Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Sometimes I pray... (Subtitled: My love letter about Faith Ringgold)

Sometimes I pray, and the answer comes flying at me as sure as a lightning bolt. I have friends of other faiths, and friends of no and little faith, but it seems we all feel this common vibration. We all feel inexplicably "guided", it seems. For most people, I understand (and the Bible clearly supports this) that they are relying on faith in a being they cannot see, but, my truth be told, I see God in everything. I don't think I'm alone when I say this. Sometimes I pray, and I can feel the answer(s) as strong a a tap on the shoulder. Not in words, mind you, but just in the form of instructions my heart understands. Not a "yes" or a "no", per se, but more of a "Be patient, you'll see", or an "I've got it under control... lemme work on that. Lay it down and go about your business". And there is a definite feeling of peace that goes along with that. Today's instruction was very clear. WRITE THIS POST. So, I hope it is helpful/ meaningful/inspiring, or at least interesting to those who read it.

Dear Readers,

I am an avid fan-letter writer. Not the kind of fan letters you write to pop icons, but letters of appreciation to artists and authors , mainly. It is something I have always done, and I will NEVER EVER forget how I felt when a fan letter I wrote to a Broadway costume designer when I was 16 was answered in a 4 page HANDWRITTEN letter from the designer herself, full of sage advice and appreciation of MY WORDS to her! Imagine that! (I still have and cherish that letter.)

Oddly enought, it seems that it all comes full circle. By "it", I mean everything that means something to me. To illustrate that point, I want you to notice the references I make to the many "theories" that I've named over the years, and will mention in the paragraphs to follow. One of them is my double-helix theory. I feel that everything in my life keeps circling back on itself, wrapping tighter and tighter as the years progress.

When I think of a double helix shape, I think of DNA. No coincidence that this is the shape that defines our physical makeup, our families, or unbreakable connections... I have always felt, in the very seat of my soul, that we are all leading a shared life. Not individual ones. No, not separately, but a big shared existence. I know I once heard a "Sequoia theory", of which I can now find no evidence on the web or anywhere else, but I do know that it was about these enormous, impressive trees that seemed to stand individually, but when examining the roots of these trees, it was impossible to tell where or, in fact, IF, any of them ended. It was theorized that these trees shared a common root system, with no beginning and no end. This magical idea supports what I have always felt. That this is a shared life.

In the late 1980's, I was a high school student, travelling far (both in my 1.5 hr commuting time and culturally) from my Queens home to the Upper East Side of Manhattan every day. Around 11th grade or so, I started to get really bored in school. Not an ordinary level of boredom. A fierce restlessness tormented me. I was anxious to learn and explore - just not in those particular classes, with those particular teachers. My vocabulary was different, as were my thoughts and ideas. This is not meant as conceit in any way, since I didn't feel in any way "above it all", or "too cool for school", but I was very anxious to get on with the college experience. I was a quick study for most of the standard high school stuff at that point, and truly applied VERY little effort to earn great grades. Both a gift, and a curse. So I would cut classes every now and then. There was no rebellion in it. I also didn't sneak out. In those days, we could walk out the school doors for lunch, or during free periods, no questions asked. Cutting class was easily done by simply not returning after your lunch or free period, and for me, meant time spent in libraries and museums. It included no smoking or secret behavior - just a different (self-guided) educational experience. I really loved the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was within close walking distance of my school, and the most blissfully quiet place on weekdays you could ever imagine. I could spend AMAZING amounts of time staring at the work of Faith Ringgold, among others.

Why did I spend so much time with her work? I was just FLOORED, amazed, and truly excited to think that there was room for this type of work in THAT place. Room for her type of stories... Room for her! And to experience her work was just magical. I know I sought to see her work everywhere it hung. Her artwork really resonated with me, and I felt a vicarious pride at seeing it grace the walls of an institution that took art so seriously. As an African-American girl, who hadn't really led a particularly African-American life, I was intrigued by how INCLUDED her work made me feel.


Stopping here for a moment to mention that today, I visited her Facebook fan page. After all, I am a bit of a groupie, and I do keep up with any exhibits or events with which she might be associated, that I might be available to attend. Well, on her Faceboook fan page, there's a link to a recent talk she gave at Lesley University, which was over an hour long, just waiting there for me to watch it. So I dropped everything, and watched it.

Today I learned that while I was staring at her work as it hung at the Met, she was staring at Picasso's work at MOMA. Apparently, we are cut from the same cloth (insert rimshot here) so to speak.

I am not an artist.

