myriad of privately owned and operated equestrian farms scattered across the commonwealth. There are lots of things to like about Kentucky, for sure. Lots of things to like, yes, but I did not like it one bit. Well, except for the Lexington Public Library.

Lexington Public was, as all libraries are ideologically meant to be, a true model of democracy in action. It served as a place where all folk of different creeds and ethnicities and socio-economic statuses could come and linger freely among the shelves and shelves of colorblind, gender-free, open-your-mind books. This was especially important in a city that, even in 1988, was rife with racial tension. In the heart of the Good Old Boys’ State, the Lexington Public Library remained a free zone where discrimination was not only not tolerated, but was seen as a mark of ignorance; at least to the eyes of an eight-year-old Michigander. The library was nothing like my school, where racial and economic divisions were drawn in indelible ink. I, the Yankee daughter of a nontraditional student and a retired schoolteacher, appreciated being in a space where my lack of money and trendy clothes, my “strange” accent and my “old” parents, along with the fact that I lived in the wrong part of town, did not define me.

Trite sentiments aside; the library was an oasis for me. And if the library was the oasis, the art gallery on its first floor was its drinking hole: the one place I was drawn to on each visit, the place where creativity dripped off the walls like sap and wonderment filled my brain like helium. I always saved the gallery for last, a little treat at the end of my meal of paper and microfiche. If I had been allowed to, I would have stayed in that gallery for hours, gliding slowly through each new exhibit, admiring and analyzing every brush stroke, every color.

Things changed in my twenties. After a childhood of sketching freely, an adolescence of painting my whims onto any surface that would absorb them, and a whole long section of years where I thought of myself as an artist in disguise, I entered college. My close circle of friends supported my endeavors, although I never had the courage to take them farther than my bedroom. After I graduated the first time around (English and Communications—too nervous or scared to actually try to major in any of the visual arts) I moved in with some friends of a friend, all lovely and amazing and talented people, and almost all of them artists. Upon my move, I decided to leave my paints and canvases at home with my parents, neatly tucked away in cardboard packing boxes, never to see the light of day. Each time I was introduced to one of my roommates’ new paintings, or taken to an exhibit, my stomach turned. I’m not sure if it was jealousy or cowardice or both. All the while I lived at that house with those dear women, I never told them of my own forays into the art world. I was afraid of their judgment—they were art majors, after all, which in my mind qualified them to more objectively assess anything that dared to call itself “art.” Even worse, despite the fact that these people were kind and lovely beyond belief, I was afraid of their condescension, afraid that they would glibly praise my work to my face, and then laugh quietly about me among themselves. Now, I wouldn’t call myself a paranoid person, but my fears were obviously disproportionate to the situation. I allowed my own inadequacies to get the better of me, and for that, I am the weaker. Unfortunately, I am also not uncommon.

All one has to do is pick up a copy of Julia Cameron’s highly esteemed artist’s-self-help book, The Artist’s Way to know that my story is just one of many. For every confident, self-promoting artist out there, there’s another one who is too afraid of the opinions of others to allow herself to bring her art into the light of day. For every person who is willing to say that a pipe is not a pipe and that a toilet bowl is a piece of art, there’s another who dismisses her work as simple and inconsequential. As hard as I try, I can’t seem to transfer the skepticism I have for politics and organized religion to the world of art—or more specifically, to my art. Sure, I can be the sideline encourager for the creative acts of others, “Yes! Goat hair melted onto Tupperware! Go for it!” but when it comes to showcasing my own work, I feel like a self-aggrandizing, naïve and blindly untalented child.

Yet I know that my story is not only common, but also unfinished. I realize that I am not destined to die before the dust settles on my canvases. The truth is, even if my work does suck, in the eyes of some, it is still my work; the product of my creative energies and my particular understanding of reality. Why should I continue to live my life cowering in the shadow of the art “experts” anyway? Isn’t the whole point of art to be iconoclastic? To break down and through the walls put up by others? To defy the status quo, for Heaven’s sake? When it comes down to it, isn’t this spirit of iconoclasm really the same energy that fuels the artfulness of all parts of life? The day when the love between two people can be judged in some linear scientific way, curated and hung behind glass is the day that true Art is dead. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to ally myself with any sort of ideology that requires me to worship at the throne of another person’s concept of what is Beautiful and True anyway. Art Is Dead. Long Live Art!

I suppose this means that I must also learn to face my own fraudulent belief system, the masked judge inside my head who represents the legion of curmudgeonly “experts” who say that there is but only One Art and that my work, and the work of the throngs of other budding artists out there, does not fit. To these so-called experts I say: You can keep your canons and genres and educated opinions, ‘cause I don’t need them anymore. I—along with Picasso and Thomas Kinkade (yes, even Thomas Kinkade) and the woman down the street who paints with her own menstrual blood, and yes, maybe even you, dear reader—am an Artist. I hope my eight-year-old self will forgive me for my too-long sabbatical.

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