Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A Declaration of Being

I'm a "???".  Most of us can fill in the blank with a number of descriptors. At the Jewish Artists' Lab* exhibition, artist Robyn Awend has an interactive piece which consists of plastic card holders, each pocket holding a card that describes one attribute among the multiplicity of things that can describe a person. The act of taking a card is a declaration of being, of who one is, or at least one aspect of who one is.  It is in the combination of attributes that we begin to define our uniqueness.

Last week at the opening we had a gallery filled with people and vibrating with energy. The catalog looked beautiful and each artwork told a story about a subject we had discussed, but also gave a glimpse into the artist.

The poem I wrote to accompany my painting drew a lot of interest and brought me back to the topic of declaring who one is. " I'm not really a poet ," I protested, conscious of the "real" writers and poets who create far more "poetic" work among our group. The act of declaration seems to carry a responsibility to work at and develop a craft. I'm not sure I'm ready to make such a declaration about poetry. I think about a journal from my 20s filled with poetry, a chronicle of my first marriage. When did I stop writing? I think it was as that marriage wound down, as if I could only write when faced with youthful angst. Since then I've written a handful of playful poems for special occasions, but nothing of the daily fabric of life.

So what motivated this recent effort? In this case it just seemed like the best way to juxtapose the two stories, Abraham and Isaac and Dora and her mother. The other advantage of poetry was that it let me tell the story through the eyes of Isaac and Dora. Not only could I contemplate their experience, but for a brief moment I could step inside of it and imagine it through their eyes. I am accustom to working in a series of paintings, each one allowing me to look at a different facet of the topic I explore. One painting just didn't seem like enough. I could easily have done a series, but lacking wall space in the exhibition, I decided to use a different medium. In the process it felt a bit like discovering an old friend. The sound of words lapping up against each other, giving voice, echoing, weaving in and out, each voice stepping up in turn to declare itself.

I thought about those other declarations in my life. "I am an artist" took me a long time to state. Back when I painted just for me I used to debate with my husband what made one an artist. He felt that painting for a larger audience was important to the definition. I argued that one who paints is an artist. Even as I asserted that, it was still hard to get those words out when asked what I did. It was only when I started showing my work that it gradually became easier to take ownership of that label. The rest of the world began to see me through that lens, but it still had to begin with that barely whispered assertion, "I am an artist".

"I am a writer" is still in its infancy. I've been writing this blog for over four years. Does that make me a writer or is blogging a category unto itself? Words are a medium that I embrace, but with such truly accomplished writers in the world, it seems like hubris to claim that label. And yet...claiming that one is a "fill in the blank" is often the first step to becoming that.

Yesterday I wore one of my other hats. I interviewed for an interim CFO job. When asked if I would be interested in full-time permanent work, I quickly responded with a definitive "No!". "Why not?" I was asked. "I have other things I want to do, I am an artist," I replied. I marveled at how easily it rolled off the tongue. I realized that I had reached a milestone when I could so easily integrate that part of me with the financial business side of my being. We are each many things and embracing that messy, squirming totality is the first step towards being our full selves.

*The Jewish Artists’ Laboratory is an arts initiative through the Sabes Jewish Community Center featuring 17 artists exploring the theme of Text/Context/Subtext through study and art making. The project is funded through The Covenant Foundation and similar projects are being done in both Milwaukee and Madison. Artists explore how the theme of Text/Context/Subtext is relevant to Jews and non-Jews, to religious and non-religious, to the community and to the individual, to the artist and the non-artist.

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