I used to keep an idea journal with me at all times, jotting down thoughts and ideas as I prepared for... who knows what? They were always pretty light, quick notes surrounded by white space... but the bits of info represented my BIG IDEA moments, when thoughts would strike me with force, compelling me to write them down. I stated very specifically that I am not an artist many times. Why was it so important to say that? Who was I talking to? In college, I wrote a paper for an African-American studies class, focusing on AfroAm women artists and their reluctance to call themselves artists. I was blown away by the quality of these work of the women I interviewed, and almost without fail, when asked to describe themselves, the answer came back as a professional title. "I'm a nurse", "I'm an elementary school teacher". Somehow they learned that the answer is whatever results in a paycheck. For me, I had to keep reminding myself that I was not an artist, because, in fact,
I AM an artist.
But here's the point of all of this rambling... Why did I choose that subject to write a college paper about Black women? Was I really questioning why these "other" talented people were reluctant to define themselves as artists? No. Looking back, I now see that I was looking for permission to call MYSELF an artist. My feelings about it at the time likely reflect my own attitudes. Attending a quality school, pursuing a career in business, I was going to make money for a living, not ART. Right?

Just this week, I finished a project for a regular corporate client of mine, and I realized that I should now be paid as a vendor, and not an individual, since I have been doing more work for them, and they are now becoming my single biggest client. I decided to bite the bullet, get into their system as a vendor, wait the standard 60 days to be paid, so that everything would be as it should when tax time comes. As I completed the vendor form, I found myself answering the questions, "Are you a minority?/Are you a woman?/Are you a small business?" and in just that quick flash, it occurred to me that these seemingly incidental facts are extremely important. I should be claiming and "proclaiming" them, actually. This is no easy feat, after all.

Art was something to do - not to be.
Early in Faith Ringgold's talk I watched today, she makes this point. Women were housewives when she was young. Her mother was a fashion designer who "kept that (talent) to herself". Inspired by Faith Ringgold, and others like her, when my daughter used to tell me she wanted to be an artist (now, age 10), I always replied "You are already an artist. You don't have to earn the right to call yourself an artist." Not monetarily, not in approval.

My daughter's self portrait (age 9). I like the way she sees herself.

Last year, my aunt gave my daughter some books she thought she would like. Among them was Tar Beach, which we have loved and read... but this copy was different. I opened the front cover, and discovered that it was signed! Not just her name, but a note... "All the best", which I took as a little cosmic wink to us. Out of guilt, I had to call my aunt to tell her that she may have accidentally given us something precious, but she knew how happy I was to have it, and considered our promise to take care of it enough. As I write this, my son is looking dreamily at the pictures inside. Me: "Do you want me to read it to you?" Him: "No, I just love the pictures". Next, he'll wanna know why it is on my bookshelf, not his...

There are no coincidences.

Some years ago, 8, in fact, a cousin of mine told me that a friend of hers was curating an exhibit in New York City. Because she knew how much i loved fiber arts and quilts, she thought I would be interested. Well, this friend, also a well-known and amazingly talented quilt artist, with whom I made a very special real-life connection, displayed the work of many other talented artists, one of whom was... you guessed it... Faith Ringgold. And she came to the show! When I was introduced to Ms. Ringgold, it was like meeting a rock star! I was amazed that she was human! After all, she was/is magical to me!

In the talk I watched today, she talks a bit about bridges. I could go on and on about bridges, but take a look at this recent post, and know that recently bridges have been a huge inspiration for my own work. Also, my 8 Year Quilt is nearly done, (wow, has it come to life since then!) and will now have a life beyond the pages of this blog. This is a quilted reinterpretation of a painting my sister created in 1976. Eight years, mostly following an unintentional Kaizen-like philosophy, but it has actually taken my whole life to create.

So, how do I continue on my path? Faith Ringgold breaks down what any artist needs to know, and I'm very happy to know that there are some strong business reasons at work here. Now, I can relate, knowing that it isn't just about making pretty things, hoping someone will notice... and waiting. If you haven't watched the talk, just know this:

- Create a BODY of work. Do lots of work. I totally get that.

- Create an audience. Okay, I get that, too.

- Develop a market. Wow, the hard stuff. A good reason to have a dealer/agent/representative who can remove themselves a bit from the work.

- The work never dies. That's why you make it.

My daughter, at the opening of the Uris center at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yes, I brought my daughter. And yes, I asked for a picture.

This post is the truest, from the heart of all the true things I've ever written. It all folds back on itself in an origamic tribute to all the posts that preceded it. Let's see where we go from here...

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